Friday, January 31, 2020

I wrote a book

I've been away from this blog for a very long time so I may be announcing this to an empty room, but I've spent the last seven years slowly writing a book and have finally finished it. If you like my writing in general, you might want to check it out. For the next five days, the Kindle version can be gotten for free.

Kindle version


I've also created a blog devoted to displaying the materials I used to write the book. It includes introductory stories/writing and I will be continuously adding to that blog and interacting with readers until I run out of material. Trust me when I say that will take a very, very long time. ;-)

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hello, and an update, and then goodbye again...

Hello to any of my readers who are following this blog in a way which informs them of new posts. I closed the door on this blog two and a half years ago as I felt I was finished talking about Japan. I am finished talking about Japan, at least for the most part.

I decided to start blogging about Japanese snacks on a limited basis on my other blog (Japanese Snack Reviews) and that created a sense of nostalgia for this process. I also felt that, were I a reader of a blog like mine, I'd want to know what became of the writer. When I stopped writing, my husband and I were still in a state of transition in the United States. In fact, I was in a very, very bad place when I decided I was finished.

Returning to the U.S. has been far harder than either my husband or I expected in terms of adjustment. Many Americans, having lived within this system and been the proverbial frog in the frying pan when social changes occurred, can't see things from any other perspective. Having been in Japan for so long, we see it as a cold, hard, angry, sad, and often mercenary place relatively speaking. I'm not saying every single person is like that, but the culture on the whole is very different compared to Japan. This is part of the disjoint agency that I once wrote about, and I understand it, but that doesn't make it easy to live with.

For three and a half of the five years we've been back in the U.S., I regretted that we made the choice that we did and longed to go back to Japan - but I always knew leaving was the "right" choice. The hardships we endured sent me into a deep state of depression as we found career changing expensive and difficult. My husband went to graduate school and got a Master's degree in clinical psychology without issue (though with a $56,000 tuition price tag), but that was just one part of a multi-step process to becoming a licensed therapist. As we drained our savings, he worked 2,800 hours for free as an interm before finding a paid internship in a remote rural location. He finished his 3,000 hours to qualify to take the licensure exams and that was step two in the long process.

Prior to returning, I had no idea that there were so many exploitative situations in which people worked for free in order to acquire enough experience to later get a paying job. It's stunningly common and is part of what is gutting economic stability for millenials. While we are first wave Generation X'ers (or the last gasp of Baby Boomers depending on when you draw the line), he had to go through the same process of recent college graduates who are far younger because he was making a complete career change with no contacts or experience in his new field, at least not in the U.S. I will note that he did volunteer for TELL in Japan and put in 100 hours of time taking crisis calls for them. This experience was personally enriching and educational, but meant nothing back home in terms of work or school. No one in America sees experience in Japan as "real" as they can't relate to it or verify its authenticity.

This was the day we moved to our current place. Five packages were already waiting for me before we'd transferred a single item from the U-Haul to our latest "new home."

While my husband worked for free, I have spent a lot of my time since returning writing reviews, but not for blogs. I stumbled into the world of "incentivized reviews" almost by accident and spent about two and a half years being bombarded by parcels and writing reviews for them for Amazon. That stopped in early October of 2016 when Amazon outlawed the practice and started banning anyone who did it from writing reviews ever. To be honest, by the time Amazon did that, I was more than ready to stop and was grateful that they forced me to do so since it was hard to say no to all of those "freebies." I was getting up to 20 packages and products per week and it was actual work and not a fun hobby.

One of the good things about the time I spent doing those reviews was that it helped us rebuild our household after abandoning nearly every practical item that we had in Japan. No small amount of my kitchen is filled with utensils, dishes, pans, and even small appliances that I earned in exchange for reviews I wrote and other practical items I bartered my writing talent to populate my daily life. I also received small electronics and it helped push me to learn new things that I wouldn't have had the spare money to purchase given that neither my husband nor I had paying jobs during much of that time.

I think the process of evaluating and testing those items helped carry me a bit more fully into the present in America by motivating me to figure out and use things like Android TV boxes and security cameras - items I'd never experienced in Japan as they don't fit the life there as much. That being said, though I know how to use a smart phone, I resist owning one to this day. That is something that hasn't changed compared to life in Japan.

Besides that writing, and being depressed - something which takes away time by sucking away your energy and ability to do things - I made a few efforts to take part in volunteer gigs. The first one was an ESL conversation club in the Bay Area that I did for about a month. I found it hard to continue because it was geared more toward allowing the privileged volunteer teachers to amuse themselves than to teach the students. After teaching for so many years and prioritizing the students' needs, it was just too difficult for me to sit with. I also tried volunteering at a library, but that was not the right fit for me. I intend to pursue other options in the future, but find myself too busy at present.

I applied for a few jobs as well, of course, but ran up against the same problems I mentioned before. The job market in the U.S. is so tough that you need experience to get a job, but you can't get experience without a job unless you're willing to put in a lot of hours for free or have connections. I have experience, but it was abroad and didn't "count". I applied for ESL jobs that I was perfect for, and didn't even get an interview. I applied for social service jobs that I would have been great at, but did not get the jobs because the last time I did that type of work was in 1989 and my Bachelor's degree doesn't mean much in the current environment.

One of the things that has happened since I returned was that my former boss passed away somewhat suddenly from lung cancer. I worked with him in the office for 12 years and was friends with him for nearly 20 and it was a devastating loss on two fronts. I miss him as a person, but also I realized that he was the only superior I'd had who was a native English speaker who could provide a testimonial about what sort of worker I was. When he died, I not only lost a friend, but I also lost the only person in Japan who could serve as a credible reference to people in the U.S. I felt like I not only lost him, but a piece of who I was vanished as well. I am now the proverbial tree that fell in the woods with no one around to hear it.

So, these days, I am a housewife who writes, reads science and psychology journal articles, and listens to university lectures on YouTube a lot. I favor Robert Sapolsky's Stanford lectures on neurobiology and psychology, but there are also some great offerings from Berkeley and Yale that I enjoy. I have continually studied psychology since my sophomore year of college and studied everything my husband did when he prepared for his licensure exams. I can't say I'd pass those tests, but I can say I'd have a fair shot at it without doing further study. However, I don't really want to be a therapist and I definitely don't want to do the internship hours required - at least not at this time.

I have availed myself of the plethora of ethnic ingredients that are available here that were hard or expensive to locate in Japan. My cooking game has dramatically improved and I favor complex Indian or Hispanic dishes. I've also tried my hand at Japanese food, though mainly steam cakes (failed at that), cotton cheesecake (enormously successful), and chicken katsu (pretty decent). Given how often restaurants here are mediocre or poor quality, cooking for myself is often the best way to get good quality food. Also, it's often the only way to escape the limited menu options that cater to conservative tastes in many cases. I'm so tired of places that only offer burgers, pizza, steak, chicken, and sandwiches. Even places with a more complex tone will dumb down their cuisine in ways that gives it all the same taste and presentation. I seriously miss the quality of restaurants in Japan, even the lower-level ones.

My husband and I still like to take "sojourns" to new places as we once did in Japan, but find it a lot less fulfilling here. The main reason for this is that America is so sprawling that you need more time to go to unique and interesting places. Also, everything is so geared toward making as much money as possible that most businesses are distilled down to suit the masses rather than to offer novelty. In Japan, everyone liked new things and there were plenty of interesting old things as well. The shopping streets (shotengai) offered a dense concentration of shops per mile as well. Here, you have to work much harder to find a lot less. We still try, but our expectations have undergone a radical adjustment.

There's a wee bit more snow here than in Tokyo... 

I'm happy to say that I'm no longer depressed, though it did take over a year to recover from my worst state about a year and a half ago. My husband and I moved seven times in the five years that we have been back and the last move was out of the Bay Area (which has a culture which I find hard to tolerate) into rural California. The last move ended a lot of environmental issues that were creating my depression by putting us into a different situation and secluding us from some of the harder to tolerate aspects of American culture.

The last move not only brought economic stability, but the peace that was sadly lacking when we were in a more urban setting. One point that has been repeatedly and dramatically brought home is that it's infinitely easier to live in a densely populated city in Japan than the U.S. For the most part, Japanese people go out of their way to get along and not trouble each other. In America, in general, people do whatever they want and don't care about their neighbors' quality of life and how it is impacted by how intrusive they can be. One of the reasons people build walls and fences and live on large plots of land is that they need a buffer from one another. Everyone talks about rights to do what they want. No one talks about responsibilities toward others. This is a harsh situation that you live with when you are in an apartment here that I didn't know about because I had lived in houses when I was in the U.S. before.

Before we left Japan and while we lived in the Bay Area, I had a simple dream. That dream was that my husband and I would live in some nice, very small house with a cat while my husband did the job he wanted to do. That house would be somewhere in which we could take the occasional walk among nice, natural areas. That dream was one that we couldn't have in Japan and seemed utterly out of reach in the insane housing market in Silicon Valley. I am happy to say that my husband passed his tests to become a licensed therapist (so he is now a true professional and holds that status), has a full-time job that pays comfortably (at least as long as we live our simple lifestyle - which we always have), and that we live in a one-bedroom cottage in an area surrounded by natural beauty with an eight-year-old cat that we adopted last September from a shelter.

She's not that sweet, really. I nicknamed her "der Hoggenkatten" because she's a pig and it's funnier if you make it sound like German. Still, we're happy with her. 

It was not a big dream, but I'm not a person who needs fame or fortune. I just need peace and personal growth, and I had that by the time we left Japan. I lost it completely when we left, but now it is back again. It has been an incredibly hard five years, but it has finally settled down and gotten easier. I love a happy ending, especially when it is mine. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Finishing Here

Since stopping my regular posting, I've been coming to terms with the changes in my life and I think I've reached the end of my need to talk about Japan. I knew the time would come eventually when I'd move from being in transition to being "finished". I'm not quite complete, but I think the time has come to let go of my strong attachment to thinking about Japan and my life there. That's my way of saying that the time of comparisons is finished and maybe I don't have as much to say as I used to or just don't care to say it anymore.

I'm going to essentially go away for awhile. I am sure that there is something else I'll be writing about in the future, but I think I'm going to say goodbye to these blogs for awhile, maybe forever. I haven't decided yet. I just know that my impulse to continue has vanished.

I want to sincerely thank my readers for following me as they have. I will say that, if I start a new blog or write in another forum (or when my book is complete), I will likely come back and let readers of these blogs know about it. If you're only here because I talk about Japan, then you may not want to come back once in awhile to see if things have changed. If you're here because you like the way I write, then I'd say pop back once a month or so to see if anything has changed.

Thank you for all your kind support and reading my work. I am truly grateful.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Won't Miss #58 - pachinko (reflection)

I'm not particularly good at tuning out loud and obnoxious stimuli. When I walk by something that smells bad, is very bright, or is loud, it's difficult for me to ignore it in the moment that I pass it. Pachinko was a nasty surprise package of all three of these things. It offended the eyes, the ears, and the nose (the cigarette smoke, not the unwashed masses therein). The only way it could have been worse was if someone was standing outside smacking me as I walked by.

Before I reflected back on this topic, I thought about whether or not a similarly annoying experience occurred to me in the U.S. The closest I think I can come is being in a car at night, but, even then, the issues are much more intermittent. There has to be a bit of a perfect storm for smelly exhaust, honking horns, and high beams to converge at the same time.

Whatever experiences may exist in the U.S. that can assault multiple senses at once, they're ones that I don't encounter on a regular basis. It was a daily occurrence for me to walk by Pachinko places (as they're near stations) and I definitely don't miss the assault that accompanied the brief stroll by one. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Random Thoughts: The Middle of the Sidewalk

Seeing this picture of the sidewalk in Asagaya reminded me of the fact that Tokyo sidewalks are much wider than those in the U.S. I miss those sidewalks.

Recently, I was walking down a sidewalk of about average size and an older Asian man was coming the other way. I was walking on the right side and he was walking dead center down it. As I pondered the potential outcome of his approach should he stand his ground and I stand mine, I thought about whether or not I'd step out of the way if he decided that he was going to keep walking down the center. In the moment that my brain was processing those lightning fast thoughts, I concluded that I was not going to step off the sidewalk and walk in the grass (grass that was full of goose droppings as this was through a park) so this guy could walk down the middle as if he owned the entire thing.

As he got nearer to me and I didn't budge, he moved over and occupied the left side and we divided the space evenly between us as we passed one another. After this experience, which came and went in a few blinks of an eye (okay, maybe more like about 10 seconds), I thought about how things may have gone differently had someone of another ethnicity approached me while walking in the middle of a public space meant to be shared by everyone. The truth is that, had the other person been white, I would have done the same thing. However, had the other person been black, Hispanic, or any other ethnicity other than Asian or Caucasian, I would have moved onto the grass and allowed them to occupy the middle ground.

This thought was an interesting one and I believe that my "stubborn" insistence on equal division of the sidewalk with Asians (or Caucasians) was affected by my experiences in Tokyo. I spent over two decades around older males who arrogantly assumed they had the right of way, were entitled to as much space as they wanted to take, and who rarely, if ever, extended courtesy to those around them unless they were dealing with another man who was older than them or perceived as having higher status. I still see Asian males as acting entitled and believing they are superior to me and will take more than their share in my presence because I am a female and a minority, even though I have not necessarily experienced that in the U.S. at this point in time.

The fact that I believe I would have yielded to other minorities is the curious one in my estimation. I think that my sense with people who are neither Asian nor white is that they have had to step aside too many times already and that they've gotten less than their fair share over the years. I feel like they "deserve" more latitude, courtesy, and respect because history has given them so much less of these things than others. I will note that, in my experience so far, most white people are likely to yield prematurely and apologize when they aren't even in error. It's relatively rare to have a "turf war" with a Caucasian person in a public space, but that could be because I'm white, too. I can't not be white so I have no way of knowing if they treat minorities similarly.

One of the things that this brief experience made me think about is the sort of attitude that being in a minority group in a culture must engender over a lifetime of being treated with discrimination. Since I lived as a minority, and a particularly disempowered one, for so long, I developed an attitude when dealing with the majority in which I refused to surrender to their perceived authority or entitlement. Small experiences could become power struggles in which I wouldn't comply with their cultural imperatives or wishes as an act of rebellion. I needed those acts of rebellion because I had to prove to myself that I wasn't going to capitulate every single time my interests were at stake.

These small actions gave me a tiny sense of having some power at a time when I spent every day feeling powerless in much bigger and more important circumstances. While I couldn't stop store employees from following me around because they thought I was going to steal things or I couldn't force landlords to rent to me, I could stop some jerk from hogging the sidewalk or refuse to let him spread his legs so wide that he took up two seats on the train by just stubbornly refusing to physically accommodate him. I couldn't stop my employer from denying me legally mandated leave or benefits, but I could refuse to go to drinking parties or work on my days off (which nearly got me fired at one point).

As a result of this tug-of-war, one that I really was losing every single day, I spent a lot of years in Japan walking around mad - just mad. It took a very long time to stop being angry everyday because I was stared at, pointed at, bumped into by people who had no right to push me out of the way so they could get a superior situation, etc. There was not outlet for my sense that I suffered the inequality that I did. Foreigners in Japan are often apologists or deniers and the Japanese are utterly clueless or disinterested. There were no advocacy groups. I could not be heard and was shouted down (usually by other foreigners) on many occasions if I spoke or regarded as a drama queen or having a distorted perspective on what was occurring (usually by the Japanese). Years of not being heard only enhanced my sense of impotence in the society I was living in and kept my anger in play.

This is what happens to minorities when they are subjected to microaggressions or feel powerless or are treated disrespectfully on a daily basis. They're mad - everyday - much of the time - and in situations which seem trivial to those who have never walked a mile in their shoes. When you see a minority individual walking down the street with a nasty look on his or her face, I'm guessing that they are reacting to years of the sort of treatment that I had in Japan and the same sense that they cannot escape the reality of their world. It's partially a defense, but it's also part of a pattern of "winning" a few of the only types of "battles" that they have a chance of winning. You can't really know why they're so angry much of the time until you walk down a lot of sidewalks in their shoes. One of the more dubious "gifts" Japan gave me was a chance to occupy that place mentally and to know what it does to you psychologically. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Will Miss #544 - not being condescended to

There are some experiences in America that I have had which I did not have in Japan which are hard to encapsulate into a post heading. This is going to be one of them. In 1988, when I left the U.S. for my three- to five-year planned stay in Japan that ended up lasting 23 years, the culture was not nearly so politically correct or corrective in America. When I say, "corrective", I mean a culture which seems to shove the word "privilege" in my face every three seconds and makes enormous and frequently erroneous assumptions about who I am and the life I've lead based on my skin color alone.

One of the things which has happened to me many times is that I'm lectured to, often in a condescending or patronizing way, about how little I understand what it's like to be a minority, to be poor, to be around mentally ill people or criminals, live with people people with substance abuse problems, have limited opportunities, or understand the impact of certain types of dangerous and difficult work on the underprivileged (particularly as it applies to those who are in developing countries or undeveloped countries). As someone who grew up poor in an economically depressed area and in the middle of strip mines with an alcoholic father, verbally abusive mother, criminal drug-using and selling relatives, and who worked and lived with severely mentally ill people, and who lived in a country in which I was part of a minority that represented .2% of the population with there are no enforced protections of minority rights, I'm more than a little sick of this attitude and the assumptions underlying it.

My white skin, I guess rather shockingly for most people, hasn't produced someone who has grown up ignorant of hardship or what it's like to be a minority and face prejudice and discrimination (thank you, Japan for an unintended gift of empathy in this regard). The irony is that I'm often lectured to about such things by people who have not actually experienced such things themselves and simply assume that I, like they, grew up in some sort of protected existence. They labor under the assumption that they know something I don't and, by God, I need to be enlightened by their superior wisdom of such things! That's my way of saying the biggest gas bags in this regard are privileged white people.

In Japan, people may have reached a lot of silly, stereotyped conclusions about me based on being an American, but they never assumed that it was their place to enlighten me about the hardships of life while they sat in their ivory towers.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Winners of the "Things Japanese" book contest announcement

Many thanks to everyone who entered the contest to win a copy of Tuttle's "Things Japanese" book. I appreciate everyone who took the time to talk about their favorite books (though I could not comment in the thread as it would cause problems with the selection of a winner by random number generator). The winners were "LostinThought" and "Monica Gilbert". Please e-mail me at I will be forwarding your information directly to my contact at Tuttle and she will communicate directly with you about sending you your book.

Thanks again to everyone who took part!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Random Memories: Brush with Terrorism

Have you ever seen one of those old detective stories in which a cop asks someone "Where were you on the morning of March 20, 1995?" Most of the suspects haven't a clue what they were doing and, if enough time had passed, they also would have little idea of where they were. We only remember where we were on specific dates is something special happened. I remember exactly where I was on the morning of March 20, 1995 because something very unusual indeed occurred.

Those with a head for dates already know that I'm referring to the date of the sarin gas attacks carried out in the Tokyo subway system. It was a Monday. I remember this very well because that Sunday and Monday were my days off from work and I generally stayed in my home area and avoided trains on Mondays. I wanted nothing more on that day to blissfully stay home and relax as I so often did, but that wasn't the way things were going to be.

I had a doctor's appointment in Hiroo that morning, however, and had to get onto the subway, the Marunouchi line, that morning. I dreaded not only going to the doctor because nobody likes going to the doctor, but also the profound physical pain that was going to accompany the trip. I was subjecting myself to medical treatment in service of my terrible back pain and it was always arduous enduring the walk as well as standing on super crowded trains. I knew that I had a great deal of agony ahead of me.

My appointment was rather early in the day, around 9:15 or so, and I'm one of those nervous types who likes to be no later than 15 minutes early. My husband is the sort of person who thinks that there's plenty of time if he believes he's got a minute to go before the train arrives. It has been a bit of a tug-of-war between us to find the happy medium between his pedantic adherence to punctuality which leaves no margin for the unexpected and my neurotic and paranoid desire to be early in anticipation of everything going wrong. On that Monday morning, "everything" did go wrong.

My husband's tendencies resulted in he and I leaving the apartment eight minutes later than I'd hoped to go. That meant that we missed the train I wanted to take to Hiroo and were one later. This meant my window of making the appointment was narrowed down to being "only" about five minutes early. It's important to note that my concerns weren't entirely due to a personality quirk. With my back pain, I often needed to find a spot even on a short walk to stop and rest to recover from the pain. I sometimes needed that extra time for good reason.

As we hustled out the door, I was more than a little angry at my husband for making us miss the train I wanted to make and very stressed out. I'm sure I was snarky with him and generally in a terrible mood for all of the aforementioned reasons. It turned out that my husband's lateness on that day may have saved our lives.

When we reached Ebisu station, everything stopped and there were crowds everywhere. We couldn't understand the announcements or what was going on, but things were utter chaos. All we knew was that we were stuck there and couldn't make our connection to the Hibiya line. It was also impossible to get a cab to Hiroo from there because of the stranded throngs. At that point, we didn't know the bus routes well enough to hop on one so we walked to Hiroo in a great state of annoyance.

As we headed around the block toward the clinic's location, there was a bakery with a T.V. on. There was an enormous crowd of people in front of it watching something, but we had no time to stop and see what it was. We knew something was going on, but we didn't know what. My husband said he suspected it related to what happened with our subway train.

When we arrived at the clinic, I profusely apologized for being so late, but they were quite nonchalant. They said something had happened and no one was getting there anyway. The doctor saw me and we had to figure out a way to get home using JR (the train line) and avoid the stopped subway.

It wasn't until a little later that we found out all of the details of what we'd barely missed being a part of. Had we made the train that I wanted to make, there was a good chance that we may have been on one of the exposed trains or in a station at which it stopped and station personnel were handling the packages.

I read later that a man who worked at one of the stations had picked up one of the paper bags and tossed it in the trash because he didn't know what it was. He later died because of his contact with the poison. The tiniest amount can kill and that poor man was just doing the job he did everyday keeping the trains tidy for the fastidious Japanese commuters and he paid with his life. Even if we hadn't been on the train itself, being in one of the exposed areas (like Shin-Koenji station) could have had a terrible effect on us.

I sometimes think back on that day and how fate kept us a few steps behind the worst of things either as more direct witnesses or as potential victims. I'm a lot less hard on my husband now for making us "late" and a lot less uptight about being early. The fact that I never went out on a Monday morning and probably hadn't done so for years at that point made the close call even more chilling and I haven't forgot that either.

The thing which has stuck with me the most though, and what compelled me to think back on this memory and write this post was the change in everyday life that followed. Because the attacks were carried out by placing newspapers wrapped around plastic bags of sarin gas (which were then punctured with the tip of an umbrella), the stations started telling everyone to immediately report any packages or items left behind on the trains. A random magazine left on the rack above the seats could incite fear and paranoia. An abandoned plastic shopping bag with the remains of someone's lunch that was abandoned by someone too lazy to find a trash can could compel one to walk from one car to the next one.

For many years after the attack, "wasuremono", or things left behind or forgotten, created an atmosphere of concern and paranoia. Signs were put up on the trains and stations warning people not to touch them and to inform personnel immediately. I don't remember at what point this sort of instruction stopped being issued, but it was definitely not for quite some time.

Recently, I was taking a walk around the park in order to clear my head. I do this at times to help me write. Creativity does not generally flourish in a state of mental chaos. As I exited the park, I walked through a parking lot. In the middle of a certain open area, there was an unlabeled red and black box. It made me sufficiently paranoid that a bomb might be in it that I walked more quickly out of the park.

Though my rational mind knows that it was a box left behind by someone who took part in the Fourth of July festivities earlier in the week, the irrational part is thinking "probably", "maybe", "most likely" instead of "definitely". I have no doubt that this was the mental tattoo left on me as a result of the sarin gas attack. It may fade as time goes by, but I don't know if it will ever completely disappear.

A little reminder that a previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter. The contest will end on July 25, 2014. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Won't Miss #57 - drunkenness as an excuse (reflection)

This topic is one that has been on my mind for other reasons as of late. There are several things that have inspired thoughts about drinking and behavioral control, not the least of which has been the national debate about rape and alcohol in college culture. I took a graduate course in addiction last summer so I have a deep understanding of the effects of alcohol on the brain. It lowers inhibitions, it reduces sensory capacity (you can't hear, feel, see, etc. as well), and it impairs memory. It inhibits bodily control as well as mental control. Alcohol has a profound impact on control. That means that, technically speaking, being drunk is actually an "excuse" or reason for doing things that you wouldn't do if you weren't intoxicated.

That being said, most people know these things on certain levels already. In the U.S., we have drunk driver checkpoints and a judicial system that does not offer more lenient sentences because an offender was intoxicated. In fact, the system tends to be harsher on people who hurt others while drunk. The opposite continues to be so in Japan and, in my opinion, all this does is continue to encourage people not to control their drinking. As long as "he was drunk" means "he was less responsible for his actions," people have no incentive to be cautious about their alcohol consumption. I still don't miss a culture in which drunkenness is considered an reasonable excuse for bad or even criminal behavior.


A little reminder that my previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter. The contest will end on July 25, 2014. I will announce winners (Tuttle has generously offer two books) based on comment order using a random number generator.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A word about lost comments

Several people have mentioned that comments are missing. I'm not sure what is going on, but Blogger seems to be having a bad time of it lately. Unfortunately, there is nothing that I can do about this as I have no control over what Google does once a comment is submitted. I either get notified of a comment and publish it or I never see it at all. If you are using a particular account and failing, it sometimes helps to use a different account to post a comment from.

I realize that this is frustrating for readers, especially when a contest is going on and your comments serve as your entry, but please know that I'm not failing to publish the comments. I'm just not seeing them at all. If you try to comment and it doesn't show up in 8 hours, please e-mail me the comment and I will post it for you. I'm sorry for the inconvenience. If it were in my power to do something about it, I certainly would!

Will Miss #56 - surgical masks (reflection)

One thing I have realized since coming back to the U.S. is that cultural context truly matters. This is something I've pondered in relationship to the debate over face-obscuring hijab or burkas being worn by women in the name of their native culture. In America, a country in which there is a fair bit of crime, covering ones face in a manner which obscures identity is a very different kettle of fish than it is in cultures in which there is less crime or crime in which identity is obscured.

In Japan, people wore surgical masks regularly to protect themselves from the flu or colds or to prevent allergens from getting through during certain seasons. In the context of Japanese society, which has little crime and people rarely rob and cover their faces to hide their identities, the wearing of such masks seems cute, quirky, and endearingly paranoid (if paranoia can be seen as "endearing"). Everything I read framed it as less than "useful", but I think the jury is still out on that.

I find that I not only miss how seeing the masks made me smile a little inside, but also knowing that I lived in a society in which covering one's face in this fashion was not seen as any sort of problem as it did not link potential criminal behavior. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Random Thoughts: The Curious Relationship Between Fish and Aggression

My mother was (and probably still is) a terrible cook. When I was growing up, I was taught that meat of any sort was not safe to eat unless it was cooked until its texture was close to shoe leather. To this day, my father will not eat a piece of meat if any sort of juice runs freely within it. Chicken in particular was considered a potential source of food poisoning unless all of the moisture was cooked out of it and the exterior was similar to jerky.

You may believe that I am exaggerating. My sister, who has the unfortunate task of living with and caring for my aging parents, would support me in my contention. She still has to contend with their notions of what "properly cooked" means and it complicates her life when it comes to meal preparation. While she'd like not to resemble a crazed wolf tearing at a carcass while eating, the level at which meat must be cooked in order to satisfy my parents requires her to contend with levels of toughness which give the jaw a good workout and wear down tooth enamel.

Because I grew up with the idea that anything close to raw (or not cooked to death) would expose one to fatal food poisoning, it took me many years in Japan before I'd eat anything that was raw. Even now, I'm a bit repulsed by the notion of raw fish or egg and eat it with a small amount of trepidation. I no longer believe it's unsafe, but the quivery look and texture are not things which I grew up feeling were a part of a great eating experience. This is one of the reasons I'm not crazy about sushi and sashimi, but the truth is that I've avoided even cooked fish for most of my life.

My family did eat fish on occasion. Because we were so poor (and we actually were really poor - the sort where you ran out of money for food and had to scrounge for change or things to sell off in the pre-eBay era), the fish we ate rarely came from a store. It generally came from a river or lake. We didn't eat it very often even though it was, ostensibly, free, because my father wasn't the world's greatest fisherman, the lakes and rivers weren't well-stocked because it was nature's way or nothing, and my mother hated cleaning it. I don't know if you've ever had to gut and scale a fish, but it is pretty gross. The inside of a fish smells about a hundred times worse than the outside and the exterior is no trip to the perfume counter at Macy's.

Beyond the gutting and scaling issues, there was the fact that not all fish is created equal in terms of taste and texture. The type of fish that my father could catch, freshwater fish, is supposedly a lot less tasty than saltwater varieties and I have to say that I never enjoyed eating it. Any time my mother baked a fish, I'd opt for grilled cheese because, beyond not tasting great, I hated picking out all of those tiny bones.

One of my students once said that her husband went fishing and, when I asked her if she ate the fish he caught, she said that he caught and released because she didn't like the taste of freshwater fish. She said the saltwater has an effect on the flesh such that it's better, but, being no fish expert, I merely took her word for it and concluded what I often have about tastes and cuisine. That is, people like what they grew up eating and Japanese people grew up eating a lot more fish than me.

I've spoken before on this blog about how I think the Japanese diet is over-rated in terms of health, but it can't be denied that the composition of their diet is much heavier in seafood. It's important that I hasten to say that this is not because they are such health-minded people who take care to eat nutritiously, but rather because they live on a tiny island with a lot of accessible water and rather hard going when it comes to farming in certain places. They eat fish because their ancestors could survive on it more easily than other things. It was essentially the lowest hanging fruit when it came to food. The cuisine developed around what was available, not around what was best for their bodies. This is the case with every country.

It is quite serendipitous on many levels that the Japanese food culture is so saturated with fish consumption. Most people know that it is a good source of lean protein and essential fatty acids. Only a tiny handful know what I have learned only recently and that is that eating fish, especially if you are a pregnant woman or a young child, decreases the likelihood that you will grow up to be a violent adult. Yes, you read that right. The brains of people who are gestated by women who eat diets rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (which are available commonly in fish and dark, leafy greens - including kelp and seaweed which are also a part of the Japanese diet) and who eat such food as children have a far lower chance of growing up to have the type of brains that aggressive and violent people do.

I'm not going to go into the structural information here because I'm sure it'd bore readers to tears, or confuse those who aren't into reading about the specifics of brain chemistry for fun. If you want the details, you're welcome to read what I've read from Adriane Raine. If you don't want to buy his book, The Anatomy of Violence, check it out of your local library and read chapter 7 ("A Recipe for Violence"). He talks about a great many factors which go into breeding people with a propensity for psychopathy and violent behavior and the picture is eye-opening. It's not only about fish, but the Omega-3 fatty acid connection is pretty strong, as are factors like smoking and alcohol during gestation and income inequality.

I have always felt that Japanese society was less violent because they have relative income parity and the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" was pretty small. That is a piece of it (and studies support that), but it could also be that poverty brings other aspects along with it such as poor nutrition in essential areas that make American brains more prone to violence and self-control. Reading his book has confirmed something I've believed for a long time and that is that we create the society in which we live.

By not attending to the needs of people at the bottom of the economic scale and insuring that their children are well-fed and cared for, we create criminals on a neurological level. It's not that they are making a bad choice and we are making good ones, but rather that they have a fundamental lack of ability to make the better choices because of all of the factors that went into their upbringing. What is more, their brains are such that it's too late for them to change these tendencies later in life. You can't undo the damage once its done anymore than you can reverse brain damage from an accident (and I'll resist the almost knee-jerk explanation about what happened to Phineas Gage here).

After reading The Anatomy of Violence, I'm left with the rather stunning possibility that Japanese people are fundamentally gentler and more passive than people in other cultures because, at least in part, their exposure in utero and in youth to fish and the Omega-3 fatty acids they offer built brains that make them less aggressive. A piece of that is culture, but I have to ponder if that culture is informed by a nature that was bred in them as a result of what they eat rather than who they are. That is, their culture advocates passivity to some extent because they are inclined that way rather than they are inclined that way because of culture. It's a fascinating piece of the cultural puzzle. The evidence is quite compelling and, if I were to ever get pregnant (not bloody likely), I'd be certain to eat fish as much as I could stomach despite my general lack of affinity for it.


A little reminder that my previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter.