Monday, November 30, 2009

Will Miss #83 - gift giving customs


Japan is a culture where relationships are oiled with presents. Though the custom is weakening a bit, it's still common for wrapped presents to be offered on certain occasions. When people travel, they often bring "souvenirs" back for their coworkers and other contacts in their lives. There are also summer and winter (ochugen and oseibo) gift giving seasons. Additionally, students are inclined to give their teachers gifts upon the successful completion of a goal, end of the year, or beginning of the year. Sometimes the gifts are big and sometimes quite small, but it's always nice to receive a surprise that is meant to strengthen the bonds of a relationship or express a feeling.

I'll miss the gift giving culture in Japan.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Won't Miss #83 - squealing bicycle brakes


There's a particular type of bicycle in Japan which is marketed toward housewives. It's a cheap, but serviceable model which is sold new for between $80-120 (8,000-12,000 yen). This type of bike is called a "mama chari". That's "mama" for "mother" and "chari" is supposed to be the sound the bells on those bikes make. These bikes seem to have a common problem in that their brakes squeal horribly loudly, and it's the worst at crosswalks because you tend to get people slowly laying on the breaks on a long approach up to the light. It's the worst after it rains. It's extremely grating and annoying, but because these bikes are so cheap (and bikes are so often stolen in Japan that people don't want to buy pricey ones), these bikes are everywhere.

I won't miss the fingers on a blackboard feeling I get when I hear these brakes squealing.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Will Miss #82 - being able to hang out laundry


I've heard in America that some neighborhoods won't allow people to hang their clothes out to dry because of concerns that it'll look bad or lower the image of the neighborhood. Much as I hate having to hang out my laundry, I'm happy to be able to without a bunch of neighborhood busybodies getting their undies in a bunch over it spoiling the view. With current energy and environmental concerns, hanging the clothes out to dry when you can makes a lot of sense. If I had the space and the weather (which I don't exactly have in Tokyo), I'd be happy to do it all of the time.

I'll miss living in a place where the cultural norm is the environmentally best thing to do when it comes to dealing with drying clothes.

Won't Miss #82 - needing to hang out laundry


Few homes in Tokyo have clothes dryers so you have to hang out your clothes to dry. Even those that have dryers find that Japanese dryers use low temperatures and take hours to dry clothes. I know because I used to have one and it was almost useless. I've been told that they use low temperatures to stop clothes from shrinking. At any rate, nearly everyone hangs out their clothes because this is the only real solution unless you want to lug your clothes to a laundromat and use their expensive industrial-size dryers. The main problem with having to hang out clothes is that the weather is so unpredictable that they can be rained on at any given time and the balconies that shield them from rain are generally useless. Those same verandas are also pretty small for the most part so you have to do laundry every day or every other day to keep on top of it.

I won't miss trying to outrun the weather and deal with the small capacity of my balcony to dry my clothes.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Will Miss #81 - Japanese punctuality


One of the core attributes of Japanese culture is their emphasis on punctuality. While people have become increasingly slack about being on time in social situations (largely due to the ubiquitous use of cell phones and the capability to easily notify others of how late they'll be), they are still quite careful about being on time when it matters like for business appointments or service meetings. Even when people are late, they tend not to be more than a few minutes late most of the time and apologize for the extremely minor inconvenience.

I'll miss being able to generally assume people will be on time and respectful of my time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Won't Miss #81 - cluelessness about reducing coin return


Before I ever set foot in Japan, I used to hear about how the Japanese were completely walloping Americans on math test scores. We were made to feel like our kids were hard-pressed to add 2 and 2 and come up with 4 while Japanese kids could do Calculus in seconds with the power of their mighty brains. After coming to Japan, let's say that I've been rather dissuaded from the notion that their math skills are incredibly superior. Part of this has been fueled by the inability for cashiers to grasp an extremely simple math concept. That is the idea of giving a certain amount of money to get back the fewest coins. For instance, if my purchase rings up to 702 yen, I will give 1,202 yen so that I can get back just one 500-yen coin. On multiple occasions, I've had the cashier dumbly try to return the extra money (in this case, the 202 yen). It's as if the notion of doing things this way simply cannot be computed.

I won't miss having to argue with cashiers about this simple notion in order to avoid getting back a pocketful of coins.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Will Miss #80 - a lack of religious judgment


The Japanese are ostensibly Buddhist or Shinto in their religion, but the truth is that the vast majority just go through the rituals at various holidays with no real depth of spiritual feeling. Except for the odd Jehovah's Witness who rings your doorbell, life in Japan is mercifully devoid of proselytizers and people who tell you that you have to concern yourself with their particular religion's rules. Most people who are religious or have a set of beliefs, keep such things private rather than tell everyone else what to believe and how they're going to be judged.

I will miss people keeping their spiritual beliefs out of your business and not talking about how they know what "God" wants for everyone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Won't Miss #80 - being offered green cards


Because I'm using the internet from I.P. addresses which are recognized as being in Japan, I'm constantly getting advertising for green cards in America or sites telling me that I can become an American citizen.

I won't miss these constant (and almost certainly shady) offers to become a citizen of a country of which I'm already a citizen.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Will Miss #79 - legal bootlegging


Everyone knows that bootleg recordings of concerts are sold through various sources worldwide. In the U.S., I used to buy these through various gray market sources via mail order. Occasionally, I'd run across the odd shop which stocked some bootlegs in some hippy area, but it was uncommon for such shops to stock only bootlegs or a plethora of them. In Tokyo, there are shops that sell nothing but bootleg performances both on video and audio, all with professional-looking covers and many with cleaned up content. Since bootlegs are only purchased by serious fans who already have bought all of the official releases of a musical act, the chances that the sales of bootlegs undermine the income of the performer are very low.

I'll miss the easy, upfront, and bold sales of bootleg recordings that serious fans can take advantage of in Tokyo.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Won't Miss #79 - Japanese don't jaywalk myth


One of the most enduring and absolutely false myths is that the Japanese are so law-abiding that they will stand at a crosswalk in the dead of night on a deserted street and wait for the little man to go green and allow them to walk. The notion is that they are more concerned with not breaking the law than the point of that law. Trust me when I say that I see people crossing on a "don't walk" sign several times a day and crossing where they are not supposed to cross, both on bicycles and on foot.

I won't miss the juxtaposition of this myth with the very obvious reality.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Will Miss #78 - pop cross-cultural promotions


I love seeing Western pop culture icons like the Simpsons being used in Japan to promote things. Part of this is the familiarity, but a bigger part of it is the sense that I'm seeing something special which I wouldn't see in similar promotions back home. This probably harks back to my days of collecting Japanese releases of the rock band KISS. Even though the music was the same, the packaging and presentation was unique and in Japanese which made it much cooler than the stuff back home.

I'll miss these pop cross-cultural promotions and the sense that I'm seeing something cooler just because it's on display in Japan.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Won't Miss #78 - having my Japanese mocked


The other day, I said "konnichiwa" (good day) to some people in the neighborhood as I was walking to a local shop and they said it back, but then just after my back was to them, they very loudly made fun of the way I said it. The care which they took to make sure they mocked me within earshot made it clear they wanted me to be embarrassed. Between the foreigners who correct my Japanese and the Japanese who don't understand it or laugh at it, I am consistently discouraged not to even bother to try and speak Japanese.

I won't miss having my best efforts to speak the language made fun of.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Will Miss #77 - senior driver warnings


Japan has done something that the AARP would never allow in the United States. It has created a system which tags senior drivers with a decal (currently a tear drop which is half orange and yellow, but this will change soon). This allows other people who see them to exercise some caution because of the different driving habits of older people. Japan recognizes and acts on a reality, and that's that as one gets older, one loses some capability and it may be a problem for others.

I'll miss the fact that Japan puts safety before political or ego concerns of the elderly.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Won't Miss #77 - ridiculous butter prices


I'm not a big butter eater, but I do like to bake and cook. I particularly like to make things like peanut butter cookies as gifts for friends and students and to cook pork and chicken in a little butter. Starting a few years ago, butter prices, which hovered around 270 yen (about $2.70 USD) for 200 grams (2 sticks/1 cup) leaped up to around 400 yen ($4) for the same quantity. At that time, there was a butter shortage. Since then, the price has hung around 370 yen (about $3.70) even though there has been ample time to recover from the world-wide conglomerates buying up all of the dairy supplies. The Japanese dairy farmers are crying that they are going to start planting rice because they can't make a profit, but the prices are so high that I can't understand how someone isn't making money.

I'm won't miss the super high price of butter and having to substitute canola oil in so many recipes because I'm not wealthy enough to use better tasting butter.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Will Miss #76 - custom "cards"


When I receive a card for any type of occasion in Japan, at least half of the time (if not more), the card is something custom or customized. It's very common, for instance, for Japanese people to write on a fan or to write on a large square of cardboard. Often, doodles or drawings will be added to a conventional greeting card or the aforementioned cardboard squares.

These cards feel more special and thoughtful than the standard Western greeting card, and I'll miss receiving them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Won't Miss #76 - earthquakes


I realize there are earthquakes in many places around the world, but I haven't lived in any of those areas and am not accustomed to experiencing the world shake around me at such relatively frequent intervals. Japan is located on the "Pacific Ring of Fire" and therefore experiences more quakes than places like California. Since I have no plans on moving to another location on the Ring of Fire in the future, there's every chance my life after Japan will not include so many earthquakes.

I won't miss fearing for my life when the room starts to shake.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Will Miss #75 - parasol use


Japanese women are nuts about avoiding the sun. Having "white skin" is seen as aesthetically more desirable than having a tan. To this end, you often see women using parasols when the sun is out, and even sometimes when it is not. There's something quaint and charming about this habit. It even has the air of old world feminine behavior. Though I've seen parasols being used for years here, it still seems unusual to me.

I'll miss seeing women break out the parasols to preserve their pale skin.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Won't Miss #75 - apologists


If a cab driver in America said that he often didn't pick up Hispanic people seeking a ride because he could tell by looking at a particular person that he or she could not speak English very well, there is every chance that any but the most hardened bigot would take issue with such a ludicrous assertion. It's even less unlikely that a Hispanic person would defend the cab driver for his anti-Hispanic actions. Change this scenario to a Japanese cab driver stating that he doesn't pick up foreigners because he can tell by looking at them if they can speak Japanese and you'll find that some of the foreigners who live in Japan will nod approvingly at the absurd "excuse". In fact, this example was written up on an apologist's blog. Some of them will even blog elaborate explanations and go to considerable time and effort to defend bigotry. The apologists in Japan won't be disappearing when I leave, but I'll almost certainly deal with few (or none) of them after I get home.

I absolutely will not miss people who so want to ingratiate themselves to the Japanese that they will swallow every ridiculous explanation for prejudice that comes out of a Japanese mouth.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Will Miss #74 - being a working housewife


In the U.S., my husband and I were hard-pressed to afford our own apartment on our combined incomes at full-time jobs (granted, we lived in silicon valley in California). In Japan, we've been able to do fine by having one of us work part-time and the other work full-time throughout most of our stay, and this is despite the fact that we live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. He spent some years as a househusband and I have spent some years as a housewife. Japan is still a place where a family can usually get by on one income, or one full and one part-time. Back home, we're not expecting to have this sort of option.

I'll miss the lifestyle we enjoy here in regards to dealing with household responsibilities with relative ease.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Won't Miss #74 - butts in bushes


During my earlier days in Japan, I used to work in Shinjuku, a major business district in Tokyo. On the corner near my office, there was a bowling-ball sized and shaped ashtray half-full of water. People would casually toss their cigarettes in there all day until it filled up and the water wasn't sufficient to put out the cigarettes. It smoldered and stunk badly. Those ashtrays were removed at some point and now people are supposed to carry little personal ashtrays that look a bit like a round ended lipstick tube with a flip top. As you can imagine, many people don't like to carry their own ashtrays. These people have a maneuver down pat to allow them to toss their butts in the bushes where they become somebody else's problem. If you are walking along and see someone duck down quickly in what appears to be a move to pluck a dropped item off the ground, you're actually seeing a smoker extinguishing his butt and flicking it in the bushes at lightning speed (so he doesn't get caught as this is not allowed).

I won't miss this flagrant littering and disregard for the rules.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Will Miss #73 - being seen as "special" for no good reason


It is my opinion that many foreigners (of non-Asian descent) fall in love with and ultimately become addicted to life in Japan because they can be spectacularly ordinary, but are viewed as extraordinary merely by existing in this particular geographic location. People are more interested in you. You're often treated deferentially or invited to dinner, drinks, or parties even if you have no or a very marginal relationship with the people inviting you.

Right now, I'm rather weary of the sense of being special for superficial reasons, but I'm betting I'll miss it after I go.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Won't Miss #73 - the gaijin salary myth


Most Japanese people believe that foreigners are lavishly paid. I can't speak to how the myth that we're rolling in yen got started, but I can explain to some extent what it is based on. First of all, foreigners are paid on a monthly basis as are Japanese people. The difference is that many foreigners do not receive twice yearly seasonal bonuses like Japanese people do. In essence, the Japanese get a lower monthly wage, then receive bonuses in the spring and winter of between 1-3 months wages (2 months of wages as a bonus given in each period is common in most companies). That means that, in many cases, a foreigner gets 12 months of wages and a Japanese person gets 16 months of wages, but the Japanese person only compares his monthly salary to the monthly salary of the foreigner. They don't factor bonuses into the equation or look at the annual totals.*

They also do not factor in matching funds from the company for national health insurance premiums or retirement funds which many Japanese workers receive, but most foreigners do not. The truth is that most foreign people are not paid much more than Japanese employees with a similar educational background and in similar working circumstances.

I won't miss the attitude that I'm overpaid and under-worked based on a lot of ignorant assumptions and selective considerations.

*A low monthly wage for a Japanese employee is about 180,000 yen and an average for many English teachers is 250,000 yen. Factoring in bonuses (but ignoring health insurance, pension benefits, or housing supplements), the Japanese employee makes 2,880,000 yen a year and the foreigner would make 3,000,000 yen a year.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Will Miss #72 - kinako


Kinako is toasted soybean powder. It tastes a bit nutty and has a distinctive flavor. Though I rarely use kinako powder for anything other than mochi, I am fortunate to have access to a wide variety of foods which use it as a flavoring. Chances are that I will be able to buy kinako powder, but not the foods that are flavored with it.

I'll miss kinako snacks after I leave Japan.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Won't Miss #72 - tatami


There is no doubt in my mind that the use of tatami used to serve Japanese people well. In humid subtropical climates, I'm told that it helps with moisture and possibly even the heat. Unfortunately, it doesn't serve nearly so well in modern life. For one thing, the time when you can get by with a fan, a slice of salted watermelon, and wearing a yukata on the porch to cope with summer weather passed when concrete jungles made heat dispersal and cool breezes a part of the past. Tatami just can't do much under those circumstances, and it is a pain to take care of. In particular, it becomes infested with dust mites, needs to be bug-bombed once a year, and shows wear fairly rapidly. Most people with new homes forgo tatami rooms altogether these days.

I won't miss having to deal with tatami mats.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Will Miss #71 - dressed up statues


When you first see a statue at a little shrine or temple dressed in modern clothes, it looks like someone has been playing a sacrilegious joke. The truth is that they are adorning the statue in red in accord with the meaning of the color in Shinto and Buddhist culture. In Japan, red is seen as driving off demons or disease. Red bibs, hats, etc. on statues of deities has spiritual significance, despite the fact that it looks rather whimsical and frivolous.

I'll miss seeing deities in bibs and caps.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Won't Miss #71 - socialized medicine (the abuse)


The piece of clip art pictured in this post comes from the front of the national health insurance guide. It nicely depicts exactly the sort of people who benefit the most from the system, the elderly and people with kids. They benefit because they are the ones who fret the most about health issues and run off to the doctor the most often. The system in Japan has built a culture where people seem to have absolutely no common sense about where to draw the line on needing a doctor's assistance. People run to a doctor every time they stub a toe, get a heat rash, or have a headache. This means that waiting rooms are filled daily with bored elderly people who think they need to see a doctor every week and parents who fret when their kid has a loose bowel movement. Due to government cost controls, doctors provide fast food, repeat care instead of higher quality, single visit care. Many doctors spend only 3 minutes with each patient both because of the volume and because they can make more money this way. The system is so skewed that it costs more to buy an aspirin over the counter at a drug store than it does to get one from the doctor.

Though I would take the Japanese system over the American one any day of the week, I won't miss the way in which socialized medicine's low cost encourages people to abuse it and make those of us who rarely use it even more reluctant to take advantage of its benefits.

Will Miss #70 - socialized medicine (on the whole)


Japan has socialized medicine so no one has to worry about medical coverage. If you're working as a salaried employee, the deal is great because your company will pay 50% of the fees (which are about 10-15% of your annual income up to a cap of about $5500). This means there are no hassles for people with pre-existing conditions and people can get regular health maintenance checks. In fact, I'm certain that the socialized medical program in Japan is at least part of the reason people live so long.

I will miss having worry-free medical insurance.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Won't Miss #70 - popcorn prices and availability


For some reason, popcorn kernels are very expensive and hard to find in Japanese markets. Sometimes, you can find a small plastic sleeve with about a cup of kernels, but more often than not you find a Jiffy-Pop style foil pan full of hydrogenated oil for a pretty absurd price considering the portion. While Japanese people aren't the biggest popcorn eaters in the world, it is sold (already popped and seasoned) in bags in the potato chip sections in markets, so clearly it is regularly eaten by at least some portion of the population. It's rather incomprehensible that it should be so pricey in a pre-popped state. Corn isn't exactly a precious commodity, even in Japan.

I wont' miss the high price and lack of availability of popcorn kernels.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Will Miss #69 - Japanese blonds


In a country where kids get teased for having wavy or curly black hair and adult employees who have dyed their hair a shade of brown have to use a kind of black shoe polish applicator to hide their brown hair during working hours, seeing people who just go for the most shockingly different choice of hair color is inspiring. It's one thing to dye your hair green or fire engine red in countries where diversity is tolerated and celebrated, it's quite another to do so in a country where the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

I'll miss seeing people who are brave enough to just go as far as they can in being different in a country where conformity is the norm.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Won't Miss #69 - New Year's Waste


The temples and shrines in Japan have a system designed to help them sell as many good luck charms and New Year's items as possible each year. The way it works is that people are told that they must burn everything from the previous year or they will suffer bad luck. This results in huge piles of last year's flotsam being destroyed in highly polluting fires and essentially wastes the materials that went into the items in the first place. Many of the charms are identical in appearance or very similar in design from year to year, so no one would need to buy new ones if the "luck" held out forever.

I won't miss seeing the waste and pollution that results from capitalizing on people's superstitions.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Will Miss #68 - crosswalk competition


There was a "game" I started playing early on in my stay in Japan as a psychological test. The game is to stand at a crosswalk waiting for a light with a group of people that includes an older (45+) Japanese man and to stand comfortably off to the side of him, but just marginally closer to the crosswalk than he is. Eight times out of ten, he will edge ahead of you. If you nudge a little further so you're a bit ahead, he will move again. This works particularly well with men who are clearly standing ahead of the pack because they want to make sure they are first out of the gate when the crossing light goes green. They won't tolerate a woman getting even an inch in front of them when the moment arrives.

I'll miss occasionally doing this psychological test that reveals part of the nature of older Japanese men.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Won't Miss #68 - uchimizu


Uchimizu is the practice of pouring water on the ground, street or the sidewalk in order to keep dust down or cool the pavement in summer. Originally, this practice was done using collected water from rain and had some spiritual significance in addition to being utilitarian. However, in Tokyo, the effect of pouring a bucket or two of water on the sidewalk is about as useful as a nail file is in cutting down a tree trunk when it comes to cutting the heat or dust. What is more though, many people who practice uchimizu do it in ways which are troublesome or gross. A lot of them throw their dirty cleaning water which sometimes smells foul or moldy onto the street. Others stand outside with a hose, wasting clean water and impeding the ability of pedestrians and cyclists to travel past their pointless gushing.

I won't miss this quaint past-time which has turned into a bit of a nuisance.