Friday, December 31, 2010

Won't Miss #272 - no express checkout

Back home, you find people complaining that someone is always trying to get into the "10 items or less" express checkout with more items than the maximum. In Japan, no one complains about this because there aren't any express checkout lanes at any of the places I have ever shopped at. Quite often, I'll be approaching the check-out clerk with one item in hand when someone a half step in front of me with an overloaded shopping basket who was, just moments ago, intensely preoccupied with studying the molecular structure of a tomato to ensure the highest quality, will suddenly rush to get to the clerk before me. I have no recourse but to wait while the clerk methodically scans in 30 items while my carton of milk warms in my hand.

I won't miss the fact that there are no express check-out areas, and that people who have a ton of stuff not only almost never let those with an item or two go first (this courtesy has been offered to me twice in 21 years of shopping in Tokyo), but actively try to cut them off and get in front of them at check-out.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Will Miss #271 - Kokeshi

There's something creepily appealing about kokeshi dolls. They seem to represent a part of the culture that preceded the obsession with "cute". They are expressionless and limbless. They actually are quite minimalist in their sparse paint jobs. The basic design seems almost tribal. Though they are quite simplistic in shape, and almost utilitarian in appearance, the designs are thoroughly human and it makes them rather an enigmatic art form.

I'll miss kokeshi dolls, and the part of Japanese history and an old mentality which has faded away that they seem to represent.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Won't Miss #271 - Japanese toothpaste

Yes, I know Gum is an imported brand, but it's the only picture of  toothpaste for the Japanese market that I have.

During my earliest days in Japan, someone I worked with "warned" me not to use Japanese toothpaste because it supposedly had sugar in it or was an ineffective dentrifice. I'm not sure if that is or was true, but I do know that Japanese toothpaste leaves something to be desired. For one thing, the taste is strange in some brands. It has a strange almost bubblegum-like flavor. Also, I've read that the percentage of fluoride is lower compared to Western brands (and that this may account in part for the sad state of Japanese teeth despite readily available dental care and relatively good oral hygiene practices). This requires more frequent brushing, which is great for toothpaste sales but not so great if you're too busy or not in a position to carry a brush at all times.

I've had to buy imported toothpaste by the case at an inflated price to avoid Japanese toothpaste and I won't miss that.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Will Miss #270 - trains crossing closeby

I rarely rode public transport back home because I grew up in a rural area. My main experience with it was riding the Cal Train to San Mateo once a week and riding the Boston subway on a few occasions. The Cal Train were lonely and infrequent, so the experience of trains whizzing by within what feels like inches of one another at high speed carries a particular sense of excitement.

There's something about all of that kinetic energy and seeing the faces of hundreds of people in a different vehicle pass by at close proximity which feels rather unreal, and I'll miss that.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Won't Miss #270 - eyes open, ears closed

"Speak, Hear, and See No Evil" statues at a local stone-working shop. The Japanese believe they invented this concept, incidentally.

My brother-in-law likes to tell a classic anecdote from his early days in Japan which beautifully illustrates the mental wall that goes up between a Japanese person and a foreigner the minute the former lays eyes on the latter. He speaks Japanese well, particularly conversational Japanese and the types of phrases used in everyday life, so he doesn't try to speak English to people. One day, he got in a cab and in perfectly normal and correct Japanese (not weird, textbook Japanese), he told the driver where he would like to go. The driver turned around and says, "I no speaku Engrish."

Some Japanese people believe they can't communicate with you before you even open your mouth and don't even listen to what you say even when you speak to them in their own language, and I won't miss that.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Will Miss #269 - western models

Mannequins that are clearly Western in appearance modeling Japanese yukata.

When I first arrived in Japan (about 20 years ago), there was something which I found peculiar, and that was the vastly disproportionate number of Western-looking models. In fact, the majority of ads (at least 80%) on trains showed people who look like they were from Europe (loads of blondes!). These days, it's not quite so skewed because the weak economic situation has priced foreign models beyond most companies budgets. Still, less than 2% of the population in Japan is non-Japanese, and only a fraction of that 2% is Western in appearance, yet you find that quite a lot models in ads, magazines, and even mannequins are not Asian-looking. The oddest ones are the ones who are modeling uniquely Japanese things, but clearly are not meant to look Japanese. Since the culture is homogeneous, and tends to be exclusive rather than integrative, this is a fascinating choice.

I'll miss this curious emphasis on foreigners to sell products when those products are targeted at the domestic market.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Won't Miss #269 - nomikai

"Nomikai" means "drinking party" in Japanese. If you work, you will often be invited to such parties, and declining those invitations can have negative consequences on your relationship with your coworkers as well as your future promotion potential. The thinking behind nomikai is that Japanese people have to keep their true feelings under such tight wraps that they can only let some of them out when liberally lubricated with alcohol. It's meant to allow for a sort of communication that cannot be had in the office, but is integral to working relationships. In reality, it's often about the bosses dragging subordinates out for drunken revelry and holding their attention hostage. It also forces the subordinates to waste their money on food and drink when they would rather go home, be with their families, and take a bath.

I won't miss this tradition of expecting workers to go out to drink or suffer unfortunate career or professional relationship consequences.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sorry for a few glitches

Just a quick apology for a few scheduling glitches which saw an old post re-issued into the RSS feed and a future one posted prematurely (and subsequently removed). Sometimes I mess up, and sometimes Blogger messes up. This time, it was me. I apologize for the confusion!

I wish I could say that it won't happen again, but there's every chance that it will given my imperfect ability to get dates straight or prematurely pressing "post" rather than "save".

Will Miss #268 - "alien" seafood

This is perhaps not the noblest or most mature thing to enjoy in Japan, but a lot of the food looks to me like alien offspring. A lot of review blogs about Japanese food are driven by the "it's so creepy and weird" vibe that one gets off of the food here. If you live outside of Japan, you  mainly get it from the flavors of snack foods, like wasabi KitKats or yogurt Pepsi. When you live here, you're treated to a whole other kettle of strange fish.

I'm going to miss seeing things I never saw back home being served up for consumption, and pondering what they heck they are or what has been done to them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Won't Miss #268 - region code issues

From left top: Cinderella, Pinocchio, Gulliver's Travels
From left bottom: The Three Caballeros, Dumbo, Fantasia

One of the cool things about Japan is that their copyright laws aren't determined by the ability of big corporations to bribe lawmakers into infinitely extending them through backdoor means. That means that you can get professionally released DVDs of movies that might normally cost quite a bit more for a low price (like the 500 yen/$5.18 Disney movies sold above). Unfortunately, there is a snag. If you aren't planning on remaining in Japan forever, any discs you buy here aren't going to work back home unless you also happen to live in a Region 2 country. All of North America is Region 1, and Australia is Region 4. Pretty much only Europeans and the British are in luck when it comes to picking up DVDs in Japan that can be played in their drives back home without issue.

I won't miss not being able to buy DVDs because the region codes are different.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Will Miss #267 - Audrey Hepburn fixation

Okay, she's not Audrey Hepburn, but don't the hat and hair remind you of her style? And she is one cute little girl.

The first time I came to Japan in 1988, I didn't know much about the culture or people. Frankly, I came to Japan the first time to visit my future (American) husband who just so happened to be working here. I had much more interest in him than Japanese people or culture. While I was enduring the 14-hour-plain ride home after the best month of my life and sobbing that I had to leave the love of my life behind for another 3 months while he finished out his contract, I watched the movies being shown on the plane. One of those movies was "Roman Holiday". I couldn't understand why they were showing a movie made in 1953 and wondered why the airline was so cheap showing an antique movie. It turns out that they chose it because the Japanese are crazy for Audrey Hepburn. There are a lot of theories as to why the Japanese are so nuts for her, but most of the people I've asked and who talk about her on the internet say it is because of her beauty, style, charm, and elegance.

I will miss this curious fixation with this particular, arguably less than universally iconic, actress.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Won't Miss #267 - "clean your plate" manners

One of my students did a home stay in a mid-western state and made a simple Japanese-style meal for her host family. She said that she thought they didn't like it and felt bad because they didn't eat everything that she served them. Another one of my students visited a former boss and he served her a huge quantity of rather oily eel which was far more food than she could comfortably eat, but she forced it all down anyway. In Japan, the host or hostess will feel bad or that you didn't enjoy the food if you don't clean your plate, even when the issue may be that your stomach isn't big enough or that you aren't keen on the type of food in general. It's good manners in Japan to eat everything you are served so as not to insult the cook.*

I won't miss the way in which one is obliged to eat more than one wants in order to spare the host's feelings or ensure that no insult has been given.

*Note: This situation is complicated by the fact that most people do not serve themselves from a central plate or bowl but tend to be served pre-proportioned sizes individually. In the U.S., we can often fill our own plates with portions of our own choosing. Generally your host will portion the food out for you in many social situations (though not all) in Japan.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Will Miss #266 - growing up more slowly

Japanese people grow up more slowly than Americans. It's hard to explain this without it coming out wrong and possibly sounding insulting (to either side), but I always have the sense that there are a lot of 12-year-olds going on 20 in the U.S.  There's a rush to be "mature" and prove you're "worldly" and capable of independence as early as possible, and young people have a particular attitude based on this need to prove one is no longer a child even when one clearly is a child. In Japan, this rush to maturity doesn't manifest itself so strongly in most people and they're good with holding on to aspects of their youth that we quickly wish to discard to "prove" our maturity. In fact, many of my Japanese acquaintances openly assert that they'd like to hang on to their childhood and ability to be dependent as long as possible. Here, it's sometimes a case of 30-years-old going on 13, but in a nice way. Perhaps this is fueled by the knowledge that life after leaving the education system is going to be decades of overworking and being tied to a corporate yoke.

People don't seem quite as afraid to be young and inexperienced, to show their naivete or child-like delight at child-like things, or to remain in a state of prolonged innocence, and I'll miss that.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Won't Miss #266 - no pets

My husband and I both love cats. In fact, we agreed that once we settled down, we could get a cat... then we moved to Japan. There are two issues for us when it comes to owning a pet in Japan. The first issue is that most apartments in Tokyo don't allow pets beyond fish, turtles, or beetles, including mine. In many cases, getting a place that allows pets means paying appreciably more for rent (though this is likely the case worldwide). The other larger issue for us is that we believe that it is irresponsible to get an animal as a pet and not keep it until the end of its life. Since we have never known when we might leave, and a pet can live a long time, we've never been able to get a pet with a good conscience.

I won't miss not being able to have a pet due the uncertainty of the duration of our stay and the difficulty of finding a place to live that accepts them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Will Miss #265 - (generally) liking Americans

One thing I learned pretty quickly during my first job in Japan, among which I had a plethora of coworkers from other English speaking countries, was that many people dislike Americans. They haven't been to America, nor are they particularly well-educated about it, but they don't like us. They think we are our politics, our politicians, our business practices, our fast food, our laws, and our wars, and they think consuming popular entertainment or selective bits of news is authentically educating them about America. They don't seem to realize that we are people, just like everyone else, and it's not fair to hold us as individuals responsible or to blame for the larger aspects of our society which are just as out of our control as similar aspects are out of theirs in their home countries. These are the sort of people who would react to assertions like "I hate Indians/Mexicans/Japanese" with the (quite justified) response, "bigot", but fail to see the hypocrisy in their knee-jerk dislike of Americans. The most common America-haters are Canadians, but they are kept company by Australians, the British, and New Zealanders.

Japanese people, on the other hand, generally like Americans as a first response and Japan is one of the few countries that you can visit without fear of anti-Americanism quickly smacking you in the face (provided you aren't around too many other foreigners), and I'm going to miss that.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Won't Miss #265 - heated toilet seats in summer

Japanese toilet seats are a level of luxury that my stubborn heart cannot permit my obstinate behind to have. I can't see what is so tragic about wiping your own behind and sitting on a plain old toilet seat, so I've not invested in any of those fancy seats that do all the work for you. I do encounter them in public places quite often though. In fact, they are becoming more and more common in stores, medical facilities, and even offices. At least some of the public toilets in Shibuya station are these fancy types and station toilets are usually the bottom of the barrel. This is a clear sign that they are becoming ubiquitous. One thing which I absolutely hate about some of the public toilets with these high tech seats is that people turn the heating controls on when it's already quite hot outside. It's as if they think a toilet seat in an 85 degree (29 degrees C.) room is going to freeze their ass.

There is little more uncomfortable than sitting on a hot seat in the summer in Tokyo, and I won't miss it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Will Miss #264 - fiber rich jellies/gelatin

A foil packet of lychee konnyaku zero-calorie jelly drink meant to fill the space when you're dieting.

Part of Japanese cuisine is something called "konnyaku" (konjac). It's derived from a corm (similar to a potato, but not quite the same beast). You can often see konnyaku as a block of gray gelatin that has little black speckles on it. They float around in oden and are used in soups and stews. Frankly, I think they're like chewing on one of those pink erasers on pencils in that format. However, I do enjoy them as part of fruit "jellies", especially in their incarnation as an appetite suppressant in diet foods. Konnyaku is filling and the fiber is good for the digestion. If you're hungry and either can't or don't want to eat, you can consume any of a number of konnyaku jellies and they actually do satisfy you for a time, even in relatively small portions.

I'll miss konnyaku jelly/gelatin desserts.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Won't Miss #264 - talking about golf

That stereotype about Japanese men loving golf? There's a fair basis in reality for that. I have a student, a very nice elderly gentleman, who would talk about golf until the cows came home if he could manage to scrape up enough topics. In fact, all I have to do to engage him more actively in what is normally boring English grammar pattern practice (his level is low and he needs this), is to ask him to use golf-based examples. I'm sure golf is a captivating sport for those who play it, but talking about it when you're not an immediate party to the play is so boring. The thing is that, to be polite, you can't exactly change the subject, especially when you are dealing with people who are the equivalent of a client purchasing your service.

I won't miss talking about golf with golf-obsessed Japanese men.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Will Miss #263 - the shopping bag deal

Japanese people have a curious relationship with shopping bags. I'm talking about the fancy paper kind with fabric or string handles, not the cheap plastic ones in which you carry groceries. In fact, one of the things you'll notice when you first arrive in Japan is that the majority of people appear to have shopping bags with them at all times. While it may seem that this is due to their heavy consumerism, the truth is that people carefully keep attractive shopping bags and those that came from prestigious shops on hand for various uses. They carry personal effects in them like a change of clothes or shoes. This is not so strange, except that they seem to think it looks better to walk around the a shopping bag than a backpack or cloth carrying bag. They also switch cheap gifts from their original bags and put them in bags they got at an earlier date with other purchases from tonier shops. This is to make the recipient believe the goods came from a nicer place, though the practice is so common that I don't know that anyone is really fooled. They probably just smile, say thank you, and save the bag for the next cheap gift they give someone.

I'll miss the way in which Japanese people make the most of something as trivial as paper shopping bags.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Won't Miss #263 - blaming foreigners for drug sales

If you read a story about a Japanese person who is caught with drugs and arrested, there is a high probability that it will be mentioned that the detainee will be asked where the drugs were obtained and the answer will be, "I got them from a foreigner". The fact that this information is included for routine drug busts (like someone caught with marijuana or stimulants) for small amounts of drugs is somewhat curious in and of itself. The fact that no one ever questions whether or not the drug user who is being held is telling the truth about where the drugs came from is an indication that merely saying, "I bought them from a foreigner," is explanation enough.

I won't miss this tendency to link (mysterious) foreigners with drugs in order to deflect responsibility for the crime for the Japanese perpetrators to non-Japanese.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Will Miss #262 - low interest on loans

Hello Kitty wants to loan you money for your needs at low rates.

The flip-side to the previous post is that Japanese people get to borrow money at a rate which tends to be substantially lower than those in the West. If you buy a house or car, you get very attractive interest rates. This is especially appealing when you consider that it often takes 30 years to buy expensive property in Japan. It's also common in Japan for there to be no interest on small private loans depending on the type of account you have with your bank.

I will miss the low interest rates for loans.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Won't Miss #262 - low interest on savings

This sign does not talk about savings interest rates. Such signs do not exist because such information is too embarrassing to be promoted. Please enjoy this picture of the pretty model next to information on credit card loans at Mizuho bank instead. It's the best I could do as a tangentially related picture.

The Japanese are a country of savers, and that means that banks offer them little incentive to save more than they already do. The idea that your money should be working for you, rather than you working for it, would be a baffling notion with interest rates that have to be expressed as only being to the right of the decimal point. The rates are so embarrassingly low that it's often hard to find out what they are for a particular bank, even for Japanese people. My students have tried to find the rates for their banks and it's a chore to tunnel through the information the bank offers to find them. If you live in Japan, the only way to make any appreciable interest on your savings is to send your money back home.

I won't miss the insanely low interest rates on savings.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Will Miss #261 - not sweating the small stuff

When I talk about character traits, I'm talking about tendencies, not each individual person. There are cultural concepts that underlie the tendencies of people in their particular culture and each person acts a little differently. Mainly, I'm talking about behavioral probabilities. When it comes to getting upset about small things, the Japanese are much more likely than not to just let it go. If their latte comes back with whole milk when they ordered skim, they'll drink it and forget about it. If they asked for Asahi beer and got Sapporo, they'll drink it and not complain. Many Americans  complain about the least little thing as if there was a major failing on the part of the person providing the product or service. Some people will not only complain, but harangue anyone who serves them the wrong food or drink or carries out less than perfect service.*

I will miss the tendency to just accept small problems or mistakes and forgive and forget on the part of Japanese people.

*If you don't believe me, check out the Consumerist  where some of its archives contain ridiculous complaints (esp. some of the Starbucks and fast food stories) about marginal issues.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Won't Miss #261 - train access blockers

Perhaps this is normal behavior all over the world, but I never experienced this until I came to Tokyo. Very often when I'm waiting in line for the train to arrive, and there is one person at the head of the line in front of me, that person will not get on the train even when there is a break in the traffic flow of people disembarking. Any reasonable person would get on the train when the door was clear, but often that person at the head of the line seems to willfully stand there, knowing he (it's usually a man) will be the first one on and get a seat easily and that he is ensuring that others will not. When he finally does move, it's almost always at a snail's pace.  Essentially, he holds the rest of the people behind him back so they can't get on. This happens in other situations as well. If you are rushing to meet a train, and trying to get through a narrow space, some Japanese men will see you're in a hurry and intentionally try to stop you by blocking the stairs or whatever access-way you have.

I believe this is a power trip on the part of some Japanese men (and that they carry it out mainly when women are involved) and I won't miss this rude and unnecessary behavior.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Will Miss #260 - my dentist(s)

Best dentists (and hygienists), ever.

I can't speak to the quality of dental care everywhere in Japan, and I have mentioned before that it is irritating having to get treatment in multiple stages due to the way in which the national health insurance works. However, I have had nothing but the best dental care in Japan. This is in stark contrast to the horrific experiences I had in America with dentists who incredibly painfully pulled my adult molars when I was a preteen rather than fill cavities (leaving me with gaping holes in my bite on either side of my lower jaw). I've had my teeth drilled, filled, and cleaned by two different dentists in Japan (both Japanese, but they speak English well) and my husband has also had oral surgery as well as routine care from them. Both of us have had no pain at all and have been treated with respect and given good explanations of our situation. The environment we're treated in is modern and comfortable.

I will miss the dentists who have done such an excellent job over the more than two decades I've been here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Won't Miss #260 - Caucasian elevation

If you're white in Japan, you automatically have value based on skin color alone. Many Caucasian foreigners, particularly men, love being seen as special and relish being the favored pet that is fawned over and spoken to with adoration. They're the best of breed among the kennel of foreigners. If you're black, you're a bit out of luck in the gaijin pet show because many Japanese tend to regard black people as more likely to be criminal, animalistic, and less educated. This is an opinion that is hard to come by because Japanese people tend to hide their true opinions from foreigners (who they know mostly disapprove of racist notions), but it is there. Some of my students have overtly told me their real opinions on this matter (particularly that they believe black people are stupid or dangerous), and others have confirmed that, while they don't feel that way, they believe many other Japanese do.

While many white foreigners feel fine with being treated as special in a positive manner based on skin color, I'm no more comfortable being regarded favorably for my skin color than I am being treated badly for it, and I very much won't miss it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Will Miss #259 - "live theater"

A family goes about their business in full view of strangers passing by.

This may be something that only happens in my neighborhood. It may be something that happens in all big cities all over the world. I don't know. All I can tell you is that I never experienced such a thing back home in either the rural Pennsylvania town I grew up in or the suburban California town I lived in for awhile. At least three families who live along a major, well-trafficked (both by pedestrians and cars) street near my apartment in Tokyo live their daily lives out in the open. They sit in front of glass doors with the curtains open going about their daily lives. They use the computer, watch T.V., drink beer, clean, etc. People are literally streaming by their windows and they blithely go about their business as if they were enjoying total privacy. Today, I actually saw a fellow sitting in front of the glass door, shirtless, but in sweat pants, drying off his body seemingly post shower.

There's something surreal about the way these people live their lives on display, and I'll miss this type of "live theater".

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Won't Miss #259 - absurdly fussy shopping

I shop at a very cheap green grocer (Yutakararya). In fact, in terms of produce quality and prices, I'd say that they're the bottom of the barrel, but still good for basic daily fresh food needs. No one with two brain cells would expect to find perfectly shaped, premium fruit and vegetables there. It's not the sort of place where you find $80 (7,900 yen) melons gift-wrapped and swaddled in padding. It's the sort of place where you find lightly bruised produce dumped into open bins or wrapped in plastic bags. Despite the fact that this is a cut-rate place, it seems that every Japanese shopper who goes there (most around 120 years old or an upper-middle-aged housewife) thinks that they're going to find that one "perfect" bag of onions by pawing over each and every one in a bin full of 100. What is worse, they huck their rejects back into the bin and bruise them further. They won't get on with it and they won't move so I can grab my damned bag of onions and finish my shopping.

I won't miss these people who constantly block my access while they fuss and fiddle over a hundred or so permutations of the same vegetable or piece of fruit to find that one (non-existent) "perfect" one.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Will Miss #258 - language schools (the good)

A Geos poster, implying that you'll be in one big happy family with foreigners and Japanese alike if you attend their school. Of course, it's too late now since Geos folded.

While there are problems with working at language schools (related mainly to cultural differences and working expectations), the experience carries some unique benefits. The main one is that it is often an ideal environment for newcomers to Japan. You work with a variety of other foreigners with varying levels of experience in Japan. They not only share their knowledge and strategies for getting things done here in a way that fast forwards you through the process of settling in to life in Japan (with all of the complex rules and logistical differences), but they form an instant support network and social group for weathering culture shock. My early days in Japan were spent working at the now defunct Nova conversation school. I made some friends, some very good ones, who helped me cope with the plethora of things I needed to learn. I remember those people well despite the relatively brief time I spent at Nova.

I'll miss the social atmosphere and learning experience of working at language schools.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Won't Miss #258 - language schools (the bad)

An ad for "Geos" language school (eikaiwa) using Disney's "Shrek". Even though the school went out of business, these posters are still up all over Tokyo. Given the cash they must have invested to use these images, it's no wonder the company went down the drain.

One of the things that foreigners learn rather quickly after being engaged at a language school is that the experience is not what they might expect. More often than not, the teaching materials are lacking, training is inadequate to prepare you for the job ahead, and you are lied to about the conditions of your employment. The bulk of the lies relate to working hours. You're often expected to prep on your own time, for example, or teach on your day off without extra pay. If you insist on following the terms of your contract by, oh, say, leaving on time at the end of the day, you are looked at askance by the Japanese employees and seen as a lazy worker. If you continue to insist on keeping the hours as they were outlined to you, you may find yourself treated coldly.

I won't miss the way in which language schools bait and switch the working conditions on employees and therefore can never be trusted.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Will Miss #257 - feeling like an Amazon

Several months ago, I was walking around my neighborhood and a group of 5 or 6 foreign men were waiting to cross the street. I was struck immediately by how physically intimidated they made me feel because they were all much taller and more solid (not fat) compared to the people I'm accustomed to having around me. It occurred to me that I so very rarely encounter people who are substantially taller or bigger than me, that I (almost) never feel concerned for my safety as a woman walking around Tokyo alone. Frankly, there are a lot of Japanese men who I think I could snap like a twig if I needed to deal with an attacker.

I will miss feeling physically powerful relative to the people around me, especially when it comes to men and potential physical assaults.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Won't Miss #257 - public urination

A sign in a paid parking lot asking people not to use it as a toilet

I realize men pee in the streets all around the world, especially when they are drunk and it's night-time, but I personally did not experience it that much growing up in America. I was very shocked to see that perfectly sober men in Tokyo urinate in well-traveled side streets and on other people's private property, even when access to public toilets is mere minutes away. They do it during the day time as well as at night. I was walking home from shopping at 4:30 and saw an older man putting it away and zipping up as I walked by. I'm sure the people whose wall he watered will appreciate the scented lubrication. My husband has also seen a mother "instruct" her son on how to pee in public by doing so into the areas off to the side of streets.

For a country so obsessed with cleanliness, public urination in densely-populated urban areas (including residential ones) is not only gross, but shocking, and I won't miss it.

Will Miss #256 - air conditioned waiting areas

An enclosed waiting space (left) with air conditioning on the Keio line train platform.

Our last sojourn to Costco occurred in the humidity of the rainy season in June. The trip takes about 5.5 hours round-trip and requires a fair amount of train riding and some transfers. My husband and I were gratified to find the enclosed waiting spaces on the platform were air conditioned. They offered very welcome relief from the oppressive heat and densely humid air. They're also good for people who find the winter chill too much for them in the colder months.

I'll miss these comfortable and convenient waiting areas that act as oases of luxurious comfort on (some of) the open train platforms.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Won't Miss #256 - the "cut off and slow down"

As part of the never-ending competition for space on the sidewalks, stations, and shopping areas with other pedestrians in nearly every moderately crowded area of Tokyo, there is an experience that continues to frustrate me. Frequently, people who are walking behind me will walk very fast just to get around me and the minute they get in front of me, they will slow down to a pace which is slower than mine. Cyclists also favor this "hurry up then stop or slow down" behavior, but on rarer occasions. They tend to try and cut me off at crosswalks and then stop dead because they want to be in front of me when the crossing light changes. They figure they don't want to risk being behind pedestrians who walk slower than they ride their bikes. Never mind that I just end up walking around their bike and standing next to them at the red light 99% of the time. This behavior is similar to the way cars used to pass me in America and then slow down once they got around me, except this is more frequent and annoying.

I won't miss this type of pointless and petty pedestrian behavior.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Will Miss #255 - an apology is all it (usually) takes

The Japanese are big into taking responsibility, but they are also very forgiving when you admit that you messed up. I'm sometimes floored by the mistakes or misunderstandings that are dismissed or utterly overlooked with the issuance of a simple apology and an explanation. This works not only on a personal level, but frequently on an official one. When my husband and I forgot on a couple of occasions to renew our alien registration cards or to update our visa status at the local government office, we just had to fill in a piece of paper with an apology and all was forgiven.* I've also been told that people who don't pay their city taxes have been let off the hook with little more than a sincere apology and confession that they didn't know about the need to do some particular bit of paperwork (which is actually true in the case of many foreigners in Japan).

I will miss this human and humane approach to forgiving people who make mistakes.

*I read about a year ago that this sort of easy forgiveness of forgetting to update your visa status at the local government office may be changing (and we may need to pay a fine if we don't do it on time), so don't act on my past experiences!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Won't Miss #255 - MSG

Jars of "Aji Shio" at a local convenience market. It's the only type of salt on offer.

One of the many mistakes that foreign folks make early on in their stay in Japan is buying salt with MSG or MSG instead of salt to put on their food. Unless you know what it is, they look very similar and are not marked in an appreciably different fashion. In fact, in many convenience stores, they don't sell shakers of regular salt and only sell "Aji Shio", which is salt with MSG. While I don't believe MSG is dangerous, I don't like the taste of it and it can have bad side effects like causing headaches.

I won't miss the liberal addition of MSG to processed and restaurant foods in Japan nor the difficulty of getting salt without it at certain shops.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Will Miss #254 - general trustworthiness

A woman left her wallet, schedule book, drink, and slippers on a bench while she made a call from a phone booth about 10 feet away.

Both natives and foreigners alike are told constantly that Japan is a "safety country", and that people do not engage in petty criminal acts. This is largely true and at least a little false. I left a tote bag in a bike basket while running into a store and it was stolen. People have found and not returned my husband's lost wallets twice. That being said, you generally can leave items out in public in Japan with far less fear that they might be stolen than in similarly populated Western countries. People often leave personal effects in vulnerable positions because they trust that they won't be taken by random strangers, and usually they are not. Just seeing that often gives me hope for humanity, and makes me smile at the nature of people who show this sort of trust of strangers. Also, I have experienced situations where personal effects were not taken. I left my purse behind on a cement wall near a bank the first year I was here, and it was there when I went back for it. My wallet once fell out of my pocket on a park bench, and someone pointed it out to me. A woman even chased me down because she thought I'd forgotten to pack a bunch of broccoli that she thought I'd bought at a shop (though it wasn't mine).

While I absolutely do not recommend leaving valuable items in a situation where they might be stolen (as I have had things stolen for becoming too complacent about leaving them and walking away), you can generally make a mistake and leave something behind with more confidence that it'll be there when you get back.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Won't Miss #254 - overheated movie theaters

While it is great to be able to eat and drink what you want in movie theaters in Japan, there is one big problem, and that's the temperature. Most theaters are uncomfortably hot in both summer and winter. In the winter, they overheat them and in summer, they under-cool them. Part of the reason for this is that Japanese people in general prefer hotter temperatures than foreigners, but part of it is also cheapness on the part of the theaters. With a lot of people in the theater, it's easy to get it warm in winter without using much energy, but costly to make it cool in summer. This problem ensures that I would only bother to see the most heavily-anticipated movies in Japan.

I won't miss the theaters that are too hot for comfort almost year-round.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Will Miss #253 - taking my own snacks to movies

In the U.S., most theater owners will not permit people to bring in their own food and drink. This allows them to massively overcharge at the concessions stand and make more money. In Japan, you can nosh on anything you want inside the theater. That's right. People take in bags of fast food to eat during the movie if they want and nobody hassles them.

I'll miss being able to take what I want to eat or drink into movie theaters with me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Won't Miss #253 - Japanese slapped over English

Before I whine about this particular thing, I would ask my gentle readers to keep in mind that I get to complain about things which are decidedly reasonable and fair ways for things to happen because they just so happen to inconvenience me personally. It is absolutely proper for the Japanese importers to plaster Japanese product information over the English on imported products, but it still bugs me to have to translate to get the information I need when it's right there in English hiding under a sticker. If you spent all your days wading through a foreign language, you might find it annoying as well to find that the easy answers are just out of reach. Oh, yes, and there's also the fact that the Japanese nutrition information is very often greatly less complete than the original English. In the British-made jam jars shown above, in terms of information I want, the Japanese only includes ingredients and the covered-up British information has calories and other nutrition data which I'd really like to have. Peeling off the sticker, by the way, rarely works as it'll take the back label off with the front one.

I won't miss having the original English covered up by Japanese stickers.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Will Miss #252 - Japanese versions of Western icons

 Click to see a larger version.

Growing up in America, I grew accustomed to seeing certain figures look a certain way. Ronald McDonald, for instance, always has a similar physique regardless of the model or actor under the make-up and in the costume. Any iconic character that has been around for awhile tends to assume a particular image and it's always interesting seeing the Japanese versions of them. Ronald McDonald is smaller and slimmer in Japan, and in the picture of the DoCoMo (NTT's mobile phone service) ad above makes it look like Darth Vader has really lost a lot of his  muscular bulk and now is looking decidedly more petite (note the shoulders, neck, and legs and the relative proportions). On first glance, you don't necessarily notice exactly what is wrong, but you do feel that something isn't quite right.

I'll miss seeing these Japanese versions of Western cultural icons.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Won't Miss #252 - Japanese paper towels

I don't know why these seem to be named for cow usage.

Yes, I know paper towels are the spawn of ecological evil and I shouldn't use them. That being said, considering the fact that I can only do laundry in cold water, I'm not exactly in a position to be cleaning greasy rags or getting germy ones clean and sanitary. I really have little choice but to use paper towels for things like cleaning a cast iron skillet or the toilet. Without hot water washing, life without paper towels is a good deal more difficult. For many years, my husband has been in charge of paper towel procurement and he always bought the cheap store-brand Costco ones (Kirkland). Until we ran out between Costco runs, I never realized what utter crap Japanese paper towels are. The sheets are smaller and thinner than the cheapest American paper towels. They're closer to newspaper than "towels". You need to use two for nearly any job so you end up going through a roll in no time flat.

I won't miss the poor quality of Japanese paper towels.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Will Miss #251 - free ambulance service

In odd contrast to the previous post about paying for emergency rescue services, ambulances in Japan are free. If you've fallen and you can't get up, you get a free ride to the hospital. Considering that many people back home in America won't call an ambulance when they need one for fear of the cost, this is a rather refreshing situation. Of course, there is a down side, and that's that some people will call an ambulance in a non-emergency situation rather than take a cab because one is free and the other is not.

I think that free ambulances for those who need it is worth a little abuse on the part of those who don't, and I'll miss the fact that one need not worry about cost in the case of a medical emergency.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Won't Miss #251 - paying for emergency rescue and searches

If you are the adventurous sort and want to go around climbing Mt. Fuji or any of the other famous natural areas that people are prone to hike around in Japan, you'd better hope you don't trip and fall into a ravine for more than one reason. Besides the obvious pain, suffering (and potential death), your family or you will be on the hook for the cost of any search and rescue expenses. Any manpower, helicopters, or vehicles employed in finding you will be put on an extremely hefty tab and presented to you or your kin (in the event of your untimely demise). Many Japanese folks are already aware of this and there is money to be had in selling insurance to hikers. I'm guessing, incidentally, that things like falling into a river or lake or getting lost in the woods while camping would also fall under the same heading as hiking or mountaineering accidents and these situations would also incur millions of yen in costs.

I won't miss this cold and rather mercenary approach to expenses related to such accidents.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Will Miss #250 - Japanese onomatopoeia

A "fuwa fuwa" (fluffy) marshmallow cake.

The Japanese language has a lot of onomatopoeia. For those who are unfamiliar, those are words that sound like or suggest the concept they are meant to convey. I've never counted how many we have in English, but I'm pretty sure the Japanese have many more. I encounter a lot of them while snack blogging. For instance, "saku saku" is crispy and "fuwa fuwa" is fluffy. These appeal to me on two levels. First of all, they always sound rather "cute" to me (for lack of a better word). I think part of the reason for this is that they are usually two sounds repeated. The second appeal is the way in which they reflect perceptions or sounds to the Japanese mind or ear. Dogs in America go "arf" or "bark", but in Japan, they go "wan wan".  Hearing onomatopoeia in another language make me ponder how we actually conceive sounds based on our own language.

This is part of the language which continues to fascinate me and I'm going to miss it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Won't Miss #250 - green tea shops

There are many people who are great fans of green tea and I can sort of see the appeal. Personally, it's one of those things that I can take or leave. I don't get excited about it, but I enjoy eating foods flavored with it on occasion and I'll drink it if it comes free with a Japanese meal or someone serves it to me. It's pleasant enough, but I'm not crazy for it. Green tea itself is fine, but I'm not a fan of the shops. The main reason for this is that many of them roast tea on the premises, and the smell is often unpleasant. I don't know if that is the natural scent of roasting tea or if perhaps the equipment that is used takes on an odor through repeated use, but it always smells like a variation on burning leaves to me. It probably doesn't help that my office sat above a green tea shop for several years and I smelled that smell 5 days a week for years.

I won't miss green tea shops that roast their own and the odor that permeates the area around them.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Will Miss #249 - Mister Donut

Mister Donut originated in the United States, but the market there is quite small. In Japan, Mister Donut is far more popular and carries a variety of small, not too sweet donuts for about 100 yen each. They often have some interesting seasonal flavors and make some unique donuts for the Japanese markets, such as ones made with kinako (toasted soy flour) or mochi (pounded rice). The results are often donuts with a unique texture or flavor. That being said, my favorite remains their decidedly uncalorific angel cream (only 194 calories of fun). When I'm in the mood for a sweet breakfast, it's my guiltless "go to" item, and the shop is only about 8 minutes on foot from my apartment. Also, Mister Donut is quite unique in Japan in that it is one of the very few places you can get free coffee refills.

I'll miss the small donuts, unique flavors, fukubukuro and fukubako and unique atmosphere of Mister Donut in Japan.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Won't Miss #249 - door handle grabbers

Back home in rural Pennsylvania, we used to leave our front door unlocked all of the time because crime was so rare. When salespeople or strangers on formal business came to our house, they would knock and after we replied, they would stand behind the door and announce themselves. We (the owners of the domicile) would then open the door and let them in. In Tokyo, there is a rather disturbing habit among strangers who are either offering a service or trying to sell something when they come to your door. They ring the bell, I answer by saying "yes?", and the first thing they do is grab the door handle and try to open the door themselves. When they discover it is locked, they yank a bit harder a second time then give up and only then tell you who they are and what they are doing at your place. Note that this does not always happen, but it happens often enough to encourage me to keep the door locked at all times.

I find the notion that a stranger thinks it's okay to let himself in as soon as he knows I'm home rather disturbing and I won't miss it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Will Miss #248 - one day "event" sales

One Day Shop Fuji renting the space to a music seller who has many CDs for 10 yen (11 cents) each.

When I was a child, my grandmother used to take us to auctions where copious quantities of new and varied items were sold for cheap. There was something really cool about the unpredictable nature of the types of items that are sold. I never knew what was going to be on offer. On the main shopping street in my neighborhood, there are two or three rental spaces which come close to this same sort of sense. Various businesses rent the space and sell many different things. I've seen dental implements, snacks, kitchen wares, clothes, CDs, jewely, and computers among others. I never know what they're going to offer, but it's always an interesting surprise. Sometimes, a peddler will just offer a potpourri of items of interest.

I'll miss the surprises, and the bargains from these one day sales.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Won't Miss #248 - Softbank

My issues with Softbank are two-fold (at the moment). First, if you sign a contract with them and you are not Japanese, you must provide two forms of official identification such as your alien registration card, passport, or government issue health insurance card. If you are Japanese, you only need to provide one piece of official identification or two very flimsy pieces (like student I.D. and credit card). This is discrimination, pure and simple. I don't know why they require foreigners to give two types of official I.D., but the only reason I can think of is that they think we're criminals carrying one well-constructed fake. The second problem I have with Softbank is that they won't answer some questions when you stand right in their shops face-to-face (speaking Japanese). My husband had a question about connecting to their Wi-fi via iPad and they told him they wouldn't answer his question in their cavernous shop which was at that moment utterly devoid of customers.* They said he had to call a number on a brochure. This is pathetic customer service.

I won't miss Softbank's policies or "service".

*Note: He asked in Japanese, so it wasn't a language issue.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Will Miss #247 - pacifism

Back home, people are generally comfortable with the idea of going to war and of their armed force's going abroad and taking part in aggressive activities. The Japanese have a culture which is very strongly based on pacifism. Most Japanese people place peace above many other interests. It's one of the reasons Japan is always paying off terrorists who kidnap their representatives and media personnel abroad. This pacifism was pushed on them after their defeat in World war II, but it has since become integrated with the cultural mindset.

While I realize that pacifism is not a perfect philosophy, I'd rather be surrounded by people who think first of peace rather than aggression, and I'll miss that.