Monday, January 31, 2011
I have been asked on occasion to speculate about the motivations behind certain cultural differences between Japan and other countries. One of the questions I've been asked is why the Japanese value white skin so much. The usual answer I get from Japanese people is that they think it is more beautiful than darker skin tones. They say no more than that. I've heard many foreign people speculate that brown or tanned skin is associated with working the fields and paleness is the product of a life of privilege and leisure. I can't say if this is true or not, but I can say that the battle to avoid a "farmer's tan" is being waged with the aid of "arm stockings". Apparently, parasols alone aren't protection enough for the extremities.
I'll miss seeing women who are so focused on keeping their arms white that they'll wear long socks on their arms in the stifling hot summer.
Friday, January 28, 2011
Somewhere in the cobwebbed areas of my deeper memory, I recall seeing a comedic scene in a movie or T.V. show where a person is riding a bike and is so distracted by an attractive women, that he doesn't look where he is going and crashes into something. Seems rather silly, eh? Well, there is a situation in Japan that happens to me which makes it seem much more plausible. When I'm riding my bike, other bike riders coming in the opposite direction (when not busy talking or texting and staring at their cell phones) suddenly become stunned into a stupor at the sight of a foreigner. They gawk, and their bike starts to glide toward me. This is when I either have to defensively drive or ring my bell and adopt an angry look to get them to put their eyes back on the damn street. Two people in the last 3 months have actually crashed while gawking at me (I kid you not - one was an old man and the other a little girl).
I won't miss being nearly run into by idiots who seem stunned into paralysis at the sight of a "gaijin." (foreigner)
Thursday, January 27, 2011
I like to cook, and I follow several cooking blogs and a few forums. There is something that drives me crazy and that is people who use Japanese words instead of perfectly reasonable English equivalents because they're trying to sound like they know something other people don't. They're the types who like to toss around words like "umami" when they could say "savory" or "meaty" or who say even dumber things like "panko breadcrumbs" (which, incidentally, means "breadcrumbs breadcrumbs") instead of "Japanese breadcrumbs".* I don't have a pet peeve about Japanese words that are used when there is a lack of an adequate English equivalent, e.g. "sushi","miso". I only get irked when I sense that people are are going out of their way show off their knowledge about food by tossing in Japanese terms unnecessarily.
I'll miss hearing Japanese cooking terms because that's the language being spoken rather than because someone is trying to show off their culinary sophistication.
*When participating in such (English language) forums or commenting on web sites, I never use Japanese words when serviceable English is possible.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Poor Anpanman. He's had better days.
The Japanese overwhelmingly support capital punishment. Latest statistics put it at 85.6% support, and my personal experiences speaking to Japanese people about this issue completely fall in line with these numbers. You can compare this to the United States, one of the other few developed countries that allows for the death penalty (albeit on a state-by-state basis - some states allow it and others do not) which has an average support rating of 65%. Personally, I don't condone the death penalty, but that's not what this is about. The thing that gives me the heebie jeebies in Japan is that the method of execution is hanging. It seems like a particularly inhumane and archaic way to kill someone, especially when arguably more humane options (like lethal injection) are available. Also, often the executions are simply carried out without announcing that they are going to occur. This seems somewhat odd, cowardly and unfair to the family or the condemned, particularly in the face of such overwhelming public support.
I won't miss reading about execution by hanging in Japan.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
A tree top bends in the wind and the sky has darkened as a typhoon approaches.
I'm a big fan of dramatic weather. I love the sound of thunder and hard rain, and the charged feeling in the air before they come. There's something invigorating to me about nature proving who is boss as it bends tree tops, knocks over rows of bikes, and spits all over the windows. To that end, I like the atmosphere and reactions that surround typhoons in Tokyo. They are never that serious and people rarely get hurt in the city, but there seems to be a very urgent response from people nonetheless. At my former office, Japanese employees, particularly women, were sent home early on days when a typhoon was approaching (foreigners had to stay) as if they might be blown away in the wind if they didn't reach the safety of home first. People would tell you to be careful as if you might lose life and limb even though the worst that could generally happen was that you'd get really, really wet. One of my earliest experiences at my job was going to a "goodbye lunch" for a coworker in the middle of a raging typhoon that passed by a hinged metal sculpture that whipped around scarily in the wind.
I'll miss typhoons in Tokyo, and all of the human replies to their approach.
Monday, January 24, 2011
One of my earliest experiences in Japan occurred when I came here for a vacation in 1988. My then boyfriend, now husband, and I were riding on a train and standing next to each other. Because it was crowded, I leaned into him and against him with my hand resting on his chest. Of course, we were relatively affectionate, but not doing anything grostesque or over the top. A man came over and started stabbing his finger at us and aggressively saying, "this is Japanese!" He was trying to tell us in bad English that we shouldn't have any contact with each other on the train. Other foreigners have been told by Japanese strangers that they "can't" do things in Japan which Japanese people themselves do. One foreign woman was going to eat an ice cream bar on the train, and a man told her it wasn't allowed in Japan. Japanese people eat on the trains (particularly young ones), but it is not considered good manners to do so. The people who tell the foreigners that some action is "not allowed" are too cowardly do the same to Japanese people carrying out the same actions because they know that they would be challenged for asserting something was a "rule" which everyone knows is a mere preference.
These cultural enforcers bully foreigners and make them believe that their opinion and cultural (or their own) preferences are actually rules or regulations and I won't miss them.
Friday, January 21, 2011
Taiko is Japanese drumming. You sometimes see people playing at festivals and it's always an invigorating experience. People play in a high energy fashion and show great strength and stamina. You can't help but be affected by both the sound and the motion that is involved in the playing.
I'll miss seeing live performances with taiko.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
I didn't have a picture of someone invading a private part or orifice, but that kokeshi doll on the right looks annoyed at the proximity of the kokeshi doll on the left to her posterior, doesn't she?
The Japanese have very different ideas about personal space. They don't like to hug and feel very uncomfortable about it, but they have some habits which are far more invasive and offensive than hugs. One is kancho, in which people try to shove their hands as far as possible up another person's behind. I've also seen and heard about women's breasts being grabbed by other women. There was a commercial for weight loss a few years back where a woman who lost a lot of weight was greeted at the door by a friend and the friend remarked on her weight loss then poked her breasts several times as if she was checking a balloon's inflation level. I also had a British friend whose (adult) students goosed her breasts. You can also find blog posts about incidents of crotch-grabbing and rubbing among foreigners who have been essentially assaulted by both Japanese adults and children.
I won't miss a culture that thinks it is okay to touch or assault the most private places of other people's bodies as pranks or humiliation, but finds hugging, kissing, or other displays of physical affection unacceptable and embarrassing.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
This covers three strong aspects of Japanese culture - bowing, cleaning up after others and saying "welcome".
Do you know what's great about the way Japanese greet one another? You don't have to touch anybody. If that sounds squeamish to a paranoid extent, go back and read my post here. I've seen enough public peeing, nasal excavation, and women walking out of toilets without washing their hands to make me think twice about shaking hands in greeting. If you see enough unhygienic and disgusting behavior, you really don't want to be touching people the first time you meet them.
I'll miss bowing, because I don't know where people have been or how clean their hands are and experience has taught me to err on the side of caution.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
One of the things which seems to occur with far greater frequency in Japan than back home is people who walk and shuffle their feet. It's a rare day that goes by that I don't hear someone dragging their feet as they walk around the local shopping areas. I have pondered about why this is so, and have some theories, but will never know for sure. Part of me thinks it has to do with Japan being a nation of people who often wear slippers that don't fit. Shuffling means that your ill-fitting mules don't fly off your feet. Part of me thinks it has to do with living in small places in which long, full strides result in stubbed toes. Shuffling takes the energy of the movement and directs it to the ground instead of sending it forward.
Whatever the cause, hearing people frequently shuffle over long distances drives me crazy and I won't miss it.
Monday, January 17, 2011
My university degree is in psychology, so my interest in Japan is squarely rooted in the complexities of behavior in this country. One of the most fascinating things is how a particular culture views mental health problems. There are concepts and problems in Japan which have terms which we would not consider serious issues in the United States. These differences reflect cultural priorities. A few examples are ‘fear of one’s own glance’ (jiko-shisen-kyofu) and "amae". This is when someone tries to induce another person to look after them and it happens because of the extended dependence Japanese have on their caregivers. Another is "hikikomori" or social isolation.
I will miss these interesting cultural reflections of psychological issues and how they are regarded and created in Japan.
Friday, January 14, 2011
In Japan, there is a curious habit of allowing criminals to bribe or pay back the victim so as not to be charged with a crime. My first experience with this came via the news that my successor at my former job, a Welshman, was arrested in a post-soccer game brawl and held in prison (without charges or bail) for 21 days. At the end of his stint, the instigators (who were Japanese) paid him between 3,000,000-4,000,000 yen (~$34,300-$45,700) in order to compensate him for the trouble. I find the idea that one can commit a crime and simply pay the victim or return stolen money or goods to avoid jail unsettling.
Of course, there is some small consolation in the fact that repeat offenders aren't let off the hook so easily, but it still seems like justice is not being served and I won't miss it.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Every year, the Asagaya Tanabata festival takes place in my neighborhood and I complain about it. I complain because the crowds are annoying and get in my way when I need to do my regular grocery shopping or get to the local JR station. It always takes place when it's insanely hot. It is crass and merely a way for merchants to draw in a ton of people and make more money. I complain, but then I always take a bunch of pictures (many of which get used in my blogs) and think that there are a lot of cool and interesting aspects to it. The huge papier mache figures that adorn the street are deliciously ostentatious and impressive in their stature and the effort that went into them.
I think I've come to take the festival for granted, and I'm going to miss it when I'm no longer here.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Okay, this guy probably has a weight problem by any country's standards.
In Asian countries, the "ideal weight" for people on the doctor's charts tends to be 10-20 lbs. lower than the ones you'll get in your home country. I once read about a woman who was 5' 7" (170 cm.) tall and weighed 125 lbs. (56.7 kg.) and the doctor told her she was too fat and needed to lose 10 lbs. Note that the "medically recommended range for this height is between 121-160 lbs. in the West and the "ideal weight" is 126 lbs. Doctors will recommend that you lose weight down to an incredibly scrawny level for your height and frame size based on nothing more than charts. They won't even look as musculature, and won't distinguish between people based on build or bone structure. To be fair to the doctors, the reason for this is that diabetes occurs among Asian populations at lower BMIs (body mass indexes) than those with populations composed of people of largely European descent. Nonetheless, they are doctors, and there is no excuse for ignorance of facts that are so well-known that even a lowly blogger with no medical training (i.e., me) is aware of them.
It's as if they have no capacity to assess a healthy weight based on anything but arbitrary guidelines and do not trouble themselves to understand the needs of their foreign patients, and I won't miss that.
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Uncle Sam may appear to be hung and slumped dead over that sign, but he's really hawking tacos and American beer.
There was a series of books published by Tuttle which is no longer in print called "The Adventures of Max Danger." In the second book of the series, the introduction talks about the perspective of an old Japanese woman who said that Americans are "big people...who believe their opinions are facts." I've come to learn that, for the most part, this is true. Americans do believe their opinions constitute facts and Japanese people rarely regard their own opinions with such solid belief in their foundation. Some of the ideas and views of Western folks by Japanese people are based on stereotypes and lack depth of understanding, but it's not uncommon for there to be wisdom about the nature of foreign cultures from those who have more experience with foreign cultures and a broader perspective of life.
Seeing my country through the eyes of the Japanese (when it isn't reflecting ignorant assumptions) has been incredibly valuable and enlightening and I will miss that.
Monday, January 10, 2011
Every year, my students, foreign and Japanese acquaintances, and blog buddies complain about having to write New Year's postcards... well, "write" isn't really correct. Most of them just print a sheaf of them en masse from their color printers. I have never met one person who likes sending them out, and few who care much about even receiving them. It's a tradition which is even worse than sending Christmas cards because the messages are shorter and hollower than the boring, mass produced yearly holiday letters that people cram in them. They're really just something people do out of obligation or for business purposes. The tradition seems to exist mainly so that people can get the equivalent of an entry into the postal lottery which comes along with certain types of cards and stamps. Most people don't win anything (or at best, win some stamps), but it is pretty much the only reason they care about getting the cards since the messages are so brief and perfunctory.
I won't miss getting these cards knowing that they're sent out of obligation and I won't miss feeling guilty that I don't send any myself in return out of similar obligation.
Friday, January 7, 2011
I have to confess that I am not entirely immune to the "kawaii" (cute) aspects of Japanese pop culture. My head is duly hung in shame at being in my mid 40's and still being lured by the occasional cute thing. One of those things is the SK Japan mascot (called "debuneko"／でぶねこ or "fatty cat") which is sometimes marketed as a "metabo" cat. "Metabo" is the Japanese-English term for "metabolic syndrome". It essentially refers to middle-aged spread and has become a ubiquitous term as of late so it is applied to this big, fat kitty. As a long-time fan of Kliban cats, and as someone who eventually (when I go home) wants to get herself a big, fat real cat, I love this mascot. Every time I see it, the 8-year-old girl in me says, "squee!" I want one, but I only see them in UFO Catcher (claw) games and I can't play them.
I'll miss seeing the SK Japan cat mascot and its glorious fat cuteness.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
I know that many men all over the world treat their cars with the same or better regard than their genitalia, and that they can get a bit nutty if someone dings or touches their cars. In Japan though, that level of investment seems to be turned up to "11". I have witnessed and heard about a lot of cases where Japanese men went absolutely bonkers over the slightest touch of their vehicle by a passing bicycle, a pedestrian, or other vehicle. No damage even has to be done for them to go ballistic. They just have to perceive that the potential for damage could have been done. If you happen to hit a spot which was previously blemished, you're going to be blamed even if that scratch is rusty and clearly old. The Japanese are just far nuttier about perfection in their cars than almost any other country's people, and this obsession is reflected in these reactions. In most cases, you'd get far more passion for imperceptibly scratching a guy's car door than for insulting his wife's appearance.
I won't miss the psychotic way some Japanese men react at the mere hint of a ding on their vehicles.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
A culture is not only revealed in the greatness of its practices, but in its lame ones as well. Too many people think about Japan only in terms of its best points and its quirky aspects. "White Day" reveals just how uncreative and pathetic the marketers in Japan can be when setting themselves to the task of creating their own non-traditional consumer-minded holiday rather than usurping that of Western countries (as they have done with Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine's Day). White Day is a "Hallmark holiday" invented by sweets manufacturers as an "answer" to Valentine's Day in which women in Japan are supposed to give men chocolates. On "White Day", men are supposed to give women white treats like marshmallow-based sweets, cookies, or white chocolate. The idea is bland, poorly named, and very few men actually observe it. Unlike most holidays that were born with some sort of meaning and had it stripped through marketing practices, White Day was born without a soul and has always been utterly hollow.
White Day is an empty monument to corporate greed and a complete lack of creativity and I'll miss it and the way the displays always bring a wry smile to my face.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
For reasons I'm sure have nothing to do with serving consumer interests, products in Japan are labeled in a highly inconsistent manner. If you look at the picture of a bin of carrots above, they are priced at 25 yen per 100 grams (3.5 oz.). Next to them are bags of potatoes which are 180 yen per bag. This shop is one that I shop at often, and usually carrots are priced per bag as well, but they play this game with the pricing when a particular product gets expensive. What is worse than this sort of thing is packaged foods, particularly drinks. Sometimes a drink's calorie information is given per 100 ml. Sometimes it is given for the entire bottle. Sometimes it is given per 200 ml. You have to be very careful to scrutinize nutrition information carefully when you buy food in Japan.
There is no consistent labeling among Japanese products either in terms of prices or nutritional content and I won't miss the way in which information is manipulated to mislead consumers who are not scrupulously attentive.
Monday, January 3, 2011
A container of gum has a separate pocket with slips of paper so that the chewer can wrap the gum in paper when finished. This means they don't have to worry about gum sticking to the trash bin liner when they throw it away.
If there is one thing you can say about manufacturers in Japan, it is that they are detail-oriented when it comes to considering consumer needs. One of the reasons that U.S. manufacturers have historically had difficulties breaking into the Japanese market is that they offer products "as is" rather than tweak them at an intimate level for the fussy Japanese consumers. You find that a lot of products will be adjusted to cater to the smallest of concerns on the part of consumers so that using the product is more convenient. Sometimes, this is all a bit much, but often these little changes make a difference. Whether those changes are of use to me or not, I find the choices manufacturers make to be a fascinating reflection of the Japanese consumer consciousness and that such fine details reveal something about the psychology and priorities of Japanese people.
I'll miss the way product design often goes that extra mile to make things more comfortable or convenient for consumers.