Tuesday, May 31, 2011
One of the things I often see in Tokyo are relatively slender, average-looking men carting around or hauling enormous loads up (or down) stairs. The amazing thing about it isn't necessarily that they perform back breaking labor without overt concern for damaging themselves and then suing their company for the injury, but that they will haul what must be hundreds of pounds up a huge flight of steps even when mechanical options are available to ease the load. They do this because of a sense of not wanting to inconvenience people or place them at risk and so as not to risk damage to the equipment. For them, a herniated disc is a small price to pay for doing the job right. Under their unassuming exteriors, they must have muscles of pure titanium.
In Japan, everyday is Festivus, and I'll miss seeing these great feats of strength and determination.
Monday, May 30, 2011
Public transportation in Japan, through the eyes of my old mum.
When I was growing up, I loved to look through the old pictures my mother had from her youth. One of those pictures was of a Japanese man with two children who was once her penpal when she was in high school in the 50's. My mother's knowledge of Japan was frozen in the time he wrote to her and whatever pop culture misconceptions she picked up about Japan from popular culture. She never thought Godzilla was stomping down Tokyo, but she did think that I could grab a rikshaw from the airport to my apartment when I came here in 1989. And, raise your hand if you live in Japan far from the Fukushima reactor but had family freak out because they had no idea how far point A is from point B in this country and they never bothered to find out. On the fear scale, people tend to overestimate the danger of the unknown and mitigate it when it is known.
I won't miss the ignorance people back home have about life here and how it causes them anxiety or to reach wildly incorrect conclusions about what I should or can do here.
Friday, May 27, 2011
Bins full of 45 rpm records with their unique Japanese picture inserts.
My husband and I spent our first decade in Japan collecting and selling second-hand collectible records. The records in Japan are unique in a variety of ways including 45 rpm records (singles) having a picture sleeve and albums having a paper band (obi) around the side or across the top. In addition, some Japanese records have different covers, bonus materials (stickers, posters, booklets, etc.), or alternative song tracks relative to those in other countries. We used to spend countless hours slogging to every second hand record shop in every corner of Tokyo and Yokohama.
We don't collect or sell records anymore, but we still enjoy checking out the collectors shops when one is in the area to see what sort of bargains they have, and I'll miss that as well as the nostalgia going to such places brings on.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Spot the foreigner in the mix!
You're walking to the local train station as part of your daily commute and living in the dream world that is your own thoughts when suddenly, you hear someone (usually a child) shout, "gaijin da!" (a foreigner!) Instead of being wrapped up in the relative peace of your own thoughts, you're pulled into the reality that you are a stranger in a strange land and that people are thinking you don't belong and those with the poorest impulse control are letting you know about it.
I understand that people, and especially kids, will think such things and act on them. I don't hold that against them, but that doesn't mean that I enjoy or am comfortable with being loudly reminded that I'm an alien, and I won't miss it.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
When people think of Japan, they think of the cherry blossoms, and certainly they deserve all of the admiration that they are due. For me though, the real harbingers of spring are not cherry blossoms but their precursors, plum blossoms. They look relatively similar and people often mistake the plum flowers for their more famous cousin. They're both beautiful, but the plums show up to the party earlier and shine the light of spring on us before the calendar says it is at hand. When they begin to fade and drop their petals to the ground, the buds on the cherry trees start to form.
I'll miss the plum blossoms, and how they bring some of the first stirrings of spring into winter and herald the move to warmer days.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
A cafe window in Tokyo which was cracked in the Great Tohoku Earthquake. The word spelled in tape is "danger".
People seem obsessed with talking about a huge earthquake leveling Tokyo like the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. You'd think that such talk might settle down in the face of the Tohoku earthquake on March 11, 2011, but that doesn't satisfy the need for people to see Tokyo shaken apart. Shortly after the big Tohoku quake, I was reading articles about how there was an 87% chance of Tokyo getting one in the next 30 years. I will grant that another big earthquake is possible, maybe even probable, as Japan is on the Ring of Fire. The thing I'm not willing to accept is that the next "big one" can be predicted or is "overdue". It's not like earthquakes operate on a schedule and "the big one" is looking at its watch saying, "well, I can't put off leveling Tokyo any longer so I'd better stop procrastinating and get to it." If the big one hits 500 years from now, I'm sure people will be saying, "well, we knew it was going to happen again soon!"
I won't miss the obsession people have with talking about the imminent annihilation of Tokyo.
Monday, May 23, 2011
I'm not sure I'd ever buy a CD of Japanese traditional music or sit around listening to it for hours. It's not much of a toe tapper, but there is something about it which puts you very much in the spirit of living here and reminds one of nature through its simplicity. Most places are overwhelming you with annoying pop music or, worse, muzak, so it's a refreshing change of pace and a reminder that, yes, you are in Japan, when you happen across either a performance or a playing of said music.
I'll miss the refreshing random encounters with Japanese traditional music.
Friday, May 20, 2011
The Japanese are known for being fanatical about cleanliness and food safety, yet they engage in a thoroughly unsanitary and slightly gross habit in their markets for dubious reasons. There are trash bins near the counters and tables set aside for people to bag their own groceries. These bins have open packaging that used to contain various sorts of raw meat. On occasion, I have witnessed women ripping open their chicken packages and slopping the contents into thin plastic bags that are freely available on large rolls (mainly used for vegetables that aren't plastic wrapped or as a secondary bag for leaky meat packages). This repackaging of raw meat, especially chicken, requires people to handle the meat with their bare hands (which they then do not wash and touch communal areas of the store or even products) and allows the juices to drip and splatter. I'm also not too happy about the open trays just lying out there next to where I'm bagging my food allowing bacteria to have a party in the warm, moist air.
I won't miss this habit of repacking ones meat and leaving the open trays out for all and sundry to see, smell, and share germs from.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
When debuneko overdoes it, he knows that daikou service is there to help him get home. ;-)
I've often talked about how subjective ones experiences are in Japan and how no one person can speak with encompassing authority or knowledge on life here, and the existence of daikou services and my coming by knowing about it about it so late in the game is proof of that. Daikou service (代行サービス) is, in essence, a paid designated driver. The main reasons I didn't know about this for so long are that I do not drink alcohol and do not drive in Japan. Also, I live in Tokyo and have access to a huge public transportation network as do my compatriots who drink. Daikou is more popular in rural areas because it's harder for a group of people to party and catch a train or taxi home. The existence of daikou is a reflection of the Japanese desire for everyone to do the same thing together while still exercising social responsibility. Using a designated driver (as is so popular in the U.S.) means one person is left out on the "fun", and in a country like Japan in which drinking is an important conduit for social bonding, this is a serious omission.
I'll miss what daikou says about the Japanese culture of inclusion and how such minutiae of life in Japan helpfully keep the subjectivity and anecdotal nature of my experiences in clear focus for me.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
I don't have anything against marathon runners and I'm sure that there are people who have to drive their cars through the path the Tokyo marathon takes who have far better reasons to be annoyed than me. That being said, there are things about it which are irritating. First, those who want to take part in it talk about it. A lot. Too damn much. They do this because you have to win a lottery to be allowed in and they want to be one of the lucky ones so they ruminate on it. A lot. Too damn much. Second, there is the fact that the lottery allows for a disproportionate number of foreign runners into the race for reasons I'm uncertain of. I don't want foreigners to be discriminated against, but I also don't want them to be treated in a manner which is unfairly favorable. This isn't an affirmative action move, trust me. It's more likely a crass PR one. Finally, the thing which I dislike most about the Tokyo marathon is the fact that everyone thinks it's a rocking great idea to run with their freak flag flapping in the breeze. It's amusing when a few people dress silly, but less so when a sizable portion do so. One guy with bunny ears is wacky. A few dozen is just boring and tedious.
For all of the aforementioned reasons, I won't miss the Tokyo marathon.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Quite some time ago, the doors (literally) fell off of my closet so I strung some sumo noren over the doorway. This picture actually makes it look much more sheer than it really is. Without the camera flash, you can't see the clothes behind it much as all, nor do you notice the dust along the top. :-p
Noren are a traditional fabric "curtain" that is used to divide rooms or at the entrances of various shops. There are a plethora of designs, sizes, shapes and colors ranging from relatively simple to ornate. They are often split down the center or in three segments. Noren are cheap and attractive elements for home decor and an elegant and uniquely fashionable Japanese way to promote a business.
I'll miss seeing them at various places of business, and being able to buy them in many different styles for a low price.
Monday, May 16, 2011
When I think of the on-line forum for foreign folks in Japan, Gaijinpot, I think of the line delivered by Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars about Mos Eisley space port: "there has never been a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." Okay, it's not quite that bad, but this place which is supposed to function as a support area and a place to find jobs is a water cooler for the angriest, most judgmental, and bitter of the foreign community. Posting even the most innocuous of questions can generate a barrage of personal attacks. One blogger once asked where one might procure ricotta cheese in the Osaka area and the response to this were venomous accusations of desiring to live in a "gaijin bubble" rather than to assimilate like a good foreigner should do.
I won't miss the cesspool of anger and willful misunderstanding that is Gaijinpot.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Generally, I really don't like having attention directed my way simply because of my hair color, eye color, or body. This sort of attention is unwarranted and based on superficial observation and objectifies me. There is one type of attention which I rather like and that's when I take a picture of something strange and the Japanese folks around me notice and look very carefully at what I'm taking a picture of. Considering the nature of this blog, I'm often taking pictures of things which are considered mundane. I like the fact that this puzzles people because I want them to wonder what a foreigner might find curious and ponder their own culture, if only for a moment. I also know from my Japanese friends on FaceBook that they find what I take pictures of of particular interest because of how it reflects their culture in a manner they have never conceived of before. I think seeing your own culture through very different eyes has been of great value for me, and I hope to provide a little of that value in return.
Interest in my picture taking sets off what I hope is a process of examining ones own culture and what may be a curiosity to others, and I'll miss the potential for setting off this mental dialog in folks.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
People stand around the dohyo (the ring) to make sure no one runs up and steps on it as the national stadium (kokugikan) empties after a day of sumo wrestling.
Sexism, like racism, is everywhere in the world. This is obviously a fact. No society can dictate the thoughts or actions of individuals. What a society can do is make rules and laws in order to reduce the ability for its citizens to act on various prejudices. The presence of those laws and the way in which they are enforced (or ignored) represents the aggregate wishes of the society. In Japan, there are equal employment laws, but they are ignored. In some areas of Japanese culture, there are laws that overtly prohibit women from taking part in various activities even when there is absolutely no reason or rationale behind that prohibition. One example of that is the fact that women aren't allowed to step onto the sumo dohyo to hand over the sumo tournament trophy to the winner. It's understandable that a woman can't take part in sumo wrestling itself because of physical capabilities. It's not understandable that she can't present a trophy because she is considered too "unclean" to step on the dohyo (ring).
I won't miss this type of institutionalized sexism and how it is tolerated.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Seeing an English language movie in Japan can be a surreal experience, particularly if it is a comedy. The movie you are watching may look like the same one that the Japanese patrons are viewing, but in reality you are having a somewhat different experience. While you are following along in your native tongue, the Japanese are following the subtitles; these do not often say the same things as the English, particularly when it comes to jokes. You will suddenly burst out laughing at some retort you hear in the movie. You'll soon learn that you are all by yourself in your mirthful ejaculation, as if someone had just whispered a private joke in your ear. Some people find this to be (understandably) uncomfortable, but I think it is one of those "only in Japan" experiences.
This situation reminds me in a benign way that foreign and Japanese folks are going about their business in the exact same place at the exact same time, but living a different reality, and I'll miss it.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
You can't hear it, but that's pretty much what the face looks like during this maneuver.
Every culture has its body language tics and odd sounds associated with certain actions. I'm not a big fan of any of them, but one of the habits which is like nails on a blackboard for me is when people (usually men) suck air around their teeth in a particular manner. This is a habit which I never experienced back home, but frequently hear here. This sound is usually made when one is thinking over a particularly brain-teasing issue or as an expression of hesitation before offering up an answer that won't be favorably received. I may dislike this particular habit so much because it is one I associate with reluctance to be straightforward or simply because it's not a pleasant noise. It's probably a bit of both.
I won't miss this tendency to noisily suck air through ones teeth during moments of consternation, consideration or confrontation.
Monday, May 9, 2011
Ginbis animal biscuits for children, flavored wonderfully with sesame.
What peanut butter is to Americans, it seems that sesame is to the Japanese (also possibly to other Asian cultures). Our sweets are often infused with creamy peanutty goodness, and theirs with the rich, strong flavor of various types of sesame including both black and white varieties. Though you can get sesame treats nearly anywhere in the world, you find them much more prevalent in Japan, including in cheap snacks or those designed for children. Back home, I'm most likely to find them on top of a hamburger bun (and as someone who doesn't eat hamburgers, I'm not even going to consume them from that source).
I'll miss the ubiquitous use of sesame in Japanese snacks.
Friday, May 6, 2011
Early on in my time in Japan, I visited the imperial palace and after a long time, I forgot what it was like so I went back last year. Now, I have a much better idea of why I retained no memory whatsoever of the experience. Visiting the imperial palace in Tokyo is a singularly unmemorable experience. In fact, after having gone there and remarking on that fact to Japanese folks I know, their response was "why"? They couldn't conceive of any reason to bother. Yes, it is a nice, well-maintained space, but you can't get close to the palace itself (see the view in the picture above) and it's mostly moat and grass with a few bland-looking buildings and bridges. I think it mainly functions these days as a space with a convenient track running around it for joggers. I also can't help feeling that the royal family, who rarely stick their heads out for the public to see, are like birds in a lightly gilded cage in there. Thinking about them when I visit just makes me feel sorry for them.
Compared to some of the more impressive sightseeing spots in Japan, it's really pretty "blah", and it is an area I won't miss.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
A lot of hoopla has been made about capsule hotels in the West so many people are aware of these tomb-like spaces meant to allow people to sleep on the cheap in expensive areas. The truth is that capsule hotels are losing some of their appeal these days because business is changing in ways which aren't allowing for the expenses that brought people (mainly men) to use them. They're still around, of course, but not as popular as they used to be. What many Western folks don't know is that "capsule" service isn't confined to hotels. There are also things like capsule showers, for instance.
I like the inventiveness behind using small spaces in these ways and what it says about the willingness of Japanese folks to accept what is adequate in exchange for a lower price and easy access, and I'll miss it.
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Ramune is a type of soft drink which is associated with summer in Japan. You often see it on offer in its distinctive bottle design. All food and drink is strictly a matter of personal taste, and its not the flavor of ramune (that I don't much care for, but that's beside my point) that I take issue with. The first thing is that the bottle design is irritating. You can't see it in my picture, but many ramune bottles have a marble lodged in the top which is supposed to help keep it fizzy as you drink it. Instead of helping the carbonation stay in, it just makes it hard to drink. I don't know about you, but in the hot summer, I don't want to have to have particular skill to ingest a cold beverage. The other, rather lesser, issue, is that ramune is often sold under one catch-all name but comes in various flavors. Most of the time, it's like lemonade, but sometimes it tastes like bubble gum or other flavors. You can never be quite sure what you're getting unless you follow the same brand all of the time.
I won't miss ramune.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
A manhole cover at Mt. Takao.
Many areas in Japan have unique manhole covers. You can find pictures of them on Japan blogs all over the web, and there is even a book devoted to them. Some of them are colorful or intricate and others are cute. Most of them are culturally relevant to the regions they are in.
I'll miss chancing across these interesting and often artistic drain covers.
Monday, May 2, 2011
Most foreigners who come to Japan spend some time studying Japanese and taking useless tests to prove how well they can speak, read or write it. OK, perhaps the tests aren't entirely useless if you need to achieve a specific score for a particular job, but it often seems that the main point of these tests is to boast about your Japanese level by pointing to what level of JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) you have passed. Frankly, I don't give a rat's ass about how well a non-Japanese person speaks Japanese because they aren't going to be speaking it with me anyway, but they seem to care a lot about how they measure up against me. It's really a penis measuring contest. If your score is lower, people feel that their appendage is larger than yours and they feel smug and superior. If yours is better, they are disappointed and figure on doubling their efforts at the next test.
Language proficiency (and that goes for the Japanese people's English) is a personal and professional issue, not an indication of intellect, morality, or work ethic, and I won't miss all of the judgment associated with JLPT scores.