This particular shopping area has a special feel which is very much "Japan" to me, and I will miss it.
Friday, August 31, 2012
Thursday, August 30, 2012
I'd like to think the person who made this sign wasn't stupid, merely that he or she was careless.
There have been plenty of experiences in the U.S. since returning in which I have felt like I didn't know what was going on. Things like using a debit card at the supermarket were new experiences to me. The things which Americans have gotten used to over the years which did not happen in Japan have me flailing about a bit to figure out how this or that system works. In such cases, I just say I've been abroad for a long time and am unfamiliar with how the system works and people smile and tell me what I need to do.
When you are a foreigner in a country in which they know by looking at you that your native language is not the same as theirs, not understanding a system due to lack of familiarity is regarded rather differently than if you are a native. Generally speaking, you are spoken to as if you were a child or very stupid for not understanding even when you demonstrate you can deal with the language itself. There is a higher chance that impatience and a condescending attitude will be directed at you in times of confusion, simply because you are a foreigner.
I've heard that this issue is not unique to Japan and that many people who are recognized as non-natives (by accent in the U.S.) receive similar treatment. It was my happy privilege for many years not to experience this in the U.S. and I don't miss being on the receiving end of being treated like a drooling idiot because I didn't understand something in Japan.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
As those who know the story of my romantic history from what I've shared on this blog, from late July 1987 to June 1988, my husband and I were conducting a long distance relationship between Tokyo and Pennsylvania via old-style correspondence. I have two enormous photo albums which I put together during our separation as well as a huge box of written correspondence. At the time that I was being sent these things, I could not understand a word of the written Japanese, nor could he.
The albums and letters were in storage for 23 years and I recently have had access to things I had forgotten existed. Looking back at them after my time in Japan provides new insight because now I can read much of what is on the bits of Japanese memorabilia that he sent me. It's very strange knowing now and knowing that I didn't know then.
The above is the paper liner from a tray he got at a McDonald's in 1987. He wrote a letter to me on the back of it which indicated that he felt this was an option to choose different flavors of shakes, but I think now that it was about having the option to mix and match flavors. The interesting thing to me is not that they offered this type of shake as it's pretty mundane (well, except for the melon flavor, which is not all that common in Western countries). It's interesting to note that the price of a shake hasn't changed in the last 23 years. They were about 200 or so yen then and they still are now, barring any sales.
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
From all of the stories that you've heard (from me and possibly others) about Japanese psychology, you may realize that they are often intimidated by foreigners and insecure about their second language skills. Despite these things, people will still go up to a foreigner who seems to be confused or lost and offer to help. Knowing that these offers require a Japanese person to overcome reservations that are unique to their culture makes their offers of assistance all the more impressive as acts of random kindness, and I will miss the experience as viewed through that perspective.
Monday, August 27, 2012
People have not yet given Japan credit for the invention of sliced bread, but I'm sure someone will eventually.
One of the great things about living in Japan was that the world was full of numerous curiosities. I lived in perpetual comparative state. From the way in which the cups are shaped to the manner in which people line up to the way the walls looked, it was all different and therefore more interesting than life at home. Everyone who goes to Japan does this and many observations and conclusions are valid and interesting. Unfortunately, there are some who have a compulsion to so elevate Japanese culture and societal norms above those of their own culture that they give Japan credit where none is due. This is especially so for Americans who often are so self-conscious about coming across as jingoistic or overly patriotic sorts that they react by putting America down constantly to prove they're not those sorts unappealing types of people.
One of the dumbest claims I ever heard about Japan's unique and superior way to handle things was over the little plastic tubs of sugar syrup that are handed to customers when they buy cold beverages like iced tea. The woman who was saying America was inadequate for failing to provide such customer service went on about how everything was much more convenient and thoughtful in Japan. She made a common mistake when comparing cultures. She assumed her knowledge of America reflected the reality of being American and since she didn't encounter simple syrup in her lifestyle back home, she assumed it didn't exist in the U.S. The Japanese weren't superior about this, they merely were more wasteful in giving out plastic tubs of this sugary goo to everyone regardless of need.
I won't miss this tendency among foreigners to give credit where it is not due because they don't realize that they don't know everything about their home culture and don't bother to check.
Friday, August 24, 2012
Despite the fact that doctors love to over-prescribe medication every time a patient comes in with fatal toe jam or a bleeding hang nail, Japanese people in general are not the same sort of pill poppers as people in the U.S. One of the reasons that alternative medicine, including kampo (Chinese herbal treatments), acupuncture, and whatnot are so popular in Japan is that there is a general sense that medicine is to be avoided if at all possible. Strong medicine in particular is harder to get in Japan, which can be good and bad depending on your condition. However, I learned that most modern medicine is handled by the body as a toxin and is only to be taken when absolutely necessary, yet I see people all around me not only taking it like candy, but swapping pills like baseball cards.
I'm uncomfortable with the casual attitude toward taking strong medicine that I see around me and feel that people might be better off in some cases if they gave their bodies, their diets, and yes, even maybe some herbs a chance before they start pushing their livers to deal with the hard stuff. I miss the Japanese attitude toward medicine.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Let me say right off the bat that everyone in every culture lies. The type of lying that is done is and the pervasiveness and social acceptance of lying is, however, different. One source of constant frustration for me is the frequency of useless (or marginally useful), pointless, and sometimes totally naked lying that occurs. In my former office job, we were lied to constantly about inane things and asked to lie about equally inane things when the truth wasn't something bad or offensive. It was just about face saving, keeping communication vague or confused, or simply opting for what was expedient over what was honest. I believe that this is, to some degree, linked the cultural traditional of tatamae and honne (true face/public face), which makes lying more acceptable if it is seen as being in the interest of maintaining harmony with the group.
I could give many examples, but one case in point occurred when I was asked to schedule a freelance job and was informed that the company that wanted the job insisted on Thursday afternoon, so I couldn't schedule the job for Friday when it was preferable for me. That was lie number one. Lie number two went out to the company itself when the salesman told them that I didn't have enough time on Friday to accommodate their desire to have the job done on Friday. There was never any need to lie to me or the company, but the salesman didn't want to bother to tell the company, "we'll check her schedule and get back to you." To simplify his work on a trivial matter, he lied, then had to lie again when he was caught in the web made by the initial lie. The end result is that both the company and I did not get the schedule we both wanted (and that happened to be in sync).
I won't miss the frequency of these types of useless lies that I experienced in Japan, nor being pressured to tell them myself.
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Click this image to see a much bigger one.
Burger King left Japan at one point, and then, it came back. Wendy's similarly was there and seemingly gone, and then back again. If I hadn't been in Japan for so long, I may have believed that these places never had branches there, or that they had had them there for a long time. We have a tendency to believe in extremes, always or never. A note to those visiting Japan, don't make assumptions or reach conclusions based on your limited viewpoint.
Click image to see a much bigger one.
When I visited Tokyo in 1988, there was a branch of Mrs. Field's cookies there. It wasn't simply imported boxes of cookies, but one of the shops that served freshly made cookies from a storefront like those that can be seen in various areas in California. That was back when the cookies were really good. These days, they seem to be not nearly as tasty as I recall and I haven't had more than a tiny nibble of one in decades.
I recall that the cookies were insanely expensive, very big, and extremely rich and sweet. Of course, that means that they didn't last in Tokyo. The Japanese aren't known for having an appetite for such sweets, so Mrs. Fields went the way of the dodo.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
There have been quite a few shocks since coming back to the U.S. and one of them is how the price of turkey and white meat chicken have sky-rocketed. When I was living here before, these types and cuts of meat were cheaper because they were viewed as less flavorful. Personally, I don't like the stronger flavors or the texture of dark meat chicken. I realize that many people prefer them, and that dark meat actually has a better nutritional profile, but I like white meat. So, sue me. In Japan, I could go to Yutakaraya and often buy white meat with skin for about 38 (49 cents) yen per 100 grams (3.5 oz.) whereas dark meat was 58 yen (74 cents) per 100 grams (3.5 oz.) at its cheapest. In the U.S., with the focus on health and lower calories, things have reversed. Boneless skinless (which I don't like either) chicken breast is more expensive than thighs and legs. Now, I feel extravagant and wasteful for buying what I like. In Japan, it made me feel frugal and savvy.
I miss the fact that white meat was cheaper because I lived in a society that valued flavor over fat content.
Monday, August 20, 2012
Before I get into this, let me say that I know and love many wonderful individuals who were born and raised in Tokyo. That being said, when you deal with the residents en masse, and as strangers, a certain character picture develops. Edokko (or people born and raised in Tokyo) tend to be reserved, feel they are more sophisticated and proper in their speech, and less welcoming of strangers and their differences. They also tend to be more self-involved and slow when walking around public spaces and are much more likely to gawk at the gaijin. Not every person in Tokyo is like this, not by a long shot, but enough fit this character in general to make them harder to live with. Honestly, I found that the people in Kobe and Osaka were a lot less annoying when I traveled in those cities.
I won't miss the generally unwelcoming character of people in Tokyo and how it makes living in the city more stressful and isolating.
Friday, August 17, 2012
In Japan, people did not aggressively ask for money for charity very often, and I miss that.
Thursday, August 16, 2012
During the most critical times of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, one could not trust any of the media outlets for reliable information. On the foreign side, there was alarmist reporting and a zeal for whipping up the greatest drama. On the Japanese side, there is a long history of "journalism" which is about telling the population what the bureaucracy and government wants them to hear rather than the truth. All countries have components of the kisha club in their press club gatherings, but the Japanese press is, by far, the most cooperative when it comes to doing what those who they report on want them to do rather than telling people the truth that they need to hear. I relied on individuals peppered throughout the country with Geiger counters who posted daily on Twitter and gave up on all news reporting worldwide because I knew one side was doing its best to scaremonger and the other to downplay the danger.
In the West, there are so many people and so much competition among media outlets, that the possibility of withholding important news is far smaller than it is in Japan. I won't miss the fact that the media outlets cannot be trusted to share important information relating to the safety and well-being of the population.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
The ribbon that I had to pin on my shirt to keep me categorized with my tour group.
Package tours are a big part of any tourist industry, but they are a rather different animal in Japan, at least in my experience. The whole purpose seems not to be to experience the sites or fully digest the atmosphere. It's an exercise in efficiency. How many places can be seen in the short amount of time that the tour is going on? As I mentioned in one of my posts, I am not a fan of the guided tour experiences because of this point.
Our drill sergeant, er, tour guide.
In 1988, I went on a Tobu (same company that owns the department store) package tour to Nikko. For those who don't know, it is a popular tourist spot in Japan which has a lot of temples, lovely nature, and monkeys. The tour we were on seemed to be designed to make sure we got to take passing glances at every one of these things, but made certain that we didn't get to take many pictures or have a good look at anything.
We piled onto a bus in Tokyo, headed off to Nikko, and then found ourselves being marched all over the place at top speed by a nice, very friendly, but firm about efficiency tour guide. When we paused for a moment to actually try and look at one of the temples, she'd admonish us to keep up with the group. Since we wanted to actually look at things, this happened several times. This is something I've already discussed. However, there is one other memory which I believe is unique to the time period in which our tour was conducted and an experience that I am not sure would happen now because things have changed a lot in the last few decades or so.
The package tour that we went on included a variety of things; it paid for the cost of travel, a guide, and the tour. It also included a group photo of everyone in front of a temple on our bus at the end of the tour.* My future husband and I were the only two foreigners in the group and we congregated with a lot of middle-aged Japanese folks, a few kids, a few young women, and a few teens for the photo. When the photographer was preparing us for the shot, my husband did something which people often do in photos and put his arm loosely over my shoulder. This was not a gesture of overt romanticism, but something even people who are friends do, too. The photographer scuttled over and started speaking in an agitated way. We could not understand him, so he took my then-boyfriend's arm off my shoulder and scurried back over to the camera.
When we got the photo back, there was something else which we noticed besides the fact that everyone was trying their best not to touch their neighbor in any way. There are 21 Japanese people in the photo plus us. Three people in the photo are smiling, my husband, me, and a very young little girl. Everyone else has a grim expression or one in which they are trying hard to look passive or pleasant without actually smiling. Though the photographer stopped my husband's casual draping of his arm around my shoulder from "ruining" the shot, I'm sure our smiles still managed to wreck things for the rest of the group. ;-)
*I would include that photo, but, well, I'm not going to let it out there for my stalkers to enjoy.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
One of my former Japanese coworkers was forever running around turning on extra lights in rooms that I happened to be in at work. I always told him that there was enough light for me to see, but he insisted that it was too dark. I don't know if there is any sort of difference between brown eyes and blue ones in terms of the need for light, but my blue-eyed boss also had a similar issue. Whatever the case may be, the lighting was always ample in Japan. I can't say the same for my experiences in America.
I've stayed in three different homes since coming back to America and one thing I never realized is that it's hard to light a large, open space well. Yes, there are multiple lighting sources centered in areas of the greatest activity, but there are always dim spots that branch over into various spaces. In my tiny Tokyo apartment, I never had an issue with the light covering all of the room, even when it was only a single bulb or fixture. Since coming home, I feel like I'm perpetually living in twilight without a bright, central source of light for the spaces I'm in. I don't think this is because things have changed, but rather because I grew accustomed to the manner in which small spaces were lit in Tokyo.
I miss the lighting I experienced in Japan.
Monday, August 13, 2012
The kamaboko is on the left.
The most exciting time in Japan is at the beginning when all is new and wondrous. It's also the most dangerous from various points of view because you can't read or understand much of what is around you. You wander into a store and see all sorts of curiosities and wonder what is actually food and what might be a cleaning product or marital aid in disguise.
There are plastic tubes cinched with little metal ties at either end which look a lot like cheese, or, to be more accurate, "cheez", available in many shops including markets and convenience stores. If you buy one and take it home to accompany that box that clearly looked like salty crackers but ends up being some bizarrely sweet crispy thing, you're in for a shock. Kamaboko is fish paste. It is supposedly akin to gefilte fish, which I will never sample knowing that it is a ethnically diverse cousin to kamaboko. My, admittedly limited, experience with it, was that it not only tasted like fish that had expired on the beach and left lying there for quite some time. It also had a rubbery and unappealing texture.
When kamaboko was served with a meal, especially the pink and white type which looks so cute and candy-like, it was always something which was an unwelcome addition and I won't miss it.
Friday, August 10, 2012
In an age in which people seem to actively prefer items which are created with the precision capability of a machine, handicrafts may seem rather anachronistic. Also, sites like Regretsy show us that not all fruits of human hands are things of beauty. One of the many lovely crafts in Japan are hagoita. Originally, they were used to play a game similar to badminton (hanetsuki), but these days they are almost always used as decorative objects. A handful of places have festivals or special sales of hagoita and you can enjoy the various designs (all of which feature images of people in my experience, but there may be other designs).
Most of the hagoita that you see on display have gorgeous three dimensional designs that reflect old-style design sensibilities. I will miss seeing these beautiful bits of handicraft.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
One of the reasons that I have disallowed commenting on this blog to date (except for the new Wednesday feature, random memories) is that there is a strong tendency for foreign people to compete with other foreign people when it comes to proving how well they know Japan. This applies across the board to every aspect of the culture and life experiences. It extends to trivial things such as who has sampled the most food (and what you like and dislike), number of Japanese friends, length of stay, number of romantic relationships with Japanese people, and amount of travel. Of course, it also extends to language proficiency. There is a compulsion among foreigners to let other foreigners know that they are more knowledgeable than thou. This need to claim Japan properly as ones very own by staking out a certain knowledge territory is not 100% pervasive, but it is annoyingly common, and can become extremely vicious. Check out "Japan Today" comments if you have any doubts, and keep in mind that that isn't even where the worst offenders dwell. People don't want to learn from each other. They want to prove everyone else wrong and listen mainly with an ear toward figuring out how to invalidate others perceptions and experiences. The result is that people are smug, snotty, and superior toward you as they build themselves up at the expense of others.
We all know things and experience things that others do not and I'd rather have people share kindly rather than try to "win" in a competition they invent out of their insecurity. I won't miss the pissing contest for superior knowledge of Japan that happens as a result of associating with other foreigners there.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Click to see a bigger version.
My very first exposure to teaching in Japan came second-hand through my husband's experiences. At the time that he was dipping into the world of ESL in Japan, he was my boyfriend rather than my legally recognized partner of 23 years. He signed on for a 1-year hitch at a company called AMVIC and it's safe to say that he operated rather cluelessly in the job for most of his tenure there. Looking back on some of the things he did with the cultural understanding and perspective I now have, I'm sure that the Japanese were pretty irritated by what he viewed as fully rational choices at the time, like going out and walking around the local area when he had no lessons scheduled rather than sitting in the office and frowning at lesson preparation materials and pretending that he actually had work to do.
AMVIC split into two different schools some time after my husband returned to California. Those two schools were Aeon, which still exists, and Geos, which sunk a few years before I left Japan. I visited his school a few times during my month of vacation there in 1988. The Japanese office staff were gracious to me, but I think, in retrospect, that they may have been uncomfortable with a girlfriend popping in to meet her boyfriend for lunch. We didn't exactly fondle each other in front of them, but such things tend not to happen much in Japanese offices.
The picture above is a memory of AMVIC. It's a postcard that the school produced for Christmas to send out to their students. My husband and I also have a poster of this picture which he saved as a memory of his earliest days in Japan. Seeing it reminds me not only of what was one of the best months of my life and the reason I decided to live in Japan, but also of how staying there for a short time is not enough to really understand the culture. AMVIC is where my husband did many things wrong, not because he wanted to, but because nobody explained to him that things were different there as part of his training. Too often, the focus is on the minutiae of getting along in Japan like how to use chopsticks, bowing, or greetings, and not on the broader aspects like communicative indirectness and the expectations of your particular workplace. If many foreigners fail to get along, a big reason for that is that they have no idea how to succeed.
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Christians criticizing other Christians from the back of a truck.
The absence of something is never as easy to detect as the presence, though if the existence of something is especially irritating, you learn rapidly to appreciate when it's not there. One thing I've noticed since coming back home is that people seem to love to use their cars as a means of giving their views, boasting, or telling others what to do. It's not enough that Americans express their opinions openly in every forum and format possible, they also have to blab about what they think from the backs of their vehicles. I guess it's not enough to broadcast to those who know you, but also you have to reach strangers. You don't even have to be in person if you use your car as a bulletin board for your values.
In Japan, people didn't feel it was necessary to use their cars to say something. It wasn't only that they didn't want a bunch of ugly stickers on their usually pristine cars, but also that they didn't feel compelled to bellow their views from every available pulpit. I miss that.
Monday, August 6, 2012
My husband and I have two anniversaries. One is the day we became a couple and the other is our wedding date. For the former, we went to a Turkish restaurant and it was only afterwards, when my husband asked to have the remainder of his meal wrapped up, that I remembered that you can do that here. In Japan, the custom is rather different because cleaning your plate reflects satisfaction with the meal. Also, leftovers are less popular there than in America. People like to have fresh food and the notion of enjoying the rest of your restaurant meal the following day is unappealing. Additionally, the portion sizes are generally smaller (though not always), so there rarely is enough food left to make packing it up worthwhile. Even if there were lots of leftovers, most restaurants in Japan would be a bit put off, if not utterly confused, by a request to put the rest in a doggie bag.
I won't miss the fact that taking the remainder of an (often expensive) meal home is pretty much off the table in Japan.
Friday, August 3, 2012
If you grew up watching Godzilla movies and Ultraman after school, you have had plenty of experience watching dubbed movies where lips and words are completely out of sync. In fact, this is so well-known that you see it parodied in various T.V. shows. The Simpsons did a bit with radioactively-enhanced Pierre and Madame Curie stomping Tokyo which demonstrated this humor. Well, after years of seeing only one side of this, it's a bit cool in a freaky way to see English-speaking actors having their lines just as badly dubbed in Japanese.
I'll miss this little cultural flip-flop and how it reminded me that the Japanese are thinking the same things we are when we watch dubbed T.V.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Plenty to choose from, as long as you like your food breaded and deep fried!
One of the reasons I was encouraged to cook for myself was that the deli options were so limited in Japan that I couldn't stomach the pre-made food. While that was a good thing on the whole, I still wish that I could have occasionally picked up some food when I was tired and didn't feel like cooking. I very much do not miss the Japanese deli food.
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Cigarettes used to be a lot cheaper in Japan than the U.S. A big reason for that was the taxes weren't very high and though the tobacco companies were blamed, it really was about the government keeping their hands off of the situation and allowing the price to stay low so that the locals would stimulate the economy with their vice. As you can see by the ad above, from 1988, cigarettes at that time were a mere 200 yen.
The fact that the price used to be a lot lower isn't incredibly surprising. Everything was cheaper in "the old days." The thing which I found amusing, and the reason for this little memory post is that the back of the card (which is about the size of a business card) included the above calendar. If you look closely (or click the small image to load a bigger one), you'll see that there are little pictures predicting the weather everyday for 4 months. In this day and age, I'm pretty sure that no company would attempt to offer such information as an incentive for hanging on to their ads for several months. I think people are absolutely more savvy about the inability to predict daily weather so far in advance. Beyond that, with cell phones and weather information on demand, people can get more up-to-date information on the fly. The days when Japanese people had a need or interest in such things died long ago. This is just a quaint reminder of how things have changed in a relatively short time.