Thursday, March 28, 2013
One of the things I loved to do in Japan and would love to continue to do in the U.S. is take random pictures that include people or are of people dressing strangely or doing odd things. In Japan, being a foreigner pretty much gave you a free pass when it came to pointing a camera at someone (or in their general direction). In the U.S., I'm afraid of being confronted angrily by people who think I'm trying to capture their moment or mock them so I have to be extremely circumspect or simply give up on the opportunity. Even taking pictures of property in which people are not present can feel risky as you never know when some paranoid person is going to conclude that you're casing their property for some sort of crime.
In Japan, by virtue of not looking Japanese, people assumed I took pictures because I was a tourist or was overly curious about the differences in our cultures. They didn't assume I was making fun of them or trying to get data to carry out an elaborate heist. I miss the ease and safety of taking pictures in Japan.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
My first experience with Japanese gift-giving was a very confusing one in 1988 when I visited my future husband. At that time, I didn't know about the way in which gifts are used to build, cement, or verify relationships. In fact, I can't say now that I understand all of the nuances involved in the custom, and I'm not sure I ever will.
When I went to Tokyo in 1988 to spend a month-long vacation there, I visited my boyfriend at the school at which he was working. In fact, I spend a bit too much time there because he had a lot of down time (no classes scheduled because it was a relatively new school) and told me that it was okay if I hung out with him when he wasn't busy. It turned out that it was something he concluded logically, but that he didn't actually ask his Japanese superiors about.
Even if he wasn't busy, he was supposed to pretend he was. He spent about 8 months spending the times during which he wasn't busy listening to me talk on tape, writing me letters, listening to the Far East Network (the only English radio he could get), reading books or magazines, etc., but he couldn't do something which flaunted that fact that he wasn't working like having me sit there and talk to him.
On the bright side for the school, I was willing to actually take part in a class at the request of one of my boyfriend's students. For some reason, she wanted to ask me questions and I obliged. I know now that I was a "free bonus" to her, two teachers for the price of one. I also know that what we did was horribly inappropriate behavior for that particular job. At some schools, no work means no pay so you can do anything you want during unscheduled hours, but he was salaried at that time which meant they owned him during the hours he was supposed to be working. Yes, we were immature and culturally clueless and screwed up. At the time, it shocked us that they rather tersely told him to not have me there anymore, but now we know better.
At the end of the week in which this uncomfortable confrontation occurred, I met him at the school at the end of the working day. A group of his students wanted to take us both out for dinner at an izakaya (Japanese pub) nearby. Though I felt pretty awkward returning to "the scene of the crime", I knew that there was nothing wrong with my meeting him there after work to be escorted to the place with the students who wanted to take us out.
Before we left, something very weird happened. The school staff gave me a bottle of wine and a bouquet of carnations. They didn't know me and I had no relationship with them aside from being the cause of forcing them to have an unpleasant exchange with a teacher. It was shocked and confused at this display of generosity and the accompanying smiles. I awkwardly thanked them, and we went off to dinner at which my boyfriend's student gave him a clock that looked like a watch with the words "Coca-Cola" on it.
After dinner, which I remember mainly as being loud and full of difficult exchanges with people of wildly varying levels of English competence and plates of weird food, my boyfriend and I went back to his apartment and tried to puzzle out what the gift-giving was all about. We thought it might have been an apology for asking me not to come anymore, but we never did understand why I was given these items.
After having lived in Japan for a long time, I think that I know to some extent the answer to the question of why they gave the gift. I think it was a combination of letting my future husband know that there were no hard feelings toward me for violating their office rules and etiquette, but also simply because that is what Japanese people do.
Sometimes things happen because it is the rule, not because there is a deep and meaningful reason forming in the hearts of people who are performing the action. For instance, Japanese people bow instead of shaking hands, but the reason that they chose this sort of greeting is often not understood by those who perform it. If you ask them why, they may say it's about not touching each other and exchanging germs like hand shakes do. Many of them may not know the real reason or history. They just do it without thinking (much as many Western folks may shake hands without knowing the history of that gesture).
I'm not sure what happened to the wine that we were given. I don't drink any alcohol, and my husband didn't at that time. The flowers wilted and faded to dust. The clock was left behind for the next person who occupied the apartment my husband had been occupying. The memories though live on in the pictures of the gifts I took, the lessons I learned, and the stories that I tell. That is where the true value of gift-giving lies.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
If your germ-bra slips down, it's not going to protect anyone from disease.
As far as I know, the reason most Japanese people carry handkerchiefs is to dry their hands in public restrooms that don't have dryers or paper towels, to wipe their brows in the horridly hot and humid weather, or to clean or wipe down surfaces that they want to sit on or interact with (like a wet bench after rainfall). The one thing they don't do with them is blow their noses or use them to cover their mouths while coughing. When I mentioned this to my husband, he joked that Americans didn't bother with handkerchiefs, to which I said that they didn't have to since they, by and large, didn't spray their bodily fluids omnidirectionally like a bacteria/viral shower when they were sick. We are taught to cover our mouths/noses when we do such things.
So, as you can see, I still don't miss all of the open-mouth coughing that I experienced in Japan and I haven't forgotten how gross it was.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
I think they'd even let me display one of these in my apartment window in Japan. Here, it'd send the estate agent into a state of total apoplexy.
I've been home less than a year and rented for less than 6 months and already gotten guff about what I do around my windows. There are enormous clacking vertical blinds where we are living and while we're hosting a friend's cats for 10 days, I decided to pull the blinds aside and hang up a (plain) sheet for privacy so that the cats jumping onto the window sill at night wouldn't constantly make noise. I put the sheet up at 10:30 pm and took it down at 7:30 am. The first night I did this, the woman in charge of the apartments came rushing over to me in a frantic panic because I hung up what she thought was a curtain. Even after I assured her that it was just a sheet, not a curtain, and a temporary situation because of noise and cats that would vanish in 9 days, she still wasn't necessarily happy, but said that, if I was certain to put it up as late as possible and take it down as early as possible, it would be tolerable until the cats left.
Despite the fact that America is supposedly a culture of individualists with great autonomy to express themselves, there are definitely certain areas of life in which there is much stricter control. I was told even before I moved here about apartments and this window treatment business. I can't imagine what they'd do if I put any sort of decoration in the windows given how insistent they are on the purest of conformity (white blinds and only white blinds). I definitely miss the crap people tended to put in their windows to let their individuality show, as well as not being super controlled about what I could put in mine.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Upon first glance at this picture, what is it that you told yourself the objects in the foreground were? Did you think "canes" and imagine they were for disabled people to assist in walking? Or, did you think "walking sticks" to help people climb mountains? If you pay attention (or can read the Japanese), you can see which one is correct, but it's easy not to know which is the case at first glance.
Imagine that there is a large room-sized box with a large object in the middle that occupies about 1/3 of the capacity of the room. The object is an enormous and intricate work of art. If you were allowed to enter that room, you'd have to walk around it, get close to it, and even get on a step ladder to see all of it. Even then, the intricacy of the object means that you'd need to attend carefully to the small details and stand very near to it to get a sense of it as well as stand farther back than the room size permits to get a sense of the entirety of it. As it is, you aren't even allowed in the room. You are allowed to stand in one spot and view it through a small hole outside of the box.
As you might imagine, from such a limited perspective, you aren't going to be able to see much of the object. You'll miss details because you can't get as close as you would like. Entire sections of it will be outside of your ability to view them. If you are very lucky, you'll gain access to some of the other peepholes that allow you to see from other vantage points, but you'll never even be able to look through them all, let alone get into the room and be allowed to closely inspect the object.
This introduction is a metaphor for life. We all view it from our own particular perspective. The difficult part is not necessarily finding other perspectives to view things from. It's discovering that they other perspectives even exist at all and understanding that they are equally valid to our own. They aren't failing to see the truth from their vantage points. They are simply seeing things in a way that you do not. This is part of what I was getting at in my post on conjoint and disjoint agency. It is possible for two people to view the same thing and reach very different conclusions.
There is a new tourism ad for Japan that a friend recently mentioned (on Facebook) that he liked. You can watch it before reading what I have to say if
the embedded video works (Note: I realize the embedded video was a much shorter version of the one that I actually saw and not the one I'm referring to in this post so I have removed it. Please view the full version here. It's a nice enough ad, though clearly misleading about what it's really like in Japan. There's a heavy focus on cultural events and awa dancing in particular. These types of cultural activities are rare, and few Japanese people actually take part in them, but that's not really a criticism so much as a recognition of the fact that none of these types of ads (for any country) are accurate reflections of the tourist experience or the people of a country. It's actually a good choice from a marketing perspective since it is something which is little known, engaged in by a small number but a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds (not just specialists), is fairly uniquely Japanese, and is dynamic. It makes for good video.
Of course, there is much more than just the dancing in the 6-minute-plus clip. There are also temples, zen gardens, shopping, geisha, drinking in izakaya, sushi consumption, etc. It's a fairly decent cross section, albeit only showing the most appealing and sanitized versions of all of these things. Japan is a pretty clean country, but many of these experiences aren't nearly as pristine-looking as what you see in the video. Again, that is not a criticism. You lure customers by showing only the best part of your product. They don't need to be shown the frays at the edges of the tatami mats or the architecturally less appealing areas of the ryokan (Japanese inn). Every country shows the best they can in these types of ads.
I don't know what my friend saw that he particularly liked about the ad. I'm guessing it's the emphasis on the what appear to be real and fairly average people, and a fine one it is as well. That's a peephole view from a particular perspective on this bit of advertising art, and it's a valid one. Of course, there are other peepholes which we're not given access to. Those are the ones in which you're crammed like a sardine on a crowded train and getting gawked at because you're not Japanese or where you're lost and can't read anything or ask questions because you're a tourist armed with a phrasebook full of sentences you can't even pronounce properly, let alone understand the replies you're receiving.
That isn't even really what I have to say. Both perspectives of the pretty and the less pretty Japan are real and valid. There are a lot of great and interesting things to see and do in Japan as a tourist. In fact, I'd recommend anyone who can visit there do so. You'll love it, and the people will seem very polite and wonderful all or most of the time. The peephole into Japanese culture from the tourist perspective is the best vantage point you can have. It's a limited one for sure, but that doesn't make it less "valid" as the view from that perspective. It is the most pleasant-looking one, and there's no reason not to enjoy it. Tourists stay in tourist places and have tourist experiences. They deal almost exclusively with people who are paid to make them happy while the country at large isn't. You really are a "guest" when you're in the tourist experience.
Once again, my issue with this video isn't with the perspective that it shows a limited, carefully crafted and edited and calculated view of Japan. That's really about doing the job right and well. My problem with the video is that it is incredibly sexist.
What? You didn't view the video through that peephole? I suggest you give it a try. I only watched the video once so I wasn't combing it for careful statistics, but I couldn't help but notice that women are mainly (not only) shown shopping, applying make-up, dressing up, and looking young and cute. The roles of cultural leaders and teachers are occupied by men. All of the artisans (e.g., sushi chefs, calligraphers or sumi-e artists) are men. Women are mainly shown as taking instruction from men (awa dancing), as housewives, old women smiling pleasantly as they eat, drink, or pray, and as paid entertainers for men (geisha and maiko). Well, that and as cutesy young dolls who shop, walk around smiling, or hang on the arms of men.
This is the insidiousness of mass media messages. You wouldn't know that a lot of the daily cultural load is handled by women in Japan from looking at this clip. To really know the real people in Japan, it's rather good to know this. There are more women learning and teaching ikebana (flower arranging), learning to put on and wear kimono (a huge deal given their complexity), taking cooking classes, and playing shakuhachi (Japanese flute) than all of the awa dancers in the country. The main cultural focus in the video, however, is on the things that men get paid to do and that men are generally only allowed to do (like being sushi chefs). There are multiple glass ceilings in Japan. One is in business, but there is also one in cultural pursuits. Women are either overtly or covertly excluded from the truly prestigious or profitable cultural pursuits as teachers, even when they might make up the majority of the students in some cases. There are also a host of things they simply are not allowed to do at all (like act in kabuki).
One thing I have to give the video props for in terms of accuracy is that it does reflect the culture. It is a more overtly sexist society in which women are mainly seen as being supporters of men and objects of interest to men. If it seems like I'm railing against sexism in Japan, then I've expressed myself poorly. My point isn't to decry the Japanese sexist culture. All cultures are sexist to varying degrees and I've seen plenty of sexism in the U.S. since returning. The main difference is that it's more insidious here and people find a way to justify it by hanging their conclusions on character, ability, or some other such nonsense rather than seeing that they are being sexist. My point is about seeing things from varying perspectives and how my friend and I saw this video from two very different, but equally valid, points of view. He saw a delightful little tourist video. I saw the reflection of a culture in which women's role in the society is underrepresented, undervalued, and limited.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Is that a begging bowl or are you just happy to see me?
I won't miss this oft-repeated myth of the perfectly dutiful Japanese citizen in the face of the (more human) reality.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Image from the mottainai info site.
I asked each time why these folks would stuff themselves and the answer was always "mottainai", which means they didn't want to waste anything. The memories of famine during and after World War II have created a mentality in Japan of not wasting things, especially food. Those who suffered during the war grew up not allowing one grain of rice to be wasted. Even now, you'll find people in Japan overeating so as not to waste food.
Despite the fact that there are different types of waste in Japan (especially in the service of building new buildings every 15 minutes), there is a mentality that food should not be wasted. In the U.S., I've found that people waste food with abandon. Since returning, I've thought that I could comfortably, perhaps lavishly, subsist on the food people bought and never ate or did not finish. I miss the attitude that food is too important to waste.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
When my husband headed off to fulfill his one-year-teaching-contract, and we embarked on a long-distance relationship separated by thousands of miles, neither of us knew what he would be seeing aside from perhaps some cool music collectibles. He didn't know about all of the weirdness in terms of the language because the internet hadn't yet been invented by Al Gore. Sites like Engrish.com weren't around to aggregate the experiences such that anyone could access the hilarity that ensues when non-native speakers attempt to communicate in English.
At that time, he found me a lot of funny T-shirts. One of the cool things (besides the funky English) was when you found something that just happened to have meaning for life here and somehow existed there. Rather cryptically, he also found a shirt which had nothing more than the words "T.L. Connection" written on it at a time when I was working for a non-profit social service organization that was called "T.L." (short for Transitional Living, a place that no longer exists). I also found, coincidentally, a business named "Sharon" in the last year we were in Japan. Sharon is my sister's name.
One thing that we both realized as time went by was that the English that was cropping up wasn't nearly as butchered as it once was. No, we didn't think it was being proofread. I think, in general, that having things like Google's translation algorithm as well as better technology in electronic dictionaries has made it easier for people to get it right. There is also the chance that people just copy better English now than before because they have a much broader world to find and copy text from.
Frankly, it was a lot more fun when the world was smaller and Japan was more isolated. The picture above is from a toy store in 1988. There aren't even as many toy stores around in the 2000's, let alone any that sell "Strong Dumps" or "Violence Boxes". Of course, while it was funnier back then on a micro level, life as a foreigner on a macro level got a lot easier once we all grew into bosom buddies via the worldwide exchange of bits and bytes. Communication back home got faster, easier, and more intimate. Access to pop culture was expanded. Still, there was an essential quality to life in Japan in those days. It was isolating, but not terribly isolated in a way that is unlikely to ever happen again.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Living in the Bay Area in California, I experience very few days that are excessively hot or humid. Though I'd actually welcome more cold weather (and I never had a problem with Tokyo winters, except feeling that they were too short), I'm pretty blessed to be living where I am weather-wise. The boggy weather in Tokyo is enough to make me think twice about ever living there again, despite my fondness for many other aspects of being there.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
I notice how things are America-centric while i'm in America, just as they were Japan-centric when I was in Japan. I wonder when I'll stop noticing and it'll all blend into the blur of subtle education about the U.S. being the center of the world and I definitely will miss the little mental adjustment that seeing a different perspective gave me when I lived in Japan.
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Sometimes I wonder what sort of cultural touchstones people shared before mass media allowed us to share common fads and trends. Did nostalgia before television, mass publishing, and radio come merely as a family thing or was there something other common experience which drew large and disparate numbers of people under the same emotional umbrella? I think we often take it for granted that others are going to understand our ability to have sentimentality for things like 80's cereal, 70's toys, or 90's music. Even if they don't share the same sense of nostalgia, they at least can relate to the feeling of having said feelings.
There must have been a time when people had such a small world that they didn't have this sense. Did they relate over the fact that they used to get oranges and walnuts for Christmas? Was there common sensibility over the changes in men's collars or women's hemlines? It's funny to think that our ability to reminisce over pop cultural elements is confined to the last century or even less. It's even stranger to think that we can have a worldwide connection to pop cultural elements that unifies us not only across the expanses of our own country, but across wildly different cultures.
There are things in our stash of memories from the late 80's that my husband and I not only forgot about the existence of, but we are mystified as to their origins. One of those things is an enormous poster of cats dressed like people. While we can guess that my husband in the days when he was my boyfriend got that poster and carried it home in 1989, we don't know if he bought it, was given it at a shop (as freebies were often given at record and book stores as promotional items) or if it was a gift from a student. We only know that it was a pleasant surprise that we as cat lovers rediscovered when we went through long-stored items.
I didn't know this, but learned from a Japanese friend that these cats are called "Nameneko" and they were very popular in the 80's. This same friend said that seeing the pictures that I posted of them on Facebook (the same ones I'm using here) made her feel "natsukashii" (sentimental) because she collected many "goods" (items with their likeness like notebooks, toys, etc.) when she was younger. She pointed me at a web site which explains their origins in English as well as the Japanese site.
I wasn't paying much attention to cute cat stuff in the 80's, but apparently these cats in their human garb were big in the U.S., too. While I was spending my money on KISS posters and albums and pining for my boyfriend half a world away, 8 million posters of these cats along with books and trading cards were sold in America where they were known as "Perlorian". I'm sure I saw them, but I don't remember them. The fad in the U.S. was much smaller than the one in Japan, but clearly they struck a bit of a chord long before "LOLCats" or "Grumpy Cat" made their way in the world.
Learning that these cats were popular in the U.S. as well as Japan is what got me thinking about pop cultural touchstones and how the world has become a much smaller place indeed. I'm not sure if the fact that our cultures' trivial interests appeal to those from other cultures reflects our boundless desire for novelty, or if it touches on our deeper shared connections as humans who enjoy roughly the same things. Maybe it really goes no deeper than the fact that we all just love to anthropomorphize cats. ;-)
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
All relationships have problems, and each type has specific problems based on the people involved and the circumstances. Cross-cultural relationships have specific ones based on a variety of issues including language differences and differences in expectations. Seriously, they do. There are even a few books written about them to help people anticipate and cope with them. I'm not making this up. When people of widely disparate cultures marry, there really are some problems when cultures clash, and Japan and Western countries have pretty different cultures.
Why am I speaking as if people would doubt me? Well, that's because I have encountered Western women who turn into Japanized Stepford Wives to try and convince themselves that what they hate as a part of Japanese culture and relationships is utterly lovable. It's as if putting it out there makes the problems too real so everyone takes part in not talking about the elephant in the room until it tramples the family. Not every foreign woman married to a Japanese man is, by a long shot, is like this, but I've encountered enough to make me wonder is Freud was really onto something when he talked about reaction formation. Of course, there were also foreign men who spoke of their Japanese wives as if they were nothing short of miraculous mommies/nurses/servants/sex dolls/model-like-beauties and fulfilled every need in a manner that no man could have ever expected a woman in his native culture to manage.
It's no shame for cross-cultural marriages to have unique problems. Believe it or not, even Japanese people married to Japanese people and Americans married to Americans have marriage problems, so I figured that there must have been a bigger insecurity about the whole process for some people. Perhaps the feasibility of their situation had been questioned by family or friends. I'm guessing that those who had the bestest best most perfect of the perfect lives and marriages in the world despite coming from two different cultures felt this was the only way to shut people up, or they were repressing regret of epic proportions, or some such psychobabble which I personally don't care to imagine.
While it's fine if people don't want to talk about their issues with me, the whole manner in which cross-cultural issues were sometimes denied and cross-cultural marriage was sometimes treated as a precious and perfect entity struck me as painfully dysfunctional. When everything, including things that would be seen as pretty hard to bear in either party's culture, were spoken about as if it were sunshine and lollipops all of the time, it made me uncomfortable and I don't miss it.