Sunday, January 31, 2010

Will Miss #117 - embarrassment sparing

Once, during our more than 20 year stay in the same apartment, we completely blanked out on paying our rent and were more than a week late in paying it. Unlike most people these days, we still pay our rent in cash and in person to the landlord. When we failed to pay, instead of the landlord or his wife charging over and saying we were late and needed to pay, she came trotting over and said, "we're never home, so you couldn't pay us." On occasion, I've also heard her ringing various neighbors' doorbells and offering up this same spiel.

This is a Japanese way of sparing you the embarrassment of your mistakes rather than confronting you about screwing up, and I'll very much miss it.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Won't Miss #117 - algae tank

During the entire duration of my stay in Japan, there has been a little shop that has a fish tank out front. Sometimes, they clean the tank and you can see the goldfish living in it. Most of the time, it's in various states of being consumed by algae. I don't know much about fish, but I have read that algae kills them. It simply makes me sad seeing the fish being taken care of improperly, and I walk by this tank several times a week.

I won't miss seeing this neglect of pets on a regular basis.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Will Miss #116 - sound of the tofu cart lady

There's something very old world about the fact that people still walk around Tokyo pulling carts and selling goods. Each of them has their own unique way of calling customers out to them and the tofu cart people carry a little horn that they play in a particular way. Hearing this has a strange way of making me feel connected to humanity and the people around me, even the strangers.

I'll miss hearing the tofu cart lady's notes as she makes her way up our little street.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Won't Miss #116 - misplaced irritation

Tokyo is a densely populated city full of small shops and narrow spaces. If there is a place worth getting to, someone else is probably standing in your way attempting to get there before you or attending to some other business en route. Despite this reality, I'm confronted on a regular basis with people who bash, bang, and bump into me then give me the hairy eyeball, cluck disapprovingly, or scoff at me for being unavoidably in the way. It's impossible in Tokyo for people to not be in each others way much of the time.

I won't miss being treated like I'm doing something wrong by merely occupying space just like everyone else.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Will Miss # 115 - divine messes

One of my students once remarked that she felt Japanese people had "no sense of space." She said that she felt they were poor at organizing spaces and tended to stack crap everywhere. This assertion, which I have seen backed up on multiple occasions by the homes around me, flies in the face of the minimalism myth which many people who have never been to Japan (except possibly as tourists) like to perpetuate. Most foreigners seem to believe that Japanese people are sitting in pristine, nearly empty rooms with well-tended rock gardens and tastefully appointed bonsai trees just outside the window. This is very much not the case and yet another example of foreigners elevating the Japanese to a standard of behavior and lifestyle that they themselves do not embrace or endorse.

I'll miss seeing these wonderfully human and endearing messes that disprove the Japanese minimalism myth.

(As a postscript, interested parties can see what I'm talking about up close and personal in the book Tokyo: A Certain Style.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Won't Miss #115 - Japanese potatoes

The issues I have with Japanese potatoes are three-fold. First of all, deeply flavorful, red-skinned potatoes are very rare. They may be offered in some areas, but I never see them in any of the markets in my neighborhood (and I go to 4 different markets and see numerous fruit and vegetable stands as well). Second, most of the potatoes are really small. If you're going to peel them, this makes dealing with them very labor-intensive. Finally, most of them don't taste like much of anything.

I won't miss these tiny, fairly flavorless potatoes.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Will Miss #114 - amazing parking feats

Japanese people have to go to expensive driving schools for a long period of time before they can get a license, and there are good reasons for this. The picture associated with this post shows a pretty amazing parking feat. This giant Jeep is expertly squeezed into a small parking space with about a foot to spare on one side and just inches on the other side. Only a very slender person could even open the door and escape the vehicle, and only a very accomplished driver could maneuver the vehicle into the space without scratching it badly on the sides.

I'll miss marveling at these tight squeeze parking jobs (and there are lots of them in Tokyo).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Won't Miss #114 - key money & contract renewal fees

Though it isn't always the case, you often have to pay two months of "gift" money when you first sign a contract and one to three months again every two years when you renew your contract. This is mandatory, though it can be negotiated in some cases. The money is little more than extortion and a way of extracting more money from the tenant. In some cities, this is illegal and there has been much talk of outlawing it all over Japan, but there will always be a way for landlords to get around the law. Since moving is far from cheap in Japan, tenants have a choice between paying these fees or forking out money to move at an expense not appreciably less than some of these required "gifts".

I won't miss this extortion when dealing with rental contracts.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Will Miss #113 - dry cleaning storage

Dry cleaners in Tokyo perform an extra service at a relatively low fee. Because many people live in such small spaces, dry cleaners will take your seasonal clothing, clean it, and keep it in storage until the proper season rolls around to use such clothing again. This saves people from things like having to keep bulky coats or quilts crammed in their valuable closet space through the summer.

I'll miss this tidy, low cost, and convenient (and reliable) storage service.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Won't Miss #113 - hassling with big trash

Back when I first arrived in Japan, all trash was simply put on the street for pick-up. This had an interesting side effect where many foreign people could find furnishings for their apartment literally sitting by the side of the road. Things changed awhile back and now getting rid of big trash (sodai gomi) is a hassle. You have to call your local government office, get a quote on how much your item will cost to dispose of or if indeed they will cart it away (televisions, air conditioners, etc. won't be taken by them but have to be picked up by the manufacturers of such items) and make an appointment to have a truck come and get the item. You must buy a sticker in the amount you're told (anywhere from about $5-$30) at a convenience store and affix it to the item. Once you do this, people are not allowed to take your old furniture and use it since the sticker makes it the property of the local government.

I won't miss this hassle associated with getting rid of a large item.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Will Miss #112 - a lack of one-upmanship

For the most part, Japanese people are not overtly competitive in their daily lives. That is, they will not try to boast about their abilities or downplay your experiences or capabilities to make themselves feel smarter or more capable. If anything, they will downplay their skills to avoid looking boastful because such behavior is seen as crass in Japan and looked down upon. With many Western people, you often find that you're constantly putting up with their egotistical impulses to appear to be smarter, more skillful, and prove they are better than you. Many Western people do this and are totally unaware of what they're up to, but some are quite aware and just self-important jerks.

I'll miss the lack of one-upmanship behavior in Japan.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Won't Miss #112 - Japanese baseball

Let me state for clarification purposes that I don't like baseball in any country. I always associate it with boredom. That being said, Japanese baseball takes boredom to a nadir. For starters, Japanese baseball players play like fretful old ladies. They're likely to bunt with one out and a runner on first instead of letting the batter swing and hoping for a big inning. You can predict what they're going to do because they all play by the same conservative book. What is worse though is that high school baseball is shown on television. If professional baseball is boring, you can imagine how watching a bunch of teenagers feels.

I won't miss the snooze-fest that is Japanese baseball.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Will Miss #111 - Avic electronic monsters

Every year at the local tanabata festival, Sony's Avic electronics shop sets up a very large electronic monstrosity. These monsters move and make sounds. Kids always freak out at them and people's responses to them are always interesting to watch.

I'll miss seeing these electronic creatures (and wondering what they'll do next year), and watching people interact with them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Won't Miss #111 - my tiny apartment (the not so good)

(click this small image to see one which is a more legible size)

While everything I say in the previous post about loving my apartment is true, and I will leave it with some regret, there are things I won't miss. For one, this small space has seen more stubbed, scraped and banged up toes than I can count. Even after years of learning not to take long strides, I still bash body parts on furniture and walls. Finally, though I'm generally happy with the space, when the rooms are closed off for long periods of time (again, to save on air conditioning the whole place unnecessarily), it starts to feel claustrophobic.

I won't miss these bad aspects of my small place.

Will Miss #110 - my tiny apartment (the good)

(This is an old picture, but I'm too lazy to take a new one.)

I've lived in the same apartment during my entire 20 years in Japan. It's showing its age in the smog-coated walls, crumbling Japanese wall coverings, and aging bathroom tile. I still love it though. I love the way the space is laid out so that it feels bigger than its 250 sq. feet size and how I've gotten it "just so" with the furniture arrangment. I love the fact that the small size means it's more economical for heating and cooling (particularly since the tiny rooms can be closed off with sliding doors for individual air conditioner coverage). I feel good in the space, and I feel good about having such a tiny footprint that I know I'm not hurting the environment for the sake of unnecessary spacious luxury.

I'll miss this space that has been my home for so long, and how it feels like just about the minimum necessary for my husband and I.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Won't Miss #110 - hello, goodbye, gaijin friends

One unavoidable aspect of being a foreigner who stays in Japan for a long time is that other foreigners are almost certainly not going to be here as long as you. There's a veritable revolving door of people who you get to know, get to like (or love), and who ultimately leave for their home pastures. While it certainly is possible to keep such friendships alive over the distance, ultimately it is never the same. More often than not, the friendship eventually withers like a neglected plant as going your separate ways means you have less and less in common. While people do move on and around back home, it doesn't happen with the same certainty or frequency as it does here, and your interests don't diverge quite so sharply or rapidly.

I won't miss making friendships which I know will end sooner rather than later.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Will Miss #109 - preoccupation with U.S. politics

There was not one decoration at the festival depicting a Japanese politician, but there was a familiar American face.

Being obsessed with American politics isn't a strange thing as long as you are an American. After all, what your leaders do should be of concern to you. It is more than a little strange to see people in Japan being more interested in America's leaders than their own, and to often know more and think more about the problems in the U.S. than in Japan.

I'll miss seeing this curious greater interest in another country's president than one's own prime minister reflected in the words and actions of people in Japan.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Won't Miss #109 - prejudice paranoia

Some of the most valuable learning experiences that I've had in Japan haven't necessarily been happy ones, and one of them is what it feels like to be a minority that is discriminated against. I can't say that I know what it feels like to be black, Hispanic, etc. in the U.S., but at least I can say that I can empathize with being regarded as inferior or suspicious at a glance, or singled out for inspection or harassment for no reason other than my skin, eye and hair color. While this experience has been valuable because now I have a sense of what it feels like to be a minority, there is a constant battle with "prejudice paranoia". That is, you have to ask yourself when you are being treated badly if it is discrimination because you're a foreigner or if it's simply that anyone (including a Japanese person) would be receiving such bad treatment.

Having to wonder if it is my sensitivity to prejudice or actual prejudice at work is something that I won't miss.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Will Miss #108 - fabulous costumes

Japan doesn't celebrate Halloween, so you don't often see people in costumes. However, on the occasion that people dress up for some sort of special appearance or celebration, the costumes almost always look great. I have never seen a Japanese person in a shabby or amateurish costume that looks like it was sewn together by their grandmothers or cobbled together from bits of painted junk that they assembled in the garage. They always look like they did their homework, took their time, and invested some scratch into looking the part.

I'll miss being impressed by these efforts to really inhabit the roles they're playing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Won't Miss #108 - sushi

I realize that this post makes me a gigantic heretic in the eyes of Japanophiles and foodies alike, but I don't care for sushi. I don't hate it. It doesn't make me sick and I'm not freaked out by the notion of eating raw fish. I'm simply not a big fan of it and, while I can choke some down, it doesn't do anything for me. I don't like the texture of the toppings or the smell of nori. I also just can't get all worked up about rice with vinegar. My lack of enthusiasm for sushi is immeasurable. And I'm tired of being asked if I can or often eat it because of the presumption that foreigners are too unsophisticated to "get" the delicate appeal of a cuisine that was created mainly because of a lack of preservation methods for the involved components.

I won't miss omnipresent sushi or being asked about whether I "can" eat it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Will Miss #107 -gun control

The previous post aside, handguns are illegal in Japan so the chances that you're going to get shot by a disgruntled coworker are pretty much zero. No, if a pissed off former employee wants to take it out on his former compatriots, he's going to have to go for a mass stabbing instead (as that has been the trend in the past year or so). I'm going to go on the record as saying I am for gun control in the U.S. and think that the current situation is ridiculous and certainly ends up increasing violent crime rather than protecting people from it (not that my opinion appears to matter as politically, the NRA is going to trump little old me all the time).

I'm pretty satisfied that the law keeps most guns out of the hands of regular citizens, and I'm going to miss that.

Won't Miss #107 - gun hypocrisy

Very realistic looking, but fake, guns for sale in Akihabara.

The Japanese are inordinately proud of the fact that most of them don't have guns, and many erroneously believe that guns are illegal to possess. The truth is that people can and do own hunting guns, but hand guns are not allowed. Regardless, guns (and gun violence) fascinate a lot of Japanese men and this is one reason that American crime dramas like "24" and "Prison Break" are so popular, and that action movies are so big here (especially "Die Hard" and anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger). There are also a lot of extremely realistic pellet and air guns for sale in shops in various areas (particularly in Akihabara) and they must be being sold to someone. You get the strong sense that there would be a lot of handgun ownership in Japan if it were legal, not that Japanese people are so disinterested in having them because of their innate peaceful nature.

I won't miss the hypocrisy of loving gun violence while decrying the possession of guns in America.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Will Miss #106 - beetles as pets

In the summer, Japanese kids and boys in particular buy big-ass beetles and keep them as pets. While I'm too old to appreciate the fun of keeping a huge bug with scary-looking pincers as a pal, I find the fact that they do this pretty cool. The appearance of the beetles and the sales of the cages they're kept in will always be imprinted in my mind as a part of summer in Japan. There's also something larger in this practice about the transitory nature of life. By taking on something that is certainly going to be short-lived as a "pet", I wonder if it helps people learn to see death as part of the cycle of life rather than a devastating conclusion.

I'll miss seeing these beetles and how they represent certain aspects of Japanese culture.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Won't Miss #106 - late release of media

American entertainment media almost always lags behind in Japan. Sometimes, a movie, DVD, or T.V. show will be simultaneously released, but this is rare. While this isn't a big deal, it does mean that we're one step behind, pop culturally speaking, when talking about such frivolities with people back home and can make you feel disconnected and out of touch. It can also be a bigger problem when everyone knows the outcome of some mystery about a year before you do and the beans can be spilled and spoil your fun.

I won't miss feeling out of sync with my friends and family back home when it comes to pop culture.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Will Miss #105 - strong sense that kids are wanted

In Japan, I have never had the sense that parents want nothing more than for their kids to grow up and get out of the house so they can get on with their lives. Many American parents seem to have a lot of ambivalence about their children and the way in which having them takes away their freedom personally and economically. While I'm sure some Japanese parents feel this way, too, as a society, I don't get a strong sense of this the same way I get it from the West. In Japan, it certainly seems that children are completely wanted and seen as more important than the needs or desires of the parents.

I'll miss this sense that people who have children actually want them and see them as fully integrated members of the family forever rather than someone to be pushed out of the nest at the earliest possible chance.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Won't Miss #105 - overpackaging

Despite my appreciation (in the previous post) of the convenient packaging in Japan, I feel very guilty about buying things which are individually wrapped. This is often especially true for things for which it appears unnecessary. For instance, do some types of sembei really need to be individually wrapped? It feels a lot like putting 5 Pringles chips in stacks and wrapping them in plastic. Mainly, the wrapping keeps the chips looking nicer and doesn't really do much for portion control or freshness as people are unlikely to gobble down a ton of large-sized sembei in one sitting.

I won't miss the large piles of plastic being created by overpackaging and how bad it makes me feel to be contributing to environmental degradation.

Will Miss #104 - convenient packaging

Rice being sold in a 200 gram (7 oz.) package that can be snapped in half for 100 gram (3.5 oz.) servings.

Most things in Japan are packaged with the customers' convenience and lifestyle preferences in mind rather than efficiency. This is handy if you're the type of person who prefers to eat things in small portions or takes a long time to use something up. Often cookies come individually wrapped so that you don't have to worry about air getting into the bag or repeatedly exposing the contents to germs each time you dip into it. Such convenient packaging isn't perfect (air does slowly get into the sealed individual packages, too), but it does discourage over-eating and keeps things cleaner.

I'll miss this convenient packaging and the (good) effect it has on my eating habits.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Won't Miss # 104 - spice and salt caking

Because of the long, humid summer and generous amounts of rain in Tokyo, I always have problems with spices and salt caking into lumps. While I keep most of my spices in the refrigerator, I simply do not have the space to keep everything in it and the result is having to whack the counter with the jars to try and break up the inevitable bricks that form. What makes it worse is the fact that spices are pretty expensive in Japan so wasting them can mean losing an investment.

I won't miss my spices and salt forming bricks and blobs and becoming unusable because of the weather.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Will Miss #103 - neighborhood mystery house

Within a 1 minute walk of my apartment, there is a huge house with a large accompanying garden which is surrounded by 5-foot walls topped with barbed wire and masked by trees. The entryways are boarded over or gated and you can see lots of mirrors, floodlights, and even security cameras behind the trees. I never see anyone coming or going (though I don't really keep tabs on it), but I know someone lives there because trash is put out behind one of the gates. This house is rare in Tokyo because of the size (which is big even by Western standards, let alone Japanese ones), seclusion, and seemingly high focus on security. It has fascinated me for quite some time.

I'll miss walking by and wondering who lives in this neighborhood puzzle.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Won't Miss #103 - nose pickers on trains

Let me make one thing clear. People around the world pick their noses. In America, you see people do it in their cars. Honestly, I can accept that people pick their noses and if you want to sit in your vehicle and get into your nasal cavities up to the second knuckle, it's not my problem. That being said, when people (actually, men) sit on public transport and perform deep excavations, it becomes my problem, and it happens in Tokyo a lot. It's not simply that it's disgusting to watch it happen, but that these people are touching public areas like the seats, handrails, straps, etc. Some of them also leave their "treasure" behind. An acquaintance of mine once told me she was riding a train and saw a booger on a strap which a woman took hold of. The woman unknowingly picked it up on her hand then at one point rubbed her face and transferred it to a spot just above her lip. The poor woman stood there oblivious to the fact that some stranger's snot ball was on her face.

I won't miss this tendency among men in Japan to pick their noses on the trains.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Will Miss #102 - Calpis

When I first arrived in Japan, one of the things which provided a chuckle was the existence of a drink named "Calpis". Since it sounds like "cow piss" when you say it, it tickles the part of your funny bone which can still enjoy juvenile humor. The truth is that this is not a case of funny Japanese product naming, but rather a combination "Calcium" and the sanskirt word "Sarpis". Nonetheless, the way it sounds still brings a smile to my inner 10-year-old.

I'll miss seeing Calpis around even though I've never drunk it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Won't Miss #102 - angry and rude old people

Something is happening with old people in Japan and it's being reflected in increasing numbers of social problems related to them. They are committing more crimes and becoming more aggressive over incidental things (like improperly sorted trash or unavoidable noise). Over the 20 years I've been in the same neighborhood, I've noticed a marked increase in rude and angry old people. I was attacked (for no discernible reason) a few years back by an old man who tried to shove me off my bike, but it's more than that one disturbing incident. Old people are just plain angrier than they used to be. I suspect this is related to the loss of the extended family, early retirement age relative to longevity (and having nothing better to do than to focus on minutiae), the ballooning number of elderly people and fewer (grand)children being born.

I won't miss the increased frequency with which I encounter angry or ill-mannered old folks in my neighborhood.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Will Miss #101 - smell of charcoal grilling

About a three-minute walk from my apartment, there's a dingy little restaurant which uses buckets of red hot coals to cook its food. In the evening, when they are in full service mode, these buckets are sitting outside full of glowing coals and the air is filled with the heavenly scent of grilled food which is made with them. The smell is distinctive and extremely enticing.

I'll miss the lovely scent of this old-fashioned cooking style and having a chance to encounter it often.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Won't Miss #101 - "the gaijin bubble"

Note: actual gaijin bubble not pictured. This is a model that was displayed on the Fukutoshin line (and I have no idea what it is).

People like to talk about what they call "the gaijin bubble" and the fact that they believe some (or many) foreigners in Japan live in one. The premise is that, if you live in Japan but are not inhaling Japanese culture through every pore and have any desire to enjoy aspects of your native culture on a regular basis, you are living in such a bubble. A desire to eat cheese regularly, socializing with English speakers, and watching DVDs of shows and movies from your native culture are indications that you're a bubble boy (or girl). The truth is that, when one is immersed in a very different culture, it is exhausting and stressful. That not only applies to foreign folks in Japan, but Japanese folks living in other countries. There's nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with known comforts in your private life to sooth the stress of being enveloped by a culture which rejects you or misunderstands you at every turn.

I won't miss the derisive and judgmental talk about foreigners living in a "gaijin bubble."