Sunday, February 28, 2010

Won't Miss #132 - Gym expense and hassle

One of my friends lives in an expensive area of California. In fact, his rent is on par with Tokyo rents, but his health club membership is a mere $50 a month and he can go any time. My husband has a "cheap" membership in Tokyo which is $85 a month, but he can only go on weekdays between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. If there's a national holiday on a weekday, he can't go unless he pays more. Most private fitness clubs are pretty expensive in Tokyo, and you also have to put up with Japanese patrons staring at you while you exercise or bothering you in some cases. It is certainly more than enough to dissuade you from exercising at all.

I won't miss being apprehensive about the expense and the experience of going to private gyms in Japan.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Will Miss #131 - festival turtles

Every summer when festivals are in full swing, there are several games or vendors who have large tubs full of tiny turtles for kids to buy or win in games. While I know you can buy little turtles in pet shops nearly everywhere around the world, there is something unique about seeing large masses of them swimming around while casually strolling around a festival. They're so cute that it almost, but not quite, makes me want to start a tiny turtle farm of my own.

I'll miss seeing these big tubs of turtles every summer.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Won't Miss #131 - working long, not smart or hard

We all hear again and again that the Japanese are hard workers, but the reality isn't quite what you'd expect based on the reputation. Anyone who works in a Japanese office for any length of time and learns to really understand what is going on discovers that the Japanese work long, but not necessarily smart (or hard). The emphasis is on looking busy and hanging around the office, not getting work done efficiently. People who do little all day, but stick around until just after the boss goes home have a better reputation in the companies than those who get three times as much actual work done and go home on time. When I worked in a Japanese company, it was a constant frustration for me that I was greatly more productive in the 7 hours I worked than the Japanese were in the 9 or 10 hours they worked, yet they were viewed as better workers than me simply for pointlessly and fruitlessly milling about the office several hours a day.

I won't miss this aspect of Japanese business culture.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Will Miss # 130 - supermarket trash bin contents

The vast majority of cultural differences aren't reflected in the broad and obvious, but rather in the small and less noticeable. One of the things which is a fascinating reflection of cultural differences and priorities are the trash bins in markets. In the picture above, taken at Peacock supermarket, you can see two Special K cereal boxes. Out of context, they may appear to be expired food, but that is not what they are. Someone bought the cereal and at the packing table, they opened it up, took the cereal in the inner wrapping and tossed away the boxes so they wouldn't have to throw them out at home. Similarly, you see dirty (bloody, juice-stained) Styrofoam trays in the bins because people take chicken and other meat out of their packing while still in the market and throw the raw meat into the plastic baggies at the packing tables. This priority on reducing the packing one takes home over sanitary concerns (exposing their raw meat to the relatively unsanitary conditions in the market) is a cultural difference that fascinates me.

I'll miss seeing what is in those supermarket trash bins and learning a little bit about the culture as a result of it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Won't Miss #130 - shouting from emergency vehicles

Emergency vehicles in Japan, such as ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars, are equipped with the same loud sirens and flashing lights that those back home have. For some reason, these very obvious notifications to those on the road are insufficient to get cars to pull out of the way. Every emergency vehicle that passes through also seems to feel it is necessary for someone in it to shout on a loudspeaker constantly and tell people to get out of the way. I don't understand the necessity of constantly yelling instructions when the siren alone should be doing the job. I don't believe Japanese people are too stupid to understand the simple notion of, "if you hear a siren, then get out of the way," so I regard this as unnecessary on the part of emergency personnel.

I won't miss this pointless contribution to the already oppressive noise pollution.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Will Miss #129 - Dars chocolates

If you're a regular reader of my Japanese snack blog, you may already know that Dars is my favorite Japanese consumer level chocolate. Dars is a super smooth, creamy, fatty chocolate made by Morinaga. They come is quite a few varieties (dark, white, milk, hazelnut, almond, affogato) and I haven't found a bum one in the lot. For a mere 100 yen, you can indulge in a box of high quality candy that greatly outpaces the nearest consumer-level competitor.

I'll miss this luxurious chocolate being readily available and cheap.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Won't Miss #129 - Japanese hair salon issues

Let me start off by saying that the overall quality and experience you get in a Japanese hair salon is probably one of the best you can have in the world. Men in particular are treated to much more care than they'd ever get in a barber shop back home. That being said, for foreigners, especially women, unless they can find the right stylist, there can be problems. One of the problems is that Japanese hair is generally different enough from the hair of many Western folks that some stylists can't work well with it. Since there are so few occidental foreigners relative to the population at large, that means any given stylist is unlikely to get lots of experience with foreign hair unless located in one of the gaijin ghetto areas like Azabu. There's also the fact that hair styling in Tokyo for women can be very expensive.

I won't miss having to concern myself with whether or not a particular stylist knows how to handle my hair.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Will Miss #128 - Japanized Western holiday decorations

I love pretty much all holiday decorations. I'm one of those rare breeds of people who doesn't get upset about seeing the Christmas decorations show up early because I just like to see them around for as long as possible. Seeing holiday decorations for Western holidays in Japan with some alterations to incorporate Japanese cultural elements is always pretty nifty. It's like someone has taken the familiar and given it a fresh and interesting twist.

I'll miss seeing these Japanese takes on Western holiday decorations.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Won't Miss #128 - no stars at night

This is absolutely a Tokyo experience, and is certainly not confined to cities in Japan, but it is something which has only happened to me while living here and has been a part of my Japan experience. All of the light pollution in Tokyo makes it impossible to see the stars at night. That means I haven't seen stars in the sky for nearly 20 years.

I won't miss having the stars blotted out by the copious quantity of big city lighting.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Will Miss #127 - rikshaws

If I'm to believe Seinfeld, some enterprising folks in New York City also have started up a system where they use rikshaw (in Japan, called "jinriksha", "jin" meaning person) to ferry tourists about the city. I can't say if there is any validity to that, but I can say that you can take them in Tokyo as a way to see parts of the city at the speed of human trotting. The men who pull the rikshaw always look happy, act friendly, and have a polished and professional method of handling customers. The pullers never make the person they're hauling feel bad for the burden they're placing on the them. They'll also do their best to tell you about the spots they're showing you. It's a great, albeit expensive, tourist experience.

I'll miss this way of seeing the city, and especially the high level of service you get during the experience.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Won't Miss #127 - complex trash handling rules

(Click this image to load a larger one that is of a legible size.)

The trash handling rules in Japan are notorious among members of the foreign community for their fussiness and complexity. While it may seem that this is just a language or cultural problem, the rules are often baffling to Japanese people as well. Part of the reason for this is the myth that the Japanese recycle everything possible. Most people think they are separating trash to facilitate this, but the truth is that except for certain specific items like PET bottles, paper and cardboard, glass, and metallic containers, most trash is separated according the the temperature that the garbage is to be incinerated at. This is why things like computer keyboards, plastic basins, and rubber rain boots, which would seem to fit into the "nonburnable" trash pile actually are tossed out with the "burnable" trash.

I won't miss the complex trash handling rules and the confusion I sometimes feel about where certain items fit in the garbage collection scheme.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Will Miss #126 - "good" swastikas

In the U.S. (and many other western countries), seeing a swastika fills you with a sense of dread that someone has seen fit to use this ugly symbol of Nazism. The truth is that the swastika has been a positive symbol for thousands of years, but until I came to Japan, I never saw it used in its spiritual context. When I see the symbol here, it is always with a positive connotation. When I return to America, it'll almost certainly be a negative one.

I'll miss seeing the other side of this all too familiar symbol.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Won't Miss #126 Clothes that don't fit right

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking this is about size and tiny Japanese women's clothes and hulking foreign women who can't squeeze their fat bodies into them. That's actually not what this is about. Even if you are a petite foreign person who can fit into Japanese sizes (which is far from a sure bet), there are other issues. One of my students works in the fashion industry and told me that the bigger problems related to selling clothing designed for one market in the other are linked to body variations. Japanese people have flatter bodies and longer torsos with shorter legs. Merely taking a tape measure and comparing your girth to the girth a pair of pants is designed to fit won't ensure a good fit because of these differences.

I won't miss not being able to go clothes shopping and finding clothes that will fit.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Will Miss #125 - happy marketing messages

It's very common to see messages written in English with words like "happy", "joyful", and "pleasant". There's a condom machine near our house which has the message, "for your happy family life." I'm not sure how these come across to Japanese people, but they always strike me as innocent and meant to encourage people to have a good experience in their mundane endeavors.

I'll miss seeing these happy, joyful, pleasant messages.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Won't Miss #125 - having my English "corrected"

When I have a conversation in English with a Japanese person, I pronounce Japanese words that are frequently pronounced differently in English in the Japanese way. For instance, I properly pronounce things like "karaoke" and "Nikon" which are said as "carry-okey" and "Nigh-con" in English. However, I say English names and words in the way they are properly spoken in English, not in some Japanized katakana manner because the origin of those words is not Japanese (and we're speaking English, not Japanese - if we're speaking Japanese, I say them the Japanese way). Occasionally, I will say something like "Costco" and the Japanese person I'm speaking to will look at me strangely and say, "oh, "Ko-su-to-ko" in a way which indicates that they would have understood me if I'd said it properly in the first place. This is something which is driven home by their repeated refusal to use English pronunciation throughout the remainder of the discussion of the topic (despite my correcting them when it is an English lesson).

Similarly, I've had experiences with Japanese people in positions of authority at my former office when we were writing English textbooks and they would insist on using incorrect grammar or words because that's what someone in the Japanese school system taught them eons ago and the bad grammar was permanently petrified in their brains as "correct". We always ended up using the improper English in such cases as the correct English as offered by my Australian boss and my American self were not trusted.

I find it irksome to be "corrected" in my own language because people refuse to accept the way the words are presented and arranged in countries where English is spoken as a native language.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Will Miss #124 - Anpanman

I should be clear that I'm not referring to Anpanman goods or collectibles. I have no interest in the multitude of items marketed with his round, happy face on them. The thing I like about Anpanman is the story that goes along with the character. The idea of a superhero who weakens when he gets dirty or wet really tickles my fancy. It seems like a sneaky way of getting kids, who the character is designed to appeal to, to stay clean lest they also weaken.

I'll miss remembering the back story of this character, and smiling, every time I happen across his image.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Won't Miss #124 - assumed to fit the stereotype

Because I'm an American, most Japanese people believe they automatically know certain things about me:
  1. I eat beef and love hamburgers and potatoes.
  2. I have a gun.
  3. I grew up in a big house.
  4. I am not shy.
  5. I grew up around a lot of crime.
The truth is that only one of those things is true of me ("4"), and I won't miss people deciding that they know me without getting to know me based on a stereotype.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Will Miss #123 - free persimmons

Several times each winter, a student will show up at my door with a shopping bag. The bag is often full of persimmons which are being offered to me from their overflowing supply. People in Tokyo receive persimmons by the crate-load from relatives and friends all over Japan and they pass them on to me. The odd thing is that they are sent this fruit despite the fact that they grow all over the place in Tokyo as well.

You can buy persimmons most anywhere in the world these days, but someone, or everyone, will often give you free ones. I'll miss the free, fresh persimmons.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Won't Miss #123 - tacky tourist junk

I realize that there is tacky tourist crap everywhere in the world. The main difference to me is that I rarely see it in Japan unless I go to an area especially designed for foreign visitors who are here for a brief vacation. Going to these places feels like entering another Japan, one that is designed for easy digestion by people who expect certain things from it. These tacky tourist items are a grim reminder that there are two Japans - the one for the Japanese, and a cheap, fake, safely-packaged one for tourists.

I won't miss seeing this type of cheesy garbage, and realizing the falseness behind it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Will Miss #122 - strange Pepsi flavors

Pepsi in Japan comes out with seasonal variations which are wild and weird. One of the earliest was cucumber, followed by yogurt in the form of Pepsi White then shiso and azuki. These are rarely actually good, but there is a certain appeal in the adventure and experimentation of these bizarre concoctions.

I'll miss casually sampling these strange Pepsi flavors.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Won't Miss #122 - people who don't look where they're going

This is an issue which I believe is Tokyo only, but I can't be sure. A lot (and I mean a lot) of people in Tokyo seem to go out of their way not to look at the path in front of them. It's the worst in big train stations like those in Shinjuku and Shibuya. The reason they do this is that not looking where you're going means everyone else has to do the work of avoiding you. The stress of having to negotiate around throngs of people in crowded spaces is immense and having to dodge and weave frays the nerves. These spacey wanderers simply leave the "driving" to everyone else.

I won't miss these people who selfishly wander around in a dream world and make everyone else avoid them.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Will Miss #121 - construction apologies/restitution

On multiple occasions, I've been given gifts for construction or maintenance work done in or near my apartment. When the landlord replaced my kitchen flooring, an action that I requested and directly benefited me, he gave us a bottle of wine to apologize for the inconvenience. When painters painted around our building, they came by beforehand to apologize and gave us hand towels as gifts. I've heard that in other situations, construction companies who make a lot of noise will pay people restitution or for them to stay in hotels on especially noisy work days.

While I'm sure such gifting and apologizing does not always happen, it is welcome that it is a part of the culture and I will miss it.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Won't Miss #121 - worrying about exchange rates

The flip-side to gaining advantage from exchange rates is that you have to always concern yourself with when to send money back. You gamble every time you decide to trek off to the bank and exchange currency that this is as low as it might go for the foreseeable future. Sometimes you find that you hit a sweet spot, and at others you find that if you had just waited a day or so longer, you'd have benefited greatly. What is more, sometimes you have no choice about the timing, and get royally shafted by a dip in the value of the yen.

I won't miss having to fret over when to send money back or regret that I can't wait for the rates to change to wire money home.

Will Miss #120 - benefitting from exchange rates

My husband and I earned less money last year than the year before that, yet we were able to send more money home to place in our long-term savings than in more profitable years. If you work in Japan, but plan to return home, favorable exchange rates can really boost your ability to save whether you make more money or not. At 87 yen to the dollar, a million yen means $11,435 dollars to send back. At 120 yen to the dollar, that's $8,333. Sending money back at the right time can make a substantial difference.

I'll miss making less money, but actually saving more simply because the winds of the exchange rate are blowing favorably.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Won't Miss #120 - paper doors

My doors on a rainy day.

Doors in most places are covered with paper. I'm not even talking about shoji, the well-known doors that look like window frameworks with paper. Regular doors are hollow wood or flimsy aluminum or wood frameworks with paper on them. The paper looks nice when it is very new, but you can't clean it and it gets wrinkled when it is humid. If you move to a different place and the paper on the doors in your old apartment gets damaged or soiled in anyway (which is very easy to do), you will see some of your cleaning deposit money vanish.

I won't miss these cheap doors which are not washable, are flimsy, and appear to be designed to force you to surrender part of your cleaning deposit.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Will Miss #119 - diversity of friends

One of the best things for me about working in Japan is that I have not only met and gotten to know a lot of Japanese people, but also people from all over the world. I've worked with people from nearly every English-speaking country around the globe, and this has taught me that, though we may speak the same language and look similar, our cultures are certainly not the same. I've also gotten to know people from other Asian countries. Being in jobs where foreignness is a part of the work has helped me get to know a far greater diversity of people than I ever would had I remained in the U.S.

I will miss being exposed to such a broad range of interesting people.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Won't Miss #119 - lack of insulation

Insulation tape meant to help with the drafts coming from the corners of windows and doors.

Japanese houses and apartments in Tokyo are notorious for their lack of insulation. That means that they are leaking air in both directions every season. This means you have to waste energy trying to keep the place warm or cool. You can choose to constantly run your appliances to control temperature or be uncomfortable. The reason for this is the use of cheap construction materials and the general attitude that homes are disposable. People don't want to invest in expensive insulation when they're going to tear down the buildings every 20-30 years.

I won't miss the lack of insulation and the wastefulness that goes along with it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Will Miss #118 - kabocha

Japanese pumpkin, kaboucha, is sweeter than other types of squash and has an almost potato-like texture when cooked. It's so good that you can simply bake, boil, or microwave it and eat it without any accouterments. Mind you, it's also very tasty with a little butter or soy sauce and mirin.

While I may be able to buy kaboucha in the U.S. in some Asian shops, I'll miss being able to buy it so easily any time the mood strikes me.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Won't Miss #118 - "can you use chopsticks?"

When Japanese people don't know I've been here for a long time, they tend to ask, "can you use chopsticks?" I'm pretty sure that they don't know how condescending this question comes across as, but their lack of awareness doesn't make this question any less irritating. It is essentially like me asking a Japanese person if they can use a knife and fork properly. While it can be marginally tricky at first to eat with chopsticks, it's hardly an amazing feat of dexterity.

I won't miss being asked if I am capable of using two sticks to shovel food into my mouth.