Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Won't Miss #194 - lack of grass

Some of the things I write about in this blog may be similar all over Japan, and some are highly localized. This one is definitely related to not only living in Tokyo, but my particular area. I live in a residential area, but it's almost all concrete. My guess is this is because it's so close to Shinjuku, a major business, government, and shopping center. Our location is great because it makes commuting easier and it's not far from a major transportation hub. However, all of the land in the areas not too far from Tokyo is pretty valuable, and people aren't going to waste it with plots of grass. My exposure to grass is so limited that I was walking to a store about a year ago and smelled something which was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't quite place it at first. I realized that it was fresh-cut grass, and I hadn't smelled it for years.

I grew up in a place that was surrounded by grass and trees, and I miss this close regular contact with nature, so I won't miss the absence of grass around me.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Will Miss #193 - sound translation mistakes

When I first started working in Japan, I worked in Ikebukuro not too far from a large building called "Sunshine City". One of my earliest experiences with the sound translation problems from Japanese to English came when students talked about this building in lessons. In Japanese, "si" and "shi" are often used interchangeably so people would say, "Sunshine Shitty". I never laughed when the students said this as it would have been rude, but I always smiled inside because, frankly, it's funny. It's not funny because they're speaking incorrectly as their errors are natural and understandable, but because it's a strange word combination. Another pronunciation problem which was especially amusing included a student saying "fact" as "fucked" (because a/u are a sound problem from Japanese to English). I also once got an obscene call from someone who knew I was a foreigner who said, "fack, fack, fack" instead of "fuck, fuck, fuck." That was by far the funniest because he meant to intimidate me, but I just laughed because he spoke so incompetently that I barely registered his intent before he gave up and hung up the phone.

I'll miss these unexpected, yet amusing mistakes that arise from the differences in how sounds are pronounced in Japanese and English.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Won't Miss #193 - blaming U.S. fast food

Japanese people have been getting heavier as the decades roll by, and if you ask them why, most of them will blame Western food. In particular, they, and many foreigners who live here, will blame the encroachment of American fast food places like McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and KFC. Many hiss and boo at the United States and blame them for distorting the traditional Japanese diet and making the Japanese fatter. To me, this is like blaming the Belgians (for French fries) for Americans becoming fatter. You can lead a person to a fast food place, but you can't make him eat. The Japanese are responsible for patronizing American fast food, making it wildly popular, and getting fatter as a result, not the Americans who offered this slice of culture for their sampling. To assert otherwise would imply that the Japanese are mindless sheep who lack the will to resist whatever is placed before them. They, like every other citizen of every other free country, make their own choices and that includes whatever greasy globs they send down their gullets.

I won't miss the tendency to blame this problem on America.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Will Miss #192 - mayo mania

Japanese people are crazy about mayonnaise. I don't mean that they enjoy it as a condiment like many Americans. It's like a fifth food group to them. One of my former coworkers used to buy a bowl of instant ramen and a tube of Kewpie mayonnaise (which held about 4 tablespoons of mayo) and he'd squeeze the entire contents into his ramen. There are also mayo snacks and in bakeries you find bread with heaping dollops of the stuff. I like mayonnaise in small quantities, but the Japanese usage exceeds what I (and most Western folks) would consider personally appealing. That being said, I really get a kick out of all of these thin and healthy people eating something we feel is part of instant obesity or heart failure. I also am amused by the types of food items that mayonnaise creeps into or how it dominates a dish in a way I'd never expect. A former acquaintance told me that she once went to dinner at a student's home and was served one giant iceberg lettuce leaf with a heaping helping of mayonnaise on it. There are even mayonnaise fan clubs in Japan.

I'll miss the mayo mania.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Won't Miss #192 - bribing to procreate

The Japanese government created a program that will pay parents 13,000 yen (about $140) a month for every child they have.* This money, which will come from taxes I pay, is meant to encourage the Japanese to have more kids by alleviating the burden on them financially. I have several problems with this point. First of all, 13,000 yen is a pittance. It is unlikely to encourage anyone who has chosen not to have kids to have them or someone with kids to have more. The money will simply augment the lifestyle choices of those who already have kids so that they can spend more on material possessions. Second, there are many people in the world already and plenty of them are ready, willing, and able to come to Japan to work, pay taxes, and do what Japanese people do. I don't agree with bribing the Japanese to make more people for the sake of making sure the gene pool stays exclusive. Finally, the problems with the birth rate aren't related to money as much as lifestyle. In particular, the oppressive amounts of overtime that people have to work (both men and women). This is not fixing the problem, but trying to deal with it obliquely.

I won't miss this sort of short-sighted, ineffective, wasteful, and frankly racially motivated choice to bribe people to have children.

*Note that there is no means testing so anyone, regardless of income (even wealthy families), will get this money for each child and the program that offers 13,000 yen per month in 2010 is supposed to be doubled to 26,000 yen (about $280) per month in 2011. If this were social welfare for poor folks, I'd be fine with that, but there's no income requirement to get this money.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Will Miss #191 - Sharp

One of the biggest surprises for my husband and I (and something which stands in sharp contrast to our experiences with Sony, no pun intended) is how good Sharp's domestic products are. We had a Sharp oven for about 15 years, and are still using a Sharp television that is about 18 years old and still working perfectly. Not only are their products good, but they tend to be reasonably priced and their service people are excellent. They are fast, reasonably priced outside of warranty, and service old items for as long as possible (and they come to our apartment to take care of things). For any big ticket item I'm thinking of buying in Japan, I'll always choose Sharp first because of their reliability and good service.

I'm going to miss this access to Sharp's domestic products and service.

Won't Miss #191 - Sony

One of the things I thought when I first arrived in Japan was that I would now have access to a lot of cool Sony products at a (likely) lower price than I experienced in the U.S. I don't know what Sony's reputation is at the moment, but when I arrived here, Sony was considered a premium brand name for electronics. I quickly learned something about Sony's domestic products, and that is the fact that they are not the same as those that are made for export. Every Sony product I have ever bought in Japan has been a piece of junk that has broken within a year. I have spoken with many Japanese people about this and they have said the same. They have no confidence in Sony's product quality and are reluctant to buy their electronics. What is worse is the fact that every time we've tried to have a Sony item serviced, we've had to drag the item to a service center and been greeted with indifference or a shoulder shrug about fixing the item. The only thing they ever actually repaired was a Trinitron display I had some time ago and they charged a fortune to repair it.

I won't miss my bad experiences with Sony in Japan.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Will Miss #190 - hot vended drinks

One of my first experiences of "whoah, that's unusual" when I came to Japan for a vacation in 1989 was was with the fact that drinks are sold in bottles and cans heated. While you can buy hot drinks in the U.S., they're usually from specialty machines like coffee machines that drop a cup and liquid pours down into it. In Japan, you find that hot and cold drinks are sold from the same machine and that there are "hot cases" in convenience stores next to the refrigerated cases.

When you're cold in winter and just want something warm on the go, this option for hot drinks is very satisfying and I'll miss it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Won't Miss #190 - misunderstanding "vegetarian"

When I first came to Japan, I was a "quasi-vegetarian". That is, I never ate red meat of any kind, and mainly focused on chicken or on avoiding all meat. Trying to be even "quasi-vegetarian" in Japan is difficult because many restaurants don't understand what it means. You can ask if there is meat in a dish, and they'll say there is not, but then you'll get something with minced meat pieces in it or that uses meat-based sauces or flavoring. Vegetarianism isn't very popular here, and people are often confused or misunderstand what it means and how important it is for some people to avoid animal-flesh-based foods.

I won't miss the difficulty involved in getting vegetarian meals.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Will Miss #189 - the Suica Card system

Japan is still largely a "cash-based" society. That means that the Japanese aren't embracing the idea of debit cards* that withdraw money automatically from their bank accounts. However, Japan is also technologically advanced (and inclined) and companies are always pushing to make life more convenient. They have come up with a system which allows them to have the benefits of the debit system while still being cash-based, and that is the Suica card system. You get a plastic card and purchase credits for the card, then use the card like a debit card. When the money on the card runs out, you can "charge" it by putting it and the amount of cash you want to put on it into a machine. These cards can be used for public transport (buses, trains, subways) and at many shops and convenience stores. You can charge up the cards easily almost anywhere and it takes but seconds to do it.

Personally, I like dealing with this system better than having someone take money directly from my bank account because it gives me a stronger sense of how much money I am spending (and I can't mistakenly overdraw and don't have to pay any bank fees), and I'll miss it.

*Note: I haven't lived in the U.S. for a little over two decades and have never used a debit card, so forgive me if I'm missing something about their functionality.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Won't Miss #189 - time zone adjustments

One of my friends always says that I "live in the future", because it's usually tomorrow here and yesterday there. I talk to this friend in California (the west coast of the U.S.) and my sister in Pennsylvania (east coast) several times a week and there's always adjusting to be done to try and work out what time(s) it is for them when it's whatever time it is for me. This situation is complicated by daylight savings time altering these adjustments twice a year.

I won't miss constantly adjusting the clock and having to figure out what time it is "there" when it's whatever time it is here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Will Miss #188 - wabi sabi

Plum blossoms bloomed and then died within a week at a house near mine. Taking the time to appreciate their transient beauty and even recognizing its passing are a part of wabi sabi.

The concept of "wabi sabi" is often talked about in Japan, but it's one of those things that is a little difficult to explain. You can read the full definition in the linked Wikipedia page, but it is the underlying aesthetic notion that drives Japanese people to take time out of their busy lives to go watch the leaves change color in autumn or view flowers in spring. The idea is that there is regard for transience of things, but this aesthetic involves a variety of other concepts as well (including incompleteness and asymmetry). I don't believe all Japanese people have a profound embrace or appreciation of wabi sabi, but I do think it is something which lies underneath many of their cultural practices and adds an interesting dimension to the way in which things are designed and regarded.

I'm going to miss the cultural aspects which are influenced by wabi sabi.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Won't Miss #188 - expensive, hard to find tortillas

Ten small (6 in./15 cm.) tortillas for $5.33 (472 yen).

I like to make Mexican or Tex-Mex food, and have actually made my own tortillas on occasion. Unfortunately, it's a labor-intensive, time-consuming process rolling them out and cooking them one at a time. I can spend an hour making them or spend a pretty penny buying them. What is more, I can only get them in the freezer section at one shop (that carries imports) in my neighborhood or at Costco, where I have to buy enough to feed an army. You'd think that the increasing presence of "wrap" sandwiches at convenience stores would mean that Japanese people were eating them more regularly and therefore they might start incorporating them into their own cuisine, but it would appear not.

I won't miss not having access to tortillas and paying a lot for the ones I can find.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Will Miss #187 - soft socialism

Japan has some overt forms of socialism such as the national health insurance scheme. It also has some forms of what I call "soft socialism." This is where pressure is indirectly placed on companies to do what is best for society rather than their bottom line. Large companies in particular will often hire more people than absolutely necessary if they can reasonably manage to do so as a way of keeping more people employed. This is one of the reasons you find that people mill around their offices with little to do at some Japanese companies. The companies don't do this out of a sense of altruism, but rather because the government will essentially tell them that if they don't do their part to encourage social stability by offering salaried positions to people, the government will step in and make some new laws or regulations to force their hands. Though the number of companies doing this has slowly diminished as the economic situation has gotten worse, it still happens. The extent to which it has decreased is part of the reason crime has gone up in Japan and the birth rate has gone down.

This type of "soft" socialism has been a big part of what has kept crime low and economic disparity between people relatively small, and I'll miss the positive social effects it brings.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Won't Miss #187 - consensus that's not

Back in the 80's when Japanese businesses were scooping up high profile real estate in the U.S. and the Japanese were calling Americans lazy and stupid, many books were written about Japanese business style and how it accomplished such great economic success. At that time, people talked about how Japanese made decisions by consensus and how getting everyone on board played a part in making things work. Now, Japan has been served some humble pie and the "economic miracle" was really just a bubble that burst two decades ago, but the Japanese still practice this same consensus. The thing is that it's not really a consensus at all. It is everyone agreeing with the boss whether they agree or not. In fact, if you hold out because you think a choice is really bad, pressure will simply be exerted on you to go along to get along and a meeting will drag on for hours until the resolve of the last man is worn down and he gives in. The main point of this type of "consensus" is not to make the best decisions and to have everyone behind them, but to make sure responsibility for failure can be evenly portioned out to every single person who was a  party to the "decisions" rather than the (usually high status) individual who was actually responsible.

I won't miss this consensus that's not actually a consensus in business.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Will Miss #186 - safe, really fresh eggs

Often I read women talking about their eating habits in America and they mention eating things like "egg white omelets" or "egg beaters". If you told the average Japanese person that Americans toss out the yolk or eat substitute eggs, they'd think you were mentally deficient. Japanese people love eggs, and they eat them in a variety of forms including raw. Because eggs are so important in their cuisine, they are always sold fresh with dates stamped on each egg. If you live in Japan, there's no worry about sampling your brownie batter and risking salmonella poisoning because the eggs here are fresh enough to eat raw.

I'll miss the super fresh eggs, and the convenience of the way in which they are dated so that you always know how old every egg is.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Won't Miss #186 - bleaching everything

The Japanese are obsessed with keeping things clean and new looking. That means that they see ordinary wear or mundane staining as unacceptable. To this end, they seem to think pouring bleach all over everything is good. At my office, coffee and tea cups were regularly bleached en masse, as were tea pots. The office manager even tried to bleach dirty trash cans (which didn't work as they required elbow grease). None of these things were actually dirty, and certainly not dirty in a way that bleach could clean.

Even if the bleached dishes, clothes, and whatever else bleach can be used on is safe, it's not the best thing for the environment and I won't miss the high level of usage of bleach in Japan or the smell associated with it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Will Miss #185 - architectural accommodation

Sometimes there are cultural difference clues right in front of you, and you either don't notice them or understand what they mean. Take the design of the house in the picture above. You can see that it has a third floor with an extreme slope such that the room at the top is quite small (and certainly oddly shaped). The reason for this is the focus on sunlight in Japan is very high. Everyone has to worry about how they built their homes so that their neighbor's light isn't blocked. You see a lot of houses like that one when you see three-story homes. The extreme slant allows light to hit the windows of the house behind it when the sun is high in the sky.

I'll miss these interesting architectural elements that accommodate the priorities of ones neighbors.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Won't Miss #185 - noodles, everywhere

Noodles are everywhere in Japan. Every time a restaurant that I like fails in my neighborhood, it is replaced by yet another boring noodle shop (because they're almost sure bets to succeed). Besides the copious numbers of soba and ramen shops, you can buy a plethora of noodle varieties in markets. There are some Japanese men who eat noodles, particularly ramen, every single day and others who would eat it for every meal if their wives would put up with it. Personally, I have never been a great fan of any sort of noodle (including spaghetti, lasagna, or egg noodles). The last thing I need is to be surrounded by even more noodle-based dishes, particularly ones that are often filled with very salty and fatty (though frankly delicious-smelling) broth.

I won't miss the abundance of noodle restaurants and noodle varieties, and how sometimes these limp, wet carbohydrates somehow sneak into dishes when I least expect them.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Will Miss #184 - the Sato Elephant

Two Japanese corporate icons greeted me outside of establishments since I first arrived in Japan. One was the Fujiya girl, who vanished when the Fujiya sweets shop went away about a decade ago, and the other is the Sato elephant. Like Colonel Saunders, he gets dressed differently based on the seasons and holidays. Unlike the Colonel, he's a very Japanese icon. There is something about the expression on the little orange elephant that reminds me of old-fashioned animation (think Sazae-san, not Sailor Moon). Frankly, it reminds me of a happy and earnest child.

I'll miss seeing this friendly little elephant statue, which sits in front of no less than 3 shops in my neighborhood.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Won't Miss #184 - sidewalk right of way problems

I have problems all the time with people on the sidewalks and dealing with who has the "right of way", and this is an issue in a crowded city with relatively narrow sidewalks. It has always been my impression that people are supposed to ride bikes or travel to the left as that follows the side that cars drive on. In fact, I was once told "hidari" (left) by a bicyclist when I was walking on the right early in my stay in Japan. That being said, if this is an unwritten rule, people ignore it when I'm actually on my left if they are coming at me on their right, but they expect me to follow it if I'm on the right. Generally speaking, it seems as though this is a rule that only applies to whoever wants me to get out of their way no matter where I am or where they are.

I won't miss the people who won't budge when I'm on the left and they're coming at me on their right, nor the ones who insist I must go left when I'm on the right.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Will Miss #183 - Koenji Look Shopping Street

From the end of the shopping street where this picture was taken, Koenji's "Look" doesn't seem like much. However, it's like a trail that gets better and better as you go. From the end that opens on Ome Kaido Avenue near Shin Koenji station on the Marunouchi line, it leads to a plethora of shops with fashionable items directed toward the type of people who dye their hair blonde and red, wear funky clothes, and go to live houses to see concerts by unknowns. As you approach Koenji station, you find loads of restaurants, novelty and sundry goods shops, and crowds of hipsters doing whatever they do to pass the time.

I'll miss the weird vibe and unique shopping options on the Koenji Look street.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Won't Miss #183 - close quarters in restaurants

Japanese people may not mind rubbing shoulders and bumping elbows with strangers while they slurp their soup, but I like my experience when I eat out to be comfortable. Because of the high cost of space in Tokyo, it's not the least bit uncommon for restaurants to place people almost on top of each other to maximize occupancy within a limited space. This sometimes means you barely can move your chair without bumping the person behind you, and sometimes means that your nearest neighbor so encroaches into your space that you have to keep your elbows tucked in at all times.

I won't miss restaurants that seat people too close together rather than seat them at a proximity for comfort.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Will Miss #182 - not caring about how I look

Some foreigners complain or are surprised that other foreigners don't care about how they look or walk around dressed like bums when they live in Japan. The thing about living for a long time in a culture where you are objectified is that you stop caring about what strangers think of you. If you're going to be stared at and treated like some sort of animal that has escaped from the zoo anyway, why trouble yourself to dress up when you go out in public? What is more, people validate the notion that you're undesirable in both subtle and gross ways on a regular basis by not sitting next to you on the train, inching away from you when they notice they're standing in the shop near a foreigner, or scuttling away in any number of situations.* Years (or in my case, decades) of this is bound to have an impact on your concern for how others view you based on how your dress.

Since you're likely to be randomly treated like some sort of smelly animal regardless of how you dress or act, there's really not much point in putting on the top hat and tails every time you go out, and I'll miss the time (and money) I save because I don't worry as much about how I look on a casual basis.

*(And, yes, I shower every day, wash and brush my hair, wear deodorant and brush my teeth. I'm told I don't exhibit any unpleasant odors by my husband.)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Won't Miss #182 - attitudes toward rape

When I was in university, one of my psychology professors discussed rape and culpability for the crime. He asked if a woman who dresses provocatively, flirts, and is in a place where people frequently hook up for one-night stands is responsible, at least in part, for being raped. When some people in the class said she was, he then asked if a jewelry shop that had a beautiful display of necklaces filled with precious gems was responsible, at least in part, for their wares being stolen. In other words, do we hold the victim responsible for enticing the criminal? In Japan, the answer when it comes to rape victims is definitely, "yes." I have heard directly and indirectly from more than one sexual assault victim in Japan who has said the police blamed them when they reported being raped. They also tried to dissuade the women from even filing a report. In the most despicable case, the police asked a woman who had been raped by her stepfather why she was alone with him in her apartment (implying that she showed poor judgment). I've discussed this with many Japanese people and the vast majority hold the woman at least partially responsible either by being in a place where she can be taken advantage of or for how she looks.

I won't miss this despicable attitude toward rape victims.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Will Miss #181- Japanese garden ornamentation

I read a few lifestyle blogs that are devoted to home and garden styling, and I often encounter the notions of foreign people who have never been to Japan and what they think it's going to be like here. Most of them think it's all temple gates and immaculate gardens, not to mention minimalist living. The truth is that most people in cities use as much of their property as possible to build the biggest house, create parking spaces, and laundry hanging areas. In the city, gardens are somewhat uncommon. Well-tended and stylishly decorated gardens in particular are rare. It's far more usual to see a jungle of potted plants than to see a well-appointed plot of foliage. I also see more garden gnomes and Disney characters in little plots of nature than traditional Japanese lawn ornamentation.

When I chance upon a lovely little bit of nature which is tastefully decorated with Japanese lawn ornaments, it gives me a sense of that zen peacefulness many people believe abounds, and I'll miss that.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Won't Miss #181 - NHK guys (or gals)

One of the things which I have had experience with since year one in Japan is NHK, Japan's public television network (like PBS, but with more channels) bugging me for money. The NHK guys (see armband on the fellow above) go door to door badgering you to pay them 2690 yen (about $30) per month for access to their channels. They say you have to pay it whether you watch their channels or not. Everyone who owns a T.V. is supposed to pay it. The thing is that I have been told repeatedly by Japanese folks who know the law that it's actually illegal to coerce people to pay this money, and at least some Japanese people refuse to pay it. However, most Japanese people "obey the rules" and give in and pay these fees.

I won't miss the NHK guy ringing my doorbell and bugging me for money to pay for programming I never watch.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Will Miss #180 - unexpected bursts of English

My husband was walking around the area outside of his office and the employees from McDonald's were milling about shouting about a new burger. Of course, they were shouting in Japanese, but when my husband momentarily made eye contact with one of the women, she shouted (in English), "it's delicious!" There's something delightful about these surprise communications coming at you out of the blue. You know people are trying to be extra friendly and to connect with you on a level you will find easier to understand. The English they use also comes across as innocently funny.

I'll miss these kind and warm efforts to connect with me.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Won't Miss #180 - seaweed-based snacks

There are a lot of people who love seaweed, or as the edible version is called in Japan, wakame. I say, more power to you folks for having the right palate to enjoy this highly nutritious (and cheap) form of plant life. Personally, I'm good with a little wakame floating around in my miso soup or in some stew. What I'm not good with is it being including as a major component in snack foods, especially those which are sweet. One of my worst experiences with snack reviewing was with Nakano Kombu, leathery strips of sweetened kelp.

I'm not going to miss these seaweed-based snacks.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Will Miss #179 - the koban system

While I am no fan of the Japanese police in general, I think that the koban (police box) system is a good one. In Tokyo, there are usually koban not 5 minutes from my apartment in several directions. These little buildings in which officers keep watch are at hand if you have a question (often about directions), a problem, or need a place to run because some weirdo is following you (not as uncommon as you'd think, especially if you're a foreign female). I think having police monitoring particular sections of a neighborhood forms a bond between the residents and enhances the overall sense of security, and I think it's a good idea.

I'll miss knowing that these police boxes are close at hand if I'm in serious trouble.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Won't Miss #179 - Low Glass Ceiling

A rare female conductor on the JR line points to signal that all is ready for departure.

People like to say that the situation in Japan has improved a lot for women over the past several decades, but the glass ceiling is still set quite low relative to Western countries. Women are still barred from doing jobs that men have deemed too dangerous, dirty or physically taxing for them. Whether or not women would like to do those jobs isn't the question. They simply have no choice. What is worse than that though is that women are often placed in support positions at companies or not considered as management-level material regardless of their capability to do the job. They are also paid less because there is an assumption that their husbands will support them and that they will quit their jobs after marriage. Occasionally, a woman can become a boss, but it is far more common in female-centric industries or jobs where a woman is primarily the boss of other women and not a cadre of men.

I won't miss how low the glass ceiling is set in Japan, and how it limits and takes advantage of the women I know here.