Friday, December 31, 2010

Won't Miss #272 - no express checkout

Back home, you find people complaining that someone is always trying to get into the "10 items or less" express checkout with more items than the maximum. In Japan, no one complains about this because there aren't any express checkout lanes at any of the places I have ever shopped at. Quite often, I'll be approaching the check-out clerk with one item in hand when someone a half step in front of me with an overloaded shopping basket who was, just moments ago, intensely preoccupied with studying the molecular structure of a tomato to ensure the highest quality, will suddenly rush to get to the clerk before me. I have no recourse but to wait while the clerk methodically scans in 30 items while my carton of milk warms in my hand.

I won't miss the fact that there are no express check-out areas, and that people who have a ton of stuff not only almost never let those with an item or two go first (this courtesy has been offered to me twice in 21 years of shopping in Tokyo), but actively try to cut them off and get in front of them at check-out.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Will Miss #271 - Kokeshi

There's something creepily appealing about kokeshi dolls. They seem to represent a part of the culture that preceded the obsession with "cute". They are expressionless and limbless. They actually are quite minimalist in their sparse paint jobs. The basic design seems almost tribal. Though they are quite simplistic in shape, and almost utilitarian in appearance, the designs are thoroughly human and it makes them rather an enigmatic art form.

I'll miss kokeshi dolls, and the part of Japanese history and an old mentality which has faded away that they seem to represent.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Won't Miss #271 - Japanese toothpaste

Yes, I know Gum is an imported brand, but it's the only picture of  toothpaste for the Japanese market that I have.

During my earliest days in Japan, someone I worked with "warned" me not to use Japanese toothpaste because it supposedly had sugar in it or was an ineffective dentrifice. I'm not sure if that is or was true, but I do know that Japanese toothpaste leaves something to be desired. For one thing, the taste is strange in some brands. It has a strange almost bubblegum-like flavor. Also, I've read that the percentage of fluoride is lower compared to Western brands (and that this may account in part for the sad state of Japanese teeth despite readily available dental care and relatively good oral hygiene practices). This requires more frequent brushing, which is great for toothpaste sales but not so great if you're too busy or not in a position to carry a brush at all times.

I've had to buy imported toothpaste by the case at an inflated price to avoid Japanese toothpaste and I won't miss that.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Will Miss #270 - trains crossing closeby

I rarely rode public transport back home because I grew up in a rural area. My main experience with it was riding the Cal Train to San Mateo once a week and riding the Boston subway on a few occasions. The Cal Train were lonely and infrequent, so the experience of trains whizzing by within what feels like inches of one another at high speed carries a particular sense of excitement.

There's something about all of that kinetic energy and seeing the faces of hundreds of people in a different vehicle pass by at close proximity which feels rather unreal, and I'll miss that.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Won't Miss #270 - eyes open, ears closed

"Speak, Hear, and See No Evil" statues at a local stone-working shop. The Japanese believe they invented this concept, incidentally.

My brother-in-law likes to tell a classic anecdote from his early days in Japan which beautifully illustrates the mental wall that goes up between a Japanese person and a foreigner the minute the former lays eyes on the latter. He speaks Japanese well, particularly conversational Japanese and the types of phrases used in everyday life, so he doesn't try to speak English to people. One day, he got in a cab and in perfectly normal and correct Japanese (not weird, textbook Japanese), he told the driver where he would like to go. The driver turned around and says, "I no speaku Engrish."

Some Japanese people believe they can't communicate with you before you even open your mouth and don't even listen to what you say even when you speak to them in their own language, and I won't miss that.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Will Miss #269 - western models

Mannequins that are clearly Western in appearance modeling Japanese yukata.

When I first arrived in Japan (about 20 years ago), there was something which I found peculiar, and that was the vastly disproportionate number of Western-looking models. In fact, the majority of ads (at least 80%) on trains showed people who look like they were from Europe (loads of blondes!). These days, it's not quite so skewed because the weak economic situation has priced foreign models beyond most companies budgets. Still, less than 2% of the population in Japan is non-Japanese, and only a fraction of that 2% is Western in appearance, yet you find that quite a lot models in ads, magazines, and even mannequins are not Asian-looking. The oddest ones are the ones who are modeling uniquely Japanese things, but clearly are not meant to look Japanese. Since the culture is homogeneous, and tends to be exclusive rather than integrative, this is a fascinating choice.

I'll miss this curious emphasis on foreigners to sell products when those products are targeted at the domestic market.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Won't Miss #269 - nomikai

"Nomikai" means "drinking party" in Japanese. If you work, you will often be invited to such parties, and declining those invitations can have negative consequences on your relationship with your coworkers as well as your future promotion potential. The thinking behind nomikai is that Japanese people have to keep their true feelings under such tight wraps that they can only let some of them out when liberally lubricated with alcohol. It's meant to allow for a sort of communication that cannot be had in the office, but is integral to working relationships. In reality, it's often about the bosses dragging subordinates out for drunken revelry and holding their attention hostage. It also forces the subordinates to waste their money on food and drink when they would rather go home, be with their families, and take a bath.

I won't miss this tradition of expecting workers to go out to drink or suffer unfortunate career or professional relationship consequences.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sorry for a few glitches

Just a quick apology for a few scheduling glitches which saw an old post re-issued into the RSS feed and a future one posted prematurely (and subsequently removed). Sometimes I mess up, and sometimes Blogger messes up. This time, it was me. I apologize for the confusion!

I wish I could say that it won't happen again, but there's every chance that it will given my imperfect ability to get dates straight or prematurely pressing "post" rather than "save".

Will Miss #268 - "alien" seafood

This is perhaps not the noblest or most mature thing to enjoy in Japan, but a lot of the food looks to me like alien offspring. A lot of review blogs about Japanese food are driven by the "it's so creepy and weird" vibe that one gets off of the food here. If you live outside of Japan, you  mainly get it from the flavors of snack foods, like wasabi KitKats or yogurt Pepsi. When you live here, you're treated to a whole other kettle of strange fish.

I'm going to miss seeing things I never saw back home being served up for consumption, and pondering what they heck they are or what has been done to them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Won't Miss #268 - region code issues

From left top: Cinderella, Pinocchio, Gulliver's Travels
From left bottom: The Three Caballeros, Dumbo, Fantasia

One of the cool things about Japan is that their copyright laws aren't determined by the ability of big corporations to bribe lawmakers into infinitely extending them through backdoor means. That means that you can get professionally released DVDs of movies that might normally cost quite a bit more for a low price (like the 500 yen/$5.18 Disney movies sold above). Unfortunately, there is a snag. If you aren't planning on remaining in Japan forever, any discs you buy here aren't going to work back home unless you also happen to live in a Region 2 country. All of North America is Region 1, and Australia is Region 4. Pretty much only Europeans and the British are in luck when it comes to picking up DVDs in Japan that can be played in their drives back home without issue.

I won't miss not being able to buy DVDs because the region codes are different.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Will Miss #267 - Audrey Hepburn fixation

Okay, she's not Audrey Hepburn, but don't the hat and hair remind you of her style? And she is one cute little girl.

The first time I came to Japan in 1988, I didn't know much about the culture or people. Frankly, I came to Japan the first time to visit my future (American) husband who just so happened to be working here. I had much more interest in him than Japanese people or culture. While I was enduring the 14-hour-plain ride home after the best month of my life and sobbing that I had to leave the love of my life behind for another 3 months while he finished out his contract, I watched the movies being shown on the plane. One of those movies was "Roman Holiday". I couldn't understand why they were showing a movie made in 1953 and wondered why the airline was so cheap showing an antique movie. It turns out that they chose it because the Japanese are crazy for Audrey Hepburn. There are a lot of theories as to why the Japanese are so nuts for her, but most of the people I've asked and who talk about her on the internet say it is because of her beauty, style, charm, and elegance.

I will miss this curious fixation with this particular, arguably less than universally iconic, actress.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Won't Miss #267 - "clean your plate" manners

One of my students did a home stay in a mid-western state and made a simple Japanese-style meal for her host family. She said that she thought they didn't like it and felt bad because they didn't eat everything that she served them. Another one of my students visited a former boss and he served her a huge quantity of rather oily eel which was far more food than she could comfortably eat, but she forced it all down anyway. In Japan, the host or hostess will feel bad or that you didn't enjoy the food if you don't clean your plate, even when the issue may be that your stomach isn't big enough or that you aren't keen on the type of food in general. It's good manners in Japan to eat everything you are served so as not to insult the cook.*

I won't miss the way in which one is obliged to eat more than one wants in order to spare the host's feelings or ensure that no insult has been given.

*Note: This situation is complicated by the fact that most people do not serve themselves from a central plate or bowl but tend to be served pre-proportioned sizes individually. In the U.S., we can often fill our own plates with portions of our own choosing. Generally your host will portion the food out for you in many social situations (though not all) in Japan.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Will Miss #266 - growing up more slowly

Japanese people grow up more slowly than Americans. It's hard to explain this without it coming out wrong and possibly sounding insulting (to either side), but I always have the sense that there are a lot of 12-year-olds going on 20 in the U.S.  There's a rush to be "mature" and prove you're "worldly" and capable of independence as early as possible, and young people have a particular attitude based on this need to prove one is no longer a child even when one clearly is a child. In Japan, this rush to maturity doesn't manifest itself so strongly in most people and they're good with holding on to aspects of their youth that we quickly wish to discard to "prove" our maturity. In fact, many of my Japanese acquaintances openly assert that they'd like to hang on to their childhood and ability to be dependent as long as possible. Here, it's sometimes a case of 30-years-old going on 13, but in a nice way. Perhaps this is fueled by the knowledge that life after leaving the education system is going to be decades of overworking and being tied to a corporate yoke.

People don't seem quite as afraid to be young and inexperienced, to show their naivete or child-like delight at child-like things, or to remain in a state of prolonged innocence, and I'll miss that.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Won't Miss #266 - no pets

My husband and I both love cats. In fact, we agreed that once we settled down, we could get a cat... then we moved to Japan. There are two issues for us when it comes to owning a pet in Japan. The first issue is that most apartments in Tokyo don't allow pets beyond fish, turtles, or beetles, including mine. In many cases, getting a place that allows pets means paying appreciably more for rent (though this is likely the case worldwide). The other larger issue for us is that we believe that it is irresponsible to get an animal as a pet and not keep it until the end of its life. Since we have never known when we might leave, and a pet can live a long time, we've never been able to get a pet with a good conscience.

I won't miss not being able to have a pet due the uncertainty of the duration of our stay and the difficulty of finding a place to live that accepts them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Will Miss #265 - (generally) liking Americans

One thing I learned pretty quickly during my first job in Japan, among which I had a plethora of coworkers from other English speaking countries, was that many people dislike Americans. They haven't been to America, nor are they particularly well-educated about it, but they don't like us. They think we are our politics, our politicians, our business practices, our fast food, our laws, and our wars, and they think consuming popular entertainment or selective bits of news is authentically educating them about America. They don't seem to realize that we are people, just like everyone else, and it's not fair to hold us as individuals responsible or to blame for the larger aspects of our society which are just as out of our control as similar aspects are out of theirs in their home countries. These are the sort of people who would react to assertions like "I hate Indians/Mexicans/Japanese" with the (quite justified) response, "bigot", but fail to see the hypocrisy in their knee-jerk dislike of Americans. The most common America-haters are Canadians, but they are kept company by Australians, the British, and New Zealanders.

Japanese people, on the other hand, generally like Americans as a first response and Japan is one of the few countries that you can visit without fear of anti-Americanism quickly smacking you in the face (provided you aren't around too many other foreigners), and I'm going to miss that.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Won't Miss #265 - heated toilet seats in summer

Japanese toilet seats are a level of luxury that my stubborn heart cannot permit my obstinate behind to have. I can't see what is so tragic about wiping your own behind and sitting on a plain old toilet seat, so I've not invested in any of those fancy seats that do all the work for you. I do encounter them in public places quite often though. In fact, they are becoming more and more common in stores, medical facilities, and even offices. At least some of the public toilets in Shibuya station are these fancy types and station toilets are usually the bottom of the barrel. This is a clear sign that they are becoming ubiquitous. One thing which I absolutely hate about some of the public toilets with these high tech seats is that people turn the heating controls on when it's already quite hot outside. It's as if they think a toilet seat in an 85 degree (29 degrees C.) room is going to freeze their ass.

There is little more uncomfortable than sitting on a hot seat in the summer in Tokyo, and I won't miss it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Will Miss #264 - fiber rich jellies/gelatin

A foil packet of lychee konnyaku zero-calorie jelly drink meant to fill the space when you're dieting.

Part of Japanese cuisine is something called "konnyaku" (konjac). It's derived from a corm (similar to a potato, but not quite the same beast). You can often see konnyaku as a block of gray gelatin that has little black speckles on it. They float around in oden and are used in soups and stews. Frankly, I think they're like chewing on one of those pink erasers on pencils in that format. However, I do enjoy them as part of fruit "jellies", especially in their incarnation as an appetite suppressant in diet foods. Konnyaku is filling and the fiber is good for the digestion. If you're hungry and either can't or don't want to eat, you can consume any of a number of konnyaku jellies and they actually do satisfy you for a time, even in relatively small portions.

I'll miss konnyaku jelly/gelatin desserts.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Won't Miss #264 - talking about golf

That stereotype about Japanese men loving golf? There's a fair basis in reality for that. I have a student, a very nice elderly gentleman, who would talk about golf until the cows came home if he could manage to scrape up enough topics. In fact, all I have to do to engage him more actively in what is normally boring English grammar pattern practice (his level is low and he needs this), is to ask him to use golf-based examples. I'm sure golf is a captivating sport for those who play it, but talking about it when you're not an immediate party to the play is so boring. The thing is that, to be polite, you can't exactly change the subject, especially when you are dealing with people who are the equivalent of a client purchasing your service.

I won't miss talking about golf with golf-obsessed Japanese men.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Will Miss #263 - the shopping bag deal

Japanese people have a curious relationship with shopping bags. I'm talking about the fancy paper kind with fabric or string handles, not the cheap plastic ones in which you carry groceries. In fact, one of the things you'll notice when you first arrive in Japan is that the majority of people appear to have shopping bags with them at all times. While it may seem that this is due to their heavy consumerism, the truth is that people carefully keep attractive shopping bags and those that came from prestigious shops on hand for various uses. They carry personal effects in them like a change of clothes or shoes. This is not so strange, except that they seem to think it looks better to walk around the a shopping bag than a backpack or cloth carrying bag. They also switch cheap gifts from their original bags and put them in bags they got at an earlier date with other purchases from tonier shops. This is to make the recipient believe the goods came from a nicer place, though the practice is so common that I don't know that anyone is really fooled. They probably just smile, say thank you, and save the bag for the next cheap gift they give someone.

I'll miss the way in which Japanese people make the most of something as trivial as paper shopping bags.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Won't Miss #263 - blaming foreigners for drug sales

If you read a story about a Japanese person who is caught with drugs and arrested, there is a high probability that it will be mentioned that the detainee will be asked where the drugs were obtained and the answer will be, "I got them from a foreigner". The fact that this information is included for routine drug busts (like someone caught with marijuana or stimulants) for small amounts of drugs is somewhat curious in and of itself. The fact that no one ever questions whether or not the drug user who is being held is telling the truth about where the drugs came from is an indication that merely saying, "I bought them from a foreigner," is explanation enough.

I won't miss this tendency to link (mysterious) foreigners with drugs in order to deflect responsibility for the crime for the Japanese perpetrators to non-Japanese.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Will Miss #262 - low interest on loans

Hello Kitty wants to loan you money for your needs at low rates.

The flip-side to the previous post is that Japanese people get to borrow money at a rate which tends to be substantially lower than those in the West. If you buy a house or car, you get very attractive interest rates. This is especially appealing when you consider that it often takes 30 years to buy expensive property in Japan. It's also common in Japan for there to be no interest on small private loans depending on the type of account you have with your bank.

I will miss the low interest rates for loans.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Won't Miss #262 - low interest on savings

This sign does not talk about savings interest rates. Such signs do not exist because such information is too embarrassing to be promoted. Please enjoy this picture of the pretty model next to information on credit card loans at Mizuho bank instead. It's the best I could do as a tangentially related picture.

The Japanese are a country of savers, and that means that banks offer them little incentive to save more than they already do. The idea that your money should be working for you, rather than you working for it, would be a baffling notion with interest rates that have to be expressed as only being to the right of the decimal point. The rates are so embarrassingly low that it's often hard to find out what they are for a particular bank, even for Japanese people. My students have tried to find the rates for their banks and it's a chore to tunnel through the information the bank offers to find them. If you live in Japan, the only way to make any appreciable interest on your savings is to send your money back home.

I won't miss the insanely low interest rates on savings.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Will Miss #261 - not sweating the small stuff

When I talk about character traits, I'm talking about tendencies, not each individual person. There are cultural concepts that underlie the tendencies of people in their particular culture and each person acts a little differently. Mainly, I'm talking about behavioral probabilities. When it comes to getting upset about small things, the Japanese are much more likely than not to just let it go. If their latte comes back with whole milk when they ordered skim, they'll drink it and forget about it. If they asked for Asahi beer and got Sapporo, they'll drink it and not complain. Many Americans  complain about the least little thing as if there was a major failing on the part of the person providing the product or service. Some people will not only complain, but harangue anyone who serves them the wrong food or drink or carries out less than perfect service.*

I will miss the tendency to just accept small problems or mistakes and forgive and forget on the part of Japanese people.

*If you don't believe me, check out the Consumerist  where some of its archives contain ridiculous complaints (esp. some of the Starbucks and fast food stories) about marginal issues.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Won't Miss #261 - train access blockers

Perhaps this is normal behavior all over the world, but I never experienced this until I came to Tokyo. Very often when I'm waiting in line for the train to arrive, and there is one person at the head of the line in front of me, that person will not get on the train even when there is a break in the traffic flow of people disembarking. Any reasonable person would get on the train when the door was clear, but often that person at the head of the line seems to willfully stand there, knowing he (it's usually a man) will be the first one on and get a seat easily and that he is ensuring that others will not. When he finally does move, it's almost always at a snail's pace.  Essentially, he holds the rest of the people behind him back so they can't get on. This happens in other situations as well. If you are rushing to meet a train, and trying to get through a narrow space, some Japanese men will see you're in a hurry and intentionally try to stop you by blocking the stairs or whatever access-way you have.

I believe this is a power trip on the part of some Japanese men (and that they carry it out mainly when women are involved) and I won't miss this rude and unnecessary behavior.