Monday, February 28, 2011

Will Miss #292 - Meiji Shrine

You know the Japan that tourists and people who have never been here talk about? You know, the one which portrays Japan as a country which is full of reserved, polite, quiet, respectful people who have a lot of quaint and deeply spiritual traditions and who live in harmony with nature? I'm talking about the one in which there are rock gardens, minimalist homes of immaculate cleanliness, and a spartan aesthetic which portrays elegant style and economy. You know, the one that doesn't exist when you live here. It does exist in Japan, and one of the places you can find it is Meiji shrine.

I'll miss this oasis of all of the best that Japanese culture has to offer as well as a large amount of nature.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Won't Miss #292 - blocked videos

Occasionally, one of my friends will send a link to video that they believe I'd be interested in. On more than one occasion, such videos are a dead end for me because I am told that they cannot be viewed from my particular country. For the odd video here and there, this isn't too great an issue, but a lot of entire sites or services are blocked for Japan (ABC television network on-line shows, Hulu, etc.). After awhile, this starts to feel like there's a club which doesn't allow me admittance.

I won't miss video being blocked at my location, which happens to be Japan.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Will Miss #291 - massage culture

All humans have the same basic needs, and one of the more fascinating aspects of learning about other cultures is seeing how they adapt to meet common needs when their culture, by and large, does not practice the same type of expression that is common in one's own culture. The need to be touched is shared by all humans and many animals, but physical affection, particularly hugging and cuddling is not a common part of Japanese culture. This is especially so among most adults. It is my opinion that the plethora of massage places that will provide anything from a 10-minute quickie to a 90-minute luxury rubdown is related to the need to have physical contact in a culture that doesn't offer much in the way of casual touch. I also like the fact that massage is seen as a common experience which anyone can afford and partake in rather than something that only the rich, injured, or oddball indulge in.

I'll miss the pervasive massage culture, and what it says about Japanese culture and how it has evolved to meet a need.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Won't Miss #291 - empty university education

The Japanese are considered to be some of the most educated people in the world and are thought to study harder than anyone. The truth is quite a bit further from that. Japanese universities are widely known to be little more than playgrounds where people "rest" between the crush of studying for entrance exams in their lower education years and the oppressive days ahead as company drones. They sleep in classes, write anemic papers for academic requirements, take tests with open texts, and spend most of their time in various clubs (tennis being one of the most popular). They walk away with a piece of paper in most cases, and little else. What is worse is that based on the name of the university and little else, they are capable of gaining status and good jobs. Their actual capability and intellectual capacity aren't factored into their future, only the name of the school.

I won't miss the vacation spots which are Japanese universities, and the fact that most of the people who attend them don't walk away greatly more educated or mature for having gone to them.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Will Miss #290 - tattoos on Japanese

Tattoos are nothing new in the world, nor are they new to Japan. Every exhibitionist and her brother in the west has sanskrit, Chinese characters, or "Hello Kitty" tattooed on their arms. It carries no (or very little) taboo, and rarely will get you denied access to anything. In Japan, tattoos are actually a real act of rebellion because they are associated with organized crime and people of poor repute. Visible tattoos can get you barred from certain services such as onsen or public baths. You will also be denied jobs if you have tattoos. Even if you can hide them, many people have to live in fear that some activity (like a company outing or trip) will require them to show their bodies in a fashion that will reveal the tattoo. Average folks do not get tattoos, and it is certainly not an easy or casual choice for someone to ink up their body in Japan.

I'll miss seeing tattoos and knowing that these are people who have made a conscious decision to situate themselves outside of what is acceptable in Japanese culture.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Won't Miss #290 -ignoring the inevitable

When I was working in a Japanese office, my (Australian) boss and I often cautioned the president or our coworkers about certain problems that were inevitably going to come up if we pursued a certain path. We weren't being unnecessarily pessimistic. We were pointing out what would definitely happen. Our concerns were always brushed aside or shrugged off. More often than not, we were told that they'd deal with that problem when it happened. This type of short-sightedness is pervasive in Japanese business culture (and politics). Rather than make a long-term plan to deal with predictable negative outcomes, it is often the case that those outcomes are ignored until they are right on top of you. Usually, this makes the situation much worse than it needs to be and people have to scramble to deal with far greater damage than if the problem had been dealt with during the inception of an idea. I realize this can happen in any culture or company, but it is something which is endemic in Japan.

I won't miss this type of thinking which is tantamount to worrying about crossing a bridge only after it has already collapsed.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Will Miss #289 - swords for sale

I grew up in a rural area which was hunting country and almost everyone was a bit of a gun nut. There was a hunting club, and most men in particular enjoyed collecting guns. To me, they were always inelegant, dangerous, and troubling weapons. In Japan, guns are legal, but only hunting rifles and getting them is difficult, so I have never seen a real gun for sale here. I do, however, see swords for sale. While I see no appeal in weaponry of any sort, there is something very old world about the fact that swords are on offer in a seemingly casual fashion.

It harks back to Japan's ancient history, and it is a uniquely Japanese experience seeing a shop that sells swords, and I'll miss it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Won't Miss #289 - "shikataganai" (the bad)

The flip-side to the good aspects of "shikataganai" thinking (translated into "it can't be helped") is that sometimes people give up easily in situations in which their lot in life could be improved if they made an effort, sometimes just a small one. Since people rarely fight for what is their right or what is morally right, things rarely improve or change in Japan. This underlying cultural concept is a piece of what drives the slow change in Japan and allows workers to constantly be taken advantage of in terms of unpaid overtime and unfair distribution of duties.

It is the equivalent of a shoulder shrug in the face of certain types of adversity, and I won't miss it, particularly when it is expected of me when I am treated unfairly.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Will Miss #288 - "shikataganai" (the good)

When faced with hardship or a difficult situation, the Japanese have an attitude of "shikataganai" (or "shoganai") or "it can't be helped". When translated into mere words, it comes across as passive acceptance of the inevitable, but the thinking is more pervasive and applied more subtly to experiences in life. It is about acceptance, but it is also about taking things as they come with equanimity rather than casting about for someone or something to blame. It is a mindset that contributes to an attitude of personal responsibility and the sense that one should not and cannot constantly fight whatever comes your way. Things happen, and we sometimes just have to live with it and not let it control our happiness.

I'll miss the part of "shikataganai" thinking which has people responding to the inevitable with maturity and composure, and how it contributes to taking responsibility.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Won't Miss #288 - very expensive scented candles

I should clarify that there are actually two types of scented candles in Tokyo. There are those which are relatively cheap and smell like a cheap prostitute's boudoir and those which cost an arm and a leg. I really enjoy candles that smell like relatively natural scents like cinnamon, holly, pine trees, and vanilla, but I can't buy them in Japan because I won't pay 2000 yen (about $22) for one stumpy little candle that will burn for less than 5 hours. I don't know why they cost so much here, but it seems they fall into the category of "luxury goods" based on pricing.

I won't miss the expensive scented candles, and the fact that I can't really enjoy something which relaxes and makes me feel good.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Will Miss #287 - good quality secondhand goods

When I was growing up, my mother loved to drag my sister and I to yard and garage sales as well as Goodwill so that she could pick up second-hand crap to clutter our home. One thing I remember was that most of that stuff looked pretty well-used, and sometimes a bit grubby. In Japan, my experiences with secondhand goods has been markedly different. Japanese people are renowned for two things when it comes to their possessions. One is buying new things frequently so they often get rid of relatively new items on a regular basis and the other is taking good care of the things they have. When secondhand items are on offer at "recycle" shops, about 80% of them are in what appears to be in "as new" condition (many in original boxes). Another 18% are so lightly worn as to look as good as new.

I'll miss the high quality of secondhand goods in Japan.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Won't Miss #287 - otoshi/tsukidashi

Cultural customs and habits are a reflection of a country's culture. Even small things like the custom of tipping in the United States tell you something about the priorities and expectations of the people. In the U.S., tipping is the way of empowering the customer and giving more control over the meal's expense (often at the expense of the servers). In Japan, the custom of "otoshi" or a "forced appetizer" (sometimes referred to as a "table charge") reflects the passive nature of the Japanese and their willingness to place power in the hands of others. Many bars (izakaya) or places that serve alcohol will add a charge of 300 yen (about $3) to your bill and serve you an unrequested appetizer with your beverage. You don't order it and you have no control over what it is that you are given. You don't have to like it. You don't even have to eat it, but you have to pay for it and you can't refuse it (or at least the Japanese en masse very rarely, if ever, do so).

I won't miss this custom of forcing you to buy something you didn't order simply because of something you did order (alcohol).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Will Miss #286 - well-traveled people

One of the things you often hear in the never ending comparisons between the U.S. and Japan is that Americans go abroad too little compared to people in Japan. This is true, but it's important to understand that the U.S. is a huge country with a diverse cultural base and Japan is a small island with a fairly homogeneous culture. Japanese people can't experience much cultural diversity at home, so, they travel. This is obviously a good thing as people who travel gain first-hand experience with other cultures. Of course, often that experience is gained on package tours where they are carefully looked after and directed, but it still gives them a sense of the food, the people, and the atmosphere of life abroad in a valuable way. When discussing foreign cultures with those who have traveled, I find they often have interesting and unique insights based on their perspective as Japanese people. These are thoughts I would not have had because I have a different cultural background than they do.

I will miss talking to people about their experiences abroad, and the information they have to share about their (often copious) travels.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Won't Miss #286 - one with the borg mentality

A sign encouraging everyone to carry their own bag rather than use plastic ones - note how they all follow each other, and look, and act the same.

There was a big flap several years ago about Brazilians living in a particular apartment building and their inability to get along with their Japanese neighbors. They weren't unfriendly. They didn't do anything criminal or fail to follow some rules. The thing they did was talk too loudly for the delicate ears of their Japanese neighbors.* The Japanese expected the Brazilians to totally abandon their Brazilian character and assimilate according to some arbitrary definition of "Japanese character". This attitude is not only an issue with the Japanese, but also among foreigners who are deep in the thrall of their infatuation with Japanese culture. It's not enough to follow the rules, pay your taxes, and abide the law. You must become one with the Japanese. Coming from the Japanese, this can certainly be understood since they bash down nails in their own ethnic group when they stick out (though it is a destructive thing even among the Japanese and results in social isolation and suicide). Coming from some foreigners, who presumably have experience with ethnic diversity and tolerance, it is quite absurd to advocate foreign folks try and make themselves into character clones of the natives.

I won't miss this expectation and tendency to push total cultural assimilation and the complete abandoning of one's native character and values.

*Note: Japanese neighbors are far from quiet and are just as capable of speaking at bombastic volume as anyone else. Trust me, I have plenty of experience in this area. Double standards are applied to foreigners in regards to noise and neighborly behavior.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Will Miss #285 - La Puta posters

There is a theater in my area which shows vintage Japanese movies. For some reason, they put up a poster on a back street which is the most common path for me to follow to get to local grocery shops. It's an odd place for a poster which advertises old Japanese movies because it would seem foot traffic would hardly bring in a substantial number of patrons, but I love the fact that they are there. Because of these posters, I have seen a veritable visual history of Japanese film merely by walking to the grocery store. You can see how fashion and styles have changed in the way the actresses are made up, their hair is styled, and the clothes they wear. Things like how high school uniforms have changed are reflected in the movie posters, as well as the shape and style of eyebrows and density of make-up. You can see where the path of Japanese cinema followed and diverged from western styling of the same eras. It's one of those little things which is easy to take for granted, but offers a wealth of cultural information.

I'll miss these glamorous little incidental history lessons on my way to the shops.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Won't Miss #285 - allergy issues

The cold and flu seasons and the allergy seasons are the times when you see the most mask wearing. This picture is from the former, but what the heck.

Before coming to Tokyo, I never had any allergies. I credit this partially to good genetics, but also to having grown up in a rural area with clean air. Living in a city with pollution tends to eventually cause some people to develop allergies. It can't be helped, but it still is annoying that repeated exposure to dirty air sends ones histamine response into overdrive. The thing which annoys me more is the fact that allergy medication which is equivalent to the type you can buy over the counter back in the United States costs a fortune here, and can only be purchased via prescription and cannot be paid for with the Japanese health insurance card.

I won't miss the fact that it costs about $1.50 per pill for (the same) medication (Claritan) that I can pay about $10 per bottle of 100 tablets for back home.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Will Miss #284 - women holding hands

One of the things which continues to catch my eye in Japan is the way in which adult women will hold each others hands in public. It gets my attention for a few reasons. First of all, physical displays of affection are relatively uncommon in public, even between children and parents, let alone other adults. Second, back home adult women do not hold each others hands because of the fear that it might make them look like lesbians. In the U.S. we are usually hyper-aware of how touching between women might be interpreted in most cases and won't touch other women with affection (but we will hold a man's hand). In Japan, clearly physical affection between women is viewed less with a romantic lens and more with a friendship one.

I like the way in which women in Japan will hold their friends or family members hands in a way which shows they're not self-conscious of it as well as the affection it seems to show, and I'll miss that.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Won't Miss #284 - spouse denigrating

The Japanese are generally a modest lot, sometimes, far too modest. When speaking of their spouses, they feel almost obliged to never "boast" about his or her positive attributes and to talk up negative qualities. You're far more likely to hear a woman talk about her lazy, selfish, childish husband and a man talk about his fat, incompetent, messy wife than hear even the slightest complimentary word. In fact, it's seen as poor manners to say things like your wife is a fabulous piano player or that your husband is a crackerjack repairer of computer systems.

I realize that this is a cultural difference, but it makes me uncomfortable both to hear such unkind things (even when they are almost certainly not sincere) and to consider the fact that it means people aren't giving their spouse their due out of societal obligation, and I won't miss it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Will Miss #283 - no big deal birthdays

In Japan, people don't make a big deal about birthdays, particularly when it comes to adults. Often, celebration extends only so far as taking a friend out to dinner and/or serving up a "surprise" cake. It's very rare for people to give each other actual gifts except perhaps something very modest like a bit of chocolate or a small cake from a designer shop. In America, adults often feel burdened by birthdays as they are obliged once a year to conjure up an appropriate gift for someone who doesn't need anything or who they don't know particularly well.

While I'm happy to convey birthday wishes and give gifts when I really want to, I'm happier living in a culture without the expectation that presents will be proffered on adult birthdays, and I'll miss that.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Won't Miss #283 - dry muffins and cakes

If you don't bake, you may not know what components make baked goods moist. Most people assume that it is the fat that makes things like a muffin moist. Well, it is, but it's only half of the equation. The other half is sugar and that is why most muffins and many (but not all!) cakes in Japan have poor texture. The Japanese are notorious for whining that everything in America is "too sweet" for their palates. To compensate for the desire for less sweet baked goods, bakers in Japan use less sugar and the result is fatty, but dry muffins and cakes. You can't just ditch sugar in a recipe and expect a less sweet, but good result. There are ways to compensate for this (like using unsweetened fruit puree such as applesauce, prunes, etc.) to enhance moisture without using more sugar, but the bakers here don't seem to know or care to adjust the recipes. Sometimes, I wake up thinking I'd love to go off to a bakery and buy a nice muffin as a rare treat for breakfast, then I remember that every purchase is a roll of the dice and the cards for a good result are stacked against me.

I won't miss the dry, unpleasant cakes and muffins in Japan.