Thursday, June 30, 2011

Will Miss #336 - highly developed empathy

This is the sort of assertion that people who elevate Japanese culture about other cultures tend to make, but that is not what I'm attempting to do. Though I cannot make this assertion about every single individual raised in a Japanese cultural environment, I can say that Japanese people have much better empathy than most people from Western countries. It makes sense that this would be necessary if you are to get along in a culture which values getting along with the group. This underpins a lot of their other personality traits such as showing patience or enduring hardship. For example, one of my students is a lovely older lady who is married to a man 8 years her senior who watches T.V. at night while she studies English or folds origami in another room. I asked her if her husband listens to T.V. loudly and she said he did. When I asked her if this annoyed her, she said that, while it is sometimes irritating for her, she thinks that when she is his age, she may have the same problem so she is patient with the situation.

This type of thinking is something that Japanese people seem to develop earlier and apply more often relative to Western folks (who tend to be far more self-centered until they personally experience a particular hardship), and I will miss it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Won't Miss #336 - Japan honeymooners

I've played a role-playing game for over a decade. When I first started playing it, I paid attention to and enjoyed every detail from the nifty sounds items made to the details and rewards of every quest. Many years on, I still like the game, but the artwork, sound, and shortcomings of the quests have become apparent. It doesn't mean I don't like it, but just that the way in which I experience it changes after the hundredth or thousandth time. Living in Japan is much the same. The first time you go to immigration, it's all new and interesting to note how meticulous the people are and how organized things are during your hours of waiting. By about the 5th time, it loses its charm and is just a hot, annoying, bureaucratic chore. People who have lived in Japan for three years or less are essentially modestly informed tourists, and more power to them for enjoying their fresh perspective. However, the thing I don't have any use for is their tendency to believe that anyone who sees the yang of life in Japan while all they can see is the yin as a "complainer".

I won't miss the people who believe that the only valid perspective is an imbalanced positive one based on inexperience and novelty (i.e., theirs).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Will Miss #335 - office lady trot

It's probably not fair to call this "the office lady trot", since women everywhere do it, but it is something that I witnessed early and often among office ladies. We all know what people mean when they say "run like a girl", but I've seen it taken to an all new level in Japan. This is a "run" which has all of the appearances of increased movement without any but the most incidental increase in speed. The arms flail, the legs move up and down at a higher rate, but velocity remains little different from that of walking. I once wrote an article about this for Tokyo Journal magazine, and speculated that this grew out of the need in offices to give the illusion that one was rapidly trying to get from point A to point B while not actually speeding up. It shows energy and enthusiasm, while accomplishing nothing of value at all.

I'll miss seeing "the office lady trot", and what it says about style over substance in Japan.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Won't Miss #335 - kisoku wa kisoku da

One of the things in life that I'm naive about is the idea that sometimes it's better to lie. That idea has been strongly and boldly underscored to an incredible extent while living in Japan. A big reason for this is that telling the truth will gain you nothing. Lying, even when it's obvious that you are doing so and and as transparent as glass, gets you a free pass. This is because the lie removes responsibility for breaking a rule when you're dealing with bureaucratic situations. As soon as you admit an unfortunate truth, there is zero flexibility as the bureaucrat will say "kisoku wa kisoku da" or "a rule is a rule." There is no logic or flexibility, not because the person you are dealing with inherently lacks such things, but rather because they don't want to get in trouble for taking even trivial matters into their own hands and being responsible for a decision. In no situation was this more sadly illustrated than the circumstances after the Great Tohoku Earthquake in which vital supplies were either turned away or refused to be dropped because of "kisoku wa kisoku da".

I realize that absurd adherence to rules is by no means confined to Japan, but it is much more the norm here and the way in which lying is essentially encouraged because of rigid "a rule is a rule" thinking is something I won't miss.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Will Miss #334 - 10 months of pregnancy

One of the situations which continues to fascinate and interest me is the way in which pregnancy lasts 10 months in Japan, but 9 months in Western countries. When I address this inconsistency with Japanese friends, they grow wide-eyed in a response which I sometimes feel scarily validates (to them) all of the nonsense about how Japanese people are biologically very different from foreigners (such as the longer intestines theory). At first, there is a sort of awe that Japanese women may gestate longer than other women. The truth is that in the case of pregnancy, doctors count 4 weeks as a "month" rather than using calendar months. There's a good explanation of it here.

I don't care how people count the weeks and months of their pregnancy, and have no interest in debating the merits or demerits of one system over the other, but I will miss the responses and discussions I get when I talk about this issue for the first time with Japanese people.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Won't Miss #334 - people who pretend to understand

One of the things I never had to contend with when I shared the native tongue of the people around me was people who didn't understand me pretending to understand. Whether the language being used is Japanese or English, there always seems to be a fair amount of nodding and the equivalent of saying, "uh-huh", when it's clear that one is either not being understood or is not being carefully listened to. When speaking English (such as to students), this happens because the Japanese person doesn't understand, but doesn't want to let on that he or she doesn't comprehend. When speaking Japanese, the other person doesn't want to embarrass you by revealing that your Japanese was incomprehensible to them.

No matter what the cause, situation or language, I won't miss having people pretend to understand when they do not.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Will Miss #333 - funky good luck charms

There are a lot of shrines in Japan. In fact, it is downright shocking how many there are for a country in which people state they are absolutely not religious. At many shrines, various good luck charms are on offer. The charms are good for a year and various types are supposed to bring you particular types of good fortune - driving, health, studies, etc. Though I am no fan of the fact that these things supposedly "run out of luck" after a year (which I view as blatant commercialism meant to get you to buy new charms every year), I am often amused by how absurd some of the charms look.

In an overtly spiritual setting, there's something delightfully crass about seeing things like "Hello Kitty" on their charms, and I'll miss that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Won't Miss #333 - necessities that are not available

Disposable heating patches on sale in a plethora of sizes.

This was a hard post to title, but it comes about because of my increasing decrepitude as my age advances and the fact that there are some things which are easy to get back home which are damn near impossible to locate in Japan. For reasons I do not understand, getting a hot water bottle or heating pad is difficult here. A sort of heating pad is sold, but it is not designed to be placed against the body but rather as a bed warmer. It becomes too hot when placed next to the skin and isn't designed for that purpose. The lack of a hot water bottle, surely an ecologically sound and useful item for everything from stomachaches to sore muscles to bed warming is puzzling. This is a country which prides itself on having a culture based on not wasting things as part of its older customs (like using a furoshiki instead of a bag to carry lunch), yet they rely on various disposable chemical patches (hokkairo) to deal with aches and to dispense heat. They're not only a waste of money, but a waste of resources.

I won't miss the fact that I have to have people from America send over some rather basic and useful items personal items like heating pads and hot water bottles.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Will Miss #332 - lady liberty replicas

Being American, seeing replicas of the Statue of Liberty around Japan always strikes me as smile-worthy for two reasons. First of all, it feels like a curious homage to all things American without any consideration for what this symbol means. Second, since the statue was placed in New York Harbor to welcome immigrants, and Japan is one of the least immigrant friendly countries in the world, it seems quite ironic to see such statues here.

I'll miss seeing these replicas of lady liberty in Japan.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Won't Miss #332 - little joy for turkey fans

A rare food stand selling smoked turkey legs in front of a shrine in Ueno.

If you grew up in America, there's very little chance that you don't have some experience with turkey because of Thanksgiving. Well, maybe you didn't eat it if your parents were vegetarian or vegan, but even then perhaps you had a tofu turkey. Around the holidays, my husband and I always embark on a quest for turkey, and often find that we come up empty or with a choice of buying a super expensive bird or versions that have been pre-cooked and cured such that they essentially taste like ham. Things like ground turkey, sliced turkey, or even a good quality whole bird are few and far between and expensive.

There's plenty of good food in Japan, but that doesn't meant that I don't wish sometimes for things that taste of home, especially around the holidays, and I won't miss not being able to eat turkey when I want and without a lot of hassle or cost.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Will Miss #331 - rent contract terms

No, this is not where I live, but someone else does.

When I lived in the U.S., I lived in circumstances in which I didn't have to pay rent in both Pennsylvania and California. Lucky me. I only started forking over a pile of cash to a landlord upon moving into my Tokyo apartment, and I was annoyed at the key money and renewal fees, but figure that was the cost of business here. I've since come to learn that it is common, particularly in densely populated or highly desirable areas, for rent contracts in the U.S. to be shorter term (6 months to a year) and for there to be a rent increase upon every renewal. I also have learned that it's common to have to pay a penalty fee, a not insubstantial one, if the term of the contract is not completed. Rent contracts in Tokyo are for two years, rents rarely go up much, if at all, upon renewal of the contracts (and sometimes go down), and there is no penalty fee for leaving before the term is up.

I will miss these favorable rent contract terms.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Won't Miss #331 - foreigners speaking Japanese to me

Occasionally, I have foreign friends over to my apartment for dinner or socializing. Though such friends are native speakers of English, they sometimes do something which is one of my pet peeves, and that is tossing in random Japanese words for things which are absolutely unrelated to Japan or Japanese things. I'm not talking about using the word "sushi" or even "chikatetsu" (subway) or something which is inextricably linked to life in Tokyo as I understand the value of such usage. I'm not even talking about emotional concepts that work more effectively in Japanese such as "shoganai" ("what can one do"... the equivalent a verbal shoulder shrug). I'm talking rather about saying "sugoi" ("wow"), "ka na" ("right?"), or "desho" ("don't you think?") for which people have had perfectly serviceable phrases that they have used for most of their adult life before coming to Japan. Even short-timers will needlessly pepper their speaking with such phrases.

Usage of these phrases among native speakers strikes me as a verbal affectation or phoniness not too dissimilar from the way a pretentious person tosses in French words to show off their cultural sophistication and I won't miss it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Will Miss #330 - shiba inu

Many dog lovers may already be familiar with this ancient breed of dog from Japan. The dogs are beautiful, intelligent, and generally gentle in nature. Since I can't have a pet, I have little interaction with these dogs aside from observation. Since I live in Japan, I see them a lot and their image is used in advertising quite frequently. They're beautiful dogs and lend themselves to some pretty cute imagery.

I'm guessing that after I leave Japan, it will become quite rare to see these dogs and their images, and I'll miss that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Won't Miss #330 - having to wear pajamas

I'm going to confess that I preferred to sleep in the buff back home. I'm not some free-thinking anarchist or a hippy. I just prefer not to have to have clothes bunched up under me, tangled or giving me a wedgie when I sleep. It's simply easier to wear nothing, especially when it's hot or warm during the 5 months of summer or 2 months of rainy season in Tokyo. During the other 4 months of coldness, nothing is warmer than two nekkid bodies under a blanket. If you don't believe me, try it for yourself. Anyway, in Tokyo (and many other areas), it is monumentally imprudent to sleep au naturale because of quakes. You never know when the unlikely becomes reality and you'll have to make a mad dash for the street or have to climb out the window of the shaky remains of your dwelling.

I won't missing having to wear clothes to bed "just in case" there's a big earthquake.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Will Miss #329 - Japanese person/foreign nickname

Shirley McClaine is an American actress who is probably more famous for her new age spirituality at this point in time than her acting. One of the more curious facts about her is that her daughter is called "Sachi". Given that both of her parents are Caucasians and American, it seems odd for her to be called by a Japanese name (her real name is Stephanie). Similarly, it is odd in Japan when I meet a Japanese person and they tell me to call them by a Western name. While this doesn't happen often, it does happen. One of my students asked that I call him "Tom" because he said he looked like Tom Cruise (he didn't). My husband worked for several years at a language school in which almost every single student had a foreign nickname. I'm not sure why some Japanese folks want to be called by Western nicknames though I think that it may have something to do with making it easier on the foreigner to say their names or adopting a different persona when speaking English. Perhaps they are living the part in order to help them think more in line with the language, only they know for certain.

It always seems rather cute when Japanese folks request to be called by names like Mary, Bob and Tom, and I'll miss it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Won't Miss #329 - limited diet soda options

Okay, let's get this out of the way first. Diet sodas are bad for me. They are the devil's sperm meant to inseminate me with their evil cancer-causing hobgoblins. I shouldn't drink diet sodas and if I "have to" have a soda, I should suck it up and drink the sugary stuff. Finished with your finger wagging and judging? Good, good. You are superior to me in every way and I bow to your greatness because you do not drink such vile concoctions. So then... I have no vices at all except I like a diet soda or two everyday (no booze, no drugs, no binges on junk food, no shopping except necessities, no name it, I don't do it, so give me a break!).  Sugary sodas make my teeth ache and I'm none too fond of sugar crashes, so I like diet soda. Unfortunately, Japan has very few varieties of diet soda and when they expand a line into the calorie-free zone, they invariably withdraw it within a few months or only offer it seasonally. When I read about diet cherry or vanilla Coke back home, I shed a little tear at what I can't have (well, not really, but I'd like some new flavors less than once in a blue moon).

I won't miss the lack of variety among diet soda options in Japan.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Will Miss #328 - tsurushi bina

Japan has its own brand of folk art, and some of it is known well all over the world (origami or paper folding craft). Tsurushi bina, or stuffed dolls displayed on strings, bring to mind mobiles, are less known, but they have a unique Japanese flavor both in the design of the dolls and the way in which they are strung together. It is said that the dolls originate in Shizuoka prefecture in Japan and that each is infused with a prayer for the health and future of the daughters or granddaughters.

There is a distinct charm and a very humanistic quality to this type of folk art and I will miss it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Won't Miss #328 - English practice moochers

One evening, my husband and I met up around 9:00 p in Nakano after long tiring days at our respective jobs. Our plan was to have a nice dinner and unwind after talking to people all day. As we were walking along, a stranger in a business suit rushes up alongside my husband and asks if we'll speak English with him at a bar. This was neither our first or last experience with random strangers just walking up to us and asking if we'd devote our free time to giving them what they want at no profit to us and without the context of an existing relationship. It is also not a rare experience among obviously foreign-looking folks. The odd thing is that people seem surprised when we don't jump at the chance to spend our evening in conversation with strangers so they don't have to pay for their English practice.

I won't miss people believing that it's okay for them to invade upon my private time to get free work out of me.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Will Miss #327 - cat cafes

Tokyo has quite a few "cat cafes" in which patrons can go in and play with cats as well as have drinks and food. As someone who loves cats, but isn't allowed to have one in her apartment, this is a pretty nifty service. I'm not sure, but I believe it's also the kind of thing which would never be allowed back home because of concerns about cleanliness when animals are mixed with food preparation and consumption areas. In Japan, there are very strict regulations to ensure safety for both the animals and the patrons.

The existence of cat cafes not only reflects a certain flexibility about how businesses can operate and a need to allow people to interact with pets on an incidental basis, but also trust that a business will do what is best when two tricky elements are mixed, and I'll miss that.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Won't Miss #327 - pet stores (and most zoos)

Pet stores in Tokyo in my experience are insanely depressing places. The animals are often in small cages in cramped and too hot or cold spaces. The animals seem to be largely ignored and are left in the cages overnight. Most of the cages are about twice the size of an animal carrier, and at least some of the smaller shops look pretty grubby as well. I can't even really bear to make a passing glance into them when I walk by because I feel so sorry for the animals. Similarly, I've heard that many of the Tokyo zoos have cramped and inadequate quarters for all but their most popular animals (e.g., pandas). I'm too scared to even go into one, but other foreigners who have gone to them have said it's just incredibly sad for the most part.

I won't miss the dismal and depressing state of many Japanese pet stores and zoos.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Will Miss #326 - gaijin smash

There is something that we foreigners do which I'm frankly embarrassed to admit that I have done in the past. For those who have never heard the term "gaijin smash", it is essentially a way for foreigners to bully the Japanese into allowing them to have their way. This happens because the Japanese tend not to like conflict and will often capitulate to avoid making a scene and because sometimes they are more intimidated about dealing with a foreigner. A foreigner may use the gaijin smash for a variety of reasons. One reason may simply be about getting ones way, but one of the biggest ones is that sometimes you are simply being jerked around because you are a foreigner or there is some sort of bureaucratic nonsense going on. A lot of the time, the gaijin smash is a shortcut through a steaming pile of bull cookies (often, but not always, served exclusively to foreigners) that one takes out of a sense of intense frustration.

Though I very, very rarely use it, I will miss at least having the option of using the gaijin smash when I'm being put through crap for no good reason. I'm not in any way proud to admit it, but it is a form of "power" that will not be available to me when I go home.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Won't Miss #326 - the peanut gallery

A former stalker of mine once spent several months in Japan and found how she was treated so unbearably that she fled back home in a state of depression and sought medication. Since returning there, she seems to have forgotten how she felt about being treated like a purple multi-tentacled alien and seems to jump on a soap box every time someone who actually lives here has a complaint about something. She's great at telling us how we should feel as she speaks from the comfort of her native country. She's also not alone. There are a great many people who don't live here and who are "experts" on how I "should" react about things they personally don't have to put up with. You can't know what it's like to inhabit this reality unless you, too, have truly and deeply lived it for the duration. There's a vast difference between how you feel about your first trip to immigration and your 5th, 10th, or 20th and being gawked at a few times and putting up with it everyday for years on end.

I won't miss the peanut gallery who tell me how I "should" feel about life here when they have limited, little or no experience with the workaday reality.