Monday, October 31, 2011
Back home, we used to go to a discount store called "Big Lots". At that time, it was an awesomely awful store that sold strange food (often from developing countries or eastern Europe) near or past its expiration date, fashion that was so utterly unfashionable that those who had any sense of taste wouldn't buy it at any price, and items which were so dubious in their utility or appearance that only my shopaholic mother and others who had to buy at any cost regardless of the value of the purchase would buy them. Since the Japanese tend to be pretty fussy about freshness and quality, you rarely see the equivalent of a Big Lots. The closest I've found is a shop called Tsurukame, a chain of stores which appears to specialize in day-old bakery items and products that are too strange or lacking whatever it takes to catch the discerning consumer's eye. I've found some pretty bizarre items there as well as a few worthwhile bargains.
Walking by this shop on a near daily basis provides an education in consumer tastes as well as a reflection of a certain segment of the Japanese population that is willing to subsist from what is scraped from the bottom of the buyer's barrel provided that there is enough of a bargain price on it, and I'll miss it.
Friday, October 28, 2011
While not being confronted over niggling infractions like taking a photo in a no camera zone is a bonus when living in Japan, the fact that the Japanese are so reluctant to confront people who break rules can be inconvenient and troubling as well. In particular, when someone breaks a rule which affects others strongly and no one with authority calls them on it, it can be very irritating. One case in point which I experience on an almost daily basis are people smoking in no smoking areas or riding bicycles in no cycling areas. Superficially, it appears at times that the police also have a reluctance to confront as I've seen them stand outside their police boxes and watch cars run red lights without blinking an eye. It could be that they're just lazy, but it does seem that they'd rather not get involved if they can possibly avoid it.
I won't miss the way the Japanese won't confront people who flagrantly break rules which endanger or trouble other people.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Click to see a legible version.
In the U.S., people are rarely reluctant to get in your face about anything, so I will miss the reluctance to confront people that I experience in Japan.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Offense at a word is in the eye of the beholder. Racially insensitive product name or really bad katakana translation of "mommy"?
One of the longest running debates in the world of foreigners is whether or not being called a "gaijin" (outsider/foreigner) is offensive. The term "gaijkokujin" is generally viewed as being more polite. Frankly, I think this is a trivial issue which masks the real problem and that is the way in which it appears that the Japanese tend to conceptualize people as being either Japanese or not Japanese. The underlying mentality could be that there are Japanese people and there is the rest of the world which is lumped into one giant mass of outsiders, "gaijin", rather than members of individual cultures or countries with their own equally important and distinct identities. If this is truly the case, it reduces the world to "we, Japanese" and "them, the outsiders" in a way which is offensive, disrespectful, and somewhat frightening in its connotations. That being said, I don't know if modern Japanese possess that mentality or if the words merely reflect historical notions. No one can know for certain. All I know is that the argument over the words is tiresome and pointless. If respect is the issue, then that is what should be asked for, not a change in terminology.
Changing the words won't change the way in which foreigners are regarded and we can't know if the words reflect what we might imagine, so I won't miss this divisive debate.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
One of my students recently went on a package tour to the U.S. As part of the deal, she visited Las Vegas and took a bus to the Grand Canyon. I told her that I was surprised at this pairing because those two places aren't exactly easy to hit during one short vacation. She responded essentially with 'they're pretty close to each other.' That was before she went on her trip. After she came back, she expressed shock that she needed a 6-hour bus ride from one place to the other. Because Japan is relatively small, it is difficult at times for Japanese people to conceptualize how huge America is. Since I'm from the U.S., I'm aware of the time it takes to get from place to place and I know when I go back that "travel" will mean quite a different experience back home. "Seeing America" is a lot harder than seeing Japan. Aside from the most urban of areas, you often have to cross a whole lot of nowhere before you can get somewhere.
While it is hardly trivial to cover the whole country, visiting areas of interest is generally a lot faster and easier in Japan because of its relatively compact size and I'll miss that.
Monday, October 24, 2011
This woman at Adores gaming center was giving some sort of discount card or ticket to everyone who came in, but didn't offer any to my husband and I. This is despite the fact that we actually patronize their establishments.
I won't miss being seen as so unimportant as a customer that I am not extended the same benefits, small as they might be, as Japanese people.
Friday, October 21, 2011
Some time ago, I attempted to have a dialog with someone whose experiences in Japan and opinions as a consequence of those differences were rather different than mine. The exchange ended at an impasse because it was clear that we would never agree. It wasn't that there was fundamental disagreement, but we couldn't settle even on a basic structure on which to reach conclusions.
As an example of the kind of thing that brought us to an impasse, I'll share a summary of an exchange. He contested the often asserted statement that "Japan is a racist country". He asked how we could measure such a thing objectively. I said that, while it is hard to measure cultural aspects and human behavior objectively, we can look at the way in which society treats it's minorities. I suggested that the laws a country puts in place to protect or repress "outsiders" are a reflection of the values the citizens hold. He rejected this as an objective measure of the racist tendencies of a country. Since you can't rely on individuals to possess the self-awareness or honesty to say they have racist thoughts or carry out racist actions, it would seem that that would never work, but how much or little they cared would be reflected in laws. At that point, I knew that no matter what issue we discussed, there would be no way to agree because we'd spend all of our time arguing about where the bar should be placed rather than whether or not Japanese society was jumping over that bar or pretending it wasn't there.
One of the things which he said which I never responded to (for the aforementioned reason) was about equal treatment. That's the first of the "big E's" that I want to ponder. I said that I wanted to be treated like Japanese people treat one another rather than treated in an objectified or special fashion. His response to this was that we don't treat different people in our lives the same even within our culture, so why should the Japanese do so? This is true. We do not treat people the same all of the time. However, the basis upon which we decide to treat someone differently is of paramount importance.
I treat people differently based on role and familiarity. My family is dealt with more casually and with less emotional control than my students, who I have a formal business relationship with. "Customers", who are paying for your time and assistance, receive deference when their needs conflict with yours. This isn't a personal prejudicial choice or an arbitrary matter. It's the difference between being paid to assume a role and treat the other party as if they occupy the role they are spending their money to be in. Life is not a 100% equal experience, because relative roles and emotional and physical intimacy define the way in which we interact with people regardless of culture.
One thing that should not define the way in which we interact with people, in my opinion, is superficial observations and prejudicial thinking. I treat a customer as a customer regardless of the native country of that person, their eye or hair color, their skin tone, or beauty. The role of "customer" defines the relationship, not my personal judgment of that person based on some arbitrary aspect that I have an opinion about. Once that defines how someone is treated, it becomes an act of prejudice. In Japan, it has been my experience that I am treated differently based on nothing more than my appearance. People don't know if I speak Japanese well or poorly. They don't know my needs, character, or economic capacity, but they treat me differently simply because I am an "outsider". This is racism.
The reason that most white males (and the fellow I had the exchange with was a young, white British male) are often the target of criticism by minorities is that their status in nearly every society in which they dominate is one in which they have little to no experience with actual discrimination. Those who are advantaged and are rarely getting the short end of the stick when it comes to unequal treatment believe that it is inevitable and natural for there to be inequality or simply deny that it exists at all. After all, if they don't personally experience or witness it, it can't possibly exist. Is it any wonder that those who benefit from the status quo would prefer that it remain in place and defend it as a "natural" condition or claim that prejudice isn't real, but rather the oversensitive responses of minorities. The favored majority have nothing to gain and could lose much. It is only the people who suffer disadvantages who demand equality and advocate an egalitarian society (the second big "E").
In Japan, many white folks don't protest being treated differently because much of that treatment is favorable. They don't mind being pandered to, given special attention, or treated like mini-celebrities based on superficial characteristics. The status quo generally favors them, so they get angry when the issue of equality and inequality in Japan is discussed and wish to silence those who even mention it. They actively wish to repress those who advocate equal rights, because they're afraid of losing the advantages they get with their precious white skin or favorable nationality (North America, U.K., Australia, N.Z.). They fear the Japanese will get mad and stop treating them like darling poodles that deserve pampering if they are educated to treat foreigners less as exotic beasts from strange lands and more like normal human beings. What is more, foreigners may have to conform to the same expectations as Japanese and follow the same spoken and unspoken rules if there is a shift to equality. Most people would rather sit on their silk pillow, be fawned over and be forgiven for piddling in the corner (socially speaking) on occasion than be regarded and treated as equals. The reality is that sometimes the Japanese don't treat each other very well and equality would change the gaijin (foreigner) experience in negative ways for the most valued (i.e., occidental and white) ones, though it would likely improve it for those who are seen as less desirable (i.e., blacks, other Asians).
Though, I also have "precious white skin," I don't celebrate when people value me for it. I like people to value me for less arbitrary reasons because I've been in Japan long enough for the shine to have seriously dulled on being treated like a cute souvenir someone picked up when visiting a foreign land. I don't care how I'm treated differently (favorably or unfavorably) because of my appearance. I simply don't want to be objectified, defined, and prejudged at a glance. A lot of people don't mind this as long as it gets them favorable attention. This is like being the prettiest girl in the class for the first time in their lives, and many people see nothing wrong with it. I think that's an ego issue and is at the root of the "Charisma man" image and personality. Having that sort of validation without effort for the first time in their lives is powerful and addictive, but it is also hollow. For many, empty validation is better than none at all, especially when they don't have to work for it and believe they "deserve" it. Is it any wonder Japan is such a magical place for many foreigners? It can bring about epic and life-long ego stroking and if you live in that head space long enough, you start to believe you're as special as they think you are. Of course, most people are thoroughly unaware of what drives them to fits of hostility when people advocate for equal rights for foreigners. They only know that they feel they have it pretty good and don't want any boat rocking.
In terms of expectations of an egalitarian society (another "E"), I reach my final "big E" and that is "ethnocentrism". There are those who would say that the expectation that Japan should be an egalitarian society, particularly coming from Americans who have constantly struggled to evolve into such a society (with debatable success), is merely a reflection of their applying their cultural expectations to another country. The oft-stated "it's their country" is supposed to silence voices which proclaim that Japan should do better by its foreign residents. How arrogant are we to expect that every country should treat all people equally just because America aspires to do so?
The argument that Japan should not be expected to treat people equally would hold more water if it weren't a democracy. What is more, it would be even more powerful if women were still walking nine paces behind men and equal opportunity and rights laws hadn't been passed (though not necessarily observed). And, even further, it would be more valid if Japanese people who traveled abroad and were treated with discrimination felt it was reasonable and to be expected when they are treated with prejudice. It is this final point that is quite interesting to me because if the Japanese expect equal treatment in other countries when they are outsiders, then clearly that means they believe strangers in strange lands should be dealt with equally. They may not exercise such behavior and their laws may not reflect it, but that is their expectation when they are the ones on the receiving end.
I've spoken with Japanese people who have been singled out at immigration for searches and questioning. I've also talked to people who have lived, studied, and worked in the U.S. for stretches of time in rural areas or areas in which Asian-looking faces are few and far between and who have been talked about, stared at and treated in an objectified fashion. Not one of those people talked about this experience with resignation or any notion that this was a reasonable manner in which to be treated. None of them felt that it was just fine to be treated differently based on their appearance, language, or native country. They were all mad, sad, and uncomfortable. They felt humiliated, demeaned and embarrassed. It is the height of hypocrisy and courting severe cognitive dissonance to say that it's okay for Japan to do this to foreigners, but not okay for it to be done to Japanese when they are the "foreigners". Not one person who defends Japanese prejudice (and there are plenty who do) would similarly defend such mistreatment of Japanese traveling abroad.
So, I don't believe it is ethnocentric to expect to be treated in the same manner that Japanese people treat each other when living in Japan when they expect to be treated like Americans in America. I also think that it's not unreasonable to believe a democratic society which is aspiring for equal treatment between its own citizens and is currently having a population problem and may need immigrants to solve it should be ready to work out a more egalitarian approach to "outsiders". The ethnocentrism argument and any talk about how "it's their country so they can do what they want" are little better than attempts to end the conversation with a note of finality because one has nothing better to offer. The world is shrinking and more interconnected than ever and the notion that Japan as a country (I'm not talking individuals here, I must be clear on that because I'm sure I'll be mis-read) gets to sit in its little corner treating the rest of the world like purple aliens from outer space the minute people step onto their soil is a destructive one. It only encourages the Japanese to embrace their specialness to the point of isolation and increases ignorance. In the end, with the continually sinking economy and almost certain increased reliance and interconnection with other countries, this will be to Japan's detriment more than anyone else's. Apologizing and making excuses for their racism isn't doing anyone, especially the Japanese, any favors at all.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Osmanthus fragrans is a type of flowering tree which is pretty common in Tokyo. There is one growing behind my apartment and in front of it. Most Tokyoites recognize it's pleasantly sweet smell and view it as a part of the seasonal change experience. For me, I will not only associate the scent with life in Japan, as the tree is not common in the United States, but also the change from oppressive summer to mild and pleasant autumn. The trees flower when the weather turns cool (usually after the equinox).
I'll miss the scent of osmanthus in the air and the association with the summer ending.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Among the many things I have said which have sparked arguments with other foreign people in Japan was the fact that we regard our bosses in the U.S. as being of relatively equal status to us. Conversely, in Japan, there is the sense that your superiors and those who have seniority have a higher status than you. The issue of status at work is often confused with the issues of power and authority. In the U.S., your boss has more power and authority than you, but not a higher status. You have to do what he says, but you don't have to be deferential, pretend you agree when you don't or overtly show respect to him. You also don't have to perform trivial tasks outside of your job description just because he wants you to do them. In Japan, there is a complex web of status-related issues and behavior based on relative positions, departments, gender, age, etc. Depending on the situation (especially in business), it can be quite complex and require you to follow unwritten rules or unspoken protocols. I have run afoul of Japanese coworkers at times for unwittingly doing the wrong thing in regards to status, and frankly, I think it's unfair to give someone a benefit which has not been earned.
I won't miss the way status must be addressed and responded to, particularly when I have to defer to someone because he has a penis, has worked a few more months than me, or simply works in a department which is deemed to be more valuable than mine.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
The old gods of Greece are often portrayed as competing with one another and fighting amongst themselves. Cultures with multiple gods rarely show them playing nice together, but Japan's 7 lucky gods are often shown as one big happy family. They're on a boat taking a little cruise together or hanging out looking like they're all smiles. Their images often adorn products or are placed in front of various establishments. The 7 lucky gods are also a part of various pilgrimages in Japan. At multiple locations, you can travel from shrine to shrine and collect figures of all of the gods, or you can simply get stamps on a paper showing that you've completed the circuit. It's a fun way to explore areas of Japan that you might not otherwise decide to visit, and maybe the spirits residing in the various shrines will bring you good fortune. ;-)
I'll miss seeing the 7 lucky gods happy faces and taking the pilgrimages.
Monday, October 17, 2011
Personally, I don't care if people have their fetishes as long as they keep them private and they don't harm anyone in order to fulfill them. It's really none of my business, unless it is flashed in my face on a regular basis. "Panchera" is the Japanese word for panty fetishism, and you see it everywhere. There are anime-style signs with girls' dresses flipping up showing their cartoon underpants. There are posters for movies and products which show hints of panties, and there are products, like the one pictured above, that cater to fetishists desire to possess a plastic figure showing its underwear. Most of these representations don't just show underpants, but very young girls' underpants. I'm pretty sure that this fuels panty theft, as well as junior high school and high school girls being groped on trains.
I won't miss having this creepy fetish unavoidably displayed in front of me, nor the likely social ramifications that catering to it is causing.
Friday, October 14, 2011
Corn is everywhere in Western food, but it's usually a background ingredient except when it is served whole or shucked as a side dish. For our snacks, you find that we cover up the corn with strongly flavored powders and spices, or, in the case of cereal, sugar. In Japan, "corn" is often placed front and center as a flavor and a component. I've had corn sembei, and even corn caramels, and they're delicious. There are also corn KitKats, though I personally haven't sampled them yet. Corn potage, which is sold as an instant soup as well as in cartons, is the only delicious soup I have ever had reconstituted from a powder.
The corn soups, snacks, and various other food preparations in Japan are delicious, and I'm going to miss them.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
Yes, it's dead. I rarely see a live one. I just hear them incessantly for months.
I'm sure there are plenty of places in which cicadas reside. For all I know, I experienced them back home, but they weren't nearly as strongly associated with negative experiences there as they are here. What I don't remember about them anywhere else is experiencing them for so long or at such high volume. There's also the fact that they are herald's of the horrific and endless heat of summer. When they start dying, it means that suffering through 80 degree nights and 95 degree days is going to end. It's the only death I celebrate.
I won't miss Tokyo's cicadas, and how long they are around, how loud they are, and how they accompany the longest stretch of uncomfortable weather.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
If all of the criminal element would just wear these types of jackets, the police would have a much easier time doing their job.
I think the mask might be a small hint of trouble, but that's just me.
I'll miss seeing the criminal element being portrayed earnestly as ridiculous caricatures.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
There's a trend in Japan which I find vaguely disturbing, and that's young women who get long and ridiculous-looking false eyelashes glued onto their eyelids. This trend has been gaining momentum over the past few years and more and more women look like they're walking around with spider legs attached to their faces. Frankly, it looks pretty creepy and can be quite distracting when you're attempting to have a conversation with someone. Though I'm sure not only Japanese women do this, since copying bad fashion trends is pandemic in Tokyo, I'm sure I'd see a lot less of it anywhere else.
I won't miss seeing women who seem to be attempting to imitate a porcupine.
Monday, October 10, 2011
They're either channeling the world's most famous genocidal maniac or Hercules Poirot.
One of my students recently went to France and said that one thing she noticed was that there were a lot of old buildings and reminders of old culture in Paris. She compared this to her home city, Tokyo, which is a place which seems intent on tearing down any structure that is approaching the equivalent of middle age. If buildings were people, I'd be living in the architectural equivalent of Logan's Run. Because Tokyo seems to be living in an era that believes it's better to end than mend, it's uncommon to see artifacts from the past. When I do encounter them, I have a great sense of delight at these throwbacks to Japanese culture from bygone days. Often, what I'm seeing are reproductions of old signs, but occasionally I'll come across a genuine antique (like a wooden Meiji milk box someone hasn't gotten around to ripping out and throwing away and replacing it with one of the sterile plastic ones that are all too common).
I'll miss these rare, beautiful and interesting bits of retro Japanese culture.
Friday, October 7, 2011
Seiyu is a chain of supermarkets with branches in most major areas of Tokyo. I can't speak for all Seiyu supermarkets in Japan, but I can speak for the one nearest me. In fact, if it weren't one of the cheaper places to get certain types of food, I'd avoid it. I'm too poor, however, to walk away from the prices, but there are things about it that annoy me. One of the things is that our particular market has the beeping noise on the scanners set at an ear-splitting volume. Every item you buy is a wince of aural pain as it makes a high-pitched noise. Another issue is that their anti-theft system is to have two different types of baskets for items that have been paid for and items that you are carrying around for future purchase. The need for this system is proof, incidentally, that Japanese people do indeed shoplift despite the propaganda that they are too virtuous to pilfer. My guess is that people were simply walking out with unpaid for goods and using old receipts to fake having paid. The problem with the baskets is that the grey ones, which are slightly smaller and for goods you haven't bought yet, are near the exit and bagging areas. The yellow ones, which are smaller and for paid goods, are only near the cashiers (as they have to transfer from grey to yellow at check-out). Unless you turn back and go to the cashier specifically, you can't put your basket away because they won't stack with the grey ones near departing customers. They don't put stacks of yellow ones by the door because they don't trust the customers not to just pick them up on the way in.
I won't miss shopping at Seiyu, and how the experience is designed for their comfort, convenience, and protection rather than the customer's experience.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Hyuganatsu is a Japanese citrus fruit which fragrant and a bit sour. When I was first given one of these fruits, I was told I'd have to put sugar on it to eat it. However, I ate it as it was and found it delicious. I may have gotten lucky and had the world's least sour hyuganatsu, but it made me wish I could get them more easily (they're not only a Japanese fruit, but regional and not available everywhere). Fortunately, one can get ones hyuganatsu on via various sweets which are flavored with them. The thing which I liked about it is that the flavor had greater depth than grapefruit, oranges or lemons. It was like a mix of the best of lemon and grapefruit.
I'll miss having access to hyuganatsu and foods made with this fragrant citrus fruit.
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
There's a well-known commercial from the 80's in which a man stumbles out of bed at an ungodly hour to go off and make doughnuts so that they are ready for breakfast. In Japan, no one is getting up before the sun shines. In fact, I'm guessing most are sleeping in later than the average commuter salaryman. I'm not a huge doughnut eater, but once or twice a month I like to have one for breakfast and the selection at Mister Donut is appalling during the early hours. An 8:30 walk to the nearest one yields lots of empty shelf space and a paltry selection of what may actually be leftovers from yesterday's doughnuts. What is worst is that my beloved angel cream is rarely around before 9:30 am (and often not until much later).
I realize that this is because Japanese people don't often eat sweets for breakfast and are just as likely to get a hotdog at McDonald's as anything else for their morning repast, but I won't miss having a pathetic selection of doughnuts available when I am in the mood to have one with my morning coffee.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
"Shodo" is Japanese calligraphy. I don't practice or study it, but I do enjoy the results of what other people do. What is more, I love seeing people doing it on the street in tourist areas. Western people in general have a fascination with the look and feel of Chinese characters (kanji) and calligraphy extends the interest level a bit further. The style, energy and orientation reflect the artist's taste and character. And though I think it's a little silly to translate Western names into kanji, I do realize and appreciate the fact that artists who do so provide a unique souvenir which is miles better than one of the millions of mass-produced Hello Kitty figures you can pick up in the average shop.
I'll miss shodo, and how it is art which reflects both the artist and a long, rich history of a craft.
Monday, October 3, 2011
The only animal being treated badly here is the poor master of that stubborn bulldog.
I realize that animal population control is a difficult thing and that cost is a part of the consideration. Sometimes animals have to be euthanized or they will suffer worse fates (life in a tiny cage, starvation, death by disease, etc.). How a country on the whole deals with this problem is a reflection of its values in a particular regard. In Japan, the pounds gas their animals instead of euthanizing them via lethal injection. They also kill cows by injecting them with detergent and tying their legs together. The latter case is despicable. The former is not quite as bad, but animals die in fear and suffer unnecessarily all because these methods are cheaper than more humane ones.
I find the way animal population control is carried out in Japan disgusting and heartless and I won't miss it.