Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Will Miss #392 - dads do the time if they do the crime

Many moons ago, I had an American co-worker with a Japanese boyfriend who was looking at a visa that was soon to expire and no full-time job to gain sponsorship from. The boyfriend wasn't ready to get married so a spouse visa looked rather out of bounds. Fortunately for her, she got pregnant. Voila, problem solved! Most Japanese men will marry a woman if she gets pregnant and wants to keep the baby. This is not because of some moralistic notion that god will smite them if they sinned outside of wedlock or an antiquated notion that a bastard child is a terrible thing. It's because they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Back home, we see that a lot of men will do everything in their power to escape this type of responsibility and it is definitely no longer the case that a pregnancy will result in a wedding.

I don't think people should marry merely because a baby is in the mix, but I do like the fact that the overwhelming majority of Japanese men put the welfare of the family before their own selfish needs and will tend to marry a woman if they get her pregnant. I will miss the way in which men take this responsibility seriously. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Won't Miss #392 - need for kid gloves

Have you ever approached a strange cat to pet it and as you approach, it is eyeing you warily with muscles tensed such that you fear it will perceive you as a threat and bolt if you make just one tiny wrong move? Often, I feel that way when it comes to talking to Japanese people (the "cats"). Twice I've said things on FaceBook which were meant to be informational, but they ended up being confrontational in the eyes of the other parties. In one case, I commented on a video that had been posted stating that it was important to keep in mind that the English translations were somewhat misleading and that the video had been edited to put forth a particular viewpoint. The poster withdrew the video and apologized most humbly saying that she never should have posted it at all. In another case, someone posited that a particular food was healthy because the sign outside the restaurant said it was based on Japanese washoku and I said that I didn't know how healthy "it" (meaning the food I actually ate in that restaurant) was since it was all sweet and some of it was deep-fried or pasta-based, and therefore decidedly "un-washoku-ish". She deleted her comment after I said that. Both of my comments were providing information, but were received as admonishment and contradiction.

Sometimes I feel like it's far too easy to scare away or upset Japanese people and that I have to watch what I say to a ludicrous extent and reactions are unpredictable. The risk of offending them or sounding like I'm "disagreeing" with Japanese people when I'm not is something that I won't miss. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Will Miss #391 - amashoku

Back in my early days in Japan, there were few foods that I liked and trusted not to present me with a filling of sweetened beans. At that time, I was pretty squeamish about any of "that Japanese stuff". One of the easily enjoyable and reliable treats is/was amashoku, a half-cookie/half cake sort of baked good which is lightly sweet and has enough dryness to give it a pleasant cookie texture and enough moisture to give a cakey density. It's sometimes referred to as a "sweet bun", but it is not bread. It is sometimes referred to as a cake, but it's more like a muffin top with a high egg content and a low sugar content.

I have a nostalgic feeling for amashoku, and enjoy its unique properties, and I will miss it. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Won't Miss #391 - the smell of fish

Students often ask me about my first impression of Japan. I always give them an honest answer, and they really don't like it. The first thing I thought when I stepped off the plane in Narita was "I smell fish". When I sit at home teaching my students with the windows open, invariably, one of my neighbors will stink up the great outdoors with fish. Unfortunately, some of them seem to be horrible cooks who burn it or use old oil. One thing about living in Japan is that the odor of fish is much more present. This makes sense since this is a food culture which enjoys it some fish. Does anyone enjoy the smell of raw or burning fish? Even those who find it appetizing aren't lingering in the seafood sections, deeply inhaling and thinking, there's nothing better than this. Fresh baked bread scent, it certainly is not.

I won't miss the frequent experience of detecting the odor of fish in the air.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Will Miss #390 - food fads

Bagna Cauda on display, the big fad of 2011.

All countries have fads, and I'm sure many have food fads, though Japan's seem to occur with greater intensity and frequency than I recall experiencing back home. Many of them get started by a T.V. program which highlights a particular dish, restaurant or food. Sometimes it is impossible to trace, but once the ball gets rolling, everyone jumps on the fad with a passion and the tattered remnants remain for years afterward. Since coming here, among other food fads, I've experienced the ascendance of crepes, Belgian waffles, tiramisu and mangoes. These food fads are not like diet food fads, though the banana diet was all the rage a few years ago. They are simply everyone "discovering" a new dish or food and going nuts for it at the same time.

I'll miss these food fads, which come and go with a high frequency.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Won't Miss #390 - dirty looks for English

I always get gawked at in public because of my appearance. Though I don't like seeing people do triple takes when they see me and just have to look back again and again, it's usually just basic rudeness. When my husband (who is also American) and I are out walking around, we, rather reasonably, speak English to each other. It's important to say here that we are not loud talkers. We speak at a reasonable volume, certainly no more loudly than other people having conversations and a good deal lower than more raucous groups of Japanese people or those on cell phones. However, when we speak English to each other, occasionally someone (usually a man), will whip his head around as if an insult had been lobbed like an errant glob of expectorant at the back of his head. A malevolent look, sometimes for the duration of our remaining in each other's presence, is directed our way. Recently, we were subjected to about 9 minutes of nasty looks and disgusted sounds for speaking to one another in the presence of a particular man while riding on a train. It's as if the very act of speaking our native tongue to one another is unspeakably inappropriate behavior and our insistence on continuing to engage in such behavior incites rage on the part of the offended party.

I won't miss people who think I've engaged in some sort of horrific social faux pas for having the audacity to speak my native tongue in public when having a private conversation with my husband.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Will Miss #389 - civilized behavior in theaters

Since I haven't been to an American movie theater in over two decades, I had forgotten how badly behaved that some people can be. Often the absence of a bad experience does not register as a necessarily good one. I hadn't thought about how people do extremely rude things in movie theaters in the U.S. until I saw some FaceBook updates about people who talked loudly, kicked the back of seats, and put their feet up on top of other people's seats or next to their heads. Generally, it's not uncommon for people back home to make complete nuisances of themselves without regard for the ability of others to enjoy the movie.

I have never experienced overtly bad behavior in a theater in Japan and I will miss the fact that people have enough courtesy not to act like asses in theaters.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Won't Miss #389 - talking to A-bomb survivors

Some posts are especially tricky to write and this one has to top them all both in terms of expressing the complexity of the feelings and the risk of being misinterpreted (willfully, in many cases, as self-righteousness needs to find an outlet even if it is an inappropriate one). I should note that the atomic bombs were dropped more than 20 years before I was born and no member of my family had anything to do with World War II in Asia (though my grandfather served in Europe). There is no reason why I should feel responsible in any way for what happened, but I still feel by virtue of the country that I happened to be born in that I "should" apologize when I speak with a survivor. It's an odd compulsion, but it is there and hard to explain until you are in that situation. That being said, that is not the part that bothers me. I feel terrible for people on all sides who suffered during the war and I know that all war is both a small (personal pain and loss) and big (geopolitical, economic, and impersonal) issue. It's also immensely complex and talk of it often is oversimplified in the interests of self-gratifying finger-pointing. I feel worse for people whose family members vanished without a trace because of the atomic bombs, but I feel bad for everyone who suffers losses in war regardless of their nationality.

Feeling deep empathy and sadness as well as a misplaced sense of responsibility isn't what I'm not going to miss about talking to A-bomb survivors in Japan. The part I won't miss is when such discussions are accompanied by smiles from said survivors as they try to paper over the discomfort and suffering they experienced with a socially comforting expression. I won't miss the heartbreaking smiles that A-bomb survivors wear when they talk about this time in their lives. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Will Miss #388 - husband thanking

This is actually a thank you sign at a rikshaw ride, but it's the only picture I have with the words "thank you" on it in English.

There's a custom/habit in Japan which sometimes receives a little flak from more feminist-oriented types, and no small resistance from at least a handful of the foreign wives of Japanese men. This custom is one in which wives thank their husbands for going to the office and earning money to support the family. The problem with this custom through Western eyes is that it comes across as the woman thanking her "master" of a husband for his contribution, while hers may go unrecognized. I don't know how it tends to work in each individual family, but I do think that it is a good custom in general. My husband is American, and I often express gratitude to him for working while I work part-time and do the housework, and he also thanks me for all I do to make life better for both of us.

I think that recognizing that a particular contribution is of value increases the chance that both parties will understand each other's contributions and that there is nothing subservient or anti-feminist about thanking the breadwinner for subjecting himself (or herself) to the daily grind while the other party looks after the home front, and I'll miss that.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Won't Miss #388 - coerced confessions

The obscured word is "Shut".

Sometimes I wonder if my most ardent stalkers realize the risk they take with their hostile e-mail messages and the trollish responses that they make as they follow me to every site I comment on around the web. If anything untoward were ever to befall me, from a robbery to an attack to an unfortunate fatal accident, the first finger would be pointed straight at their I.P. addresses (which I have a growing collection of). The Japanese police, who do not do forensic research or investigations so much as decide who committed the crime and then coerce a confession out of the "guilty" party, would then arrest the errant stalker and they'd be in the pokey for the crime whether they committed it or not. This potentially gratifying outcome aside, the fact that this happens in Japan has been a source of concern for my husband and I throughout our stay in Japan. We live with a certain paranoia that if we were to ever be unfairly fingered for a crime we did not commit, we know that various unpleasant techniques would be employed to force us to confess. What is worse is that the Japanese populace, by and large, believes that the police only arrest the guilty and therefore do not question this practice.

I won't miss this nagging worry that if the police decide my husband or I broke the law, we'd be browbeaten down and placed in jail for something we did not do.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Will Miss #387 - tuning out incidental conversations

If you've ever sat in a coffee shop next to someone really noisy and had trouble tuning out the details of their personal life, you can understand where I'm coming from with this. I'll be the first to admit that my Japanese skill pretty much blows and that I have to pay attention to what is being said to understand. It's not the sort of thing which effortlessly enters my consciousness, but rather has to pass through a filter. This obviously has drawbacks, but also certain benefits. Except for the omnipresent "ne" that seems to punctuate the end of every sentence when people are conversing, I can tune out the chatter quite effectively.

It's easier to see the contents of other people's conversations as white noise when you're dealing with a second language and I will miss that.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Won't Miss #387 - whining about American portions

One of my students has a brother who lives in San Diego. He has gained 15 kg. (33 lbs.) in two years due to eating American-size meals. I suggested that he not eat everything he is served and prepare his own food more frequenlty, but she wasn't having any of that sort of crazy logic. No, it was the American food that was the problem, not his laziness about cooking or inability not to gobble down every morsel placed in front of him. I frequently hear students whine about how over-sized food servings are in restaurants in the U.S. No doubt, the portions are too big and this is linked to a cultural perception in the U.S. that value is linked to quantity. However, in my experience, they're too big in Japan as well at restaurants (at least in terms of carbs) and I manage this by simply not eating it all.

I won't miss hearing Japanese people complain that portions are too big in the U.S. when they eat it all up of their own volition (and they usually do, as if it were some challenge they had to meet). 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Will Miss #386 - learning (deeply) about Japanese business

OK, no matter how much I understand about Japanese business, I don't know why this video shop is named "Slum."

If you have ever gone into a video rental shop in Japan, you may note that there are often more foreign titles than domestic ones. What fairly obvious conclusion would you reach? If you're like most people (including myself), you would conclude that foreign titles are more popular than Japanese ones. Sometimes, especially for runaway hits like "24" and "Prison Break", that is very much true. However, that is not the reason why there are so many more of such titles in rental shops. The reason is that most of the foreign entertainment production companies use a system called PPT (payment per transaction) and domestic ones do not. That means that the foreign companies provide the discs for free and share the profits according to how often those titles are rented. The domestic ones usually sell their discs outright. Since the former is lower risk, rental shops prefer to stock foreign-made titles.

I have learned a great deal about Japanese business at a level of depth that few others have because of the type of work I do and the way in which I deal with people, and I will miss the way in which it has allowed me to reach well-informed conclusions about Japan and Japanese culture rather than the all-too-easy superficial conclusions that people (both foreign and Japanese) make.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Won't Miss #386 - lack of strong flavors

One of my coworkers was a chef in Australia and he remarked that he should appreciate the fact that Japanese food is quite subtle in taste, but the truth is that he actually finds Japanese food rather bland. I'll admit that my foreign taste buds also favor intense flavors. It's not that I can't appreciate some of the subtler flavors, but my favorite things are definitely stronger (yuzu koshoo, Tyrant Habanero snacks and wasabi, for instance). I'm exactly the demographic that things like "flavor-blasted" salted snacks back home are geared toward. While my Japanese friends and acquaintances praise things like konnyaku, plain rice, and tofu, I find them extremely boring. I can eat those things, but I'd rather have them mixed with something more flavorful. 

I won't miss the relative lack of strong flavors in Japan. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Will Miss #385 - (relative) economic parity

I've said before that Japan conducts a sort of "soft socialism", but it's not necessarily rooted in the redistribution of wealth. There is, however, relative economic parity in Japan with a large middle class, few rich people, and few poor people. This is accomplished by not offering presidents and CEOs obscenely lavish salaries and keeping the bottom income bracket a little further from the rocks and by not undercutting employees in order to service stock holders. The Japanese do not embrace conspicuous wealth and overtly disapprove of the flaunting of wealth. Though they aren't known for their political activism or complaining, it is clear to me from years of talking to Japanese folks that they will not easily suffer their company leaders being grotesquely overpaid while the people at the bottom lose lifetime employment and financial security. Being roughly financially in a similar situation as others in Japan means people feel like they are in the same boat lifestyle-wise. It undercuts feelings of envy, keeps crime low, and makes people more satisfied with their quality of life. 

I will miss the social benefits of living in a society in which most people live at approximately the same economic level. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Won't Miss #385 - bait and switch fruit stands

Fruit in Japan is expensive, though not quite as obscenely so as most foreign folks believe. Still, many Japanese people do not routinely eat fruit except for bananas because it's on the dear side and that makes it hard to include as part of their regular diet. Fruit is often a treasured gift, unless it is persimmons that are harvested by the truckload and freely dispensed when in season. Because of the high price of fruit, one can get pretty excited at the prospect of scoring some for a low price as seems possible in the fruit cart pictured above. Large white peaches are usually 100 yen ($1.25) apiece or more. This cart seems to be offering them at the bargain price of 5 peaches for a mere 300 yen. The thing is that this is a bait and switch situation. When you walk up to the cart and try to buy them, they'll tell you that some anemic runts of the litter that are hidden out of easy view are what you can get for the low price (worms and bruises thrown in for free). The prize beauties on top are about 150-200 yen each. 

It's possible that some of these carts are selling what they seem to sell, but in my experience, they are always trying to pull a fast one and I won't miss this sort of shady dealing. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Will Miss #384 - watching the engineers

I don't know what it's like to run a train in America, especially in a metropolis like New York in which there is a large and complex system servicing a wide area. I can say that standing behind the engineer and watching how he operates when you get on a Japan Railway train is a pretty fascinating experience. He is sitting in there alone, but follows a very rigid routine of gesturing and movement. At first, I didn't realize why he pointed so often with his pristinely clean white-gloved hand then I realized he does so in recognition of signal lights. Even though they could easily not go through this routine out of view of other employees, they all do this because it's what they are supposed to do (and I'm guessing this sort of interaction keeps them alert).

To me, the way in which this work is meticulously followed by people in formal uniforms is a reflection of some of the best Japanese culture has to offer in terms of following a carefully carried out work ethic and I will miss it. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Won't Miss #384 - Japanese (whatever) is "better"

Even the frozen French fries are better in Japan because, you know, they mix them with mini-weenies. 

Upon returning from a trip to Hawaii, one of my students asked me if I thought Japanese watermelon was sweeter than American watermelon. My truthful reply was that I've had sweet melon in both countries and relatively tasteless stuff in both of them. I've probably had more so-so watermelon in Japan simply because I've been an adult here longer and bought more of it. My student looked shocked at this reply and said that she really thought Japanese watermelon was "better". I will grant one thing; Japanese watermelon has a different taste and smell. It's not "better", but is absolutely "different". It's like American and Japanese pumpkin. Both are good, but have unique properties and need to be prepared differently to suit their strengths, but Japanese people are always telling me that all things Japanese are superior to all things American.

The bottom line is that we tend to like things the way we're used to them. It's entirely subjective, and it's tiresome hearing people say that everything from the food to the furniture design to the way in which people communicate is "better" in Japan than America, and I won't miss it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Will Miss #383 - Yebisu beer (by proxy)

The Yebisu beer museum in Ebisu.

I'm a creature that fascinates most Japanese folks because I don't drink and have never drunk alcohol of any kind. When I say this, they respond with surprise and then get a strange look on their faces. That look, I'm pretty sure, relates to whatever reason they've conjured up for my avoidance of what can be seen as a magic elixir of relaxation and a lubricant for communication in Japan. Those that have felt comfortable enough to ask me why speculate that I'm religious (I'm not) or that I must have some sort of liver issue (I don't). They can't fathom that I don't partake because I think alcohol smells bad and it holds no appeal an intoxicant (as I've never been intoxicated by anything) or gustatory experience. My husband, on the other hand, likes certain types of alcohol and he loves Yebisu beer. At one point, he even did a taste test to make sure he wasn't fooling himself about the nature of the beer since it is more expensive than other beer.

I know my husband will miss Yebisu beer, and I'll miss knowing how much he enjoys a mug of it with a well-prepared bit of steak or chicken.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Won't Miss #383 - okonomiyaki

In theory, I should love okonomiyaki. Well, I should love it as much as you can love a food that looks like someone hurled the contents of their dinner onto a grill. For a society so obsessed with the appearance of food, it's surprising that this "Japanese savory pancake" is so popular. Okonomiyaki is a food that is prepared "as you like it", so you can customize the composition. Unfortunately my first experience with this particular dish was one of those typical negative experiences that foreigners have in Japan. I was in Japan visiting my then-boyfriend (now husband) and one of his students wanted to go for a meal with us. She arranged a time and date and met us at an okonomiyaki place. She chose the cuisine without consulting us about our tastes, but we were both relatively new to Japan and figured we'd go with the flow. All proceeded as planned except she showed up with 4 friends who didn't speak English and they proceeded to giggle and carry on in Japanese 95% of the time. She essentially wanted to show off having gaijin "friends" to her Japanese friends and ambushed us with a crowd of people who thought we were entertainment to accompany their meal, not actual human beings with whom they had to behave graciously. 

I didn't care for the (too fishy) okonomiyaki that I had during that titter-fest and though I'm sure that I could custom order a version I'd enjoy, I will forever associate it with an early experience with extremely rude behavior that showed some of the worst Japanese people can sometimes offer foreign visitors. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Will Miss #382 - not taking impersonal things personally

He's probably not even a KISS fan.

One of the drawbacks about people who live in cultures with a great emphasis on individuality is that the people who comprise that culture often don't know who they are or what they define themselves by. This results in people defining themselves by trivial matters such as the soda brands they drink, the sports teams they follow, political party, choice of computer platform, or the musicians they favor. They define themselves by a plethora of external factors which really have little to do with who they really are because their cultures don't offer a solid definition. In Japan, people are defined by their characteristics as Japanese people and generally do not identify as strongly or personally with trivial external factors. You're quite unlikely to encounter a Japanese person who will judge you poorly because you bought a Macintosh and they own a PC or who will get angry with you because you express dislike for a musician they love. I wish I could say the same for people back in the U.S., who, at times, are inclined to foam at the mouth when you say something about loving Coke when they love Pepsi because it's not a knock at a brand of beverage, but rather a shot at who they see themselves to be.

Most Japanese people's identities aren't so mired in such things so they don't take these impersonal factors personally, and I'll miss that.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Won't Miss #382 - sugar in "everything"

When you think of Japanese food, the last thing you probably think of is sugar. It is absolutely true that the sweets have less total sugar than a lot of Western sweets. However, sugar (or artificial sweetene) is added to plenty of savory foods and traditional dishes. Sukiyaki, nimono, and other dishes have sugar and/or sweet sake as components. A great deal of savory sembei also includes noticeable amounts of sugar or sweetener which often makes for a somewhat strange pairing at times. For people who don't want to consume sugar, it can be rather complicated to avoid sugar when eating in Japan.

It's a matter of personal taste, but I really don't like sugar being put in savory foods, and I won't miss it.