Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Won't Miss #413 - cutting/adding sounds

Sometimes I have to really reach for a picture, especially when I'm talking about sounds. So, we have this extremely tenuous connection here. 

One correction I've made to students' English about a million times by now is the addition of an "a" at the end of the word "salad". This is because Japanese, with a few exceptions, operates with consonant vowel pairs (e.g., ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, but not just "k") and salad is pronounced as "salada" in Japan. Prying the added sounds off the end of an English word that has been adapted to suit Japanese pronunciation is close to impossible (shirt and suit, are similarly difficult as they are perma-pluralized in Japanese as "shatsu" and "suitsu").

This side of the puzzle wouldn't bother me so much except that the Japanese seem perfectly capable of truncating these sounds of their own volition when it suits them. There's a department store called "Seibu" (pronounced "say-boo") which they almost always refer to as "Seib" (sabe). I've also heard people say "Shinjuk" for "Shinjuku".  It's a small thing (but did you actually expect 1000 big things about Japan?), but it annoys me that I can't get them to chop off sounds where necessary when speaking English, but they are capable of doing so in their own language when it isn't.

I won't miss this linguistic inconsistency. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Will Miss #412 - gobo

Delicious Dominica soup curry with many well-prepared vegetables including a tasty bit of burdock. 

"Gobo" means "burdock" in Japanese. Before coming here, burdock was something that I had to pick off my clothes after a childhood romp through the field behind my rural home. It was certainly not something that was included in a delicious salad that could be purchased in nearly every deli and convenience store. Back when I first arrived in Japan, burdock salad (kinpira) with it's crunchy texture and lovely sesame flavoring was one of those things I instantly took to despite a very squeamish and decidedly picky palate.

I love burdock and am always delighted to find it in a dish in Japan. Given that it is considered slightly risky (as it is part of the poisonous nightshade family, as are tomatoes) to eat if not handled properly, I imagine it's not likely to catch on in the U.S., so I'll miss being able to eat it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Won't Miss #412 - Tokyo fur wearers

My students, who think America does not have four distinct seasons and each area experiences a very limited range of weather, often can't conceive of the idea that I've lived in a place with an actual winter "like Japan". Never mind that Tokyo does not get very cold and sees about one, possibly two days of light snow per year, if that. I grew up in an area along the same latitude as Hokkaido and what we call "winter" is far colder and snowier than what any life-long Tokyo-ite has seen. The fact of the matter is that you really don't need heavy winter clothes, let alone fur coats. However, you not infrequently see women (especially middle-aged ones) sashaying around in fur coats.

I don't have an ethical issue with people wearing fur because, after all, I eat meat (not much, but I do eat it), but I think that wearing it in a climate in which a lot of people run around wearing shorts with tights or panty hose or light jackets is a display of ostentatiousness and I won't miss it. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Will Miss #411 - anthropomorphizing dolls

A doll thrown into the pile of items to be burned at a shrine during New Year's holidays. 

When we're children, we often anthropomorphize our dolls and toys. The entire concept of Toy Story is based on the idea that we all once felt our toys were real and capable of feeling. That being said, as a culture, and particularly as adults, we don't view dolls as anything other than memories of bygone days and items to eventually be disposed of in the most convenient manner possible. In Japan, the sense that there is real life in dolls goes beyond that. There is a superstition that a spirit resides inside of them and there are shrines devoted to disposing of various types of dolls properly.

As someone who (as a child) used to feel guilty about not loving some of my dolls as often as others, I find myself empathizing with this thinking and find the way in which dolls are dealt with as an indication of how we all share common feelings about the smallest things across cultures. I will miss seeing the dolls in the trash piles at shrines and what it means.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Won't Miss #411 - "Tarzan" speak

Some English teachers operate under the dubious philosophy that if they speak English poorly, their students with comprehension problems will have an easier time understanding. Sitting next to one of these teachers provides one with a steady stream of dropped articles ("a", "the", "an"), plurals that lost their s's, and adjectives subbing for adverbs. An example would be something like, "boy walk quick to store," instead of, "the boys walked quickly to the store." This sort of poor English speaking is only serving as a model of poor habits for the student and makes the teacher sound like a complete and total idiot. It does nothing to improve comprehension as few students are getting hung up on removed components of the sentence. Usually, their inability to understand is linked to vocabulary, listening only for keys words, or confusion about differences in Japanese and English grammar. It is not helpful to devolve into "me Tarzan, you Jane" grammatical patterns. 

I cringe when I hear a teacher speaking in this way, and I hear it all too often. I think it reflects poorly on English teaching in Japan and underestimates the Japanese. I won't miss hearing people who think speaking like a caveman is somehow helping their students learn. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Will Miss #410 - bad dancing

One of my students loves Michael Jackson. Well, there's a very good chance that more than one of them loves him as he has been super popular in Japan since his death. At any rate, there was a tribute performance to him that included performers of various nationalities including, of course, Japanese. She praised the Koreans and the Americans, but said little about her countrymen. I asked her how the Japanese were and she paused for a moment and said, "it's important to try and get everything right." When I asked her what she meant, she paused again and repeated that phrase. What she was trying to avoid saying was that the Japanese are bad dancers, even when they are supposed to be professional. There's a reason for this which relates to culture, but unfortunately that assertion is often referred to in jokes in racist terms. To that end, Dave Barry once said that the Japanese made white folks look cool because of their awkward movement. It has little to do with their blood and everything to do with the Japanese approach to getting the job done in a meticulous, regimented, and coordinated manner. It's the same ethos which has them practicing their baseball players to the point of exhaustion and at the expense of their performance.

There's something innocent and heartening about how the dancers work so hard to get it right yet somehow manage to look like they've trained for a high school musical and I'll miss seeing them.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Won't #410 - disbelief of American poverty

One of my students recently told me that she went to an Italian restaurant which was offering venison as a special dish. She asked me if I'd ever tried deer meat, and I told her that, because I grew up very poor, I indeed had eaten venison because sometimes my family had no money for food and my father would have to kill deer, rabbits, and, even squirrels, so we'd have food to eat. This topic also comes up when I talk about other aspects of my life such as paying for college with loans that I paid off myself. When I talk about growing up in poverty, Japanese people have literally waved such words away with their hands. They believe I'm simply exaggerating as a way of displaying modesty. I would believe this was because they believe white people can't possibly be poor, but one of my African American coworkers expressed the same frustration when he tried to talk to them about poverty in the U.S. (which he also experienced). As he put it and I paraphrase here, 'they believe all of America is represented by the tourist-safe areas of the cities they visit.' They can't conceptualize that there is incredible poverty in a country as advanced and powerful as the United States.

I won't miss people dismissing my personal history as mere exaggeration because they can't wrap their heads around the notion that there are extremely poor American people. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Will Miss #409 -orderliness

I have spent a long time pondering what it is that essentially makes American culture different from Japanese culture. While I do not flatter myself sufficiently to believe I have anything resembling a full understanding, I think that one essential aspect of Japanese culture is that there is a very high valuation of order. This is why there are so many rules and relatively rigid thinking. It's why people are trained to follow the same pattern and perform their jobs like automatons sometimes and seem incapable of using their own judgment to deal with a novel situation. The desire to predict what is to come is a product of a need to make sure all is following the expected order. Violations are essentially the introduction of chaos into the situation and that does not sit well with the Japanese psyche.

The way in which order is valued means that people tend to behave in expected ways. This offers a sense of security when dealing with people and I will miss the way in which valuing order creates comfortable and comforting predictability.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Won't Miss #409 - (illogical) rigidity

I know that all cultures have "rules", but Japan has more than I grew up with and they apply to the smallest things. For instance, you can't serve certain dishes with certain foods. It's not that they don't taste good together, but it is simply "not done". This is particularly so among the older set, but I've had younger people complain about things like women putting on make-up on trains. This is an act which troubles no one, but is still simply "not done". Cleaning for the New Year must be done before the holiday, not after when you've got nothing but time on your hands. It's not done after the new year has already started!

All people have their quirky and idiosyncratic ways of thinking and acting, but in Japan it tends to be relatively culture-wide and fall under the heading of "common sense" (joshiki) which means "it's what everybody thinks and does," not "it's what makes sense." I won't miss the rigidity and the defiance or abandonment of logic when failing to explain why such rules exist and should be followed. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shameless (Non-Self) Promotion

Most people are familiar with the Rashomon effect either by that particular term or as the old statement about there being three sides to every story, yours, mine, and the truth. In Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon movie, he attempted to illustrate this concept in his own inimitable way. Personally, I think some "truths" are too big to be known or understood by any one person and that such truths are like infinity. That is, you can approach, but never reach them.

Knowing any entire country's culture would be one of those vast truths that can never be known through the filter of any one individual. Even researchers who do their level best to distill facts are not presenting "the truth", but rather "a truth". In order to scientifically discover truth, you have to alter it, minimize mitigating factors, and certainly ignore huge swaths of potential candidates who can provide alternative but equally valid data in order to keep the sample size down. The truth is bigger than any one measure of it.

If you want to understand Japan, it's not enough to live here. It's not enough to see it with your own eyes and process experiences with your single mind. If you want to move closer to the truth, you have to look at it through the eyes of as many others as possible. Some eyes are more discerning than others and some hearts and souls more perceptive. What is better is that some word masters are more articulate and entertaining about how they share their experiences. To that end, I have been following the Loco in Yokohama blog for quite some time.

You can learn more about buying a copy of Baye McNeil's first book here.

Loco, who is Baye McNeil in real life, is unique among Japan bloggers for a variety of reasons. First of all, he is African American in an arena that seems to be dominated by white boys and mommy bloggers (not that there's anything wrong with either of those types of bloggers as they have a relevant truth to share as well!). That means that his experiences are going to be different based on the fact that his physical presence elicits different responses from the natives than many other bloggers are receiving. Second, he comes from a pretty hard background which makes his perspective rather unique. The context through which he views life here is just as honest and real as that of folks like me who grew up in rural farming communities or as those who grew up in urban areas or grew up affluent. Finally, and most importantly, he's a writer

When I say he's "a writer", I don't mean that he simply strings together words and sentences to provide information. I mean he holds your attention and entertains you. He elicits emotions and displays his own passion. People who can wield words with skill and energy are rare. Fortunately for us, Baye has used his skills as a word craftsmen to produce his first book, and I am encouraging my readers to read it. You can read it because you are interested in Japan. You can read it because you want another perspective on the truth about this country. Or, you can read it because you enjoy great writing. That'll be my reason. 

Will Miss #408 - oshibori

"Oshibori" are wet towels, sometimes hot, sometimes not, and sometimes real cloth and sometimes a paper towel, that you are given at the beginning of a meal in restaurants in Japan. They are given to allow you to approach your food with clean hands. One of my students once mentioned their absence in restaurants in the U.S. and said she didn't know what people did to make sure they had clean hands before eating. I told her that I would wash my hands in the bathroom, but the truth is that I think most people just forget to do anything at all. Chances are they get served a sandwich or finger food and just tuck in without a second thought.  Even if you do remember to wash up in the bathroom, I'm not so sure that you're a whole lot better off because you usually have to touch a door handle to get out and there are people who don't wash their hands after doing their business who touch it. 

The Japanese way of giving you a towel to wash your hands before eating at a restaurant makes it easier to be clean before touching your food and removes any concerns about forgetting or getting re-introduced to bacteria from touching dirty surfaces in the bathroom. I will miss being given oshibori at the beginning of a restaurant meal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Won't Miss #408 - fear of America

I've said before and I'm sure I'll say it again and again; context is everything. I've been in Japan a long time and haven't been home for 20 years. As a result of this, I've started to absorb a lot of the negative, skewed and distorted perspectives about life in America that the Japanese have. They talk incessantly about guns, violence, crime, and safety as if you risk getting mugged on every street corner and every person is packing heat (which is only true in Arizona). Though I never experienced crime when I lived in my tiny rural home or during the year I spent in Silicon Valley, it's hard to keep the collective fears of everyone around me from thinking that going home might not be such a great idea. Frankly, a little bit of what has kept me here so long is concern that my home is as bad as people keep saying it is. I am actually scared of life back home after years of viewing it through Japanese eyes.

I don't like how the fears of people who have limited experience in the United States have colored my view of my home and will not miss being surrounded by the uninformed perceptions of people with limited or no actual experience. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Will Miss #407 - sea mail and small packet

A box sent to us from a friend which had to be sent by airmail parcel post which cost a whopping $69. The value of the contents was likely lower than the cost of the shipping. I imagine our fate once we leave Japan will be to be relegated to such exorbitant fees or to not send anything to friends abroad.

Because my husband and I got together as penpals, and he spent a year alone in Japan during our "courtship", we are both intimately familiar with the respective postal services in Japan and the U.S. I sent no less than 200 parcels to him during our separation and he likely sent as many or more back to me. Back in those days, I could use a postal rate called "small packet" to more cheaply send my cassette tapes to him and I used sea mail to send hefty goody boxes to see him through the long months without Western junk food and reading material. Both of these rates are extremely important in keeping postal rates at a level that average folks can afford. Unfortunately, last time my husband tried to mail things from the U.S. to Japan (2-3 years ago), he got a rude awakening. The USPS eliminated both sea mail and small packet so now it costs a bundle to mail anything outside of the U.S. I can't imagine how our snail mail relationship would have gone without the existence of these rates back when we got together, but it wouldn't have been good. 

Japan still embraces both sea mail and small packet and it has made it much more reasonable to sell things by eBay to countries outside of the U.S. and to send things to friends or family. I will miss the option of these reasonable rates at the post office. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Won't Miss #407 - bicycle/bike confusion

Neighborhood kitty doesn't care what word I use. It just wants a place to sleep.

Sometimes the simplest conversations get tangled in a web of confusion and the use of the word "bike" in Japan always seems to spin this web. When I'm speaking in English with a Japanese person and ask, "have you ever had your bike stolen," and the answer will be, "I don't have a bike." That same person may have mentioned previously that he or she indeed has a bicycle, but this is a Japanese-English problem. In Japan, "bike" means "motorbike" or motorized scooter. You may not think bicycles are going to be discussed all that much, but, in Tokyo, more people use bicycles than cars by a huge margin. It becomes very frustrating and tiresome having to modify my natural and absolutely correct English to suit the manner in which Japanese-English works.

No matter how many times I tell students that, in English, "bike" and "bicycle" are one and the same, there will be a miscommunication any time this simple topic is broached and I won't miss it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Will Miss #406 - missionary results

As someone who grew up in a small town with small minds and a white bread Christian mentality, I'm very familiar with the negative aspects of Christianity. It's also easy to point an accusing finger at a lot of societal turmoil, war and suffering and hang the blame on Christian fundamentalism. However, not all Christians are militant and many do a lot of good in the world. Back home, this seemed to be limited to local help for the hungry, homeless, or poor on a temporary basis. If you live abroad and pay attention, you can see that it's more than bake sales, free soup, and bible school. In Japan, I've seen the fruit of missionary efforts planted a long time ago. I'm not talking about conversion or conformity to Christian morality, but rather about things which are concrete and beneficial to everyone in society regardless of spiritual beliefs. There are many hospitals and educational institutions which exist in Japan as a result of missionary work. While Japan is now a wealthy country that seems fully capable of organizing such things themselves, the current institutions were put in place when the situation was very much the opposite. What is more, many of those institutions support continuing education of Japanese people on the church's dime in whole or in part. This includes, but is not limited to sending doctors to the United States to learn new techniques.

I will miss seeing the concrete evidence of the positive side of missionary activities and witnessing first hand that they are not all about converting the local heathens. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Won't Miss #406 - proselytizers outside of shrines

I've said before that the Japanese aren't particularly religious, though they do go through the motions (visiting shrines and temples, praying, etc.) a lot for a non-religious people, and they aren't uptight about religion and tend to ignore proselytizers. During New Year's holidays, Christians stand in front of the entrance of Meiji shrine, the most popular shrine for hatsumode (first prayer of the new year) in Tokyo, and encourage people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. The Japanese aren't really bothered by this, but as a person from an overwhelmingly Christian nation, I find it disrespectful. During Japan's most important religious holiday in front of their capital's most popular site, they try to convert people. This is tantamount to Hare Krishna's or Moslems standing outside of a church on Christmas trying to persuade Christians to change religions as they go in for services. My guess is that they wouldn't put up with it, yet they don't see anything wrong with doing this to the Japanese. I don't mind that they do it in crowded places like train stations, but in front of shrines seems just wrong, especially at such a special time of year.

I won't miss seeing proselytizers shamelessly trying to convert the natives to their religion in front of Japanese religious structures. It doesn't bother the Japanese, but it bothers me because it has more than a whiff of hypocrisy.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Will Miss #405 - playing Auld Lang Syne for shop closing

A crowded department store during New Year's sales. I'd love to see this bunch cleared out with a song.

When shops are about to close back home, announcements are often made which are the polite equivalent of "we're closing soon so finish what you're doing and get out." In Japan, they handle it in a gentler way. When the time for the shop to close is coming up, they start playing Auld Lang Syne. The funny thing about this is that they don't play this New Year's classic during the actual holiday, but many shops play it every day to bid their customer's farewell. 

I think this is a gentle way of ushering customer's out of shops and I imagine that, for the rest of my life no matter where I am or what the situation, I will always associate this song with Japanese stores offering a genteel goodbye to their patrons. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

Won't Miss #405 - skin care advice (that is ignored)

Nine times out of ten, when a Japanese woman says she has bought "cosmetics", she has picked up a plethora of skin care products (not make-up). In fact, most women under 50 have a "skin care regime" that they go through which costs them a pretty penny. Because my skin is clear and pale, I'm often asked what I do to maintain it. The answer is, "nothing." I buy soap which is 3 bars for 98 yen ($1.22) and I wash my face once, sometimes twice a day. Other than that, I apply cheap moisturizer (bought at the 100 yen shop) after I shower because I'm getting older and my skin is thinner around my eyes. I don't use sun screen or a parasol either. I tell my Japanese acquaintances who ask that it's not what you put on your face that matters, but what you put in your body. Good skin comes from eating (preferably, cooked) tomatoes, carrots, and citrus, and from drinking plenty of water. I get nods and proclamations that they, too, will do these things, but they never do it. Japanese women drink plain water very rarely, if at all, and the promise of better skin at no cost isn't enough to compel them to start doing so.

I won't miss wasting my breath talking about skin care basics with women who'd rather throw money ineffectively at their issues than do what works.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Will Miss #404 - the blue forest

Worldwide, there are a lot of incredible places with illumination. Sometimes they are ostentatious and ridiculous and sometimes beautiful. I'm not a huge fan of the gigantic over-the-top displays and am more of a fan of places which manage to generate a mood. For me, the most magical display in Tokyo is the Blue Forest in front of the Caretta building in Shiodome. During the day, it's a bunch of metal and wires that resemble modern sculpture. At night, it's a magical field with trees. The atmosphere after dark when the lights go on is incredible. The care with which the lights are strung to create a perfect illusion of  hedges of light surrounding trees all made up of electronic glows is something I also associate with Japanese meticulousness. 

I will miss being able to see this magic made by strings of light and electricity. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Won't Miss #404 - the superiority thing

The flip-side to the lingering inferiority complex that the Japanese people have about their position relative to Western cultures and China is the superiority complex about Asia. There is an interesting contradiction displayed in regards to China in particular. The Japanese frequently criticize all things Chinese from the lack of order as demonstrated by not lining up to the rudeness to the food quality and safety to the cleanliness yet they fear China is going to eclipse Japan economically. The sense that Japan is not even a part of Asia and is above other Asian countries has become somewhat muted as the economy has behaved like a slowly sinking ship since the bubble burst, but it is still there.

I won't miss the superiority complex that some Japanese people display when speaking of other Asian countries. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Will Miss #403 - the slo-mo hang-up

Politeness in Japan can sometimes be carried to ridiculous levels, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the slow motion hang up of phones. In my former office, when a salesman called a client, he put the receiver back in the cradle as if he were settling a sleeping baby into its bed and trying not to make the least little move that would jar it awake. I asked why salesmen took about 5 minutes to perform the simple act of putting down the phone. It's not like the person on the other end can see their gentle cessation of a call. I was told that they didn't want anyone to think they were "slamming" down the phone. By the time that receiver actually touched the cradle, the person on the other end was on his way home at the end of the day.

I'll miss the slo-mo hang-up that people used to do as an absurd tip of the hat to customer service and excessive politeness.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Won't Miss #403 - the inferiority thing

Japan has the third largest economy in the world with the 10th largest population. Tokyo leads the world's major cities in patent applications. The country is known for its superior technology. Their cars dominate the automobile market. Japan is a very small country with almost no natural resources. The fact that their food, pop culture, and products are known and desired and that they are an economic force to be reckoned with is amazing in light of their size and circumstances. Despite all of this, Japanese people, by and large, have an enormous inferiority complex. They fret about being eclipsed by China economically. They talk how they have shorter legs than Westerners and flatter noses as if these were signs of some sort of inadequacy on their part. They note every loss in an international athletic event as an indication of their inferiority. I encounter a steady stream of people who think Japan is weak and inadequate to every Western nation and China.

Japan is an amazing country that has accomplished a great deal with many disadvantages and I won't miss the lingering inferiority complex that people display despite their many achievements. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Will Miss #402 -the AFLAC duck, Japan-style

Not one, not two, but 3 variants on the duck, and they're all decked out for Halloween!

In the U.S., the AFLAC duck mascot is shown as a real duck. This makes sense since insurance is serious business, well, except for the part where ducks aren't exactly representative of maturity and responsibility. In Japan, the duck gets the same makeover as everything else. It is "cutified" and most of the AFLAC storefronts that I saw included an enormous and utterly adorable stuffed toy version of said duck.

Seeing it there made the whole sense that buying insurance was this adult thing which addressed the need to be secure in cases of death or destruction a little less daunting, and I miss the way that this soft toy softened the feeling associated with something like insurance.