Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Won't Miss #423 - non-deodorant wearers

I realize there are people who stink everywhere in the world, but I encounter far more people with intense B.O. in Tokyo than I have anywhere else. The reason for this is that most Japanese assume they don't stink when they sweat and therefore do not need deodorant. In fact, many believe that only foreigners are capable of smelling bad when they sweat. There was once a sign near deodorant in a drug store which said essentially, "don't smell bad like a foreigner." Well, it's not only foreigners who can smell bad, especially in the hot humid summer, but even year-round. One of the workers at a local convenience store seems especially oblivious and I hate shopping there when he's on duty.

Men in particular seem to be unaware of the putrid funk they are subjecting bystanders to and I definitely won't miss the frequency with which I encounter these clueless stinky Petes.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Will Miss #422 - "death by fan" warnings

Definitely the wrong kind of fan and not about fun...

You can read all of the books and web sites you want about a foreign culture, but chances are that you'll find the reality will catch you off guard sooner rather than later. One day, you'll be talking about the summer heat and how to best cope with it and a student will say that it's just too cold using the air conditioner all night. Rather reasonably, you'll suggest using an electric fan. This will often elicit a wide-eyed look and you'll be told that you shouldn't use a fan while you sleep because you might suffocate. I've told students time and time again that, when I lived in the U.S., I slept all night with a fan in my window and lived to tell the tale, but they still are too superstitious to use one themselves. Sweating the night away is preferable to risking having all of the breathable air sucked out of their lungs by a demon apparatus. 

I'll miss the incredulous looks I get when I say I sleep with an electric fan running and hearing that I'm flirting with death by doing so. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Won't Miss #422 - Japanese fitting rooms

I can't speak for every single fitting room in Japan, just the ones I've tried. Since clothes here aren't exactly made for my foreign body, I am not exactly the most experienced person in this regard. That being said, I can say that at least some of them require you to remove your shoes before entering them. In fact, that is the way in which you indicate the room is occupied in some cases. If you see a pair of shoes outside, someone is in there. Considering that some of them are covered with nothing more than curtains (as is also the case back home at times, or so I'm told), I guess this is better than nothing at stopping people from barging in on your partially naked form. 

Taking your shoes off and putting them back on just adds one more step to the cumbersome task of trying on clothes and I won't miss it when going into a Japanese fitting room. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Will Miss #421 - "analog" signs on T.V.

Getting a picture of a television program showing a cardboard sign is much harder than it might seem.

Japan is undoubtedly one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world. In fact, I've seen computer chips embedded in traffic cones. Machinery is sometimes integrated at a level that would make a Borg mama proud. Given the deep level of technological sophistication that you see around you, it's odd when you see television shows offering information via hand-drawn signs or printed bits of cardboard that have obviously been manually cobbled together. Frankly, it reminds me of 70's game shows in which answers are revealed by pulling away a strip of cardboard from a slot on a larger piece of cardboard. In fact, I've seen Japanese television shows (particularly NHK, Japan's public television network) do precisely that. 

The manner in which analog signs are used in a country which possesses and uses digital technology reflects one of the core aspects of Japanese culture, a blending of the old with the new, and I will miss seeing them. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Won't #421 - walking with my head down

After my thyroid surgery, my doctor asked me how my neck mobility was coming along after several weeks of restricted movement. He asked me to look up and I apparently could not look up as far as I should have been able to. One thing I realized when this happened was that I wasn't so sure that I could really look up very well before the surgery because I constantly walk around Tokyo with my head down. I hadn't though too much about this prior to this experience, but I do know why it happens. One reason is that I don't want to see people staring at me. Not looking up habitually has reduced the stress and frustration I feel at being treated like a freak. If I don't see them staring, I don't get angry. Another is that I've learned to avoid incidental eye contact as it often is seen as an invitation for people who want to get in free English practice to approach me. I now am making a conscious effort to walk with my chin level rather than down all of the time in preparation for returning to America.

To be honest, I think this habit of walking with my head down has had a negative psychological effect on me as well as possibly a physiological effect and I won't miss feeling the need to do it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Will Miss #420 - women who wear little make-up

Few women use this power as much as the woman in this ad. 

One thing that is the case by and large in Japan is that Japanese women don't wear much make-up. Occasionally, you see someone who is sporting enough maquillage to make a clown envious, but the general aesthetic is closer to looking natural. Most of my female students wear foundation and aside from those who go for spider lashes, they wear so little make-up (particularly eye make-up), that they just look normal. I think that this not only makes women look "real", but also reduces the pressure on all women to conform and wear more of it. It makes it that much easier on women like me who prefer to wear none at all most of the time.

I will miss how "real" and natural the vast majority of Japanese women look because they don't tend to wear much make-up. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Won't Miss #420 - talking to people in masks

I think it's quaint and somewhat endearing that you see Japanese people running around wearing surgical masks. It speaks to a certain meticulousness, paranoia, and, yes, even consideration for others. It's also the only way people ever seem capable of covering their mouths when they cough and sneeze. On the flip side though, there is an issue when they keep wearing them even when they are indoors and in a conversation with other people. In my work, it is not uncommon for people who are wearing masks to protect themselves from the swarming bacteria of crowded public spaces to keep them on while they share my tiny cubicle with me. I'm not the least bit offended that they want to protect themselves against "my germs" or those left behind by other students, but I really dislike the fact that I can't see more than half of their faces when talking. It's harder to read expressions and feels like I'm having a convivial conversation with a bank robber.

I won't miss talking to people who are wearing surgical masks. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Will Miss #419 - 108 bell chimes

At or around midnight on New Year's Eve, temples in Japan ring a bell 108 times to rid themselves of their desires and "sins" from the previous year. It's symbolizes a sort of spiritual cleansing so people go into the next year purged of negativity. I think most Japanese people don't know what it means and few think deeply about the meaning. As a custom and a mindset, I like the idea that you leave behind your negative thoughts and feelings and can start with a clean slate the next year. Even if many Japanese folks aren't deeply internationalizing this feeling as they hear the bell ring, I do. The atmosphere that is created by the slow ringing of the bell so many times adds to the sense of ceremony and special nature of the holiday.

I will miss hearing the bells ring 108 times on New Years Eve for what it represents as well as how it brings a sense of peace and good ambience.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Won't Miss #419 - only 2 burners

A lot of short-timers in Japan never really do much in the way of cooking. For them, a toaster oven and one lonely gas burner is more than enough to sustain them between "konbini" (convenience store) sandwiches and rice balls (onigiri) and dinners of UFO yakisoba and instant ramen. For me, as someone who cooks and cooks a lot, having a mere 2 burners on a gas table requires a lot of messing about to get the job done. It's not even about complex meals, but if you want to cook a vegetable, a starch and a main meat or fish dish, that's a three-burner deal right there. I'm not talking about multi-course haute cuisine, but just a basic meal with different components. Though I've become fairly good at juggling, it gets pretty tiresome and troublesome at times.

Some Japanese people have proper stoves (with 3 or 4 burners) in their homes, but most apartment dwellers are stuck with one or two burners. I won't miss the limits on meal preparation that have been a part of my life in Tokyo.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Will Miss #418 - Japanese snowmen

It may seem a strange thing, but, yes, even the snowmen in Japan are different. For reasons I am not entirely sure of, Japanese snowmen consist of two balls of snow (a head and a body) whereas American ones have three segments (head, torso, "legs"). I've talked to Japanese folks about this, and they believe it follows the general form of dolls in Japan such as kokeshi. I should note that Russian matryoshka dolls have a similar shape. That would open up a whole new question as to why the dolls in some cultures are differently designed than others, but the bottom line is that there is clearly a difference in how imitations of "human" forms are conceptualized. 

Small cultural differences such as the difference between how one culture constructs a snowman and the other does so differently always make me wonder about the evolution of thought, art, and how things are thought about. I will miss seeing the two-part snowmen and how they make me ponder such things. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Won't Miss #418 - "Whiplash Wangs"

I'm guessing that the people with filthier minds are going to be sorely disappointed by the content of this post because "Whiplash Wang" does not refer to a male appendage-related issue, but an episode of the old T.V. series M*A*S*H. On the show (and possibly in real life, I don't know),  that was a term for a Korean person during the war who would jump in front of an army vehicle, sustain an injury, and extort money from the Americans. In that case, it was a sad reflection of the poverty people were suffering in wartime. In modern Japan, this sort of thing happens because people are stupid and careless and they know others are so squeamish about the stigma of wrongdoing that they might just cough up some dough.

I have heard many stories in which a cyclist, pedestrian, pet owner, or driver of a vehicle has an accident in which the accident was not the other party's fault, but the "victim" demanded a huge sum of money for personal or property damage. More often than not, the other party throws money at the problem to make it go away before the police are involved. The bullies expect to be paid off in most cases because of the shame and generally passive nature of Japanese people. For foreigners, this is especially scary because of an incomplete understanding of the law, language issues, and the fact that the police are more likely to blame the foreigner by default. Because of the low number of civil cases, many foreigners don't know that this sort of thing is hardly uncommon in Japan. The actual number is masked by the fact that the victims cave in and the police or courts are not involved.

I won't miss having to worry about some idiot nearly killing me with his bike and then blaming me for the damage to person and property and then demanding money from me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Will Miss #417 - tsukemono

Every time my husband and I go out to eat at a restaurant that serves any sort of Japanese food, I am pleased to receive a little side dish of pickles. When I get curry from Cocoichibanya, one of my great pleasures is taking the compartment full of pickles and mixing them with the spicy pork curry. The odd thing is that I never actually buy them myself despite having ample access to a great variety of such pickles. I think this is because I can't cook Japanese food, but also because I'm not sure that I wouldn't eat the whole container at once and suffer some sort of horrible salt-induced trip to the emergency room. I think it's also the case that these pickles are special because they are something I get in small portions at special meals, though I have to admit that I eat a double serving every time since I eat the ones my husband is given as well as my own.

I'll miss Japanese pickles (tsukemono).

Monday, February 13, 2012

Won't Miss #417 - black sambo-style images

I've said before that Japanese people aren't politically sensitive and that they also often do not realize when they are being racist (which is why activists are valuable as they can act to educate them on such matters). Nothing reminds me more of the cluelessness that Japanese people have about racism than seeing "Little Black Sambo" artwork (or similar types of drawings) around Tokyo. It's not like I see it on every corner, but I do see it often enough to make me cringe. I don't think these images are willfully put up to offend, but rather that there is complete obliviousness about how some people may feel about them.

The Japanese often talk about how their culture is much more sensitive about the feelings of others, but these images show that that sensitivity doesn't extend beyond people who they see as included in their own culture, and I won't miss seeing them.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Will Miss #416 - setsubun

Most foreign folks tend to notice the big holidays (New Year's, Golden Week), and the transplanted ones like Christmas and Valentine's Day, the most. Setsubun is one of those holidays which foreigners rarely understand or pay attention to for a variety of reasons. One is that the Japanese don't talk about it much. This is because they don't get the day off and many will say it's not even a "holiday" (but it is in the same vein as St. Patrick's Day or Valentine's Day). Another is that it isn't glamorous, though you do often see displays of soybeans with masks related to it. Setsubun is February 3 and on that day many Japanese folks throw soybeans out the front door and tell the devil (oni) to go away and ask luck to come in. Walking along the street the next day, you'll see bits of crushed beans in the pavement from people who follow this tradition even though they don't believe the superstition behind it. I always enjoy asking my students about this holiday, because most don't have any idea where it came from and why it exists. Occasionally though, someone will impart a nugget of information and it's a delight to have another piece of the puzzle filled in.

I'll miss the uniquely Japanese nature of this holiday and how it is subtle and unimportant, yet so very often observed. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Won't Miss #416 - free-range children

As I mentioned in the previous post, kids in Japan can run around by themselves and there are few cases in which it ends in tragedy. At this point in time, there just isn't much risk that kids will be abducted (fortunately). However, it is very common for parents to take their children's safety for granted, particularly when they are with them. I've seen uncountable numbers of parents with children who are just past toddling age who allow their kids to run far out ahead of them, including approaching streets through which cars are passing. It's also not uncommon for parents to allow their kids to clumsily run around on train platforms as they chat or play around with their cell phones.

Perhaps I'm just paranoid as a non-parent, but it seems that Japanese parents worry little about where their kids run around in public and I won't miss thinking that they take their safety for granted or rely on strangers to keep an eye on their kids.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Will Miss #415 - unescorted children

The little boy pictured above got on the JR (Japan Railway) train when I was headed to work in the early afternoon one day. He bounced around the car a bit and I realized that he was all alone and that this was not a rare situation. Little kids in Tokyo ride the train alone as well as walk around various neighborhoods. Kids in Tokyo can do this because there is little fear of child abduction in Japan. 

I will miss living in a culture in which small children can walk around without an adult because it is safe enough for them to do so.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Won't Miss #415 - grizzled Japan veterans

Clearly, these happy fellows are neither grizzled nor veterans, but they do appear to be non-Japanese.

Technically, I should be a "grizzled Japan vet", but I'm only so chronologically and in terms of sheer volume of experience. The "grizzled vets" of whom I speak are the people who have spent a fair amount of time here (often more than 10 years), who think they now know it "all". They are bored by anything other experienced foreigners have to say because they feel they've already been through it all and there is nothing to learn from the opinions and experiences of others. They are also bored by the experiences of newcomers because they believe they have experienced all Japan has to offer and find nothing of value in the excitement over tourist areas, Engrish T-shirts, food, or whatever the "n00bs" are getting worked up about. Many of these grizzled vets exist in Japan in a rut and have stopped really learning, growing, or actively experiencing life here. They are bored by everything not because there is nothing interesting around them, but because they have stopped paying attention.

When you think you already know it all and have seen it all, you have nothing new to share with others nor the potential to engage in active discussions of various viewpoints. Subsequently, these perpetually bored grizzled Japan vets are boring and I won't miss them. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Will Miss #414 - Japanese construction workers

They mean that literally, not figuratively. This was a site with a lot of wood lying around.

I've lived in Tokyo for 23 years, and I've seen a lot of buildings go up and down as this is a city that doesn't value age so much as newness (fortunately for us, that means earthquake-resistant structures). Construction workers are ever-present in my life with rarely a day going by in which I don't see, feel, hear, or smell something being built or torn down. Last week, I was walking past a huge line of workers sitting on the sidewalk eating their lunch and it occurred to me that, despite copious experience with such men, I have never seen nor heard one of them make a rude comment to a passing lady.

The construction workers in Japan are, by and large, civilized and well-manner and therefore do not hoot or carry on around women and I will miss that.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Random Thoughts: Leaving On a Jet Plane

The two faces of Japan. For that much, the same two faces are present in every country. 

Some time ago, my husband and I started talking about leaving Japan. That was, to the best of my foggy recollection, at least six years ago. As I may have mentioned in one of the over 800 posts I've written for this blog so far, or in another personal blog some time ago, we knew we were never going to be here "forever". In fact, we were offered the chance to apply for permanent residence at the immigration office about 12 years ago and declined because that was not what we had in mind.

Deciding to leave is quite different than contemplating departure. Many people urged us to go after the March 11, 2012 quake, but we were not yet "ready" to leave. There is a time for everything, and we've been waiting for that time to come for a long while. This blog was created, perhaps in part, as a way of finding my way emotionally to that point. It has been and will continue to be a review of my experiences here, both psychologically and experientially. It has helped me take account, remember, and notice. It has helped bring me to this point in time. My husband and I are leaving Japan after nearly 23 years for certain. The tickets have already been reserved and paid for. We are going on March 29, 2012. 

This decision came on the heels of a lot of personal changes including some very tragic and hard ones related to our families, but mainly it is driven by the fact that we are ready to move along to the next phase of our lives. Our deeper contemplation of the path our lives has taken and should take relates quite smoothly with Erikson's Generativity vs. Stagnation stage. In fact, without realizing it, we fell right into that age range when we started contemplating departure. Frankly speaking, we are happy in Japan. We love many things about it and in many ways, our lives here are better than they have ever been and that is part of why it is time to leave. We've hardly experienced everything there is to experience nor seen all there is to see, but from a personal growth viewpoint, this is as far as we believe being here is going to take us. Other people may find life here endlessly challenging, but we all have different goals and needs. My husband's and mine are taking us back home, finally. We could stay and be happy, but relatively stagnant in the areas that matter to us personally.

Though I'm only blogging about this now, the decision was made before this post was written. I didn't want to announce it publicly until all of the people who deserved to be told face to face had been notified. That mainly meant students and employers, but others as well. This was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do because it feels like a betrayal to leave them. Some of my students cried. I wanted to cry, too, but didn't because that would only have made it worse. All I could say was that I was sorry, and that it wasn't an easy decision nor one that I was overjoyed about. I'm ambivalent about leaving for many reasons and one of those is the relationships with the people I have here. Much as many people believe English teachers are floating garbage that should be skimmed off of the pristine beauty of Japan and thrown away, I know that I've had a great and positive impact on people's lives in ways that strangers would never believe were possible and the people I've met have had similar ones on me. A handful of Japanese people didn't want me here and let me know it. Far more wanted me here and would prefer that I not go. This is a good feeling, but it makes what we're doing all the harder.

In terms of what this means for this blog (as that is really the point of this post rather than my sentimental blathering), it really doesn't mean much at all because I'm going to finish my 1000 posts regardless of where I am. At this point, I'm having a hard time coming up with "won't miss" posts though since the decision to leave has me deeply mired in sentimentality and seeing what I will miss, but I'm sure that it'll all come along at a pace as time goes by.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll stay with me for the duration. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Won't Miss #414 - beating around the bush

One of the difficult things about communication in Japan is its indirectness. In fact, the goal in Japan often seems to be sure that you take as long as possible to get to the point, and, if you are truly masterful, to never actually make the point. The goal seems to be to speak only of trivialities (like the weather) or to  talk around it in enough circles for long enough that the other person is so weary of listening to you go nowhere that they give up on ever understanding what the hell you want. Okay, that's my frustration talking. You're supposed to reach the proper conclusion once the bush has been beaten to death. The reason people don't come right out and say things is that then they are responsible for their own words. Making you figure it all out makes you responsible and gives them plenty of wiggle room to claim there was a misunderstanding should they piss you off.

This is an enormous waste of time and sometimes I just wish people would say what they mean and mean what they say rather than talk around the point and I won't miss it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Will Miss #413 - Akiho

The experience of living anywhere is both small and big, personal and impersonal, and subjective with objective elements. People sometimes ask me why I write this blog and there are many reasons. One is to remember this time in my life with attention to my experiences and thoughts and feelings about them. That means that there are things which are unique to where I live that no one else will likely ever experience, and one of those is a neighbor of mine named "Akiho".

Akiho is a young man who stands outside of his old apartment building lifting a large and growing collection of weights. He always smiles and speaks English to me. Sometimes while lifting his weights, he reads aloud from a book of English with advanced content. Often, it's either insanely cold or insanely hot, but he's inappropriately attired for the climate and says he's not uncomfortable. He once dyed his hair blond and dyed it back to black. The energy that surrounds him is incredibly affable, almost jolly, even though his actions might be considered odd, particularly by Japanese standards.

Akiho is a bundle of a lot of the things that Japan and the Japanese people are both realistically and stereotypically. He's a little weird, but not threatening. He's trying to be helpful (speaking English), but not intrusive. He's sunny, but not annoyingly peppy. I'll miss seeing Akiho lifting his weights outside of his building, greeting me, and smiling.