Friday, March 30, 2012

Random Thoughts: Leaving as a solid citizen

Foreigners are often roundly criticized for coming to Japan and not acting as "good citizens". This means that they don't pay their city taxes, health insurance, etc. nor do they sort trash according to the strict rules and guidelines of their areas. Unlike small cultural issues like cooking smelly food or being too loud, these things are more about government regulations than simply irksome cultural preferences.

Because my husband and I know that foreigners get a bad reputation for not taking care of business before they go and we want to be upright citizens, we have been making every effort to exit this country on the up and up, even if it costs us some money on the way out. What we have discovered is that the bureaucracy here makes it as difficult as possible. In some cases, you get the royal runaround such that you believe they would rather you gave up and left them alone. In others, there simply does not seem to be a tried and true path to completing things neatly under conditions in which you are leaving and never coming back. For those who are curious about how things work here, or those who may one day have to leave and want to also depart in compliance with all regulations, I'm going to talk about various aspects of extricating oneself legally and (hopefully) appropriately. Note that this is by no means a complete list, but merely the things we've faced as of the writing of this post. 

1. City taxes.

In Tokyo, there are what are referred to as "ku taxes" by the foreign community, or city taxes, that must be paid to the ward you happen to live in. If you lived in New York, it would be equivalent of paying borough taxes. These are above and beyond your federal taxes and like local taxes back home. They are actually a bigger chunk of your tax bill (10%) than your federal taxes (about 5%, but it depends on income) and one of the reasons foreign folks dread them.

City (or ward) taxes are tricky because they are not issued for about a year after you come to Japan. They are calculated based on annual income, but there's no income from which to make such calculations until you've been here and filed an income tax return. Note that many language school chains often handle this for their teachers, so many people who spend a year or so here as teachers for more paternalistic companies may never know about this. Unfortunately, even those companies who don't take care of such things (and many don't) don't tell foreign employees that they need to look after such things. If you're lucky, the accountant will offer a vague message about how not all of your taxes were deducted and you have to take care of the rest. You do not get any instructions about where to go, what to do, or what other taxes might be due. I didn't know ku taxes even existed until I had lived here for more than 8 years. No one ever told me at my places of employment and no one sent me a bill.

Because the tax calculations lag behind by about a year, it's not uncommon for a foreigner to blithely spend about a year here and then suddenly get a huge tax bill for about one month or so's income. You suddenly find that you need to pay 300,000 yen ($3,600) and many people don't have that sort of money just lying fallow in their bank accounts, especially in the first year when there are more expenses to set up a home and more money spent on sightseeing and enjoying the country and people. 

The lag means that when a person is leaving Japan, arrangements need to be made to pay the previous year's taxes. They are usually issued around June, but I'm leaving on March 29. In order to leave without an outstanding city tax bill, I went to the local government office and asked them to submit a bill for me now (meaning two weeks ago when I originally asked) so I could pay them. Considering the fact that I already filed my income tax form in February and got my refund deposited, they have all they need to calculate my income and taxes for the previous year. Apparently, that is not enough though. They essentially said they couldn't (or wouldn't) do it, nor would they forward the tax bill to me in America so I could pay them from there. The only conditions under which they would assist me would be to send the bill later this year to someone I know in Japan and have them pay it for me. If I did not have a contact here, then I'd have no choice but to leave and default on the taxes. They simply left no other option. Since many short-term visitors may not have a person who they would like to burden with this responsibility, is it any wonder many foreigners simply walk away with city taxes unpaid?

2. Postal forwarding

After we leave, we don't want the next tenant of our apartment to receive mail addressed to us, nor do we want the landlord to have to deal with it when said tenant comes to him and asks about it. The truth is that we receive almost zero mail of value in Japan anyway (just our bills and advertising), so we don't really care about the mail in general. Every personal and professional contact was given our contact information on a card and they know where to send things to us in the U.S. Setting up postal forwarding was only a courtesy and not for our benefit in any way. 

You would think that this would be simple because all postal services in all countries around the world should have basic address change procedures in place. That may be so for domestic mail, but when it comes to leaving the country, things get monumentally hairier. Before I launch into the full story, let me say that we live near the main ward post office and went there to conduct business. We did not go to some piddly little branch that rarely handles more than a parcel or two abroad a year. This is the central deal and is enormous and where you go for any serious postal business. 

Our first step in all of this was to call and ask what the procedure was. We were told that they would not be able to forward domestic mail from Japan to the U.S., but they would send international mail or parcels to us there at our own expense. Armed with this information, we went to the post office and were greeted with nothing but confusion about what we were talking about. We called information again and went to the post office once more on another day with the promise that the person who was telling us one thing would call the people and explain things to them. This time, we got the name of the exact form in Japanese. It's interesting to note that they were extremely reluctant to tell us the name of the form. However, on another day, we went back. A middle-aged woman took us into a secure area (with a locked entry and exit) on the second floor in which major sorting was being done and talked for awhile with the information people. They told us they didn't have the form and that we should come back on a particular day and they would have it. 

We returned on another day and they not only did not have the form, but told us that no mail forwarding of any kind was done between countries. They would only do it from domestic address to domestic address. At this point, we decided to give up on it all and just tell the landlord that we tried, but mail addressed to us may come after we leave. Later, we got an apologetic call from the information people we had been dealing with saying that they would get it straight next time. On our fourth visit, we were lead back up to the secure area again and finally given the proper form. With much waiting and other people talking on the phone, this process was finally complete (we hope) after four visits.

3. Health insurance

Health insurance is another thing that many foreigners are accused of abandoning as it operates on the same year-long delay as the city taxes. When we went there, we also looked into a refund document that I had been sent based on my medical expenses and low income last year. They kicked back about 40% of what I paid in costs and agreed to deposit it quickly because of our departure date. This was unexpectedly kind and helpful. 

We told them that I was leaving and they went off and said something about my having "overpaid". Instead of my paying them for the previous year's bill, they gave me back about 1300 yen ($16) and asked if I'd like to turn in my health insurance card then or later. I'm still not sure if they got what I was trying to do (pay what may be issued later this year), but that is what we told them we were there to do. I can only say that I did my best to pay what was owed, and that somehow I either didn't owe anything, or they didn't comprehend what I was saying and I will not have been squared away my "debt". I may, indeed, be a "defaulter" by Japanese government estimates, but not because I didn't make an effort to be otherwise. I couldn't exactly insist on giving them money or paying bills they didn't acknowledge will come in the future, so we left it at that.

4. Bank

There were two stages to our dealing with the bank. The first was transferring our remaining funds to our U.S. bank. We've done this about once every 8-12 months for the past decade and the process seems to take longer and be more fussy every time. This last time was no exception. Though the bank has full access to every bit of our information (and have our bank card and identification), they were unable to process our forms this time around without having our passbook in hand. In the past, they did not require the passbook, but my husband had to run home and get it as I sat there feeling sick with a pre-departure cold. This transfer took a full hour when it has taken as little as 15 minutes in the past.

I've read that Japan has been tagged as a country in which money laundering tends to occur and the Japanese government has demanded more and more information from people when they send money home. One of the boxes we had to check on the form was one promising we were not funneling our money to Iran, North Korea, etc. We also have had to state why we are transferring money the last 3 or 4 times we've sent it back. We always just say, "family reasons", which is true and vague. However, I have read blogs and comments by other people who are rather seriously grilled about the reason they're sending money back including being asked about family history (parents' address, jobs, etc.). We were not given the third degree, but if things keep getting tighter and we had remained, I wouldn't be surprised if that would have been our future as well.

The other stage of dealing with the bank was closing out the account.This was a far tidier affair, though still fairly time-consuming as I was issued a Japanese credit card about 17 years ago and it had to be canceled as well. After much fretting about whether or not all automatic payments that tapped into the card had stopped and filling out a few fairly simple forms, we were given our remaining funds and our bank and credit cards were cut in half in front of us. Of the processes we dealt with, this was the simplest.

5. Telephone (NTT land line and ADSL internet)

When it comes to bureaucracy, I'm guessing few businesses are as monolithic and rigid as NTT (Nihon Telephone and Telegraph). My husband and I refused to move ahead into the age of cell phones, so we did not have to cancel such contracts. Our situation was set up in the stone age of telecommunication. We purchased a land line 23 years ago for around $600 (54,000 yen). Yes, you heard that right. Back in the day, NTT sold its numbers to you for a huge fee. Ours was actually a "bargain" as the full price was around $800. Used lines, which ours was, were sold through classified ads or you could purchase a fresh, shiny new one from NTT directly.

As cell phones have taken over, NTT has pretty much lost the monopoly that allowed them to shaft people with this practice, but holders of the lines can't really sell them to anyone else anymore. They are worthless now, but if you want to disconnect from your line, you have to pay NTT $25 (about 2100 yen) in fees. The most economical way of dealing with it is to "abandon" the line. That means that you legally surrender the rights to the number and NTT can reclaim it and probably sell it to some sucker who still thinks land lines have value (I guess). At any rate, we were at least a decade and a half past recouping our investment in the line and just had to do a bunch of useless forms to say, "we surrender our rights to our number". NTT would not even consider cancellation of our service until we did this so we had to twiddle our thumbs waiting for them to do their paperwork.

After the line abandonment documents were received and acknowledged, we thought we were in the clear except for the DSL modem they "leased" to us for a monthly fee. The modem has to be returned to them, but they refused to send us the postage paid special bag so that we could send it back ourselves. They also refused to issue a bill and allow us to pre-pay prior to departure. No, the only way to leave on the up-and-up with NTT was to give them the address of a person in Japan and have them receive the bag, send back the modem, and pay the final bill. There was no other option but this or default on the bill. Obviously, we made the proper arrangements, but, again, if you have no trusted contacts in Japan, this would be difficult to arrange.

6. Gas, electric, water

My husband and I are very fortunate to have a great landlord who agreed to speak with these three utilities companies and help us arrange final payments. I'm not sure what would have happened if we had tried to do it ourselves, but he arranged for each of them to come to his home (he's our next door neighbor) and then ours on the day before we left to collect final payments in cash. They're going to calculate the bills to the best of their ability and shut off our gas (but not water and electric) on the evening of the 28th at around 7:00 p.m. (Note: these posts are written pre-departure and queued for publishing as I expect not to be in posting from the 28th-31st while I'm in transition to the U.S.). This isn't so strange as these things were turned on by the landlord when we moved in. He arranged for them before, so this may be something he handles for all tenants, or just special treatment for us. 


All countries have their bureaucracy, and I'm in no way suggesting it is harder to extricate yourself from Japan than other countries as I frankly have no experience doing it anywhere else. I'm merely writing this post as a chronicle of my experiences and some of my efforts to depart as a solid citizen (this is not a complete list). I say that because I'm sure I'll be misunderstood and people will think that merely talking about the experiences implies that they I am saying they are extraordinary in some way. That is not my intention.

My impression of all of this is that anyone who leaves without a person who they feel comfortable saddling with their final bills and paperwork may simply decide it's easiest to blow this popsicle stand without settling their tab. Some people may simply have no choice. Most, I'd wager, have a way to make it work if they're tenacious enough and try hard enough. When I say that, I don't mean that they push the companies or bureaucrats to cooperate, but rather that they search far and wide for someone who can look after their interests after they have departed. That's the only area where effort is going to count. I didn't try to say, "if you don't send me my bill now, it won't be paid at all," but I don't believe that would change much. If anyone has tried that, I'd like to hear about their experiences and whether or not it worked.

Most people who come to Japan come with some sort of support system which likely handles all of this. When my husband first came to Japan (alone, pre-marriage), he did so as a contracted teacher for a a large language school chain. They looked after everything for him (except a phone, he never had one) including utilities, rent, taxes, etc. Many foreigners are shielded from these kinds of situations and never face having to extricate themselves from them depending on the types of jobs they do. This is another reason that people sometimes walk away from bills like outstanding taxes and health insurance. Someone else looked after it all and little magic fairies tidied up the mess for them.

I should note that the consequences of walking away without squaring away your debts doesn't just give all foreigners a bad name. It can also hurt your sponsor. The person or company who has your back for your working visa is ultimately responsible for your financial situation. One of my husband's former co-workers placed some folding screens that were in a rental apartment outside and they were destroyed from exposure to the elements and he disputed their value and his culpability. The landlord took 100,000 yen (about $1250) from his security deposit and he refused to pay his final rent in retaliation. He felt he was being cheated and this was a way to get back his unfairly taken deposit money. In the end, the person who paid was his former company. As his sponsor, they had to pay the outstanding rent.

I strongly dislike the notion that each bad foreigner makes it bad for everyone else. However, there is truth in the idea that people who did as my husband's former coworker did (leaving the company holding the bag) make companies decide not to sponsor their employee's apartments or create more Draconian contract conditions such as withholding final income until all debts are confirmed fully paid. Sometimes, people default because it's difficult to do otherwise even when you try your best to be a solid citizen (as my experiences seem to show), but sometimes people just rationalize away their bad behavior and depart knowing there is no way they will ever be held accountable. The arms of the law of Japan don't stretch over international waters.

Regarding the difficulty of leaving with all of your ducks in a neat little row, my feeling is that the Japanese paper pushers in some cases and as individuals working in soulless jobs with a lot of repetition would prefer that you simply not bother to wrap up all the loose ends. The Japanese government or companies, on the other hand, would like to get their dough. In the scheme of things, very little is lost to the entire country and it puts the workers who have to handle such special cases in a bad position of trying to do something they rarely need to do and therefore do not have procedures in place to handle. Walking away leaving things hanging is easier for them to process than pushing them to try and figure out ways of making things work. This is a country which acculturates people into the notion that they do what they are told, follow the rules, and do not substitute their own judgment when there is a gap in the procedures. It also means that they are forced to go up their byzantine chain of command to try and find non-existent answers to your questions. That may be the way it is everywhere in the world, but I think that it's more common for people to adapt and be flexible back home. I guess I'll find out about that soon enough. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Won't Miss #433 - no 3-day weekends

When I first started working in Japan, I had Sundays and Mondays off. Even though I worked in an office for 12 years, I still worked an odd schedule because I was a foreigner and my services needed to be applied differently. This was okay in terms of national holidays for some time as they fell wherever during the week, but one day the Japanese government decided that it had to move almost every single holiday that would fall by date on another day to Monday. That meant that I never got a 3-day weekend after the change was made. This was a trend that continued when I became a teacher again and had Monday and Tuesday off. It's quite common, incidentally, for teachers to have to work weekends (especially Saturdays) because they are such popular days for English study.

Though I know the change was meant to give more free time to average working Joes and Janes in Japan, I won't miss (almost) never having a 3-day weekend.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Will Miss #432 - no apocalyptic mumbo jumbo

Even the demons are cute in Japan.

All of my life, I have been hearing stories of the end of the world. When I was a little kid, my maternal grandmother liked to talk about the signs of the Rapture and how they were starting to manifest. She did so with a little smile which made it seem as though this was good news, but it scared the hell out of me when I was young. Similarly, I heard about a variety of other dates which were supposed to be the last day we'd get to spend on earth. Each day passed and we're still here, but that didn't stop people from talking about it. Of course, this being 2012, I can't help but be aware of the big end of the world prediction people have been talking about for years now, the Mayan prophecy. Though I know all of this is nonsense, having been indoctrinated in such fear from a young age means that such talk creeps me out emotionally initially and then I have to rationalize myself out of it afterwards. I hate such fear-mongering and fatalism, and I have been lucky to live in a culture which does not indulge in end-of-the-world talk for the past decade or so. Most of my Japanese acquaintances haven't even heard of the Mayan prophecy and those who have heard such end of the world talk dismiss it immediately.

Perhaps the Japanese, having suffered enough real horrors that felt like apocalypses, have no need of such fanciful speculation. I will miss living in a culture that doesn't seem to relish talking about the end of the world. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Won't Miss #432 - reassuring people about their English

Everyone knows the loaded question that women supposedly ask their husband's about a dress making them look fat. The idea is that whatever the man answers, he loses. If he says she does, she will be angry that he is saying she's fat and doesn't look good. If he says she doesn't, she'll say he's lying to make her feel better. The equivalent of that in Japan is the oft-made assertion, "my English is not good." Everyone of every level says this and it puts the native speaker in an awkward position position. If you say nothing or agree, you deny the obviously desired reassurance. If you disagree and say they speak (or at least communicate) well, there is denial that that is so.

I'm tired of feeling like I'm lying*, patronizing, or patting people on the back about their English abilities and I won't miss it. 

*I never lie to people about their English ability and level. However, I will often say that people are capable of communicating despite their limits when their level is low. This isn't a lie, because it is often true. Most Japanese people speak English enough for basic communication, and a great many more can do better than that if they believe they can.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Will Miss #431 - intuiting what you mean

Japanese have a culture of "reading the air". It's a skill that not only is one encouraged to develop, but those who lack it find themselves derided and labeled as "kuuki wo yomenai hito" (people who can't read the air). While this sort of thing can be maddening if you aren't skilled in decrypting what people are trying to say to you (and I have not been for the vast majority of my time in Japan and have found it frustrating), it can be quite a relief to be in a culture which will intuit what you're trying to say in an awkward situation in which you'd really rather not come right out and say something uncomfortable. It's also, frankly, nice to live around people who care enough about their relationships with others to not always be deadly blunt. And for the record, I'm a blunt person by nature and used to think that it was pure cowardice not to just come out and say things. Living in Japan made me grow up a bit and understand that it's the easiest thing in the world to just aggressively blurt things out without regard for the effect on others. It isn't about bravery, but about courtesy.

It's sometimes very nice to live in a culture which doesn't need to be beaten upside the head with a clue stick every time you wish to be subtle and I'll miss that.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Won't Miss #431 - "reading the air" expectation

Part of what hinders communication between foreign folks and Japanese is that it is common in Japanese culture to "read the air" or to intuit what is meant rather that attending to what is actually said. At higher levels of communication, this goes beyond "it's difficult" (muzukashii) meaning "no way!" It can often mean very involved or sophisticated things, but without experience with the other party (as well as Japanese culture), it is hard to have any idea what the other person wants. My husband was once a supervisor at a language school and the Japanese manager of the school was incomprehensible but expected others to "read the air" and know what he meant. Even the Japanese office ladies couldn't figure him out, yet he blamed others for misunderstandings.

I don't like the inefficiency with which many Japanese people communicate and I won't miss the expectation that one should "read the air".

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Will Miss #430 - constant personal challenge

One aspect of being in a foreign culture with very different values than yours is that your are either in a near constant state of frustration and anger, or you learn to cope. It may seem based on my talking every other posts about things that annoy me that I run around mad all of the time, but that's an illusion that comes from the simple act of talking about such things. My awareness of them and talking about them is a way of talking about life and the culture here, not an indication of an apoplectic reaction every time I experience such things. While I may not like a lot of things that happen to me, I try to alter the manner in which I "process" them. That is, I try to change my reaction, because it is the only thing I have the power to change. Changing the response, however, doesn't mean that I regard the things which tend to rub me the wrong way positively, it simply means that I try to mitigate how negatively I emotionally respond (not how negatively I feel on a logical level).

I don't think that the personal challenges I feel as a result of living in Japan will be duplicated on the same scale or frequency when I eventually go home, and some part of me will be relieved about that, and some part will miss the constant personal growth opportunity.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Won't Miss #430 - backwards names insistence

Ethnocentrism is sometimes reflected in big actions, but sometimes in the tiniest things. At the root of it all on the benign side is an inability to see that "familiar" does not mean "better". On the less appealing side is the notion that all that originates from ones own culture is inherently superior to that which comes from others. The latter comes from cultural insecurity. 

One of the things I accepted with equanimity in Japan was that I'd have to give my name in the order of family name, first name rather than in the usual way in the West  which is first name, family name. I had no problem with this. It's different, sure, but if you're communicating in Japanese, you do it their way to smooth communication and keep down confusion. 

When I'm teaching English, the goal is not simply for words to be exchanged in English. It is clear communication. I taught thousands of businessmen how to conduct conversations in English for their work and more than a few would fight me about giving their names in the Western way. Even when I explained that it would reduce confusion in business talk in English if they followed this way, they insisted that this was the Japanese way and that foreigners should know that was the Japanese way and figure it out without explanation. This sort of insistence was beyond stupid. If you're doing business in Japan in Japanese, do it the Japanese way. If your'e doing business in America in English, do it the American way. 

I won't miss dealing with people who treat this trivial point as if it were some cultural pissing contest.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Will Miss #429 - Kamakura

I've got a beautiful, desktop-wallpaper-quality picture of the big Buddha statue in Kamakura, but so does everyone else out there. Therefore, I am giving you this cheesy souvenir shop item instead. 

Kamakura is the home of the "daibutsu" or "great Buddha" statue. While it isn't the biggest one in Japan, it is one of the most appealing. It's serene countenance is one reason. Another is that it's almost certainly the only Buddha statue in Japan that you can go inside of. It also has quite the colorful history of surviving natural disasters. Kamakura is also a good place to go because of the beachfront and the plethora of food shops that sell traditional snacks and sweets. Fresh and hand-made goodies can be had en route and not too far from the Buddha area as well several other tourist attractions. There is a satisfying mixture of the old and the new in the area which is easily accessible and tourist-friendly without being a tourist trap.

Kamakura isn't far from Tokyo and is like a taste of old Japan a stone's throw away and I will miss having easy access to it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Won't Miss #429 - cell phone earthquake alarms

There was a psychology study done on a boy dubbed "little Albert" in which a loud noise was played each time he was shown a white rat. After awhile, he started to turn away and scream when he saw the rat. Later, he generalized his fear of the rat (which was generated by the loud noise) to all white things. If I had remained in Japan long enough, there is a good chance that I'd have my own "little Albert" experience and develop a fear of all phones considering the association of cell phone alarms indicating that a quake is coming and a particular tone. You're peacefully sitting on a train commuting to work and suddenly a symphony of cell phones goes off and everyone reaches into their pocket like a gun slinger doing his fastest draw in a duel. It not only scares the hell out of me because it's so sudden and all around, but because there's an association with the many aftershocks in the year that followed the March 11, 2011 Tohoku quake.

I won't miss hearing these earthquake cell phone alarms.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Will Miss #428 - impetus to develop culinary skills

A lot of people think that a foreigner wanting to eat foods from home is a tacit rejection of Japanese cuisine. It's not. You can enjoy all of the lovely food around you in Japan as an addition to what you knew and loved back home. It doesn't have to be a wholesale replacement one way or another. That being said, you really can't easily get things here that you can back home, like whole wheat bread. If you can get them, they're often much more expensive or offered in a way which suits Japanese tastes and are not quite "right". There are a lot of things I have learned to do and cook as a result of the costs or limits placed on me by living in Japan. Because of the high cost of cottage cheese, for instance, I've learned to make it myself and that in turn has helped me learn to make paneer (Indian cheese) as well. I've also experimented and developed many recipes that I almost certainly would have not done had I remained back home where I could easily get familiar foods.

I'll miss the way in which life in Japan has encouraged me to learn to cook or prepare things I would simply have picked up pre-made in a store back home.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Won't Miss #428 - Japanese sports figures worship

I hate to watch the Olympics and the biggest reason for that is I dislike the blatant favoritism of athletes based on shared nationality. I have always disliked the way medal counts are tallied up according to country with the underlying idea that those with the most medals represent a country with somehow superior people and those with smaller numbers are inferior. I felt this long before I ever set foot in Japan even though America often won a lot more medals than many other countries.

In Japan, when a Japanese athlete makes it big in sports elsewhere in the world (especially American baseball, but also European soccer), it's like the Olympics all of the time. Because of the common inferiority complex that Japanese people have relative to the rest of the world, many people latch onto a Japanese athlete who makes it big for no other reason than he is Japanese. It's one thing to love a sport or a gifted athlete. It's another to adore that person or sport simply because one of your countrymen is performing well in it in the international arena. 

I won't miss the blatant nationalism reflected in this sort of behavior. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Will Miss #427 - warabi mochi

Many people write about the stages that foreigners go through when they come to Japan. Generally, they capture the flavor of what people go through, but are overly simplified and a generalization. Still, generalizations do have their place in helping provide a framework from which we can understand a situation better. For me, the food in Japan has followed a very odd pattern of approach. At first, I was wary and squeamish and never had the sort of open-minded notions that many newbies have. I stayed away from anything that looked "too Japanese". It's only really since starting my snack blog that I've become increasingly open to sampling everything in my wake. Part of the draw of blogging for me is that it does help me expand my horizons, and since my focus on food has been relatively narrow for so many years, I'm grateful that I started that blog.

"That Japanese stuff" which I avoided would include things like warabi mochi. It appears to be little gooey blobs packed in dirty with a packet of soy sauce. What it really is relatively tasteless chewy jelly-like bits of gelatin made from bracken starch that can range from bland to highly sweet. If you think that sounds unappetizing, remember that Western-made gelatin is made from bones and hooves and Japanese agar-agar gelatin is made from seaweed. Bracken starch doesn't sound so bad, then, does it? The gelatin is coated in kinako (toasted soybean powder) and offered with a packet of black (brown) sugar syrup. It's a texture and flavor treat with good depth of flavor from the various components.

I came by eating warabi mochi late in the game, but now I'm such a fan that I actually crave it from time to time. I'll miss having easy access to copious amounts of the fresh stuff.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Won't Miss #427 - "Wao"

This lovely lady at a local festival did not say "wao", but she did have the right expression to convey the idea. Please do not believe I am lumping her in with the rude people I describe below. I'm sure she's a model of politeness and grace.

Let me begin by saying that "wao" (wah-oh) is what the Japanese see the English exclamation "wow" as. You see it written as "wao", but sometimes "wow", but it is almost always spoken as "wah-oh". It is the latter with which I take exception. Perhaps because of my stunning countenance, Japanese people will occasionally look at me and loudly utter "wao" in my direction. This angers me more than its nearest Japanese equivalent, "sugoi". Both are rude, but saying it in Japanese is somewhat more excusable since it may be a shocked utterance at the sight of an obviously non-Japanese person and the offender may believe that their words will not be understood. The use of "wao" is several steps closer to intentional rudeness as the choice of "English" is meant to make sure that I understand they are shocked at my presence.

I won't miss hearing idiots exclaim "wao" when they see me.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Will Miss #426 - perspective on thinness

I'm going to let you in on two secrets. First, this is a personal blog. The presentation may obscure that fact, but it is about me, my experiences, and my feelings as much as it is about Japan. Second, I have had an eating disorder for most of my life. Part of that disorder is the distorted notion that having the right body (i.e., a thin one) will cure all of life's problems. If you are thin enough, you will be beautiful, loved, healthy, and have success. In my home culture, in which many people are overweight, this message is served up early and often. Living in Japan has helped correct this distorted thinking. Almost everyone is thin, but many people are ugly, lonely, sick, and unsuccessful. Yes, even thin people get Type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, etc. I see it often here. There isn't an expansive and incessant cultural message here that thinness is a panacea for your woes (or that fatness is the root of all of them), and personal experience with people who are thin yet still have problems has been a powerful experience for a person with my history.

I'll miss living in a culture which doesn't view attaining a particular body image as the end-all and be-all of answers to life's problems and being around people who have problems despite being thin.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Won't Miss #426- Japanese education system

I'm sure these three school girls with the Mickey Mouse hairdos are an exception to the non-critical-thinking rule.

All education systems are means to an end. The culture decides what that end is. I'm going to admit to being ethnocentric in this post and say that I believe the goals of education are to produce people who are literate, generally knowledgeable, and capable of critical thinking. The Japanese education system fails miserably on that last item (though it succeeds wildly on literacy) because it focuses on rote memorization and test scores. Passing the tests becomes the end, not a means to an end, and students slave away to cram facts into their heads, pass tests, and then simply forget what they learned. By and large, this system creates people with linear thinking who hate the idea of "education" or study as they associate it with exhaustive memorization sessions rather than interesting discussions with diverse answers. Teaching students for many years in Japan has shown amply that most people are so rigid that they are focused on finding one "right" answer to every question and squirm uncomfortably with an answer which includes many possible correct options because this was their experience throughout their years of schooling. What is more, the system produces an unproductive teaching environment in which teachers are pressured to pass students on tests at any cost rather than focus on what is actually being learned.*

I won't miss the education system and the way in which it fails the Japanese people.

*On multiple occasions, I've heard complaints from teachers who had to dumb down tests so that the weakest student could pass because every student had to pass. Whether or not they mastered the desired information wasn't the issue.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Will Miss #425 - "sojourning"

One of the things my husband and I love to do is pick an area of Tokyo or the surrounding cities (Yokohama, Saitama, Chiba, etc.) and just explore it. Sometimes, it's one of the major areas that is attractive to tourists or locals, but at others, it's just some minor stop which isn't particularly well-known or famous. Taking a day and spending hours (sometimes as many as 6 or 8) just walking around the streets of these areas is a grab bag of experiences. You see little shops that you'd never see anywhere else or homes that have a unique flavor. There are restaurants that others may not recommend as they're tucked away in a place far away from some obscure train stop. It also allows for a form of people watching that doesn't necessarily come naturally from living in a big city as you see people doing things in their local neighborhoods that they don't do when out shopping or commuting. The density of the city areas in and near Tokyo (as well as other cities, I'm sure) provides a rich opportunity for maximum exposure to culture and experience in a minimal distance.

I love taking these long walking tours around areas both big and small and just paying close attention to what people, places, and things have to offer in Japan, and I will miss taking these sojourns.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Won't Miss #425 - guided tours in Japan

Actual tour guide with flag followed by actual tourists, but I wasn't a part of the group. 

When it comes to taking guided tours in Japan, I've gone on two. The first was when I first arrived in Japan in 1988 for a vacation and went to Nikko. It was a whirlwind of dashing from place to place with little time to see much of anything and they insisted that my husband and I not touch each other in the group picture (and no one smiled except us). The second was on a guided tour of a sumo stable and, while not quite so fast, it was all in Japanese and hard to follow (particularly at that time, less than a few years into my stay in Japan). Here's the thing, if I'm going to fork over a goodly sum of money to go on a tour somewhere, the last thing I want to have to do is struggle to keep up with and understand some tour guide as she trots along with her little flag and speaks a thousand miles an hour. This is not my idea of a good time. While there are English language tour guides, their tours are few and far between and cover a limited area because of logistics and the overall lack of demand. 

Sometimes, I'd like to go on guided tours of various areas so that I have more information and have hotspots pointed out to me, but the super fast pacing and the language differences make them far less attractive, so I will not miss them.  

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Will Miss #424 - language school advertisements

Shane? He's a little on the quiet side, and he keeps a big knife under his pillow, but I'm sure he's really a stand-up guy. 

All advertising is misleading and an attempt to use your psychological tendencies against you. If you're an insider at a business or have a lot of experience with it, the ways in which ads attempt to manipulate potential customers is far more transparent. Language school ads always pique my interest and often tickle my fancy (no pervy conclusions, please) because I've worked in this game long enough to know what's what. For one thing, they always show professionally dressed, young, attractive foreign people who look fresh and happy. Real English teachers tend to look bedraggled from spending long hours attempting to draw a few bloody words from conversational stones. The men wear their ties askew and rarely wear suit jackets because most Japanese office ladies freeze at temperatures below boiling. The teachers in the ads never resemble the real workers and I know from experience that the "students" in most ads are the most attractive office workers the company can locate. If the school is particularly wealthy, they may be actual models, but they are never real students. Finally, there are the goofy English slogans that ads sometimes come up with in order to distinguish themselves or create a hook. It's always something that makes me feel a Japanese person came up with it and insisted that it fly despite the protestations of any foreigners who had input into the ad planning process (in the rare case of a foreigner having input).

I'll miss seeing ads for English schools, their silly slogans, and their fictitious presentation of the teachers and students. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Won't Miss #424 - being treated like a dictionary

My husband and I have played a certain video game for well over a decade. Part of this game is facing stacks of creatures with ambiguous descriptions of their size like "lots", "several", and "pack". There's a guide online that tells you the number each one of those represents and my husband learned what they meant long ago. As for me, I just ask him every time and never learned for myself. I mention this because if you have someone who will easily answer your questions rather than do the work of looking things up yourself, you have a much lower chance of retaining information. Because of this, I get very annoyed every time I teach a student and they treat me like a translation dictionary. They ask, "how do you say (Japanese word) in English?" They do this with an electronic dictionary in front of them or with a cell phone with a built-in dictionary tucked into a pocket. It irks me when they do this because I'm not there as an answer bot, but more so because I know that they'll never remember the translation if they don't find the information for themselves. Sometimes I end up translating the same word for the same person over and over again if I give in and just tell them.

I won't miss being treated like a handy dictionary for people who are supposed to be trying to learn a language and all too often seem to believe that spoon-feeding answers is an effective way to learn a foreign language.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Random Thoughts: A Moment of Ethnocentrism, An Hour of Analysis

When you deal with various cultures, the word "ethnocentrism" gets tossed around more as an accusation than an observation of a quite reasonable reaction as a result of the interactions of individuals from different backgrounds. It is offered as a finger stabbing at someone in judgment for their ignorance and lack of understanding. I want it to be clear that I'm not using the word in a pejorative fashion, but simply as a reflection of the reality that develops when we reach conclusions without the experience or knowledge to reach any other conclusion.

The truth is that ethnocentrism is really an off-shoot of being self-centered. Hard as we try, we are all incapable of escaping our self-centeredness. The best we can hope for is that we have an awareness of that fact and realize that we don't hold the patent on "truth". You simply can never escape subjectivity or operating from your own worldview. I'm included in that, too. I always try to make that clear. So, I am not trying to speak negatively of anyone when I say that they are being ethnocentric. It's simply hard not to be in many cases, just as it is impossible to escape being self-centered. I have no interest in accusing anyone of anything, but merely in exploring one situation and the ways in which it is likely to be responded to and the manner in which I try to break out of the box my thinking may naturally place me in. With that long-winded disclaimer in place, I'll carry on with the main point of this post.

As part of my departure preparations, I've had to start working on paring down a well-stocked pantry. As some may know from reading this blog, I make regular trips to Costco to fill up on cheaper and sometimes hard to find imported food. That means that I have a lot of items that I bought in bulk or by the case that I'll either have to rapidly consume or throw away. Since I grew up very poor and it was emphasized that wasting food was a horrible thing, I'm inclined to find a way to consume it and have been endeavoring to find any way possible to eat oatmeal other than merely as a gloopy porridge. Oatmeal is so expensive in Japan that you're better off buying an enormous box at Costco and throwing 3/4 of it away than buying a small box or two in the supermarkets here from an economic viewpoint.

I mentioned on Facebook that it is quite a challenge inventing recipes to use up the food I've acquired at Costco (not to mention the packages of partially consumed snacks from my snack blog posting). Two people then responded that I should donate the food to a charitable organization and encouraged me to look into the Salvation Army in particular. As it turns out, there is a Salvation Army not too far from where I live. In fact, when I first came to Japan, my husband and I bought furniture from them in their Saturday morning sales. We're still using a few of the pieces we acquired from them.

As many readers may or may not know, the Salvation Army in Japan does not take random food donations nor do most charitable organizations unless in very specific circumstances. Japanese culture has not developed a habit of stocking food banks with donated food and it has nothing to do with a lack of practical thinking or cold-heartedness. It has to do with cultural differences. The fact that my American friends immediately concluded that I could donate food I couldn't use before I left Japan is a very benign incidence of ethnocentrism. They assume that societies operate in a manner quite similar to the way in which the one they live in operates. It was to their credit that none of them asserted that it should operate in the same way. They merely expressed their surprise without judgment and let the matter rest. 

The truth is that I hadn't even considered giving the food away when I was thinking about what to do. It was a thought that was completely off the radar because I've lived in this culture for so long and no one does it as a matter of course. I felt like this was an excellent opportunity to try to consider why Japan has not developed such a custom.

I'm sure that there are immediate conclusions that some people might reach, though I'm also pretty sure such conclusions are likely to be incorrect. One might be that the Japanese lack sufficient numbers of poor people to require such aid. There are definitely enough people who could benefit from free food to make such a charitable service useful. Occasionally, there are stories in the paper about people who actually starve to death in Japan. Another might be that the Japanese are too proud to take food for free. The way people wolf down free samples and hover over baskets of them in bakeries, Costco, and department stores would seem to indicate they're not too proud for freebies as a rule.

However, it is quite different taking food because you are poor as compared to because you are hungry, curious, or in some cases, merely greedy. Pride may be an one reason why there are no food pantries for the poor, but I'm a little reluctant to go to that over-used well when it comes to Japan. The whole notion of "honor", "pride" and the thinking which says they'd rather fall on their swords than dishonor themselves is one of those antiquated notions based on having read too many James Clavell novels and been a viewer of too many samurai movies. It doesn't fit modern Japan very well. Besides, every culture's people are uncomfortable taking free food due to poverty. We all have pride. My family collected free cheese during the Reagan era when that was seen as some sort of answer to our economic situation and it was humiliating. It's also the case that people who use food stamps or a public assistance card which is equivalent to them are embarrassed about using them and feel (and often are) judged. It's not being Japanese that makes you too prideful to take handouts. It's being human.

I think that you have to scratch a little harder to reach the truth as to why there is so little food donation and distribution for charity in Japan. One big point is that the organizations that deal with the poor do not want to be responsible for the safety of something as easily spoiled or contaminated as food. If they accept things and people eat them and get sick, they will be blamed. A huge byzantine system of regulations would need to be created for such food donations to become a part of the Japanese welfare system and this isn't a culture which needs to add in new layers of bureaucracy.

Beyond the concerns about responsibility and added rules, there is likely the fact that Japanese people would not be comfortable eating what could be viewed as "second-hand food." While my friend in America might keep food in his refrigerator for a week and give it a cursory sniff and then eat it anyway, most Japanese people are appalled at the idea of eating the same food 2 or 3 days after preparation even if it has been kept at a safe temperature. There is a much greater emphasis on freshness in Japan and the idea that someone else bought it, stored it, handled it, and then ultimately rejected it for their own consumption for whatever reason makes them uncomfortable. It's one thing to be handed food by an experienced vendor who can be held accountable if you become sick. It's quite another to take it from random strangers who evicted it from their pantry. It's my opinion that Japanese cultural notions about food would mean that even those who really could benefit from a charitable food pantry would reject the offerings as unsafe and unpalatable. In a country in which women still shop everyday (though not necessarily do they cook, there is a lot of patronage of delis) and food is inspected to the near molecular level for quality, I don't think they would take advantage of donated food.

Finally, I think that there is the oft-stated lack of space to store food. In the U.S., most people keep a lot of stock on hand and the supermarkets encourage a culture of buying in bulk or by the case by offering significant price reductions for volume purchases. Certain religions also teach a culture of having enough food to survive over long periods of time. In fact, some people will have enough on hand to last an entire year. In Tokyo, few people have enough food to last a week excluding rice storage, but they only keep so much rice on hand because they eat so much of it, not as long-term food stock. In a country which offers little or no economies of scale, there's little reason to buy a lot of food at once and few places to put it even if you did. That means Japanese people aren't generally in need of a pantry purge and no culture of finding a useful way of disposing of excess food has developed. Without such a catalyst to kick start the notion of a food pantry for the needy, there is no concurrent evolving consciousness in which people actively purchase extra food to donate to others. The idea of donating food simply does not occur to people here because it's outside of their cultural norms in many ways. 

That is not to say that the Japanese never donate food to good causes. After the Great Tohoku Earthquake last year, people did buy and send food and water to victims. However, that was very situational and related more to food shortages than to the idea of giving free food to the needy as a general concept. I'd wager that, had there been no logistical barrier to getting food into the area, money would have been the main focus of donations, not shipments of water, rice, and other necessary items. 

One of the things which is great about living in Japan or any foreign culture is that such a small thing like a Facebook comment can open up the opportunity to think about cultural differences much more deeply. That is not to say that I have all of the answers or even that the ones I may come up with are necessarily correct, but rather that there is value for me personally in exploring beyond the first and obvious explanations for such cultural differences. The knee-jerk response (even from some Japanese folks) when this topic is broached is to conclude that the Japanese aren't as kind-hearted or generous as those in cultures in which food distribution to the needy is common. The chance to scratch beneath the surface and ponder other explanations is something of great value and I will definitely miss it when I leave Japan.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Will Miss #423 - naivete about crime

I was discussing crime with one of my students and asked her if she had ever been a victim of it. She said that someone had attempted to break into her house, but failed when they couldn't breach her window screens. They broke the glass and gave up. One of her friends, however, was robbed twice, by a couple of sisters, no less. She said that friend was now afraid to ever take a vacation. I told her that most criminals rob only empty houses, and that they identify them often by the accumulation of mail or newspapers at the house. I told her you can make your house a less appealing target by having a neighbor clear things out and by putting your lights and T.V. on a timer so that it appears the house is occupied. This information came as a huge surprise to her. Most Japanese people experience so little crime that they don't have an awareness of how it works nor how to lessen the likelihood of being a victim. When I experience this naivete, I feel that it's a little like science fiction shows in which aliens have no idea what murder is because they are immortal. You have to explain some sort of ugly truth to them so that they can understand the concept.

The naivete about crime that is relatively common in Japan is a reflection of a society that hasn't been so strongly touched by it, and I will miss how heartening and reassuring that is.