Thursday, May 31, 2012

Won't Miss #454 - the sandwiches

The sandwiches don't really look like this.

No culture can do everything right. Conversely, no culture can do everything wrong, though many would  have you believe that America does. At any rate, I can't say that America does sandwiches "right" as many of them are gooey, overloaded with meat, and enormous. That being said, I can say that, in my opinion, Japan definitely does them "wrong". Most of the sandwiches in Japan are more akin to the whitest of white bread with a light spread of something rather than a balance of filling and starchy planes. If the bread is fantastic, this doesn't have to be a bad thing, but most sandwiches aren't made with the best bread in the world. The egg salad is especially disgusting as it tends to be about 50% mayonnaise and spread onto thin slabs of white bread as if it were a precious commodity and therefore must be used sparingly.

I won't miss the lackluster, anemic, and fairly tasteless sandwiches I could get in Tokyo.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Will Miss #453 - shiny happy people

My shiny, happy bit of Japan that travels with me, debu neko in the San Juan Islands.

One of the things about America that seems to have happened since the 60's is that being positive and happy is seen as a negative thing. People enjoy bursting bubbles and being cynical and sarcastic is elevated above being peppy and positive. It's just not cool to be happy and anyone who overtly displays it is seen as covering something up, having a mental health issue, or just being plain too dumb to realize the awfulness of life. Newspaper articles and blog posts remind you constantly that whatever you feel good about doing is actually bad for you and, incidentally, that good news you just heard isn't really all that good. Frankly, relentlessly positive people annoy me, but the negative nature of many Americans is just as much if not more annoying. Generally speaking, in Japan, being "cheerful" and positive is seen as a good thing and sarcasm is not considered a good form of communication.

I miss the overall focus on people trying to be more positive than negative that I experienced in Japan. It created a different energy when you were around people and was pleasant to be around. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Won't Miss #453 - "yuru-kyara"

Rinkaru, the mascot of the Rinkai line.

There are copious blog posts by foreigners in Japan writing about the various mascots invented to lend color and personality to various aspects of Japanese society. These characters are called "yuyu-kyara" in Japan. The police, firehouses, shopping areas, and even various train stations have their own characters. In many cases, possibly most, these characters are contrived to find a way to merchandise or lure tourists. It has reached the point though where there are so many of them that you can't really remember which ones to identify with a particular area. Some areas even have two mascots. For instance, Sugamo has both a cartoon duck and an chibified version of Jizo, a Buddhist priest.

While I can understand the desire to give a service or area an identity with a mascot, the extent to which these characters populate the culture in Japan feels like it's too much. They blend into a sea of cutesy characters which forms an army so large it could easily defeat the cumulative bank of Disney characters in cartoon-land combat. I won't miss seeing a cute mascot for nearly everything everywhere I go.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Will Miss #452 - no "straight jacket"

Though I lived in a country which is seen (often justifiably) as a conformity factory, all countries and even individuals expect you to react and behave in a certain manner within that culture. Even a highly individualistic culture like that in the United States has expectations of people. The main difference between Japan and the U.S. is that individuals have their own ideas about how you should think, feel, and react whereas, in Japan, society has rules and general expectations of how you should think, feel, and react. The straight jacket for you in America is custom-made and tailored to fit based on the particular notions of the person who is dealing with you. The one Japanese have is mass-produced and looks the same on everyone. In the U.S. , there are no societal norms about behavior, but there are still individual notions of what people "should" do, think, and feel and what they believe is "right". Generally, each person feels what is right is to be just like them.

I realize now that I am back in situations in which I'm expected to be a certain way that one of the things which attracted me to Japan was that I was largely free of any specific expectations other than that I be "different". I miss the fact that there was no behavioral straight jacket on me in Japan and that I was as close to being "free to be me" with less censure or negative feedback as I'm likely ever going to be in my life.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Won't Miss #452 - not being fully literate

OK, I'm pretty sure I can read these boxes. 

Some people are going to react with incredulity that I spent such a long time in Japan and never became fully literate. Well, judge away, my friends, if that is what you need to do to elevate your estimation of yourself above your estimation of someone who writes a little blog on the internet. Before you bang your little gavel and pronounce me a lazy dumb ass (I won't argue with you if you do), keep in mind that I've had conversations with a great many Japanese people who have also told me they can't understand every character when they read a newspaper. They just guess based on context or just skip it, though few people even read newspapers anymore, especially among the younger set. With over 10,000 kanji on top of the phonetic alphabets of hiragana and katakana (both of which I know fully), does it surprise anyone that many natives can't read every character?

The truth is that the very fact that there are so many characters made me pretty much give up on ever becoming fully literate in Japan and I won't miss the fact that there was always going to be something that I couldn't read.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Will Miss #451 - bizarrely inappropriate English lessons

An infamous video lesson teaching people the phrase "I've got a bad case of diarrhea". 

One of the textbooks that I used to teach from had a lesson about slicing cheese. A waggish teacher crossed out "slicing" and changed it to "cutting". When the students did the pattern practice, they would mechanically talk about cutting the cheese as the teachers sat by and tried not to laugh. The thing is that this sort of strange English lesson wasn't confined to teachers altering the contents of low level English lessons. The Japanese distributors tend to include all sorts of weird English phrasing based on what they perceive to be important things to say and they do so without consideration for the cultural context of the cultures in which English is spoken. As I've said before, the Japanese can be refreshingly candid and open about bodily functions, but this can make for some pretty peculiar phrase practice when the origin of the textbooks or lessons is from Japanese distributors.

I'll miss these innocently funny and bizarrely inappropriate English lessons.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Won't Miss #451 - my racism

If you travel, and you think that train stations are a snapshot of ethnic diversity in Japan, you're forming the wrong impression. You see more concentrations of foreigners in public transport areas than in real life. 

When I first came to Japan, I was, like most Americans, thoroughly entrenched in the idea that people were all the same aside from external appearances. As someone who grew up in a less than ethnically diverse rural town - we had poor white people, very poor white people, and somewhat middle class white people - my feelings about the differences between people were formed wholly based on teachings about what was "right" rather than actual experience. Since I was removed from the environment in the U.S., which is hyper-sensitive to matters of race, I was immersed in a culture which treated me with prejudice and objectified me. Through two plus decades of this, I was indoctrinated into a different pattern of thinking. That thinking is often "we are all very different, down to the blood, bone, and organs," not "we are all the same under our skin". What is more, being constantly objectified has made it easier and easier for me to objectify others. After decades of being an "outsider" (us) among "the Japanese" (them), I have started to treat them as they have treated me - as if their feelings and opinions do not matter and as if we are fundamentally different and always will be. Part of this thinking develops as a defense psychologically when a person is the object of prejudicial behavior, and part of it is living in Rome so long that you start to accept the Roman way of thinking.

We are all racist by nature (likely a genetically shaped survival trait) and it is only socialization that trains us and encourages us to curb said nature. I feel that, for me, the environment in Japan has stoked some very bad thought patterns and behaviors that absolutely did no exist prior to going there. I will not miss how living in a racist country has brought more racist feelings to the forefront in me. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Will Miss #450 - solid identities

When I was growing up, I was a rabid KISS fan. Some of my more attentive readers with good memories may recall this fact from some of my previous ramblings. One of the reasons I loved being a KISS fan and found it so hard to stop being one long past the point of actually liking the band was that a huge part of my identity was wrapped up in my association with the group. Like many young people who went through an identity crisis, I found a bunch of people who seemed to be "like me" and built a lot of who I perceived myself to be around that. This was something I needed to do because society at large wasn't giving me any clues as to what it was to be "American". In fact, if society told me anything, it was that Americans had no real identity. We were part of a crazy stew of diversity.

The Japanese lack this mixture, and as a result, they know who they are. They don't have to reach as far afield to know what their identity is and as a result are a lot less sensitive about trivial things. What is more, and I think this is one of those hidden aspects of life in Japan for some foreigners which they are gratified by, but don't even realize is valuable to them, they give us a solid identity as well. We are "gaijin". We know who and what we are because the Japanese tell us so. For people who have just graduated from university ("student") or have faced a life transition ("mother", which is lost as part of empty nest syndrome) and who lose an identity, the power of being given a definition of self is not to be underestimated and even a negative identity is better than the gaping emptiness of not knowing who you are. 

While I was never happy to have it crudely and rudely pointed out to me, I nonetheless miss the fact that I had a solid identity in Japan and could relate to the Japanese people in a particular way because they who knew they were. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Random Thoughts: Hi, My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist

Shortly after returning to the U.S., I went into a little shop that sold panini and wine. It was small and had one long bar with about 8 stools around it. It was the type of tiny little place that wine lovers and tourists visit for a quaint experience with somewhat upscale cuisine. There were only 3 panini on the menu, and each had a long list of ingredients that were a cut above the usual fixings for burgers, like artichoke and pesto. I bought a vegetarian panino and shared an imported all-natural orange soda with my husband, and felt very much like I didn't belong.

I felt out of place for two reasons. One was that I had been in the U.S. just a little over a week at that time after 23 years in Japan and was still deeply fried from the lightning strikes of reverse culture shock. Here were people in a shop having a normal conversation with me, like I was just another human being rather than some purple alien from Pluto. I was also a bit uncomfortable because I'm not really an upscale sort of person who drinks wine and eats elegantly orchestrated Italian-style sandwiches. We chose that place because we were in a tourist area during the non-tourist season, and it was one of the only games in town that was open.

The people who owned the place were engaging in what I'm sure was usual patter for tourists and out-of-towners. The man behind the counter who'd pressed together our sandwiches asked where we were from and grunted with limited interest as we told him our story of where we'd been for the last two decades or so and how we'd come to where we were. An older and younger woman who also worked there and were probably his wife and daughter brightened up at the mention of Japan and started talking about how they'd gone there for a vacation and visited Kyoto and loved it. When the older woman said that she was sure they made mistakes manner-wise in Japan, I said that it was okay because the Japanese quickly forgave foreigners for their lack of understanding of Japanese culture and customs. The younger woman then said, "you'd think we'd be more like that here in America." I asked her what she meant and she said that she thought, as a country with a diverse cultural mix, Americans should be more easily forgiving of differences and transgressions.

Sometimes you don't think at all before you react to what people say. You don't know why you say it, but you know you've spoken the truth. In this case, what this woman said seemed utterly absurd and I didn't think about why until afterward and having had time to reflect on it. To her assertion that the Japanese were exercising greater tolerance in the face of diversity, I said, "they forgive you because they don't think you're capable of understanding their culture or language, not because they are tolerant of differences." After I said this, the woman turned away and my impression was that she didn't want to hear that. Of course, she may simply have been bored with the conversation, or at least the part where she was talking and I was listening as these people were less interested in what we had to say than talking about their own experiences in Japan.

I'm sure that there are many people who would say that I can't know what is in the hearts of Japanese people when they do and say what they do, and they'd be right. However, in a country which is known world-wide for having a culture in which "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down", I think it's pretty clear that there is a weak cultural backbone when it comes to tolerance of differences. I would labor to say that asserting this is not a criticism so much as an observation based on the way Japanese people treat each other as well as how I was treated, but those who would like to see it that way won't listen to me anyway and those who aren't inclined in that manner don't really need to be told.

Getting back to the point though, one thing that I have learned pretty quickly is that Americans are squeamish about anything which resembles critical commentary on other cultures and quick to deride their own. I've read plenty of things which are superficial and positive from people who have never been to Japan or only visited as a tourist. Though well-meant, they are sometimes diminishing or condescending. One person called them "adorable", and I'm sure meant it nicely, but it seems to reduce them all to cute, little children who deserve a pat on the head. People, and especially white ones and Americans in my experience, don't want to hear anything deeper than talk about temples, anime, and cuteness. They have an image of Japan, and they will fight cognitive dissonance with all of their might to keep it intact. They have to put up with a lot less mental noise if they turn away and eat their panino rather than listening to people like me.

"People like me" are not just people who have lived in Japan for a long time, but those with the eyes, ears, and psychologically-tuned nose for what is going on around them. Many people sleepwalk through life and can't understand when other people have certain feelings and experiences that they do not. A few of us have the equivalent of an ear capable of hearing a dog whistle when it comes to human behavior. We can "hear" what others can't. It's not that we're trying to do so, but you can't not hear such things when you're a sensitive individual. For us, it's like a blow horn right next to our heads, but others can't even hear a faint whisper, so they tell us that we're hallucinating or making it all up. If you try to convince them otherwise, they get angry at you, or stop listening because they have a precious version of reality to protect.

Me, in the bucolic splendor of my temporary digs in the San Juan islands. You can thank my stalkers for the lack of full-face revelation. That doesn't mean they won't eat eat this picture up with a spoon and tell me what a disgusting, ugly, old hag I am... It's all right though. They have nothing better to do with their time than read the words of someone they hate and let me know that I must go away because they couldn't possibly solve their problem by just not reading what I write. I fulfill a need for them. It's good to be useful.

Some of us are okay with having our reality rocked. In fact, a few are okay with having it shattered into pieces and put together again in a more complex manner, even if it looks a little uglier when we're through.  This brings me to the topic of this long-winded piece and that is Baye McNeil's excellent book, "Hi My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist." I'm sure that people who are reading think that when I speak of shattered reality that I'm going to say his book blows apart illusions of what life is like in Japan. That's not exactly true. In terms of how he discusses his experiences in Japan, and he discusses them well, with passion and in a manner that ups the interest level for the reader, there really isn't anything earth-shattering there. Many people have had the same experiences as him, though few from the perspective of an African American. The reality that fell apart for Baye was that of himself.

The real story of "Hi, My Name Is Loco and I Am a Racist" is Baye himself and how his experiences during his entire life including his upbringing in New York, time in the Army, and, yes, time in Japan created self-revelation. The pretty picture that was torn to shreds and put back together again was that he had of himself. The title of his book is not an obscure statement, but the theme of the entire book. Life in Japan was like a pressure cooker that rapidly advanced his personal growth and it is not only a fascinating read because you can see how his life did this, but how this highly intelligent and sensitive person processed it.

The truth is that Baye is a little like me in some ways and that is probably why I enjoy his work so much. He's clearly also an HSP (highly sensitive person) and someone who spends a lot of time in his own head and thinking about the intricate connections between people, behavior, and experiences. However, where I tend to process intellectually and try to be relatively dispassionate, Baye is very much more human about things. He paints in big, vivid expressions of anger, love, fear, and excitement. For those who think life should be lived in muted tones of beige, cream, and slate, this can seem a bit much, but I found his passionate style invigorating and properly calibrated for the circumstances he was in. He feels his feelings and then he processes them. People like me try to tamp down those feelings before processing them and I think that living life big emotionally is something I used to do and lost. Baye's book reminded me of that loss, and made me ponder if I'm really better off for having muted my reactions, especially to Japan. I think too many people remain self-consciously dispassionate in their reaction to that little island country for fear of their emotions discrediting their observations or, even worse, appearing racist.

All of that passion and an extremely colorful life make for engaging reading. I insisted on having a print copy of Baye's book before I left Japan so that I could sit on the airplane and read it. I also think he's an incredibly talented writer so I wanted something real with a signature as I think he has the potential to be truly successful if he gets the attention he deserves. And don't mistake me here, I'm not writing a love letter or fan note to Baye. I don't hand out compliments about writing talent easily because I strongly feel there is precious little of it out there in the blogging world, or even the published world, for that matter. Mostly, there is a lot of content with little more than boredom and a desire for attention behind it and many people think they can write when what they really do is transcribe their thoughts. Writing is much more than that. I'm saying his work is worthwhile because he's got the goods, and I really enjoyed his book. I found it hard to put down, and I think others will enjoy it, too.

I'm not recommending his book only because he's a good writer, but also because there is great value in his journey emotionally and psychologically for all of us. As he dissects himself, he provides a model for how we might look a little deeper into ourselves. The amazing thing about it is that he does it unconsciously, so there's no element of trying to guide the reader. It just happens naturally to even the most marginally thoughtful reader through his process of living out loud in the book. His growth through a series of unique and colorful life experiences is a key through which we can unlock some deeper truths in ourselves if we can tear down our own self-image and illusions as he managed to tear down his.

Note: I previously mentioned Baye's book in this blog at a point when I had only read some teasers. This was written after having read the entire book. I'm glad to see that all of my praise in the initial post was well warranted. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Won't Miss #450 - narrow market aisles

Yes, this is a store, despite the fact that it resembles a warehouse. Shops in Tokyo often optimize their display and storage space but putting open boxes of products in front of shelves or at the end caps, taking up valuable real estate that those annoying customers might take advantage of.

I've been shopping in a relatively smallish supermarket since returning to the U.S. My guess is that it has average to smaller than average aisle sizes. They are wide enough to accommodate two very large shopping carts plus allow a person to squeeze by them if they are parked on either side. In Tokyo, I'm pretty sure one really big cart would block most aisles and allow one trim person to pass through. I do know that it didn't take much for one or two lingering shoppers who had no consideration of others to completely cut you off in many cases and won't move even when you say, "excuse me," and make it clear that you need to pass by. Some get angry with you for even making them aware that you would like to get by. It also doesn't help that the shop workers also block the way.

I won't miss the narrow shop aisles in Tokyo and the frustrations that accompany them.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Will Miss #449 - fewer food chemicals

I'm not really talking about this kind of food (processed food). I'm talking about things like bread, cured meat, etc. I'm sure these are relatively chemical cornucopias. 

I used to scoff at the idea that Japanese food in general was any purer or fresher than American food, especially considering the distance it took for most of it to reach us in Tokyo. It doesn't help that the origin of a lot of the food was China, Mexico, or other foreign countries which means it had already had a long and tiring journey by the time it reached my table. However, since returning to the U.S., I've learned a few things. One is that the food here frequently has far longer expiration dates than food in Japan did. Lunch meat in Japan might keep for a week. Here, it is a bit scary learning how long it is supposed to keep. Why would this be? Well, it's chemicals. Not only do the Japanese not use artificial dyes in their food with the frequency that American businesses do, but they also don't saturation bomb their perishable packaged food with preservatives so they can be tossed in the refrigerator and remain edible for three weeks.

While it is certainly convenient for food to keep a lot longer in the U.S. than it did in Japan, it has a funky taste which I'm sure I was once accustomed to and now find hard to bear. I miss food in Japan which was prepared with far fewer chemicals than that in America.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Won't Miss #449 - and, and, and

One of the things I had to repeatedly correct with my students when I was teaching English, both in writing and when speaking, was how to use "and". Despite what I'm sure are years of studying English grammar rules, students seemed to think that you should put "and" between each noun that you were stringing together in a sentence. For example, a student would say, "I have been to Italy and France and America and Canada and Hawaii.*" No matter how many times I would explain to students that you only need to say "and" between the penultimate and final noun, most would keep doing this persistently. I'm pretty sure they wouldn't do this so consistently unless their early teachings taught them incorrectly or their teachers failed to correct them. 

I won't miss correcting this persistent mistake, which should never have occurred in the first place had people been taught correct grammar by a native speaker rather than a Japanese teacher of English who implanted all of his or her errors in the language into the students. 

*Because, you know, Hawaii isn't part of America in the minds of most Japanese people. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Will Miss #448 - cash-based culture

Every several months, applications for automatic payment of various utility bills were put in my mailbox. Every several months, I recycled the forms. Though the Suica and Pasmo pre-paid cards are changing, to some extent, the amount of cash used in Japan, it is still largely a cash-based culture and I prefer this. It's not that I like handling money and I do realize that electronic handling of funds has many benefits. However, I think that the further removed we are from the experience of actually paying for things, the more likely we will be to lose track of our finances. I think that using credit cards in particular contributes to the culture of debt that America has because we don't conceptualize money in the same way once it becomes about numbers on statements rather than notes in wallets.

I'll miss the simplicity and awareness that comes along with being in a largely cash-based society.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Won't Miss #448 - the shampoo

I'm not saying it'll turn your hair green, but just using this picture because this lovely woman has awesome hair.

Back when I first started working in Japan, one of my British coworkers at Nova was having a conversation about going about ones daily life in Japan. She mentioned that she had to spend a lot of money on shampoo because she had to buy imports or have things sent over from England. When asked why, she said that Japanese shampoo was like dish soap. She said it was too strong and stripped her hair of essential oils. After many years in Japan, I forgot about this conversation and tended to just slather my head with conditioner ever time I shampooed, but it came back to mind once I returned to the U.S. and took my first shower and used American shampoo. I'm not sure what the issue is with Japanese shampoo and my hair (which is "normal", neither fine nor coarse), but I'm guessing it may be formulated for coarser hair than the average Western person. It seems my former coworker was right about the shampoo being harsher on at least some women's hair.

I won't miss the stronger/different shampoo in Japan.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Will Miss #447 - newness

Now that I'm back in the U.S., use of the future tense in these posts seems a bit odd, but I'm sticking with it for the sake of consistency. I've done over 800 posts in the future tense and swapping now just feels wrong. If it helps, you can pretend I'm still in Japan, or figure that I'll miss these things later but I'm too shell-shocked by being home after 23 years to know what I think and feel. At any rate, this post is courtesy of having been home for about a month and realizing just how much older everything is here than it was in Japan. While I, at times, felt that the constant revamping of everything in Japan was a monumental waste of material (especially the way that people's houses were relatively disposable and torn down and rebuilt about every 30 years), I sometimes feel like many things here are rundown, dirty, and beat up. There has to be a balance between refurbishing too much and doing so too little. 

I (will) miss the newness of things in Tokyo and how things felt clean, fresh, and smartly turned out. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Won't Miss #447 - the bananas

Hawaiian sumo wrestler and former champion (ozeki), Konishiki, once said in an interview that he found the bananas in Japan very disappointing. He said that they were relatively flavorless and paled in comparison to those he could get back home. In my youth, that is to say, up until I was 24, I never really ate bananas much nor paid attention to the flavor of them. I didn't start eating them regularly until I went to Japan and was old enough to attend to my health and focus on eating fresh fruit. Among the various types of fruit available in Japan, bananas were always the most economical, so I ate a ton of them as the years went by. It has only been since returning home that I realized the truth in what Konishiki had said. The bananas here are better tasting. It was quite a shock to my husband and I when we ate our first one. On the whole, bananas are more flavorful and sweeter in America.

I won't miss the relatively bland, tasteless bananas that I used to get in Japan. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Will Miss #446 - Osaka personalites

If you've lived in Japan long enough, and especially if you have lived in Tokyo as I have, you know the instant you are dealing with someone who was born in Osaka. The way in which they communicate with you is faster, freer, and more friendly. When you visit the city of Osaka, people walk faster and look where they are going (as opposed to Tokyo where they are oblivious to all and sundry) far more often than in Tokyo and they're far less likely to stare at foreigners. When I do English level tests by phone, I know immediately if someone is from Osaka. Since we're speaking in English, there's no accent or appearance to betray their origin. It's pure character.

People from Osaka are refreshingly more akin to what Americans are used to in terms of personality while still retaining many of the very best aspects of the Japanese character, and I'm going to miss talking with Osaka-ites.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Won't Miss #446 - "you should go to an onsen"

Obviously, having never been to an onsen, I don't have a picture of one. However, this is a picture of water located in Japan. Theoretically, one could bath in it. Sorry, it's the best I can do.

Japanese people almost universally love onsen (hot springs) and every time I asked someone what they did over a vacation or weekend and they said they went to an onsen, I had to have the same exchange with them. "Have you ever gone to an onsen?" "No, I haven't." "You should go to an onsen!" I would explain that I get stared at more than enough with my clothes on and don't need to go to an onsen and give them a chance to gawk at the full monty of me. The response to this was inevitably to counter that there are "private" areas in which I could go and stew until I was the temperature of a boiled egg in private. To this, I would say that I don't like very hot baths and, in fact, sometimes have blood pressure issues from being immersed in temperatures that are high. To this, I was told to stay in for a short time only. Sigh. I would then say that I didn't see the point of going somewhere and paying money to do something I didn't enjoy. And then they would give up until the next time when everything I said about not wanting to go to an onsen for the aforementioned reasons seemed to have been completely forgotten.

I understand that Japanese people are happy to sit naked in very hot water with strangers of the same sex and boil their bodies, but it's not my idea of a good time. Their enthusiasm for this endeavor seemed to override their usually highly developed sense of empathy and I won't miss being hounded to go to onsen again and again and again

Monday, May 7, 2012

Will Miss #445 - Ultraman

Ultraman soft drinks being sold in a vending machine in Tokyo.

When I was a kid, there were two Japanese things which I saw on television on a regular basis. One was the Saturday afternoon Godzilla movies which set the stage for hundreds of jokes about Japanese people's mouths moving out of sync with their words. The other was "Ultraman", who had no mouth so we didn't know if his words matched his lip movements. Ultraman used to air in the after school time slot (around 4:00 p.m.) when I was growing up and, though I am absolutely not a fan girl, I have a very nostalgic sense connected to this particular character. Seeing him reminds me of a time when Japan wasn't a place to me so much as a concept. It wasn't cool or creepy, but just the origin of a very different kind of entertainment that had verisimilitude for all kids worldwide.

Ultraman was part of my earliest exposure to Japanese culture and marked a time when I regarded it with purity and innocence rather than analysis or judgment. I will miss seeing Ultraman peppered throughout pop cultural life on a regular basis and the sense of warm nostalgia that the character brought on.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Won't Miss #445 - banal imperial family news

A recent headline asserted that the Emperor played tennis for the first time since his heart bypass operation. This is what passes for news in Japan when it comes to the royal family because the mainstream press is strictly controlled in regards to what they can say about them. They cannot criticize them (like how wasteful the imperial system is and how it does nothing for Japan) and they cannot talk about juicy scandalous things (like the troubled life of Princess Masako as an unhappy bird in a gilded cage). Banal bits of mundane information are offered up as if they have significance. I wouldn't be surprised if one day we'll read about how he had a bowel movement after several days of constipation.

The way in which the life of the imperial family is talked about in Japan demonstrates their status as an anachronism. They serve no real role in Japanese society, not even as a model of Japanese culture or character because they can only be seen and spoken of in a limited and pointless fashion. I won't miss this sort of news and what it means on a deeper level, and that is that any potential that they have as social or cultural leaders is smothered by a desire to protect and control their image and perceptions of their power. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Will Miss #444 - Koenji Awaodori

A poster for the Koenji Awaodori festival, which takes place in the sweatiest time of year.

Now that I no longer live in Japan and have to worry less about overtly revealing my location, I can say that I used to live midway between Asagaya and Koenji. For those who never lived in Japan, that means nothing, but it would have been a juicy nugget for my stalkers. Though honestly, I'm sure any attentive nut job who hated me but couldn't stop obsessing on my words and personal information could have gleaned such information from photos if nothing else. Getting back to the point, however, this was a great location in Tokyo to live. Both Asagaya and Koenji were fantastic places to live for a plethora of reasons and, if I ever live in Japan again, I'd consider living there again.

Besides the incredible shopping, great atmosphere, and convenient location, both Asagaya and Koenji had notable festivals. For Asagaya, it was the deliciously tacky and overblown tanabata festival. For Koenji, it was the far less tacky and monumentally popular awaodori festival which features traditional dancers, taiko drumming, and about a million visitors (literally).

The Koenji awaodori is an awesome event that provides a window into traditional culture and offers a level of exposure to the energy and enthusiasm of Japanese people that is usually absent in everyday life, and I will miss it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Won't Miss #444 - dani bugs

Obviously, this is a spider, not a dani bug. Strangely enough, they didn't feature animatronic dani bugs at the local tanabata festival. This was the closest I could come to a picture of an annoying insect that infests your living space and bites you.

When I was a kid, we had problems with certain types of insects, but never bed bugs or things that lived where we slept. Of course, it helps that my home culture didn't have a tradition of sleeping on the floor and that our floor wasn't made of straw. The creepy-crawlies creep and crawl less at higher spaces than lower ones, especially when you're talking about things which enjoy living in the flooring. In Japan, one of the things that loves to live in the traditional tatami mats is dani bugs. The dung (dust) from them causes allergic reactions and the bugs themselves can literally nip at your heels. They leave little red bites behind in pairs. Dani bugs are the reason why you see people beating the hell out of their futon and hanging them in the sun. One of the reasons that you have to vacuum (rather than simply sweep) tatami is to suck out these mites. They also require toxic sprays and bug bombs at regular intervals to keep them at bay.

I won't miss all of the activities that go along with keeping the dani bugs at bay. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Will Miss #443 - the souvenirs

I'm currently living in an area which is more of a vacation/resort area in which many people spend their summers at second homes. It's a quaint little area full of nice people, nature, and herds of deer that enjoy roaming the area in front of our cabin and occasionally forage for leaves on the deck. However, one thing I've noticed is how tacky all of the souvenirs are. I will grant that there were plenty of super tacky souvenirs in Japan though mostly those were in places heavily targeted toward foreigners (not where locals went), but there were also some tasteful ones and, what is more, there were always loads of food souvenirs. You could always count on some little food item which was at least minimally related to the place you were visiting being on offer which was nicely boxed and elegantly presented. This is because the culture of giving food souvenirs to coworkers helps develop a healthy market for such things. In the U.S., we don't have the same traditions and the souvenir market, by and large, tends to be a bit loud and overblown in its offerings.  

I loved going out on sojourns with my husband and looking through the food souvenirs for something to take back and enjoy as a reminder of the place I'd been to and I miss that.