Friday, June 29, 2012

Will Miss #464 - "simple is best"

One of the reasons Japanese characters are seen as cute is that they are rendered very simply. Minimalism, which Japan is often over-credited for, is also about simplicity. Japanese food is often about simple tastes and keeping flavors clean and separated. Culture-wide, Japanese love simplicity. It's an aesthetic which isn't always followed, but tends to permeate the culture in pleasant and unique ways.

Frankly speaking, it's a lot of what makes the vibe in Japan "Japanese", and I will miss it. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Won't Miss #464 - fear of being trapped on trains

It's higher than it looks here. 

When you live in Tokyo, you spend a fair amount of your life on trains. This is what happens when you live in a place with a very convenient, efficient, and punctual public transport system and very expensive parking. After the March 11, 2011 earthquake, my feeling about stepping onto a train changed. The trains automatically stop when a strong quake happens. If you are stuck on one between stations when one hits, it could be hours before you get out. They can't exactly open the doors in the middle of nowhere and have you disembark because the train platforms are very high (4.5-5.5 ft.) and there's no way to get down when you're not at a station short of a special ladder. In California, you go up steps to get on the train. In Japan, not so much. I talked to some people who were trapped on trains for as long as three hours during the quake and the answer to "what happens if you have to go to the bathroom" (as there are none on standard trains and subways). The answer was a shoulder shrug.

After the big quake, I was always afraid of being trapped for hours on a train or subway after a big quake and ending up soiling myself and I won't miss that paranoia.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Will Miss #463 - paying to pick fruit

A fairly typical in-season price for berries is 350-500 yen ($4.36-$6.24). Why pay less and get them the easy way?

When I was a child, I used to go strawberry picking with my grandmother. The purpose of this was to make a little extra cash because we were paid 25 cents a pint to pick them. It was hot, back-breaking work, but we did it for several summers because it was one of the few ways for a kid under 15 to make a little money. In Japan, my students told me that they sometimes went to farms to pick cherries, strawberries, etc. I asked them why they did this when they had jobs and they said because they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted when they did this. They generally paid between 2000-3000 yen ($25-$37) for the opportunity to do no more than pick their own fruit and consume it on site. They were not allowed to take any fruit home, but essentially were engaged in an all-you-can-eat single fruit buffet for a price that far exceeded buying that same amount of fruit at a fruit stand.

In the U.S., people sometimes pick their own fruit to get a reduced price on what they take home or to ensure that they have the freshest fruit, but they'd never pay a lot more to just stand around in a grove and eat fruit. It always amused me when students told me they paid someone else to have a chance to do what I was once paid to do.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Won't Miss #463 - baker unfriendly butter

This is one of those dumb little things that probably matters more to me than nearly anyone else for a variety of reasons, but it remains a personal point nonetheless. I lived in Japan long enough to leave extended tourist mode and live a normal life. Part of normal life for me is cooking and baking for myself. One of the things about butter sold in Japan is that it is sold in big foil-wrapped 200 gram (1 cup) blocks. Sometimes you could buy a variety with some markings on the foil to allow you to awkwardly cut a tablespoon out, but most of the time there was nothing at all. I had forgotten that butter in America comes in stick and half-stick sizes with clear tablespoon markings along the package to make it quick and easy to measure for baking. Even if you bake by weight, it's still easier to manage sticks than one large wad. Also, if you use butter as a spread, you don't have to handle a large amount or leave it out in the butter dish all at once if you have small individually wrapped portions. In fact, given what fans the Japanese are of wrapping small amounts, this remained on of the few things which did not come in convenient smaller sizes.  

Though many things in Japan are arranged for maximum consumer convenience, the lack of a strong baking culture meant the butter wasn't one of them and I won't miss it. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Will Miss #462 - the blending of the old and new

Tatami beds, an interesting blend of the old with the new. 
Photo courtesy of Luis Poza at BlogD (used with permission). 

I used to do desktop publishing, editing, and writing of textbooks that included CDs with dialogues for people studying English. One of the questions related to a portion of the dialogue which asked a foreign visitor about a notable point about Japan and the answer was something about how the Japanese blend the old and the new. In the dialogue, they were talking about how ancient temples are sitting next to skyscrapers, or little rickety sweet potato stands selling roasted spuds made by hand are parked in front of gleaming supermarkets. The truth is that you see, but don't necessarily process this sort of mixing at many levels in Japanese culture. There may be a little design element that dates back centuries as part of a modern building, or you see "Hello Kitty" wearing some sort of traditional dress. Part of what makes Japan such an interesting place is how often you see bits of its ancient culture seamlessly interwoven with modern elements. It's the sort of thing you not only don't often see in my home country, but you actually can't since the culture is too relatively new to even possess such old culture.

I miss seeing the way in which the old and the new are woven into daily life in Japan. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Won't Miss #462 - "kusai mono ni wa futa o shiro"

I guess covering your nose might also keep the smell out, but it doesn't quite accomplish the same goal. 

The Japanese have a saying (kusai mono ni wa futa o shiro) which means "if it smells bad, cover it up/put a lid on it." This goes beyond common attempts to cover up ones mistakes or to turn a blind eye to bad behavior as it commonly and casually occurs in American culture. It's about not facing hard truths, discussing serious problems, and willfully remaining oblivious to things which desperately need to be faced. It is not necessarily linked to morality, though it can be, but is a culture-wide squeamishness about confronting unpleasantness on multiple levels. It keeps serious social, economic and political issues from being dealt with and contributes to interpersonal distance between people who have problems, but do no face them. 

The culture of "kusai mono ni wa futa o shiro" stands in the way of improving situations and is a roadblock to communication and I won't miss it. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Will Miss #461 - great money design

I'm annoyed that I didn't have any other bills to show (because this was all I had left from my Japaense cash), but you can see more of them here

My in-laws recently returned from a trip to Spain and showed me the design of the Euro. It's pretty good because each bill is a different size and appeared to have various colors. This is compared to American cash which is all pretty much the same size and color. Japanese cash goes a step further than European money. Each bill is a different size and also has tactile dots to help the blind distinguish them (which may or may not be braille as I can't read it and verify that). The coins have different sizes, weights, and holes to help them further be more easily identified. American money must be a big pain for the blind because they have to rely on others honesty or have a trusted person sort out their cash.

My mother is blind, and I often appreciated the effort that was made into designing Japanese money such that it was easier to use for people with such a disability as well as harder to confuse for even sighted people. I will miss this daily reminder of consideration for those with this particular hardship. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Won't Miss #461 - speaking English to each other

I didn't mind it when Japanese people who were trying to help me for whatever reason spoke English to me. It may have been slightly presumptuous of them to assume that I spoke English, but their intentions were always kind. I did mind it when one of a pair of random strangers who were both Japanese and speaking Japanese to each other suddenly started to speak English at the sight of me. I'm not sure what the motivation was as I'm pretty sure it had nothing to do with "helping" me by making sure I understood any overheard conversation. It seemed to me just another variation on "gaijin da!" and it was meant to make sure they knew I recognized my own foreignness. Frankly, it really felt like a way of mocking me and I found it quite rude.

I could be wrong about the motives of such people. Perhaps they were insufferable show-offs who were waiting for a chance to demonstrate their dubious English skills to someone who they believed would appreciate them, but I will not miss Japanese people who speak English to one another upon seeing me. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Will Miss #460 - lack of prudishness

One of the first things I learned about Japan was that their regard for sexual behavior is quite different from that of Westerners. I was told, and this was a notion that was reinforced as the years went by, that sexual acts were regarded as a biological necessity, much like the need to urinate or eat. This was offered as an explanation as to why some Japanese women would tell their husbands or boyfriends that they understood if they strayed, but they simply never wanted to know about it. Cheating is tolerated to a greater extent because it is seen as a release, not as a threat to relationships. While some foreigners, especially men, view this as a superior and enlightened attitude toward sex, I simply see it as a different way of looking at things  based on cultural differences. And while the Japanese do practice more censorship of pornography (laws made in 1907 that were never altered) than Western countries do, they don't have laws in place to restrict private behavior (such as ridiculous sodomy laws that say what you can and can't do in your own home). I have no idea why the censorship laws were never changed, but I think it has more to do with inertia than prudishness.

To me, the aspect of this that I will miss is the lack of prudishness that accompanies such a frank and utilitarian attitude toward sex.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Won't Miss #460 - contracts not being followed

In America, where people do what is required by law rather than what is reasonable or best, we have a culture in which contracts are specific and followed to the letter. This provides a sense of comfort since it stops people from being taken advantage of, especially in the workplace and in business transactions. In Japan, contracts are not seen as concrete. They are seen as the beginning of a process and often the terms that are spelled out in them are disregarded when they become inconvenient for the more powerful entity signing the document. Many English teachers who are hired abroad sign contracts stating working hours, duties, and conditions and upon arriving in Japan discover that they are expected to work overtime, perform mundane cleaning duties, or work on days not specified in the contract they signed. The Japanese themselves take it for granted that employees will do whatever is asked no matter how outside of the original terms of employment such requests are. Unfortunately, the contract flakiness doesn't only apply to employees. It can also apply to purchases, services, or renting an apartment. Though it happens less often when one is a customer, it did happen to me in regards to cable services.

I realize that this is a cultural difference and my objection to this is completely ethnocentric, but I will not miss being taken advantage of or being treated like a huge problem if I refuse to let it be done to me because employee contracts aren't worth the paper they're printed on in many cases.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Will Miss #459 - feeling smarter than I am

One of the aspects of living in a foreign country and Japan in particular is that you have the chance to present yourself as an authority on whatever you choose to expound upon. When teaching, I overheard plenty of gas bags who loved nothing more than to "teach" by telling students "the truth" about whatever. Sometimes, the things I heard people say were so ridiculously wrong that it made me cringe, but students never challenged the assertions that their idiot teachers made. The largest part of the reason they did this is likely that they felt that they couldn't speak with authority on the topics the teacher pretended to know so well. Another large part is that the students are always at a disadvantage linguistically and can't express sophisticated notions well. And, yet another is that Japanese people don't operate under the misguided notion that their opinions are equivalent to facts as many Americans (and other Westerners) do. Finally, Japanese people out of modesty, politeness, and a higher concern for safe-guarding the relationships they have with people will often opt not to argue counterpoints.

It is easy in Japan to feel like you are smarter than you really are because you can say pretty much anything and have your ideas validated with a nodding head. It can be immensely gratifying to the ego to feel like you're an authority on anything of which you speak because you are dealing with people who either can't disagree due to lack of cultural experience or won't because of their cultural inhibitions about doing so and I will miss that sweet illusion. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Won't Miss #459 - organ donation hypocrisy

There was a television show called "L.A. Law" back in the mid 80's to early 90's which had an episode about kidney transplants. In the story, a wealthy Japanese businessman essentially "bought" an organ and a dying woman of more modest means who was higher on the donation recipients list was contesting his right to do so. At the time, I thought no further than the notion that a Japanese man was chosen because it was feared that Japan would take over the world with its economic might. That was probably the writer's motivation in making the character Japanese, but the truth is that there is a deeper issue about organ donation and Japan. Many Japanese have to go abroad to get organ transplants because they can't get organs back home. The Japanese overwhelmingly do not donate organs, but they will accept transplants without hesitation. This hypocrisy is fueled by Buddhist beliefs about remaining intact when you cross the river to the next life, but also by irrational fears that doctors are going to carve them up for their organs at the first opportunity and rational fears about the pain of surrendering an organ.

When discussing this topic with Japanese people, I was always frustrated by the hypocrisy and selfishness inherent in such thinking and I won't miss it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Will Miss #458 - quieter eating

This was a Chinese meal in Japan. My husband forgot to take a picture until he'd consumed most of it. Usually, we get a shot before we start eating.

There are some things about life in America which I never realized were the case until I was removed from the environment long enough to forget that they were natural. My husband and I ate at a Chinese restaurant in America for the first time since returning and I was taken aback by how noisy his eating seemed to be in terms of clanking his fork and spoon on the porcelain plates. I asked him to try not to do that, then I listened and figured out that everyone in the restaurant was doing the same thing. In fact, it was difficult not to scoop kung pao chicken from the serving dish to the dinner plate without scraping the dish with the spoon (and they didn't offer chopsticks). Eating in America due to the types of utensils and dishes is a much more cacophonous affair.

I never realized how much quieter it is eating in Japan with chopsticks and/or lacquerware bowls and plates and I miss it. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Won't Miss #458 - high fat food

A lot of people believe that Japanese food is healthier than other food, but I don't necessarily believe that is true. I think that Japanese people tend to eat less than people in other countries and that they make better food choices with an eye toward a good nutritional balance, but looking at the overall options for eating, Japanese cuisine doesn't really stack up better than many other countries food. That's okay. No food culture needs to be a paragon and they all have strengths and weaknesses. One of the strengths is that there is less sugar. On the other hand, there is generally more fat in food that contains fats (such as processed food, but also tempura, tonkatsu, pasta sauces, and even certain stews and soups). (And if you think that Japanese folks are sitting down to nosh on sushi, sashimi and broiled fish every night, then you clearly haven't been paying attention.) The high fat content would make the calorie content of something which seemed pretty innocuous and bland into a gut expander. A lot of foreigners eat the food thinking it's probably not so fattening because it's not so sweet. They are often wrong.

Japanese tastes run toward things which are creamy and that carries a calorie price tag that I won't miss. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Will Miss #457 - low sugar food

Though I'm using a picture which talks about "health", I'm pretty sure that the lack of sugar bombs in most Japanese food has less to do with health and more to do with tastes based on food culture. 

Each country has its particular cuisine and preferences, and America loves its sugar. This is not a genetic defect or some sort of lack of restraint in the face of an option to choose sweets. It's a preference formed from years of experience with the same types of food. If you give people very sweet food all of their lives, they will have a taste for it. One of the things I've encountered much to my dismay in America is that sweet things are often intensely sweet. In fact, they are sometimes so overbearingly so that I can't taste much of anything else. The flavor depth is obliterated by sweetness.

In Japan, it was rare for things to be so intensely sweet that you couldn't taste anything else. Sometimes, things didn't have enough sugar, and that was an issue, but I grew used to having more flavor depth and I miss the lower sugar content of Japanese sweets.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Won't Miss #457 - air conditioner energy wastage

A Roppongi Hills restaurant the summer of 2011, with the doors wide open to the outside and air conditioners blasting.

The summer after the Great Tohoku Earthquake, the number of people who were carted off to the hospital for heat stroke tripled. This was because the damage to the Fukushima power plant created an energy shortage and everyone was encouraged to reduce energy consumption by using their air conditioners at 28 degrees C. (82 degrees F.). Many Japanese people responded by not using their AC at home all in a spirit of solidarity. However, while average consumers were succumbing to the effects of the heat, businesses were doing what they have always done: leaving their doors wide open and allowing the cool air to blast out into the great outdoors. This act of energy wastage is done to make the business appear more inviting to consumers and despite Kyoto accords and pledges to reduce carbon footprints and the very real need to reduce energy after the earthquake, it hasn't changed.

I won't miss seeing doors of heavily air conditioned buildings wide open and bleeding cool air into the open in an act of stupid and pointless energy wasting.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Will Miss #456 - subtle complaining

Click this image to see a larger, more readable one. This is their nice way of saying, "don't be an ass when you come here."

Many foreign folks believe that Japanese people don't complain. While it's true that Japanese people don't like to complain, and often don't mention trivial annoyances, they do complain; they simply don't tend to do it in an overt or "in your face" manner. If you're not paying attention, you can miss it or write it off as some sort of quirky communication problem. For example, my new neighbors have been very noisy for the past two months and my husband and I have, reluctantly, had to complain about their stomping and banging around at all hours of the day and night. Rather than go to my neighbors and say, 'the downstairs people have complained and you're too noisy, so settle down,' the landlord issued a gentle note saying, "please be mindful of your neighbors when moving around your apartment." The tone isn't accusatory ("you're noisy"), but a suggestion to be considerate of other people (without revealing exactly who may have a problem).

This type of subtle complaining is designed to keep the relationships between people cordial as well as to allow people to feel they are in control rather than being controlled (which respects their dignity and autonomy), and I'll miss it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Won't Miss #456 - helter skelter street layout/addressing

One of my students told me that Tokyo has a labyrinth of small streets snaking all around and carving the blocks up into triangles and trapezoids because those streets were once small waterways and streams that helped the locals conduct the business of living with a steady water supply. I'm going to take her word for that as I have never researched the history of the topography of Tokyo. I have, however, attempted to navigate the odd layouts of the streets in various cities and it seems at times as if the system was created by a madman. Unlike European-style streets, which tend to be laid out in blocks and have numbering which makes at least a little sense, the Japanese use a three-number system which can be pretty confusing, even for some Japanese. More than one student has told me that she or he gets lost trying to find new addresses. There simply is no systematic arrangement to the addressing in many cases. You can "get the hang of (the address system)", but you can never really predict where things will be as things tend to be idiosyncratic.

I won't miss the helter skelter layout of many of the districts in Tokyo.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Will Miss #455 - cut-up food

Among the many failings that American's possess in the eyes of their European and Euro-centric neighbors is the manner in which they cut their food up. We fail in one of two ways. The primary way is that we swap hands to use the knife and fork so that we are eating with the dominant hand. This is apparently inferior to the European manner in which one keeps the knife attached in one hand and the fork in the other throughout the meal. The secondary, and apparently far more reprehensible way, is that some people (horror or horrors) cut up all of their food before tucking in so that they can simply eat without pausing to slice each bite one at a time. When an American cuts everything up before eating, they are behaving like incompetent infants who lack proper eating skills. In Japan, well, they also cut up all of their food before they eat it and that is just fine because they're doing it in the service of eating with two sticks. The Japanese, unsurprisingly, don't look down on Americans based on how they use a knife and fork.

The fact that all of the food in Japan is served cut into pieces that can be easily manipulated with chopsticks not only makes the experience of eating easier, but it also takes the tiresome and petty judgment of how one cuts ones food as an indication of cultural superiority off the table, and I will miss it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Won't Miss #455 - cold water

Sometimes having to use a short title really forces me to mislead the reader. I know there is "cold water" everywhere in the world. In fact, there's more cold than hot because it comes naturally in that state. What I'm talking about is the possibility of warm water in places like public restrooms or even in offices. When I first came to Japan, some of my foreign coworkers told me that the places they lived in had no hot running water for dish washing in the kitchen. It wasn't until I returned to the U.S. and encountered hot water in "strange" places like publicly accessible places (markets, libraries, restaurants, and plain old public toilets) that I remembered that only being able to wash your hands with cold water was much more prevalent in Japan than in the U.S. It's ironic that you can often get hot water for your ass (via washlets), but not for your hands, in Japan.

I won't miss freezing my digits off when washing my hands in Japan. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Will Miss #454 - (more) willing redistribution of wealth

One thing about a lot of attitudes in America which upsets me is the preoccupation people have with how their taxes are distributed at times to people they view as deadbeats or as having chosen irresponsible paths. While in Japan this attitude does apply to homeless people and there is not the greatest sympathy for the unemployed, it doesn't tend to apply to society at large.There are a variety of examples of this, but one of them is the existence of suicide insurance in a country with a high suicide rate. When I discuss this with Japanese people and ask if perhaps it's not such a good idea (as it may encourage suicide), they feel that it is important to have some sort of financial safety net to help the families of troubled people even though they know the family will collect more than the deceased paid in. I've also spoken to many people who, while not happy with the  notion of paying a higher consumption (sales) tax, say that they believe it is important to give more money to the elderly even if it means they personally pay more for goods and services.

There is a much higher level of comfort about seeing ones money given to others who have a greater need as well as an understanding that we are all a part of society and contribute to a good one by sometimes paying more than our share and I'll miss this attitude.