Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Will Miss #474 - no number four

Image courtesy of Blogd. Used with permission. 

We're all familiar with the fact that some hotels used to skip the 13th floor in Western cultures. For all I know, some of them still do. The idea is that superstitious types don't want to be housed on that floor because of it is associated with bad luck. It's silly because it's still the 13th floor whether it is called that or not. I recently saw a house number which was 666 and wondered if they'd have trouble selling the property in the future. In Japan, the word for the number "4" is the same as the word for death ("shi"), so sometimes you will see businesses avoid using the number 4. This is called "tetraphobia", incidentally, and is shared with other Asian cultures that have used Chinese as a root for their languages.

There's something unifying about the fact that Japan shares the same ridiculous superstitions about certain numbers as we foolish folks in the west and I will miss seeing evidence of this aspect of humanity which is shared across cultures.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Won't Miss #474 - gaijin-crazy girls

There are some Japanese men who have a lot of hostility toward foreign men. One of the reasons they hate them is that some Japanese women love them so much. In fact, I've encountered no small number of women who go to language schools, travel abroad or hang out in certain places for the express purpose of snagging a foreign boyfriend. For such women, it isn't about being attracted to a certain physical type, as the net they cast isn't reserved for a man with a certain look beyond the guy being "tall", but rather about buying a dream notion of what foreign men and having relationships with them are like. More often than not, their hopes and dreams end in disappointment and sometimes nightmares when they learn that foreign men are not all princes who will whisk them off to exotic lands and provide the lifestyle they believe is waiting for them abroad. Many of them were looking for a visa more than a partner, but some of them were just looking for something better than the average Japanese relationship in which the man marries his company and remains more faithful to it than he does to his wife.

When I encountered such women, they tended to have a relatively shallow range of interests and displayed a sad naivete that I was afraid was going to land them in a sorry future. I both pitied them and was annoyed by them depending on what they believed and how obsessed they were with gaijin guys, and I won't miss them. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Will Miss #473 - sabisu ("service")

A man offering a free bean cake to my husband while he rode in a rikshaw in Asakusa. 

There is an excellent Nepalese restaurant not too far from where I used to live in Tokyo. I made sure to go there several times  near the end of my stay and during one such visit, I wanted to order a particular special curry set of the day. I retracted a request for tea after I found out it wasn't included with the set and my husband just ordered one with his set (which did include it). When our meals arrived, there were two cups of tea and we were told the second one was "sabisu". Sometimes you'll go into a restaurant or a store and be given something for free, even when it didn't have an effect on your purchasing. It had nothing to do with a free sample. It was just an extra.

I realize that people are given freebies all over the world, but there was something uniquely Japanese and quaint wrapped up in that one word. For a country that often has byzantine paths to communication, it was this compact and efficient way of letting the customer know that this was their way of delivering extra service by giving you something for nothing. I'll miss hearing people say, "sabisu". 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Won't Miss #473 - "the Japanese heart"

If there is one thing Japanese people seem to be convinced of, it is their own unique nature. Talk of "the Japanese heart" (– 日本人の心), a concept which is ambiguous enough that anyone can apply it to any action and claim it as a reflection of the notion, is not uncommon when folks try to express something about the essential nature of the Japanese character. It can mean kindness. It can mean an attitude or posture toward some aspect of life like work or money. It's an exceptionally broad concept and it never acknowledges for a moment that other cultures may have their own "hearts" which are similarly unique, just as important, and should also be respected and understood. Only the Japanese possess this "heart". "The Japanese heart" can essentially mean anything the speaker wants it to mean. The problem with it is not that there isn't some commonality in character among Japanese people. They are raised in a culture which emphasizes conformity, after all. The problem is that it's used as a catch-all term to either elevate Japanese culture above others or to make it clear to outsiders that there is some essence that Japanese folks possess that they will never fully understand and absolutely cannot develop.

Whatever the Japanese heart is, you can't understand it and you can't have one if you are an outsider. Hearing about this notion is something that I will not miss.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Random Memories #2

The item pictured above is a subway ticket. Those who live in Japan now may see it as slightly anachronistic because most people use pre-paid cards like Suica or Pasmo. Tickets are still used, of course. You can buy one from a machine, feed it into an automatic wicket on the way in and have it sucked into the machine on the way out. Close observers will note three things which make this ticket and having a scan of it unusual in this day and age.

The first point is revealed in what I said in the first paragraph. At most modern stations, you don't get to keep the ticket at the end of your journey. In the old days, used tickets would sometimes be scattered around the area around the wickets because people would forget to leave them at the wicket and there was no demand that you relinquish it by the personnel manning them. You had to show it, but you didn't have to surrender it.

The second and third points can only be known to those who have lived in Japan for a long time. Old hands at life in Japan may want to take a moment to guess at what they are... OK, times up. :-)

One is that the ticket is for only 140 yen ($1.78). When I left Japan at the end of March 2012, the cheapest price for a ticket was 160 yen ($2.03). They didn't go any lower than that. Incidentally, this was a ticket for a relatively longish subway journey from Kita-Senju to Ikebukuro. I'm not sure, but I believe the cheapest ticket back in those days (around 1988) was 120 yen ($1.52).

The last significant reminder of the past on this ticket is the one that I associate most nostalgically with my earliest days in Japan. That is the little hole in the top. When I first visited (and lived) in Japan, the slick automated technology that is currently in use did not exist. There were men in dark blazers sitting or standing at the wickets with a hole puncher who would take your ticket and manually punch it and give it back to you at your departure point. This situation created an aural atmosphere that is now long gone. These men would continually click their hole punchers in a rhythm rather than simply wait for someone to hand them a ticket. This helped them more speedily process people, but perhaps it also relieved some of the boredom of sitting there with nothing to do or keep them entertained. Back in those days, they didn't even have continually updating digital schedules to flash shiny lights at them on a regular basis.

I realize that efficiency is important, but I rather missed that old human touch when taking the train or subway. It's not only that I know that men lost jobs, but also simply that sound is so important in memory. The little beep of a machine is sterile and artificial whereas the clacking of the punchers was a human rhythm which varied slightly with every man at the wicket.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Will Miss #472 - the pedestrian crossings

This is another one of those things that I had no idea was going to be something I'd miss until I'd left it behind. The cars in Tokyo are more aggressive with pedestrians than American (or at least Californian) cars are. In fact, as someone who just took her test to get her driving license reinstated, I can say that the law says, "yield,  yield, yield" when instructing American cars, and they absolutely do. However, the reason Japanese drivers are so aggressive and impatient is that the crossing lights in Tokyo last longer and change more often for pedestrians. Here, the lights are so short that if you aren't at the curb the moment the light changes, you're not going to get across. I've read that it is 27 seconds in California, but I've counted it and it seems closer to 21 in terms of the signalling. The streets are wider here and that's not much time to get across, trust me. I'm not a slow poke. It's just a really damn short time. In Tokyo, I could walk half the block to make a light that had changed if I sped up a little. It was positively luxurious compared to here.

Tokyo was much more pedestrian friendly when it came to facilitating crossing streets, and I miss not having to worry about missing lights or waiting forever for the "walk" light to go on. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Won't Miss #472 - poor chain of communication

Bad communication can and does occur everywhere, but it is more likely to occur in Japan. Americans communicate clearly and like all details worked out and at least try to ensure that anyone who needs to know about something knows. Yeah, they fail sometimes. In Japan, vagueness is the order of the day. This, in and of itself, does not have to result in a poor chain of communication, but what it does is create an environment where people become comfortable and even expect not to know everything. They don't ask questions or confirm things because they figure someone will tell them if and when they really need to know. This results in many annoyances in which you aren't told something you really should have been told and waste your time or someone hasn't been told something they need to know and they waste your time. This is especially annoying when working in an office (such as people not relaying schedule changes), but can have repercussions for ones private life as well.

My landlord wanted to paint the inside of my apartment door (for reasons I can't fathom) and he asked when it would be okay considering my private lesson schedule. I told him 1:00 pm in writing (so there could be no mistake), and he got the message. He obviously told someone at the painting company, but they failed to tell the person actually doing the job so at 9:30 am, the painter is ringing my bell and yanking on my door handle trying to get in and do the job. No one told him the situation. They just wait until there is a problem and then communicate.

I won't miss the way in which vague communication habits promote poor communication and cause problems.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Will Miss #471 - no political T.V. commercials

As America gears up for a presidential election, we are subjected to commercials letting us know just how horrid particular candidates are. Most of them want you to believe that voting for guy A will bring upon the apocalypse and voting for guy B will turn your life into sunshine, lollipops, and pretty, pretty rainbows with pots of tax-free gold at the end of them. In Japan, we were spared all of that nonsense because political commercials could not be aired on television.

After being subjected to the advertising in the U.S., I profoundly appreciate and miss the lack of similar advertising in Japan. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Won't Miss #471 - skinny guys, high, cinched waists

I'm not a superficial person for the most part, but some things strike me as aesthetically unpleasing. And I'll admit that some of the things I didn't like about life in Japan were pretty petty and this is absolutely one of them. Of course, many of the things we all dislike are of really no consequence, but we have our feelings about them anyway. One of the things which I found really unappealing in Japan was the tendency of some businessmen, especially very thin ones, to wear their pants very high and very tight. In the summer, this was an especially unappetizing sight as jackets were off and I saw men who were looking like they were attempting to recreate the scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett O'Hara tries to have her maid tighten her corset down to her pre-pregnancy 18 inches. I think the thing that was most troubling about this is that it seemed an unattractive and unnecessary fashion statement. A belt doesn't need to be choking ones waist in order to hold up trousers. 

Seeing men who looked like they feared their pants might fall down if they wore them lower and at a normal tightness level was a big turn-off for me and I don't miss it. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Random Memories #1

I have two sets of memories of my life in Japan. Most of the posts that you see here reflect the view of it as someone who lived there for a long time and went through a lot of the stages that people love to say foreigners go through when living there. Basically, you start out infatuated and blind, turn bitter and disappointed, and eventually come to terms with the fact that Japan, like every other place in the world, has its good points and bad points.

The set of memories which have not reflected in this blog to date are the ones which fall into the category of those of a tourist. Yes, even I was once a tourist who saw everything through eyes caught by the shiny beauty of novelty (as did my husband). Since I'm back in the U.S., I'm finding the remnants of those early experiences and I want to start sharing them here. The difference between those memories and the ones I talk about here is that they are 23 years old, and many of the details of how I came to possess certain little scraps of paper or items are hidden too deeply and darkly in the memory closet to find them. This only points out how important it is for me to have written this blog. One day, when these memories are crammed too deeply into the recesses of my mind, it will be a refresher of my thoughts and feelings of life in Japan. 

I've been going through old pictures that we have had in storage since leaving for Japan on our "three hour tour" in 1989. I'm digitizing them for posterity and there are other bits of memorabilia in the box. One of the things I came across was a box with a tea cup from my husband's stay there from 1988-1989 when he lived there alone. I showed him the cup (pictured here in two photos as the photo artwork wraps around it). He said that he had no memory of how he came to acquire it, but assumed it had been a gift from a student (likely one who visited an onsen) as its not the sort of thing he'd buy.

I looked the cup over and told him that I thought that it was what the Japanese might call a "sukebe" ("dirty" in a sex-related way) cup. He said he really didn't think so and I put it away for awhile. This morning, as I was getting near the bottom of pile of pictures for scanning, I decided to test my theory about the cup. My feeling was that the fence over the bathing maiden would vanish if you filled the cup with hot water. I'd seen these sorts of things before as a part of cheesy souvenirs in America a very long time ago.

Sure enough, the fence vanished when the cup got hot enough. To me, the interesting thing about this is not that there is some hint of sparely drawn female nudity. Frankly, the woman who is not hidden in the other part of the image has just as much cartoon breast showing. The point which seems very Japanese is that it's more about peeking behind the fence at something you're not supposed to see rather than simply seeing the nudity itself. In the U.S., these sorts of reveals usually show something far more overtly sexual and titillating (often a photo of a real naked woman). In the case of this cup, it seems more about a "naughty" invasion of privacy than a glimpse of forbidden flesh.

Note: This is a feature I'm going to indulge in, and I'm going to start allowing comments on this feature and see how it goes. Since I'm coming close to the end of my 1000 things, I figure I have the time and latitude to expand the range of this blog a bit. I hope my readers will enjoy these old memories interspersed among the regular posts. Thank you for reading and for your patience. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Will Miss #470 - respect for older people (conditionally)

If I allowed comments, I'm sure I'd get a torrent of people talking about how the Japanese no longer surrender their seats to old people on trains and that the old style traditional respect has been vanishing. This would be true. However, in general, the Japanese still show more respect for the older members of their society than Americans as well as have more regard for those who are simply older than themselves. This is something I've been witnessing firsthand here and did so similarly there. On a family basis in particular, Japanese people seem to spend more time with and have closer relationships with their older relatives. They generally visit more often and have more meaningful contact and regard their older relatives as people of value. This is due in large part to Confucianism, which forms a big part of the backbone of relationships in Japanese culture. In the U.S., many young people after exiting the innocence of childhood have little interest in anyone older than them and live life as if aging translates into becoming boring at best, and, at worst, older folks are often viewed as either a resource to tap, or a burden to tolerate.

On an individual basis (as opposed to a society-wide issue), the Japanese still show a good deal more respect for the elderly and regard for people who are older than them than those in America and I miss that.

*Note that while I'm making this post based purely on my subjective experience in Japan, a study conducted between Americans and Koreans in regards to respect for the elderly showed that the only point on which Americans showed more regard for older folks than Koreans was in physical contact upon greeting (e.g., hugging) and this is likely a cultural difference as Americans touch more than many Asian cultures. Koreans are actually more respectful of the elderly than Japanese, but the study I read indicated that Americans are very low in their actions that show regard for the elderly in terms of nearly all other points (language, physical and verbal care, respecting or heeding advice, etc.). 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Won't Miss #470 - being asked if I went to the doctor

Who needs a doctor when you can just use a charm?

Like most people, I occasionally catch a cold, have a stomachache or some other minor problem. Back home, if I told people, "I had a cold last week," their response would never be, "I'm sorry to hear that," or "I hope you're feeling better. They would never ask, "did you go to the doctor?" In Japan, whenever I have a small, temporary health problem, the inevitable query is about whether or not I was ministered to by a trained professional. This is because many Japanese people go to the doctor for incidental problems including those which can't be cured by a doctor (as the common cold cannot). They do this both because health care is so cheap and because many operate on the assumption that we cannot get better without the assistance of a trained professional. The idea that our immune system will look after us in such cases seems to be alien to most people there.

I won't miss being asked if I went to the doctor every time I have a minor illness or injury.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Will Miss #469 - everything is priced

It may be overpriced for consumer grade boozy chocolate bon bons, but at least it is priced.

Having been away from America for so long, there are some things I never would have imagined I'd miss about Japan because I didn't think or remember that they were absent here. I'm sure that's an assertion I've made before and will make again, but one of those things is stores that have a price on every item. Since coming back home, I've been in two different states and many different stores and one thing which seems to happen nearly everyday is that prices for various items are missing or extremely hard to find in U.S. shops. I find it incredibly frustrating when I am interested in some item and have to hunt down an employee to get the cost and then said employee wanders off for 5 minutes to find the information. I just give up when that happens because it's not worth the hassle.

I don't know what it is with American shops, but it was extremely rare for me to go into a Japanese store and find no price marked on an item and it seems to happen every time I shop here. I miss having all prices clearly marked on goods. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Won't Miss #469 - the humor gap

I fancy myself a pretty witty person and throughout my many years of adult life, I have been complimented on my turn of phrase. I can make people laugh, or at least I can make most people who share my native culture do so. One thing that you learn early on as a teacher in Japan is that you should probably try not to tell jokes. More often than not, there will be a hugely pregnant pause as you watch the slow motion train wreck of your witticism, bon mot, or punchline hit the ground with a resounding thud. In confusion, embarrassment, or frustration, you will then feel compelled to explain the joke, then re-explain it when it is still not received as humor until the Japanese person you are speaking with pretends that he or she gets it and offers you a fake pity laugh. 

I won't miss how hard it was to share a laugh with people because humor rarely crosses culture, let alone language barriers. This is especially so for anything based on irony or sarcasm, both of which are not as much a part of Japanese humor relative to that in English-speaking countries.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Will Miss #468 - songs with random English

If this is the proper embedded video, you'll see what I mean. If it's not, you'll wonder why this is here. The song is Inside Your Head by Daichi Miura.

It's pretty rare for me to listen to an English song and hear a random word in Japanese thrown into the lyrics unless that word is something for which the English is also the same as the Japanese (like "sushi"). In Japan, however, it was not the least bit unusual to hear pop songs which would toss in English phrases or words for no reason other than they felt it would be cooler to sprinkle in a bit of their second language of choice. It would seem incredibly incongruous to hear a steady stream of Japanese punctuated by the odd bit of English. It's one of those things which I will always see as very "Japanese" because it reflected the way they absorb and incorporate foreign culture, but twist it to suit their sensibilities.

It always amused me to hear the bits of English and consider how it reflected the benevolent incursion of Western culture into Japan, and I will miss it. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Won't Miss #468 - "milk" flavor

I read a cooking blog post recently which offered a recipe for "vanilla ice cream, because "plain" is not a flavor." In Japan, "plain" is a flavor, and it is not a good one. A lot of people see "milk" in Japan and believe it means vanilla, but what it really means is one of several things depending on the quality of the product. It can be condensed milk, regular milk, or, at the very bottom of the barrel, powdered milk. While I like the flavor of milk just fine, it's not the sort of thing which lends itself well as a flavoring. It's not that it is boring so much as concentrated milk flavor on its own tastes pretty funky, at least to my taste buds.

I won't miss buying food which is "milk" flavored and expecting something with vanilla because I tended to forget that white food (especially ice cream) in Japan didn't mean "vanilla."

Monday, July 9, 2012

Will Miss #467 - the toilet doors

Some things are inexplicably exciting.

It's the little things in life which tend to matter most to those of us with the comforts of first world living. Our complaints are trivial, but they can detract from quality of life in niggling little ways. I took certain things for granted in Japan and one of those was that nearly every toilet door in public and private places had an indicator letting those outside know that there was an occupant inside. I'm sure they did this because most of the stalls had doors that went all the way down to the floor and people couldn't see feet inside. After returning to the U.S., I've learned to really appreciate the way the doors were designed because I've had multiple experiences going to public restrooms or those in private businesses like restaurants in which people walked up to the door while I was using the facilities and yanked on the door to see if it was locked. That, in and of itself, would not trouble me, but people don't pull once, find it locked and give up. They tend to aggressively yank on it three or four times before walking away.

I don't know why people in America feel the need to try and yank a locked toilet door open, but I find it discomfiting to be in a vulnerable position and have people act like they are trying to bust in on me. I miss the door design in Japan which allowed people to know a person was in the toilet without ever having to touch the door.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Won't Miss #467 - goya

The sign on the right is offering goya juice. Note the blender behind it, which is empty of residue from creating goya juice. I don't know why anyone would think it would be profitable to sell it, but I guess there must be some sort of market out there for it. 

"Goya" is the Japanese word for a bitter melon/gourd. It looks like a diseased cucumber in the incarnation it is commonly sold in in Japan. It's often used in dishes that are a specialty of the Okinawa region in Japan. It's also an acquired taste that I never acquired. In fact, many Japanese people never acquire it despite their higher tolerance than Americans for bitter food. Goya is supposed to be good for your health and especially helpful in summer for coping with the hot weather, but it was never a welcome sight for me in whatever dishes it was offered in.

People sometimes credit the consumption of goya with the long-lived nature of Okinawans, but, if I have to eat goya to live to be a hundred, I'd rather die a few decades earlier.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Will Miss #466 - ease of getting hired

Yeah, that's not me. I'm pretty sure she could get hired easily in any country even if her only skill is gnawing on a block of ice.

In the previous post, I wrote that it is hard to get just any type of job as a foreigner in Japan. This is true, but, as an American female, I was a valued and somewhat rare commodity. If I wanted a job that required a foreign employee, especially as an English teacher, it was easier for me than nearly any other sub-group to get hired. This is because foreign women are not only rarer in Japan for various reasons, but they are also greatly more desired as teachers. Both male and female students tend to actively prefer women and North Americans in particular. 

In Japan, I didn't have to work so hard to distinguish myself by my skills because my gender, nationality, and hair and eye color automatically made me more appealing to employers. In America, I'm just another person trying to get a job based on her resume and personality. I miss the (absolutely unearned and unfair) advantages I had in Japan when it came to getting hired. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Won't Miss #466 - limited range of jobs

No, I didn't want to be a mini castella vendor, but I probably couldn't have been had I wanted to.

Many people believe that the country is your oyster in terms of work if you learn to speak, read, and write Japanese and are a foreigner. Many people are wrong. Under certain circumstances and if you are completely fluent, you may be able to do a particular job or two that a Japanese person would do. However, it is overwhelmingly the case that foreigners are hired because they are foreigners. They are not hired to do work that a Japanese person could do because, frankly, the Japanese would rather work with known quantities rather than a cultural wild card. There is also the fact that, unless you are a permanent resident, you can't legally be hired for a job a Japanese person is capable of doing. You have to possess a skill they do not (though this law is often ignored if the foreigner will work for a lower wage than a Japanese person).

For all of the reasons above, the range of jobs that a foreign person can reasonably do in Japan is quite limited. The same may apply to every country in the world, but I was a foreigner in Japan and this is part of that experience that I will not miss.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Will Miss #465 - "high" (big) noses are beautiful

One of my (American) coworkers was talking to me about plastic surgery and I mentioned that, when I was  younger, I would have had a nose job because I didn't like what I considered to be my "big" nose. That is not to say that I have an enormous schnoz, but rather that like many young women, I craved a petit nose and would have like to have had it bobbed to fit into a particular aesthetic sensibility. I said that I was glad, in retrospect, that I didn't have the money to do it because, though I still think I have a big nose, I'm okay with it now. He remarked that the Japanese see noses such as mine as beautiful, and he was right. More than one Japanese woman has said that she envies me my "high" nose. Even though I heard this many times, it still shocked me as I think plenty of Western women would prefer the lesser bridge that many Japanese women possess.

Since I spent most of my life thinking my nose was unattractively too big, it was refreshing and somewhat gratifying to live in a culture which believed it added rather than subtracted from my appearance and I will miss that. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Won't Miss #465 - guys with long nails

The camera didn't catch the shot because I couldn't really get a close up or use a flash, but he did have long fingernails and it was icky.

One of the things which I noticed in Japan which I don't see in America is that Japanese young men (usually teens to early 20's) often didn't trim their nails. It was first brought to my attention when a clerk at a local convenience store scratched my hand while giving me back my change. Men, who generally have long nails because of laziness about hygiene, often do not know how not to manipulate things with claws as women do. From a young age, we become practiced in the art of having longer nails and try not to savage random strangers with them while doing mundane business transactions. After that minor random wounding, I was cautious about being handed money or anything else by young males and, sure enough, I saw a not small number of them with nails that, while not in the range of what women would sport, were definitely in need of a good trim. Once I noticed this, I occasionally went out of my way to look at the hands of teen school boys when they stood in gaggles on trains and, sure enough, at least one of them seemed to have nails that made me cringe. I'm guessing this is just carelessness among young males and not a fashion statement. 

This is a subjective thing, but I find long nails on men who are not trying to dress intentionally as women rather creepy looking and unappealing. Perhaps I saw Nosferatu too many times or I'm so rigid in my thinking that I find long nails undeniably feminine, but I won't miss seeing young men with long nails or worrying about getting accidentally scratched by them.