Thursday, December 27, 2012

Will Miss #7 - weird vending machines (reflection)

I didn't buy any of this, but I'm guessing it feels wet. (This machine was stocked a few months after the March 11, 2011 earthquake, when people were terrified of drinking tap water but the bottled water shortage had eased off.)

Japan is known the world over for its copious and odd vending machines. The neighborhood that I lived in in Japan, Asagaya, at one point had a vending machine full of marital aids including fake vulvas. That was quite awhile back, before I had a digital camera, and I sincerely wish I'd taken a picture of it when it was around. It was absolutely on the fringe of weirdness, and that's saying something for a country that sells bread in a can and condoms in street accessible vending machines.

There are vending machines here at home, of course. They are huge monolithic and sleek drink machines as well as beat up and vandalized newspaper ones. Other than that, it's a bit of a wasteland and what little there is, is far less interesting and variable than what I saw in Tokyo. 

I truly do miss the weird vending machines, but I actually miss even the more mundane ones like the drink machines which carried a greater variety of beverages and rotated out the options much more frequently than those I have seen here. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Random Memories #20

I'm not sure why the cat is the one sweating here, or why it is on a gift tag doing so.

It may be hard for people who have been to Japan to understand just how much it has changed in a short time. Sometimes, frankly, I find it difficult to believe or accurately remember. Fortunately, my 1987-88 books of memories are there to shake the cobwebs out of ancient memories and to remind me that Christmas as it is now is not as it has always been.

I guess the joke is that the cat is afraid the mice are going to eat it. Someone is unclear on the exact relationship between mice and cats. 

For starters, during the first year I actually lived in Japan (in 1989), it was very difficult to find much of anything in the way of Christmas cards or decorations, and what I did find was expensive. The commercial potential of this Western holiday was not being tapped because it wasn't really being celebrated much at all. Students who were children during that time told me that they got one gift placed near their futon. That was the extent of things for them. There wasn't a lot of Christmas partying and the old KFC route of celebrating was not yet in the cultural mainstream (if it existed at all). 

The girl is saying something like "how terrible" as she looks in the box, as someone appears to have abandoned this cat near the trash.

In 1987, when my boyfriend and future husband and I were spending our first Christmas "together" 3000 miles apart, he sent me 5 enormous packages with a great many more presents inside of them. He couldn't find any appropriate Christmas themed tags or paper, so he bought these tiny little cards with Japanese written on them which he could not understand at all. He chose them based on the fact that I loved cats and cats were on them.

The messages my husband wrote me are blurred, because my mush is none of your business. ;-)

Now that we understand enough Japanese to know what the cards are saying, the stories and themes on some of them seem a bit strange for gifts. Perhaps they are jokes that language understanding alone will not help me "get". Perhaps it is something about Japanese sensibilities that escapes me despite my many years in the country (certainly a possibility). Or, maybe the fact that these are "present for you" cards and the illustrations and the stories they tell are utterly unrelated. The intent may be to entertain the receiver, not to necessarily convey a message.

So, the first Christmas gifts I ever got from Japan were uniquely Japanese in every conceivable way and did not even reflect the spirit of the season. They did, however, reflect a unique mentality and a time when Western culture hadn't encroached quite so deeply into Japanese culture. The lack of unique Christmas items at one point made me sad, but now, I think the memories are all the better for it. 

Happy holidays to all of my readers!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Won't Miss #506 - vanishing Christmas decorations

Last night, my husband and I were walking around a street (in California) that is known for putting up elaborate Christmas displays. When we were finished looking at the beautiful displays in front of people's homes, I remarked to my husband that I was looking forward to the holiday displays living beyond the 25th. In Tokyo, every little sign of Christmas tended to vanish by midnight on December 25th. In the U.S., at least in the past, such things tended to live on until New Year's (sometimes beyond). The way in which such things instantly disappeared in Tokyo always made me a little depressed. The holiday feeling felt as it it was washed away the minute it had lived its commercial course. Note that this was not the case with New Year's decorations. They tended to hang around for quite some time, as would be expected for a holiday that the Japanese themselves had an emotional investment in as their biggest celebration. I certainly don't "blame" them for that at all, but it did make me sad.

The way in which all vestiges of the holiday vanished by daybreak on the December 26 underscored how unimportant the holiday was for the Japanese and reminded me of my cultural isolation and I won't miss that. 

I hope all of my readers are having a happy holiday season, and that they leave their trees up until New Years. ;-)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Will Miss #505 - Sudare

I found some very old pictures of my apartment from the first 5 or so years that my husband and I lived there and noticed that we started out covering our windows with sudare, or rattan blinds. These blinds are cheap, easy to install and protect against both sun and heat. Just looking at them makes me feel a bit cooler for some reason. I'm sure that they are used in many Asian cultures, but I always associate them with "old world" Japan. That is, a time before Western drapery or blinds entered the picture and people sheltered from the sun with these durable, light, and natural coverings.

I will miss seeing sudare and the way they make me think of traditional Japanese culture. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Random Memories #19

Click this photo to load a larger version which is legible.  (You may need to open link in new tab/window and magnify to load the full size which can be read.)

People may assume that business decisions are made rationally and in the best interests of furthering ones economic interests. In my experience in Japan, they were not made so much in accord with what was logical as what was perceived to be economically feasible, what related to the "rules" of doing business in Japan, and what suited the whims of the powers that be. In my opinion, the menu that I scanned in is an example of both the first and last items.

This menu was from one of my favorite restaurants/pubs in Japan, Akiyoshi. In the late 80's, they had full color bilingual menus. This made them a doubly awesome place for foreigners to congregate at that time since it was one of the few places at which those who weren't capable of reading Japanese could order things like pig intestines and beef stomach and know just how disgusting the food they were eating really was. If you steered clear of the offal though, you could derive greatness of experience from the more palatable options. I was always a huge fan of their chicken box (tori ju) and miso soup. 

If you were to visit one of Akiyoshi's branches now, you would find that, not only are the menus only in Japanese, but there are no disposable menus like this. These days, the customer cannot walk away with a nifty souvenir such as this. There are plastic-covered menus that sit on the counter or table that you can order from, but are clearly meant to remain there for the duration.

This change in menu choices is a curious and telling one. Japan has become a much more bilingual place in the past 20 or so years. It has also seen more foreigners choose to live and work there relative to the late 80's. One of the reasons that Japan was once seen as a good place for foreigners to find work was that there were few enough of them around that it was very easy to get a good job and the pay was relatively attractive. In other words, demand for English-speaking employees exceeded supply. Now, demand does not so greatly outstrip supply so the pay has gone down, working conditions have gotten less appealing, and work is harder to come by. 

Given that there are more foreigners who could benefit from bilingual menus around now than when this menu was on offer, why would Akiyoshi discontinue offering them? It would seem that the chance to lure in foreign customers would be greater now than before. I believe the answer is pure economics. In the 80s, there was a lot of cash being thrown around by companies, often on pet projects, frivolous high profile items and property, and poorly thought out business ventures. Chances are that this menu existed because someone high up in the company wanted to put forth an image of a business which could cater to foreigners, not because they actually wanted to lure in more English-speaking business.

When I worked at a Japanese company, especially in the earlier days before the company felt the deep and long-lasting sting of economic decline, the president used to make a wide variety of idiosyncratic and wasteful spending choices. They bought vacation property which was supposedly for company employees to take their holidays at, took company trips to Hawaii, and offered lavish plastic boxes to contain their correspondence course "kit" (cassette tape, homework booklets, textbook). These choices were made instead of upgrading the publishing section from hand-made layouts with glue and rulers to digital publishing because those were options the president wanted. He did not care about upgrading the product or improving its quality. He spent money on what he cared about, not what was good for business. 

I can't say for sure if Akiyoshi made the choice to offer bilingual menus for the same idiosyncratic reasons that my company's former president made his. I can say that it would not be the least bit surprising if they did. In my experience in Japan, it was common during the bubble economy years for many companies there to make such choices for arbitrary reasons. It's why Japanese companies were going around buying expensive art and high profile properties right and left. They splashed out because of how it made them look and feel, not how it affected their bottom line. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Won't Miss #7 - urban ugliness (reflection)

When I originally posted about how ugly Tokyo generally is, someone asked where I took the picture used in that original post. They could not believe that was a typical part of the city and thought that neighborhood had to reflect some sort of older, more impoverished time period in Tokyo's history. The truth is that much of the city areas are not pretty. My picture was not a misrepresentation. All of the lovely ones showing the best parts only were the skewed view. It's as if someone made a huge bunch of cookies, decorated them all badly but one and took a picture only of the one that looked good. Sure, there are gorgeous parts of Japan, but they are eclipsed in number by the range of ugly to blah areas if you are looking at the frequency.

That being said, now that I'm back home, I'm mainly struck by the suburban and rural ugliness of where I am/have been. Things look and feel very bland to me, even when they are relatively "nice" objectively speaking. Driving along in a car, it tends to just feel like things are tedious or rundown. Even when it was ugly in Tokyo, it wasn't boring. 

It turns out that the ugliness, which was very real, is something I could forgive in exchange for the fact that there was so much of interest contained behind those grey, boxy facades. The surface now seems far less important than the substance beneath it. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Will Miss #6 - maneki neko (reflection)

When I first returned to the U.S., I was on a small island in Washington State and the only Japanese culture I saw there was overpriced botan ame and Pocky (chocolate only, of course). At that point in time, I figured I'd have to give up my Japanese snack blog for lack of food to review or spend a fortune getting things from importers or specialty shops. The view from there in terms of all things Japanese was very bleak.

After moving to northern California, many things changed. Not only are there dozens of Japanese restaurants sporting maneko neko (welcome cats), but they are sold in many shops, not the least of which is the Daiso Japan. I thought that my days of being able to see their paws beckoning me to enter were over, but they are just somewhat fewer and far between.

That being said, most of the maneki neko my husband and I see here are not as large, attractively designed, or creative as the ones we saw in Tokyo. Many of them are sad looking or just plain tacky. Still, I can't honestly say I "miss" them, since I see them pretty often even here in the U.S. I'm guessing I couldn't say that if I lived in another region, but they are hardly rare where I am living now. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Random Memories #18

One of the first things Americans are surprised at when it comes to vending machines in Japan is the fact that alcoholic beverages are available in them. The reason this is surprising is that anyone, including underage drinkers, can sneak up to one, buy some booze, and run off and get loaded. Most of these machines are within view of a store, but some of them are not. Even those that can be seen from a store aren't exactly watched with the keenness of a hawk. Most of them are "set and forget".

It was my experience that kids were introduced to alcohol by their parents slowly and few of them viewed imbibing it as taboo. Since drinking is a very strong part of Japanese culture, it is expected that children will grow up to drink alcohol, not that they will abstain nor that it would be considered virtuous to do so. In fact, consumption of alcoholic beverages is so much a part of business culture, that not being a drinker is a disadvantage and definitely makes one the nail that sticks out. So, I don't think anyone was really fretting about kids getting their drunk on as a result of these machines being present.

This machine is a 1987 machine and the main difference between it and current machines is the size and the price. The interesting thing about the price is that it seems to have gone down just a tiny bit. And when I say the "size" is different, I don't mean the cans themselves. There have always been enormous cans and bottles of beer on offer. I am talking about the size of these vending machines. This machine is bigger than most current ones. What is more, they were once much more common than than they are at present in Japan.

The reason for both the minor price reduction and the shrinking size and frequency of machines selling booze was that the law changed at some point during my stay in Japan and convenience stores and markets were allowed to carry it. With "konbini" that are open 24 hours and located on  nearly every corner in Tokyo, anyone wanting to get pie-eyed could just pick up a brew with a pack of dried squid with cheese by popping into a shop. The demand for such machines evaporated when the availability of alcoholic drinks increased. 

It's worth noting that the number of liquor stores also has shrunk, at least it seemed so to me when I was there. This is an interesting change in Japan because it was a rare case of the number of vending machines going down rather than up. The trend has been toward greater mechanization, not less. For example, for much of my 23 years in Tokyo, kiosks were small manned shops on station platforms. By the time I had gone, many of them had been replaced by large vending machines. For beer, the vending machines have been disappearing in favor of manned shops selling them. Of course, this has more to do with the fact that Japan hasn't yet mastered the art of the total self-serve supermarket or convenience store. Give them a few more years and an even more shrunken population and I'm sure they'll get there. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Won't Miss #505 - being seen as incapable

AKB48, a manufactured girl group (with over 90 members) that discards members when they get "too old". They are clearly the product of a highly sophisticated culture. If you don't appreciate them, it is only because you are to simple-minded to comprehend.

In my previous post, I mentioned that the Japanese readily forgive foreigners for their bad manners or cross-cultural ignorance. If you take a business card and cram it in your pocket instead of looking thoughtfully at it and then placing it on the table such that you can view it, they won't be offended because they figure there's no way you could know their customs in this regard. While this may come across as tolerance, that is not what is really going on. It is more often than not the case that they feel that their culture is too complex, sophisticated, and difficult for someone from a less byzantine culture to comprehend. You are not seen as merely uneducated in their ways, but incapable of knowing them. This is why simple mastery of things like basic greetings in Japanese or using chopsticks are so highly praised. By acquiring even rudimentary Japanese cultural skills, you've overcome hurdles they thought you could never begin to vault over. It's like you are seen as a child who stacks blocks together to make a rudimentary house who receives praise for his efforts. 

When it comes to cultural understanding, many Japanese people operate from an unconscious (or conscious) sense that foreigners lack the sophistication to understand their ways. They believe you are the cultural equivalent of a developmentally disabled person. I will not miss this expectation that I lacked the capability to understand and follow Japanese customs. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Will Miss #504 - being forgiven for bad manners

I haven't been to Europe, but I really would like to go some day when my collective blogging earns me more than about a dime a post. Those who have been there have told me that, when you commit a faux pas, especially in certain countries (I'm looking at you, France), that you are treated like the uncultured scum that you are believed to be. America, is, of course, no better, but what is good and bad manners is individually determined and a minor breach can result in major incidents. In Japan, at least for the Caucasians, bad manners often yield forgiveness. The Japanese don't expect outsiders to understand their customs and are quick to conclude that you aren't acting poorly out of a malicious attempt to thumb your nose at their culture, but rather that you simply do not know their ways. This forms part of the complex mosaic of attitudes which non-Japanese detect as the "shiny, happy people" mentality they experience in Japan.

All manner of rudeness on the part of foreigners, sometimes even that which is willfull, is frequently (but not always) forgiven in Japan and I miss that.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Random Memories #17

The first movie I ever saw in a theater in my life was "Snow White and the Three Stooges". Lest anyone believe that I'm old enough for a first run of that movie, let me saw that it was pretty antiquated even when I was a child. I don't recall how old I was, only that my aunt took me to it and that I had not yet started first grade.

The first movie that I saw in Japan was Wall Street, which actually was new to Japan and is a reflection of how old I am. The movie was released in the U.S. in 1987, but I saw it in 1988 because back in those days, it wasn't unusual for movies to take quite some time to make their way across the water. I'm pretty sure the delay in those days had to do with the speed with which things could be translated and subtitled, a process which I'm certain is greatly accelerated by modern technology as well as an incentive to synchronize release dates internationally so that the pirated versions aren't passed around from the earlier release in the U.S.

One of the things about tickets in Japan, at least advance ones, is that they have pictures on them. That makes them a cool souvenir and, in this case, these 1988 tickets remind me that movies used to be only 1200 yen ($14.65). Now, they retail for 1800 yen ($21.87), though back then and now, you can get 200-300 yen ($2.44-$3.66) off at some places by buying them at a discount ticket shop. 

I also found the advertising on the back, which includes an ad for an extremely expensive air conditioner (218,000 yen/2,660 dollars), rather interesting. It is described as a "powerful city air conditioner". I guess that one of those wimpy country ones would be more economical. It seems an odd thing to market on the back of a movie ticket as it seems few people who were spending their spare cash on a movie would be thinking about super expensive air conditioners. Then again, most movie theaters were very hot at that time and this was one of the reasons I rarely went to them while I was in Japan. Perhaps after cooking your way through Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas attempting to accumulate as much wealth as possible, you'd think investing in a "city air conditioner" was a pretty good idea.

Incidentally, Wall Street was the first movie I saw in Japan and the last was Mission Impossible 4. I saw it a few days before going into the hospital to have thyroid surgery as a way of getting out and doing something relatively "different" from the usual routine before someone took a knife to my throat. I recall that the experiences were quite different. During Wall Street, there were these seats in prime locations with white covers on them which were expensive reserve seats and the theater was overheated. The theater at which I saw Mission Impossible 4 had enormous comfortable chairs  that looked like they came out of a space shuttle and pretty much there were no bad seats (there may not even have been reserve ones) and we had boring tickets printed from a machine. It was also cool enough that I could keep my sweater on, but, then again, we were in the midst of setsuden (energy conservation) and they were probably reluctant to use the heat so much in winter.

I can't say that seeing a movie these days in Japan is an enormously different experience from that in the U.S., except for the part where people aren't as obnoxious. I can say that in the late 80's, it sure felt rather different than it did back home. It felt more formal with those special reserved seats and the colorful printed tickets. I don't remember the move Wall Street at all, but I do remember the atmosphere in that theater. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Won't Miss #5 - police harassment (reflection)

One thing that I can hardly go a day without reading or hearing someone talk about is "white privilege". The idea is, and it is certainly based on certain grim realities, that white folks walk around blithely reaping benefits from their pearly skin color without even realizing it. They get hired for jobs, accepted into schools, and are the beneficiaries of at least a couple of centuries of family status and wealth as a result of not being a part of a repressed minority.

As someone who grow up well below the poverty line, received free government cheese and powdered milk, was the child of a father who dropped out of school in 9th grade and did a blue collar job that left him disabled and a mother who only finished high school and went from one miserable and degrading minimum wage job after another when she wasn't having emotional problems, I never felt very "privileged". I paid for my own university. I have worked for everything I've gotten in life. No one has ever handed me a single thing, and there have been plenty of times when they've tried to take away what little I've had.

All of that being said, there is nothing like living in Japan and knowing what it is like to not have some aspects of white privilege to pry my eyes open a little to what it really is. The police in America don't harass me like they did in Japan. That is a piece of white privilege that I lost while living in Japan. Though certainly not the only one that vanished when I stepped off the plane in Tokyo, it was one of the most obvious and shocking. I still don't miss the fact that I don't draw unwanted attention from men in blue uniforms or get detained and questioned for existing while not being Japanese.