Thursday, January 31, 2013

Will Miss #508 - volunteers when you look lost

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that I got lost during my first trip to Japan and, what I didn't realize at the time was that there was every chance some kind Japanese person would help me. There were many occasions when my husband would pause to look at a map to figure out where we should turn in a new area that we were exploring. We were not lost at those times. He just wanted to get his bearings, but very often a Japanese person who saw him studying the map would stop and, in English, ask if we needed some help finding our way. 

Japanese people are generally pretty insecure about their English language abilities. In fact, I'm certain one of the reasons why people often back away from giving service to foreigners (or scurry away when they see such customers approaching) is fear that the foreign person won't speak Japanese and they'll have to try and negotiate things in English.. The way in which people who are generally afraid to speak English step up to the plate to help someone they believe is lost always impressed me and I miss that. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Random Memories #24

Right-click (PC) or control-click (Mac) and load this in a new window to see the full-size map.

One thing that you find many foreign folks (and some Japanese) find confusing is navigating the streets in Tokyo. I've heard that the addressing system was designed according to when the buildings were built rather than based on any sort of sequential numbering. I'm not sure that that is true. It really doesn't matter because the "why" is less important than what is.

The map shown above is Kita-senju in Tokyo, the first place in the city that I ever had an opportunity to fully explore. One of the things I loved the most about Tokyo was the way in which everything was crammed together and you could see a multitude of shops, houses, and businesses in a very small space. Exploring several blocks would often yield a lot of oddities and surprises.

The above map was sent to me in 1988 and shows a few different routes to my former-boyfriend's and now husband's former apartment. He also numbered a bunch of spots at which businesses that he regularly patronized operated. Some are record shops, of course, as he and I were both big into that sort of thing back then.

At the time that I got this map, I had no idea what any of it meant except for those areas in which he wrote and told me what was up. I'm not great at reading maps in any event, but this was more confusing than usual. If you look carefully at Japanese maps, or attend to what is happening when you walk around, you see that a lot of the blocks are very oddly shaped and there are rarely any street names. It can be pretty confusing.

I was told by a student that the curving streets and triangular and trapezoidal blocks were shaped around natural bodies of water that were important at one time. She said she enjoyed tracing the history sometimes of these streets, but I have found scant information on them in English and never had the initiative to bother to look into it in Japanese.

Looking at this map, I do remember that I got lost one time while exploring Kita-Senju during my month-long stay in Japan in 1988. To those who don't remember, I didn't start my 23-year-long stint there until a year or so later in 1989 and I'm referring to my initial vacation there. I had all day free while my boyfriend worked and I wanted to return to a large supermarket that he'd taken me to once called "Topos". I headed off in what I thought was the right direction and got turned around somehow. I didn't find the store, and I didn't know how to get back to the main street that led to the station which would in turn allow me to find his apartment.

I can't relate to you the fear that comes from being alone in a foreign country in which you cannot communicate with people and have no ability to make a call and contact someone if you are hopelessly lost.  Back in those days, getting a phone required a deposit between $500-600 (for a land line) and my boyfriend couldn't afford one. I hadn't thought to write down his work number in case I got lost, and I probably didn't know how to use a pay phone anyway.

I remember the panic and then breaking out in a sweat. I also remember looking around frantically to see if something in the distance would point me in the right direction, but I didn't see anything that would act as a significant landmark. In the end, I tried to retrace my steps and found my way back, but I was a lot more cautious about setting out on my own and exploring after that. I became extremely cautious about noting my surroundings as I walked and lost a lot of my confidence in running around the city alone.

After more experience in Japan, I now know that there would have been a good chance that, had I approached a Japanese person in a shop, they would have been able to speak enough English to help me out. Well, maybe not just anyone, but someone would have likely helped a confused foreigner find her way to the local subway station. At the time though, I didn't even know enough to try and felt utterly trapped by my circumstances.

The irony is that, has I had the map that is shown above, I doubt that it would have done me any good. Besides the fact that I can hardly read an American map, there's the fact that all of the writing on it would have been gibberish to me. Sure, I could have attempted to do some character matching, but it is very hard to do even that when you are unfamiliar with the characters. Also, the bottom line is that, without a "you are here" point on a map, you're really out of luck when you're lost. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Won't Miss #11 - city living, the reality (reflection)

I grew up in a tiny rural town. The benefits of this were that it was not noisy, driving was a breeze as there was nothing resembling traffic, and there was little risk of any sort of crime even if you were out in the middle of the night. That being said, it wasn't all trees, deer, and bucolic splendor. There were few to no job opportunities and nothing to see or do. Alcoholism was rampant for the aforementioned reasons. Near the end of my time there, drug abuse was also a rising problem.

Since I grew up in such sparse surroundings, the hardships of city living hit me pretty hard, especially in the earlier years. It's dirty, noisier, crowded, and likely more dangerous than rural living (though not necessarily in Tokyo). Being overstimulated as someone with my particular nervous system (for me, the lights are brighter, the touches are more painful, the noises are louder, and the smells are stinkier) was something which continually sapped my energy and made me more prone to fatigue and depression.

By the end of my time in Japan, however, I'd largely adapted and now I'm struggling with the loss of stimulation from living in the suburbs. When I first returned, I spent three months in a rural area and just about lost it from the lack of anything to do. In the end, it seems that the negative aspects of living in a metropolis did not outweigh the positive ones. If my husband and I could have accomplished our goals in Tokyo, I'm pretty sure we never would have left. In retrospect, I miss living there despite all of the things I complained about in my original post

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Will Miss #9 - escalator etiquette (reflection)

In a crowded city in which many tall buildings are the norm, behavior on escalators is a huge issue. If people block you when you want to walk upstairs, or worse, do the old dead stop at the top or bottom, it can be beyond frustrating. When I was in Tokyo, the way in which people lined up on the left and left the right side of an escalator clear was something I really appreciated.

What I have found since coming to America is that I don't tend to encounter much in the way of escalators at all. There is the rare two-story mall with an underused escalator, but most of the time, I'm dealing with short sequences of steps or just operating on the first floor. Perhaps the reason this is so is that I'm in California, but thinking back on my time in Pennsylvania, I can't say that I recall using escalators much there outside of the very rare trip to an airport. In fact, the experience was so rare in my birthplace that, when my mother had to use one, she was afraid and couldn't manage to time her steps onto the machine to ride one. It just visually confused her.

It turns out that, the good manners I appreciated so much on escalators in Tokyo don't really need to be exercised in the places I've been in America. I can't miss what I'm finding I don't need. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Random Memories #23

All images from MOS Burger's web site.

Those who have lived in Japan likely already know MOS Burger very well. Those who do not may see it as just another fast food franchise, except this one was born in and mainly operates, in Japan. While MOS Burger looks and feels like any other fast food place, the experience there is actually quite different. 

When my husband and I first moved to our apartment in Asagaya (in 1989), there was a MOS Burger about 3 minutes away from our apartment. In the early days, we partook somewhat regularly, though hardly liberally, of the food there. I have much more experience with MOS Burger than any other fast food joint, including any of the big name places like McDonald's or Burger King. That is less a testimonial to my patronage of MOS Burger, and much more an indication of how little a role fast food has played in my diet over my 48 years on the planet.

We moved in in 1989, and MOS Burger looked superficially like a Japanese knock-off of McDonald's. Their logo was a big yellow "M" with a red background. Once you ventured inside, you learned that things were a little different, especially after giving the menu a look. Obviously, menu options have changed over the years, but certain things are staples of the MOS experience. One is the classic MOS Burger and MOS cheese burger. They come with a healthy dollop of some sort of chili sauce. About once every two years, I'd get a cheese burger there because I enjoyed the sauce. And even though I never eat hot dogs anywhere else (including at home), I loved their spicy chili dogs and that tended to be my default option. 

That being said, one of the many ways in which MOS Burger alters its menu to suit Japanese tastes is that their burgers are made with a blend of beef and pork rather than using pure beef. This makes them softer and juicier, and more palatable to those like me who think beef is the devil's meat. As for why I hate beef, it's not some vego-enviro-knee-jerk-smug attitude. I just think it smells gross and doesn't taste especially good. The blend really does make for a better burger, but it's the sort of thing that will never catch on in the U.S. because of the fondness for rare and medium rare burgers. If you don't want a dose of trichinosis, you have to cook anything including pork until it is well done. 

Another staple of the MOS experience are their rice burgers. Instead of having your meat stuffed between two pieces of bread, you can get it between two pressed bits of rice which resemble onigiri (rice balls). The contents of the burger have changed since I was a regular patron, but the concept is the same. In those early days, it was a very sloppy concoction with a burger, some sort of brown gravy and grilled vegetables (heavy on the onion). The pictured rice burger, the current incarnation, has a slab of pork on it. There's also one with fried vegetables (including carrot and burdock). It's rather less neat to eat then it appears in the picture. When we got them, they were always a sloppy mess, but a tasty one.
It really isn't the big things which make MOS Burger an operation tailored to suit the Japanese, though, clearly there are big differences, but a lot of little touches are where you see the attention to detail that makes it an experience to lure the hearts and hungry mouths of Japanese customers. They have the standard fried chicken patty, but they serve it with shredded cabbage instead of a limp bit of iceberg lettuce. They also incorporate soy sauce into their flavor profiles (sauces and the like). I always loved that they found ways to get gobo (burdock) into some of their dishes as well. 

Externally, sometimes it's hard to see how things are more Japanese than not, especially when the options appear pretty mundane. However, if you look at Western fast food chains, most of them do not include the option of soup, and soup is big part of traditional Japanese meals. One of my students said, after a home stay with a New Zealand family, that she loved the simplicity of their preparation because it included only a protein, starch, and vegetable. She complained that, it's so much more complicated in Japan because you have to include a lot more dishes and she specifically mentioned soup. This reflects an awareness of a desire for this item in a Japanese meal, an awareness that neither the golden arches nor the king have or have chosen to cater to. The inclusion of soup with most meal sets continues to be something I miss about life in Japan. I think that it reduces calorie consumption and provides an opportunity for more vegetables to be a part of your meal, especially if the soups are relatively light and healthy as they frequently appeared to be in my experience.

Of course, there are also more overt nods to Japanese tastes. The menu includes things like green tea and oshiruko o(red bean soup with mochi). This is on offer at present, but it's likely seasonal and will go away when the cold weather disappears. The inclusion of any rice-based foods (including two risotto dishes currently) is another nod to Japanese tastes. They also offer melon soda and some truly weird takes on various ethnic foods including a very gnarly looking Italian chicken with tomato flavoring (pictured above). There's nothing more Japanese than the twisting of European cuisine to suit their sensibilities about what such things are.

Despite the fact that MOS Burger has a lot more interesting options for a fast food place, it isn't necessarily a "perfect" experience for those looking for food on the go and that's why it hasn't reached the same level of market saturation as Western chains. The food quality is absolutely superior to any Western fast food chain, but this is achieved through making slow "fast food". They don't prep a bunch of food ahead of time and keep it under heat lamps. Everything is cooked after you order. This makes for lovely fresh food which is usually assembled with care and with well-prepared ingredients (like nice tomato slices and fresh veggies), but it also means you have a pretty decent wait. If we were in a big hurry, we would never choose MOS Burger.

Another big issue, and this is a Japanese market issue, is the portion sizes and the price. MOS Burger food is  simply smaller. This is great if you are watching your waistline or are a dainty eater, but it doesn't appeal to business people, particularly men, who want to rush out and grab some food, scarf it down, and be full until they leave the office late and head home for dinner. For them, there may be a rice cracker or a Japanese sweet from someone who picked up a souvenir between them and a 9:00 pm to midnight supper, so they need the calories to sustain the burning of the evening oil. 

MOS Burger, to me, always seemed like it was geared more toward women and families than business people. That is not to say that the latter didn't patronize them, but just that it was less practical. Also, if you looked at food options in concentrated business districts, you rarely saw MOS Burger relative to McDonald's, Yoshinoya, and other much faster and cheaper options. Most of the MOS Burgers I saw were in decently trafficked areas of residential districts. There were some studded here and there in places like Shinjuku and Shibuya, but there were greatly outnumbered by more economical, faster, and less high-quality options. If you went to MOS Burger, you were indicating that you had time to wait and that quality of the food mattered more to you than volume. Sexists as it may sound, this is squarely a Japanese women's consideration.

For me, one of the many final experiences I wanted to have in Japan before I left was one last visit to MOS Burger for the sake of nostalgia. I hadn't been there for years because the one close to our home had closed down and I'd lost my taste for fast food nearly completely. However, I used to really enjoy their "spicy chili dog" and developed a craving for a final one. Unfortunately, the shop we went to (in Tachikawa) a few months before we left was staffed by people who were intent on not serving the foreigners. They completely ignored us for five minutes as they found excuses to chat with other the other two customers who had already had their orders taken and were waiting for them to be cooked. They never so much as looked at us as we waited patiently for someone to take our order. We could have rudely insisted by shouting at them, but it really was not worth the hassle. Eventually, we gave up and headed off to find another option. So, though I have relatively fond memories of MOS Burger, and believe that they are a fast food place worth visiting even if you're a tourist, my experiences with them did not have a happy ending. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Won't Miss #508 - culturally adjusted = no complaints

Click to see a larger version that is more legible.

People think that adjusting to life in Japan is about no longer getting irritated at various cultural differences. Foreigners who are relatively new to Japan in particular have this perspective. The basic idea appears to be that you are adjusted when you no longer get annoyed by anything which is a unique experience in Japan. However, there are uniquely Japanese cultural and lifestyle aspects that the Japanese themselves are not happy with. They don't like not being allowed to park their bicycles anywhere they need (like at stations). They don't like being required to undergo an annual company physical. The childless ones don't like paying taxes to bribe people to have children. They don't like waiting forever to see a doctor because the hospital is crammed with old people who are bored. Many of them hate having to go out for drinking parties. Are they not culturally "adjusted" because they dislike these aspects of their own culture?

At home, I'm allowed to complain about American things all I want without anyone accusing me of being culturally maladjusted. When I did it in Japan, I was supposedly displaying a lack of understanding based on my ignorance and rigidity. I won't miss the idea you have failed to culturally adapt because you have complaints about various aspects of life in Japan.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Will Miss #507 - people try (hard) to understand

I had a conversation recently with a friend about communication among native speakers of the same language. In particular, she and her family were having some issues trying to understand why a new person of their acquaintance seemed not to be true to her word. It is possible that this person is not actually meaning what she says, but it's also possible that she doesn't mean what they think she's saying.

To help make that clearer, I'd like to offer a personal example. My husband sometimes will say, "I'm thinking about pizza for dinner." When I hear this, I hear a request or an explicit expression of intention. When he says this, he's not being concrete at all. He's merely vocalizing a notion he's entertaining among other possible notions. We've been married for going on 24 years, and we still don't speak the same language when we are speaking the same language. 

Communication isn't only about words. It's also about patterns that are set in ones own social circle or family. My family made "requests" all of the time by expressing vague desires. They expected that the rest of us would understand the true intention. My husband didn't operate that way. Neither way is "wrong". It's all about context. In the context of my family, my husband would be failing constantly to "get" things. In the context of my communication with him, I'm always reading into things.

In Japan, I found that I rarely experienced this sort of problem because both sides were trying hard to communicate and understand as well as possible. Here, people are not even aware of this issue and, when misunderstandings occur, they can sometimes become adamant that they were clear and you misunderstood due to intellectual shortcomings or willful desires to frustrate.*

The language and culture gap brought a strong motivation to understand and took ego out of the picture when misunderstandings occurred. I miss the way in which people were always trying their best to be understood and to understand rather than on believing that the other party had somehow failed.

*To be clear, this does not happen with my husband and me. I use a personal example, but we don't have arguments or tension over this because we know it happens and that it's just one of those things.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Random Memories #22

Back in the day, used record shops used to dot the earth. Well, they used to be scattered all over Tokyo. Record collectors could roam far and wide looking for that rare bit of vinyl or a bargain on more commonly available releases. They could do that, or they could simply buy the annual record map book that told you where to find all of the best places.

Image from Amazon Japan's page

One of my husband's and my earliest incentives to learn to read Japanese came from trying to decode these books. Each year or two, a comprehensive manual that told you the location and types of inventory of various collectible record stores all over Japan was released. It was our happy pleasure to buy a new one as they came out and look for new locations. Since we spent most every weekend mining the known locations for records that my husband and I wanted to collect, fresh territory was always an exciting prospect.

Unfortunately, as time went by, the number of used record shops started to decrease rather than increase. While many things that started to diminish during our time in Japan were due to the weakening economy, this was due at first to the encroachment of CDs and later to the conversion to digital technology. While more portable, such advances dramatically reduced the collectible nature of second-hand items. My husband and I used to delight in finding lps and singles with their unique Japanese pictures and inserts (posters, stickers, etc.).

With CDs, the size limited the capacity of the record shops to provide interesting add-ins. In fact, what we learned was the best way to get cool extras with CDs was to be present in Japan at the time of a new release. If you bought a new CD, there was a chance that you could get some sort of promotional goodie at the shop (usually a poster) when you bought it. This situation, unfortunately, has also vanished as time goes by as record companies seem to be less lavish with their marketing money these days.

As the image above shows, the record map book continues to be updated and published, but I'm sure that there is less to them than there once was. It's not only the technology and the fact that few people are buying records of any sort in this age of MP3 players. It's also online sellers and auction houses. There is much less of a need for a brick and mortar store than their once was and maintaining a shopfront in Tokyo is a pricy endeavor.

The business card that is featured in this post is from 1988 or '89 and shows various branches of the used record shop "Reco-Fan". If you look carefully, you'll see that it reveals it's age in that there is no URL for the business. That's something that would be a huge omission in this day and age.

During my first visit to Japan in '89, my future husband and I spent quite a lot of time visiting such places. As a die-hard collector of items related to the rock group KISS, I found them to be fascinating treasure chests of records I rarely saw. Of course, my boyfriend had already raided those chests for the "gold", and we didn't find much that was new during my visit.

That being said, there is a sequence of photographs of me and my future husband in record stores which show me looking through the bins. He had to show me which ones contained the KISS lps since I couldn't read anything. There was also a certain technique to rapidly sifting through a huge volume of discs that he had to teach me. Finally, there's a shot of me purchasing something, and the shop clerk handing me a promotional poster at the same time. It was a mundane sequence of events, but it all seemed much more meaningful because of the perceived exotic nature of the discs with their Japanese "obi" (paper band) wrapped around the sides or tops and the potential for little extra surprises.

Reco-fan, unlike many of the smaller operations that we tended to frequent, is still open at this time. However, it was never the best place to find rarities. It's stock tended to be pretty picked over, relatively expensive, and to be missing any added Japan-only touches. One of the last things my husband and I did before leaving Japan was to visit the Kichijouji branch of Reco-fan. It was less than a shadow of its former self and it was never the best to begin with. Bins of laser discs lined the front and records of no particular import tended to fill out the center. CDs at slightly discounted prices lined the sides. The truth was that I wanted who even went to such places anymore. It just felt very much like a bag of Halloween candy that had had all the good stuff picked out and all that was left was the gum and candy corn.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Won't Miss #10 - contempt for English teachers (reflection)

If I don't teach people in Japan English, how will they know signs like this are actually funny?

Every time a foreign person asked me about my job in Japan*, I always emphasized the aspects that did not pertain to teaching English. This was actually easy for me to do since two big components of my work for the better part of my time there were writing textbooks and doing all of the desktop publishing to put them together. I also wrote a regular column for a few years for a print magazine in English.

That being said, I was a teacher for a lot of my time and the larger truth is that I enjoyed teaching and found it fulfilling and challenging. Yes, it was tiring a lot of the time. Yes, there were annoying students and bad experiences, and, absolutely, yes, the schools sometimes treat teachers abysmally and take advantage of them. Welcome to the world of grown-up employment in which you find your job isn't 100% fulfilling and employers often treat you like crap. However, I didn't want to talk about being a teacher for those reasons. I didn't do so because I knew that I would be judged negatively the vast majority of the time for being what many viewed as the bottom feeder among foreign workers in Japan. 

Since coming back to America, no small number of people have asked me what I did in Japan. My husband and I tell them the whole truth and not one of them has scoffed at us, given us a look of disdain, or said a bad word about such work. In Japan, the suggestion that you were a loser for being a teacher was often overtly or covertly made. 

Upon returning to the U.S., it has been very refreshing having my job in Japan be just a job and not be seen as some indication of personal failure. I absolutely, categorically do not miss the contempt with which foreigners in Japan held English teachers. 

*Note: the vast majority of Japanese people did not possess this sort of disdain for those who made a living as English teachers. A small number did, but it was extremely rare in my experience. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Will Miss #8 - convenient public transportation (reflection)

The biggest shock to my system upon returning to America has been the frustration of driving. I never especially enjoyed it, at least not in California, and now I find it really troubling. It could be that 23 years off the road have made me skittish, or that people really have gotten stupider and more reckless on the road. I suspect it is the latter because of higher levels of distraction due to all the little devices people can't seem to keep their hands off of like their cells phones, MP3 players, and GPS's. I know that I've seen quite a few people actually weaving around on crowded roads because they're too busy playing with their cell phones to watch where they are going. Frankly, I find it more than a little scary.

I've also found that, despite the fact that I hated hauling my shopping around in heavy backpacks, I miss walking to places most of the time. I have a sense that I'm somehow "failing" if I actually need to get in the car and go anywhere. I also find that things are far more boring in the suburbs in the U.S. because everything is massively spread out for car access. If you like to walk, and I really do, you're going to hard-pressed to do much more than walk over block after block of blandness.

The public transportation in Japan was not perfect, but it was very, very good. If I had to make a top 10 list of all of the things I miss about Japan, I'm pretty sure that it would be number one.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Random Memories #21

Click to load a larger, more readable image.

Memory is a funny thing, stranger than most of us realize. Unless you've been writing things down or recording them, there's a good chance that what you think was so was not really the case. This is not a new thought, but I do believe most people re-write history more often than they realize. Often, they do so to their advantage, but it's not uncommon to do so to one's disadvantage.

No one is immune to this sort of confusion, and certainly I am not. One example I came across recently was in regards to how I initially handled the transportation system in Japan. In 1989, when I went there for the second time, the time that started an unanticipated 23-year stay, I was terrified of the train system and got rather lost in Ikebukuro station the first time I exited the wicket from the Marunouchi line. I got turned around and went out the opposite side of the station and was very worried that I'd be late for my first day of work there. I remember arriving barely on time, and being hot, sweaty, and frantic. This memory, I'm fairly sure is true.

This was not the memory that I re-wrote, but there was another that got a revamp in accord with this later vivid memory of confusion and frustration. As a result of that experience, I grew very timid about taking trains in Tokyo alone (as opposed to with my husband) because I feared getting lost. As time went by, I told myself that I didn't really feel comfortable navigating the complex transportation system alone until relatively late in my stay in Tokyo. It turns out that that was far from the truth.

The somewhat phobic response to the train and subway system was written after that one "traumatic" experience Clearly, I had lost my confidence. I discovered recently that that was absolutely not the way it was during my first visit in 1988. I had zero recollection of the fact that I rode the subway from Kita-Senju to Shinjuku and other major shopping areas alone during the month I vacationed there and visited my future husband. Not only did I go to those areas alone, but I transferred between lines, exited stations, and went out shopping by myself. I know this because I said so in my own words on cassette tapes 25 years ago. 

While I was in Japan at that time, I made a tape for my sister in which I talked in detail about a lot of things that happened during my stay, but I never finished it and never sent it. It turns out my husband still had that tape in a collection of them that he had in storage all these years. I talk in the middle of my 1988 visit about things in close proximity to them occurring. It seems that, before that one scary experience, I was pretty brave about navigating the byzantine and illegible (to me at that time) public transportation system.

The map that I include with this post is of the system as it was 25 years ago. If you were to compare it to a map from this time, I'm sure you'd find that stations had been added and that all new lines are included (including the Fukutoshin line which was completed in 2008). The paper map itself is rapidly becoming an anachronism. Such maps used to be available in copious numbers at every station, but are increasingly reduced in quantity and availability. Most commuters use their cell phones if they need an overview of the railways, or, more likely, an online site which allows them to calculate the best way to get from point A to point B. If you've never used such software, it allows you to find several different routes on various lines and compare the time and cost for the best way to get from point A to point B.

These sorts of maps seem crude and inefficient by comparison to such software. They rarely included both JR (Japan Railway) and the Tokyo Metro (subway) since these systems operated in competition with one another. The software favors no line, and even includes buses. However, like many things in the digital age, they offer efficiency, but no tangible memento. It's just a piece of paper, but it serves to remind me of the fact that I once had a great deal more courage than I allowed myself to remember.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Won't Miss #507 - setsuden

Yes, it's a special setsuden cloth. Note the fish whose tail isn't plugged in and his light is off. He's doing his duty!

When I left Tokyo in March of last year, I believed that setsuden, or (strong) energy conservation efforts would end by the summer of 2012. This movement, which came on the heels of the controversy over the use of nuclear power after the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster, caused such a backlash against the use of nuclear power that all of the reactors were shut down at one point. It appears that setsuden, which means sweltering summers both indoors and out and chilly winters, is there to stay for awhile. While the cold never bothered me in Tokyo, the summer heat and humidity is insanely oppressive. With thermostats set around 28 degrees C./82 degrees F (or higher)., there was frequently little difference between indoor and outdoor temperatures. While gritting my teeth and sweating through the heat was annoying, it was especially galling in the face of businesses that left their large doors gaping open and allowing pressure air conditioning to escape.

It often seemed to me that there was a ridiculous variation between what individuals and businesses did in this regard with old folks doing their duty and suffering (and dying) of heat stroke while businesses only addressed the bottom line. I won't miss setsuden both for the discomfort it brought on and the hypocrisy it revealed.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Will Miss #506 - bento

What is it that young children love more than their Christmas gifts? They love the boxes that they came in. In fact, even as adults, people often enjoy the boxes that they receive things in to a curious amount. Why otherwise would web sites set up lavish photo spreads devoted to "unboxing" new adult toys (I mean things like iPads and laptops, not the other sort you dirty-minded people)? Things are better when they come in boxes.

I'm convinced that one of many reasons the bento are cooler than bag lunches is that the food is nicely and tidily boxed for you, often with nifty little compartments to separate component parts. Of course, there is also the sheer artistry that many places put into such things. Sometimes, it's just the general arrangement with an artful sprinkle of black sesame seeds and a pickled plum (umeboshi) on the rice and a bit of plastic "grass". On rarer occasions, it's an entire work meant to resemble something else.

Even here at home, I prepare something akin to a "bento" for my husband to take for his lunches. I miss the niftiness of these boxed meals. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Random Thoughts: Different "agencies"

I'm going to pause in my weekly trip down memory lane to talk about something rather serious. It's the type of thing I try very hard not to remark on in public because I think that too many people jump on a current events bandwagon and start tossing out opinions as if they were proclamations from God. Any dissenting voices are then struck down with verbal fury as the demigod of each particular blog attempts to smite all of his enemies.

In my case, I want to use a particular issue not as a soapbox upon which to offer my views. I certainly have no desire whatsoever to engage in a debate on said views and part of this post will explain why. And, yes, it does relate to my experiences in Japan, thank you for asking.

One of the hardest things to do when you encounter another culture is to not operate ethnocentrically. That is, to not judge another culture by the standards of your own. I daresay it is likely to be impossible not to do so, and the best most of us can hope for is an awareness that that is what we are doing. An awareness of such judgement has the potential to result in the knowledge that your preferred approach is not "better", but rather is simply one you personally prefer. If you can reach a conclusion which says the equivalent of "chocolate and vanilla are both fantastic flavors with great aspects to each, but I prefer vanilla", then you've done pretty well.

During my early years in Japan, I was just as ethnocentric as every other foreigner, perhaps more because I did not go there prepared for the differences I was to encounter nor was I a Japanophile and automatically favorably inclined toward the country. I thought the way in which they communicated indirectly was pointless and lacked genuineness. I felt the concepts of tatamae and honne were culturally sanctioned ways of lying. I even believed that choosing a fussy and time-consuming way of living by using futon instead of a bed was silly. Why would anyone choose to sleep on a thin mat which had to be rolled up and put away as well as beat because dust mites infested it when they could have a nice comfy bed?

Have my opinions changed on a lot of these topics? No. Am I still as ethnocentric as I once was? No. Not being ethnocentric does not mean that I have to change all of my opinions and feelings about things which are different in other cultures. I'm still entitled to like or dislike things based on my personal preferences. What makes me less ethnocentric is the fact that I no longer think that "their" way is worse and "my" way is better. I see them as different, but I prefer one to the other. Sometimes, I strongly prefer one to the other. Sometimes, I strongly prefer the Japanese way to the American way . Do those preferences make me a "Wapanese"? No. Does preferring the American way make me a patriot? Of course not.

It took me many years to reach some understanding of my thinking and that of the Japanese. Part of this process was an active effort to take other people's points of view. Rather than simply judge, I really tried to place myself in the other person's shoes and try to validate their perspective, even when I had an intense dislike of that position. This can be a maddening, and an outright painful process. It requires you to take a viewpoint sometimes that you find to be very "wrong" and try to see how another person could see it as "right". It does not, however, require you to embrace that perspective as your own or to see it as any sort of "truth". It does mean that you have to question the idea that there are any absolute truths at all and embrace the idea that there is really no such thing as complete objectivity in anything. Some people would disagree with even that, and so they may, but such thinking does not serve one well in coping with people of vastly differing perspectives and viewpoints. Absolutes are comforting, but that sort of rigidity sets you up for a world of frustration and Quixotic battling. 

One example of such perspective shifting came along when I learned that Japanese families are often split geographically for years when the father is stationed in another city. This is especially common when they have children as the parents do not want to uproot their kids from their schooling to relocate to the father's new workplace. Many complex considerations go into this, but my first sense of this was that any couple who can live apart for years like that can't really love each other very much. I felt that this reflected a business-like arrangement when it came to relationships and saw it as inferior to the love-based ones that we commonly embrace in the West. If you've ever seen or read "Pride and Prejudice", it seems to hark back to an age when people married because it suited their station or economic needs.  

Through time, I didn't come to understand that the Japanese couples who do such things love each other every bit as much as the Western couples who would never entertain the notions of living separately for years. Some of them may feel so, but my discussions with most people who went through this suggested otherwise. I came to understand that the perspective on marriage and family is completely different in Japan such that they don't embrace the idea of undying love and passion between the husband and wife as many Western cultures seem to (especially in the early stages of a marriage). I couldn't live in such a relationship, but I understand why it works for them. In the context of their culture, and I am not going into details here as this is going to be a long post and I haven't even reached the main point yet, these sorts of arrangements make sense. They are not emotionally wrenching and they have the right psychological tools to make it work. Their culture equips them with those tools. Ours does not because we have different priorities. There is no "better" or "worse" way to approach a relationship. There are simply differences.

When I speak of such things in regards to understanding other cultures, I often get nods of assent for thinking in this fashion. At the very least, people embrace the idea that there is value in trying to cultivate this ability to understand other cultures rather than judge them. However, if I apply this method to other types of perspectives, I am greeted with resistance. We are all about open minds and hearts when we're talking about varying cultures. That openness slams shut hard and fast when we are asked to do so with differing viewpoints in our own country or culture. In particular, I am speaking about political perspectives. And here we land on the current hot topic of the month, gun control.

Before I get into what I'm going to say, let me say that I will not entertain any comments arguing about gun control, pro or con. If you want to jump on that horse and ride into battle, take it elsewhere. There are only about a billion other places that are better than here to argue the point. I will say that I'm a liberal, and I generally oppose people owning guns and keeping them in their homes. I grew up with guns. I learned to shoot one, but I never shot a living thing. I am not afraid of guns, but I don't think it's a good idea to make them so freely available in America. There are a ton of logical arguments I could make to support my opinion, but I'm not going to do what I've asked readers not to do and debate the issue. This isn't about that. It's about the process and value of taking on another perspective. 

Before I get into what I want to really say, I wanted to make clear that that is where I stand lest people believe I'm coming from a place that I am not when I make my main point. However, I want to talk about how I understand why other people stand on the opposite side of the issue, and how I think that others who believe as I do should try to shift their perspective to see where conservatives and those who oppose gun control are coming from. The reason I'm talking about this is that one of the many lessons I learned from living in another culture was that there's no value save ego gratification on judging how other people feel about things or live their lives. There is value in understanding them. And "understanding" does not mean that you like, agree, or embrace their opinions. It merely means that you develop a more balanced and open view of an issue instead of standing staunchly on one side wrapped in a comfy blanket of your own sense of rightness and self-righteousness. 

In terms of why I feel many people believe it is imperative to have the right to bear arms and to act on that right, there are a lot of little reasons, several big ones and what I think is a unifying whopper. That last one relates to something about America which is quite different from most countries and it is deeply rooted in the culture. In psychology, this is known as "disjoint agency" or the underlying notion that people should act independently. This is not about individualism, although clearly that is linked, but rather about the sense that people should act on their own behalf rather than rely on others. This sense is not uniformly distributed among Americans, particularly since we are composed of a variety of people with different cultural backgrounds, but the dominant cultural drumbeat is that you are on your own.

By contrast, many other nations in the world, and Asian ones like Japan in particular, endorse the idea of "conjoint agency". This is when people are acculturated to act interdependently and feel that they should look after one another. In Japan, people trusted and relied more on the police to keep public peace, even in the face of a good deal of evidence that their police force was inept and lacked forensic investigation skills. They trust that each person will do their part in society to make it all work smoothly and for the best for everyone.

The factors which build a country to embrace conjoint (interdependent) or disjoint (independent) agency are almost certainly vast and complex and I won't even try to go into them here in this little blog. However, it is important to bear in mind that these are not factors a culture's people willfully decide to consider and implement. They are the cumulative effects of history that result in a particular cultural mindset. You cannot say an American is "wrong" for having a mindset which says we have to act on our own and look after ourselves. It's not a choice they made any more than it is a Japanese person's choice to believe that everyone must rely on one another. It is an education too broad, subtle, and all-encompassing to even see, let alone attempt to purposefully change in a short time.

What is more, this "education" is not written solely in the threads of a culture's broader fibers. It's not merely that we're watching Bruce Willis take matters into his own hands again and again in "Die Hard" because he's isn't going to rely on others to rescue his wife. It's also a result of personal experience. If you grow up metaphorically being tossed to the wolves and having to fend for yourself, you will feel that that is the way of the world and that the "right" thing to do is to do whatever it is that you have to to look after your own interests because no one else will. You know this because no one else ever has come to your rescue or helped you. 

People who grow up in lives of hardship economically, emotionally, and physically are much more likely to embrace the most extreme notions of disjoint agency. This is one reason why poor people and rural people (who tend to have fewer opportunities in life and less contact with others as well as more thinly distributed social services like law enforcement) are much more likely to own guns and oppose gun control. They don't trust the police or anyone else to save them should a threat show up at their door. They believe that it's their responsibility to deal with things. It always has been. To them, it is absurd to remove the tools by which they can protect themselves because they fully believe they will be vulnerable without them. Their culture and their life experience have led them to believe this. Economic disparity in the U.S. is another factor that supports the idea of acting on disjoint agency. Relative economic parity in Japan tends to make people feel that they are all in the same boat, and if they want to all remain there, they should all put in equal efforts when paddling. 

As someone who grew up in a rural area in poverty, I can't say that the viewpoint that you have to look after yourself because no one else will is "wrong". There is pretty thin evidence for such people that embracing conjoint agency (relying on others or acting interdependently) would serve them well. Most of them cannot rely on anyone, including social services and the police. A recent anecdote that I read online illustrates this. You may want to read the full story at the link, but the thumbnail version is that a woman talked about a dog near her mother's home which threatened her and her kids every time she visited. The neighbor often did not secure the dog and repeated calls to the police did nothing to improve the situation. In the end, the police told her that the best thing to do was simply shoot the dog next time it wasn't tied up and threatened her. In other words, even the police were saying she ultimately should take matters into her own hands to protect herself! Even "the authorities" are not immune to the cultural mentality of disjoint agency (acting independently). 

Does that mean most people's guns are little more than a metaphorical safety blanket in most cases? Not in my opinion. I think most people who insist on having guns for personal defense will never use them. However, there are lots of people who have a whole garage full of tools and gadgets they never use, but they won't give them up "just in case" they ever need them. The notion that you want to have something in the event that it will prove useful is hardly limited to firearms, and the estimated value of having a gun "just in case" your life is threatened is immeasurable to people who feel they are the first and sometimes only line of defense in a worst case scenario.

My purpose in this post is not to say that this sort of thinking is "correct". It's also not to say that it is "incorrect". It is merely to point out one mental location where such thinking comes from and that most people who embrace gun ownership are not  "nuts" operating from an insane place of paranoia or distorted thinking which is utterly nonsensical. They are a subset that has developed as a result of a certain cultural mindset which is far more pervasive in American culture and it is not a mindset they chose to subscribe to in many cases but their experiences and upbringing led them to it. To them, it is logical and suits someone who lives in their skin. 

To those who have grown up with more support or different cultural learning, this type of thinking makes no sense at all, but then somewhere along the line, there's a high likelihood that the idea of acting interdependently worked far better for them or their experiences led them to feel that made sense. Wealthier people, those acculturated in greater interdependence, or people who have been fairly lucky and well-supported by family, employers, mentors, social services or networks, etc. see the world as being a place in which we help each other. They can feel that because they have been helped or have a sense that they can rely on others. Those who have not cannot subscribe to that luxurious notion, especially when the perceived risk is so high. Even though they may espouse self-reliance and self-determination, many liberal-minded people have either grown up in a more supportive environment or with a greater sense of overall security in the way the world works. Note that "supportive" does not mean "easy" or "comfortable". This is an incredibly important distinction.

If you have ever wondered why poor (especially lower middle class or those getting by near, but above, the poverty line) and uneducated people tend to be conservative when conservative policies tend to favor the wealthy, this underlying notion of disjoint agency also explains it in part. They believe that each person should be responsible for his own life and outcome and reject the idea of taxes being used for social services because the idea of conjoint agency doesn't fit their worldview. They believe they have not been beneficiaries of it (as opposed to actually not having been so) and see no benefit in it for society on the whole. I don't agree with their perspective, but I don't think it's crazy either. I think it is informed by education and experiences other than mine. I think it is taught by consumption of culture other than that which I have consumed. Do I wish they believed otherwise? God, yes! 

What I want, however, is not the issue and I'm not arrogantly going to presume that I am so much more enlightened and intelligent than them because I hold my particular views. If I lived their lives, there'd be a high probability that I'd feel as they do. Just as my views of marriage and love differ from that of a Japanese person because I was raised in a different culture, my views on politics are different based on how I was raised. It does no good to posture and talk as though I need to "enlighten" conservatives on the "right" way of viewing the world. They don't live in the world I live in and they didn't grow up exactly as I did with my brain, my nervous system, and my consciousness. Well, a lot of them did grow up poor and encountering hardship as I did, but that is hardly the end of the story in the shaping of political views. 

I believe that nothing is to be gained by writing people off as "gun nuts" and any sort of discourse on America's issues in this regard cannot be discussed without considering the core element of disjount agency. There are a  lot of cultural issues at play (including one in which aggression is increasingly seen as an answer to problems), but until we understand that many American people fundamentally feel they must act independently in order to survive and prosper rather than interdependently, we cannot have a reasoned discussion of these types of issues. They are operating from a different mindset. That mindset is not "wrong" and they did not "choose" it. It chose them. This mindset is simply different than that of those who support gun control. Unless and until their issues, which are legitimate, are addressed as having equal weight and value to those on the other side, they have no reason to listen. In other words, why should they take your concerns seriously when you don't see theirs as deserving the same consideration?

At its core, the way this needs to be addressed is on a long-term personal level, though that is just one step of many that need to be taken over a very long period of time if America wants to make a cultural shift away from gun ownership. If you want people to stop thinking they need to protect themselves and encourage a belief in conjoint agency, then you must show them that they can rely on others and build a social structure through political support which will encourage such thinking. Undermining the concerns of gun ownership advocates by labeling them or treating their perspective in a dismissive and derisive fashion only supports the idea that we stand alone rather than together. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Won't Miss #8 - vending machine blight (reflection)

As I remarked in the original post, vending machines are everywhere in Tokyo. I had also been told that, even in the countryside, banks of machines sometimes stood in the middle of nowhere. More than one Japanese person told me that they saw them as an incredible waste of energy. I wonder if, in the face of strict energy conservation after the Fukushima meltdown in the wake of the March 11, 2011 quake, such machines were removed. I know that vending machines in Tokyo were being frantically re-engineered to reduce their carbon footprint. This was something I heard firsthand from employees whose job it was to make such machines (such was the nature of my work in Japan that I had access to such people on a regular basis).

The truth is that, I think all cultures have various visual blight and wasteful energy consumption. Sometimes it is trash on the lawns of rural homes. Sometimes it's ugly newspaper distribution boxes. Sometimes it's graffiti on city streets and walls. Now, I think that banks of gleaming machines were really not such a bad thing after all. It could very much have been worse. The "worst" part of it all, in retrospect, was the valuable sidewalk real estate that they sometimes consumed in areas that sometimes were congested with heavy foot traffic. I now find that I actually regard the total suffocation of some areas with vending machines as a bit of nostalgia rather than see it as an annoyance. 

Happy New Year 2013

If only snakes were really made of gold!

Happy New Year to all of my readers! Thank you for continuing to follow my blog(s), and for taking part in comments now that they have been enabled. It is a common custom at the start of the new year to reflect back upon the old one, and I must say that the past year has been a very rough one for me indeed.

Before I left Japan, I spent a great deal of mental energy attempting to prepare myself for the changes to come. After 23 years there, and only visiting home once during that entire time and that visit coming very early in my stay, I knew that it was going to be a bumpy ride. Boy howdy, I was right.

There is an experience that many Japanese people have after they have lived abroad for an extended time in which they have been fundamentally changed such that they cannot fully integrate with their own culture upon return. These "returnees" sometimes find the restrictions of their culture stifling and hard to bear. Their cohorts find them weird and harder to live with. I always felt that this was something that easily happened to the Japanese because they lived in a straight jacket and once released, they found it hard to climb back into those confines again.

Well, I'm here to say that it doesn't only happen to "them". It absolutely happened to me, too. I have been fundamentally changed from my time in Japan and find adapting to life here very hard. There are numerous things which have been difficult to adjust to and it has been emotionally overwhelming at times. I don't want to make an exhaustive list, but just one of the many things I've found hard to deal with is the arbitrary nature of social life in the U.S.

In particular, the unchecked and intentional aggressiveness of people and the arbitrary nature of social behavior have disturbed me. There are no rules, save personal ones, and when they are unintentionally transgressed, you will be handled in an overtly unkind manner. People will go out of their way to confront you angrily just as easily as they will go out of their way to be kind to you by holding open a door or offering to carry your bag. The chaotic nature of both acts of kindness and hostility is something I have had problems finding equanimity with. This is but a tiny portion of the reverse culture shock I've been attempting to deal with, but it has been a pretty significant one.

I don't know if this was the America I lived in 23 years ago, but I don't recall it having been so. Of course, when you are a part of the river and moving along with the flow, you don't really notice that it is doing anything special. When you are rock standing still and watching it wash all around you at breakneck speed, you see every ripple and current, every twig and branch being torn apart by it's furious movement.

This blog continues to act as a filtering and organizing tool for my transition from Japan to America as well as a way of noting my memories. I can't express enough how valuable writing is as a process and would encourage any reader who finds himself thinking too much to consider using public writing as a way of coming to understand oneself and the world. If you want to make a positive change in the coming year, using a blog as a productive tool for self-knowledge and growth could certainly be a good resolution.

My best wishes for health, peace, and happiness to all in the coming year.