Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Won't Miss #515 - the toilet seats

At the risk of inviting comments about fat American asses (any such comments won't survive the moderator, just a word of warning), I have to say that the toilet seats in Japan were generally thin plastic affairs which tended to crack over time. This happened not only to the seat we used in my apartment, but also to the ones that were used by the offices that I worked in. This happened because, over time, the stress points where the seat connected to the back of the toilet fractured over time (like metal fatigue, only with plastic).

Beyond the fact that the toilet seats are thin and flimsy, a complaint that I've actually read other non-Japanese buyers of early models of Japanese washlets make, the way in which they are attached makes them harder to remove. I only replaced the seat in our apartment once in 23 years, but the main reason that an easy removal method is helpful is for easier cleaning. In the U.S., you flip a couple of little plastic things and off it comes. In Japan, I had to reach under and unscrew a couple of plastic screws. I think they were not meant to be taken off for cleaning in general since I also saw T.V. shows that instructed women on how to clean the back of the toilet using a toothbrush for maximum cleanliness.

Maybe I just had bad experiences in Japan and good ones here, but after having the capacity to easily remove the seat and clean it as well as experience much better construction, I don't miss the types of toilet seats I tended to come across in Japan.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Will Miss #514 - skinny Santas

Santa didn't used to be fat. This is something that I learned with a little research. It seems that the image of Santa which has become quite popular comes to us courtesy of Coca-Cola. They thought that a jolly, chubby Santa was more fun than a severe, skinny one. I don't know if the rotund Santa is popular worldwide, but I do know that that is the only way that I ever saw him growing up in the U.S. and that is the way in which he's generally portrayed in popular culture.

In Japan, Santa is depicted at times as amazingly slim and trim. That's because they are working with the mannequins they have and they don't care about padding him out to fit some Americanized image. Besides, the Santa costumes at hand were sewn with a Japanese physique in mind. If you're going to dress up a figure, you don't want to have to custom order an outfit for the portly gentleman.

Among the many things that said, "Japan" to me, were the skinny Santas that popped up in various displays. I miss seeing the slender Santa as one of many little reminders that Christmas is something rather different in Japan.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Random Memories #31

This is the thing that got me my first job in Japan. 

Note: This is somewhat of a continuation from my previous post about getting jobs in Japan.

Some moments in life are burned into your memory with perfect clarity. This is not so strange. What is odd to me is that the ones you recall with photographic-memory-like clarity are not necessarily the ones that are the most meaningful. For instance, one of the happiest memories of my life is getting married to my husband in the world's smallest, simplest, and most economical of weddings. We were both happy to be doing it and wrote our own vows. However, the only "memory burn" I have from that day is standing outside of my in-laws' home (in which we were married) waiting for the music to reach the right spot so that we could walk in together. The emotionally deeper parts are only revealed to me via our poorly shot wedding video.

At any rate, you'd think that memories of my first day on the job as a teacher in Japan would be a pretty potent memory, but I don't remember it at all. I do have a flash of memory and corresponding emotion from the interview in which I "got" the job. I recall being very nervous and very hot and sweaty (because it was Tokyo in late spring and the weather was appropriate for steaming open a clam) and going into a large room with a white table with a guy wearing a dark business suit who spoke English slowly and adequately. He never made eye contact with me, and spent most of the time looking down at paperwork of some sort or another.

The first question the man asked me was about my passport. He wanted to see my tourist visa. I gave it to him and he looked at the 5-year tourist visa that I'd obtained about a year earlier when I visited my then-boyfriend-now-husband. After some careful inspection of the visa, he said, "we can change this visa," and handed me back my passport. From then, he proceeded to tell me about working conditions at the school as I waited to be "interviewed" further. I  was not asked any other questions. I was hired based on the type of stamp in my passport.

If you've ever wondered about the well from which the idea that English teachers in Japan are useless, worthless, and unskilled is drawn, this type of thing in the old days was a part of that. The demand for fresh blood was so high that conversation schools (eikaiwa) were less concerned with how well you could teach than they were with how quickly they could get your ass into a seat across from their students. My visa meant that I would not have to leave the country to process my paperwork. At that time, you had to pop over to a foreign country (most often Korea), and get this type of tourist visa from the Japanese consulate before you could qualify for a certificate of eligibility to get a work visa from within Japan. 

In later years, this pointless requirement was removed. However, in the late 80's when I was there, this was a bureaucratic end-run around the idea that you weren't supposed to come to Japan as a casual tourist and then get a job. I'm not sure how my tourist visa made me different from tourists who didn't have such a stamp, but I'm guessing it had something to do with red tape that said you had to have the equivalent of a re-entry permit or some other such nonsense. In fact, my husband, who went to Japan shortly after our wedding to find a job first (while I remained in the U.S. and continued at my job), did not escape playing this game. He got a job, but he had to fly to Korea and stay for a few days while the paper pushers danced their little dance. That's what he got for not having the right stamp in his passport. 

It's interesting to note that Nova, the joint that hired me, did not hire him because of his lack of said stamp. Though he had a year of teaching experience and interviews exceptionally well, they didn't want him because they'd have to process his paperwork differently. They didn't ask him any questions at his interview either. They took a total greenhorn (me) without question only because of this stamp. He was hired by a much better and quite a bit smaller chain of schools which ended up being a far better experience with more egalitarian working conditions. The experience of working at Nova back in the day is something I'll save for my next Wednesday post.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Won't Miss #19 - lack of whole grain foods (reflection)

A selection of lovely bread products from the excellent bakery, Antendo. 

There were all sorts of foods that I was looking forward to trying in America, and none more so than the plethora of whole grain bread options. The idea of walking into a store and grabbing a bag of Orowheat bread instead of having to make my own sounded pretty awesome. And it was, but the truth is that I'm still making my own whole wheat bread for other reasons.

While is has been convenient to have access to whole grain buns and bread, the truth is that the taste generally hasn't lived up to expectations. This is what happens when you grow accustomed to having either bread made in a good bakery (which we had in Tokyo) or homemade. I'm also, frankly, a little scared of the packaged food in the U.S. I have a feeling that it's packed with chemicals and other things which I wouldn't be ingesting if I made my own. That's probably a paranoia, but I do know that America has some of the most liberal laws when it comes to allowing additives in food.

So, while I thought I'd be pleased as punch to give up making my own bread, it turns out that that's a boat I'm still in of my own choosing. I guess that I really don't miss feeling like I have to choose between three tiny expensive slices of whole wheat or huge fluffy blobs of white bread or making my own, but I don't really feel I've gained much on this front by coming to the U.S.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Will Miss #19 - New Year's being a real holiday (reflection)

One of the things my students used to tell me was that they were interested in how I viewed parts of their lives as remarkable. We don't know what may look weird or unique to others until we experience another perspective. This was absolutely one of the best things about living in Japan. It made me feel more alive every day to be so aware of my surroundings.

Of course, as time goes by, you notice less and less because what was once novel is now mundane. This process is so slow and unconscious that you don't notice it until you go back to America after 23 years and realize that you grew so acclimated to the ebb and flow of life in Japan that you are more synchronized with their life than life at "home". Such is the case with holidays.

I grew used to the rhythm of time off and holidays in Japan and I've found that I not only miss the New Year's break, but all of the holidays they have that we don't. The American holidays take me by surprise, and I find it hard to get into the spirit of them. I absolutely miss the holiday schedule and how it shaped my life in Japan.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Random Memories #30

In an e-mail recently, someone asked me how I got my jobs in Japan. It wasn't until I'd written my reply that I realized that the manner in which I scored the few jobs that I had are actually pretty outdated by modern standards. Over the years, some things about job-hunting have changed, and others have stayed the same. Women are still preferred for jobs when teaching children is the work. They are also still paid less. Men are still preferred for business jobs, and young women in general are not preferred as teachers by older male students. Jobs that are oriented toward women still pay less than those toward me (again, teaching kids). And, everyone is still expected to include age and a photo on their resumes. That has all stayed relatively stable, other parts have, unsurprisingly, changed.

When I arrived in Japan for the second time in 1989, the big way that most foreign folks got jobs was via the print version of The Japan Times newspaper. The Monday paper had an extensive listing of classified ads and was the "go to" paper for foreigners who couldn't speak Japanese who wanted to make a living while exploring life in a foreign country. There were two other English language papers, The Daily Yomiuri and The Daily Mainichi, but their circulation wasn't as wide nor their papers as substantial. You could find some ads in them, but they tended to overlap with those in The Japan Times anyway. If you turned to them, it was generally out of pickiness or desperation. 

Back then, jobs were divided into positions for men or women exclusively or for either. The women-only section tended to include hostessing work as well as the aforementioned jobs teaching children. They often included age cut-offs as well as nationality preferences. Americans were more often than not preferred because Japanese people felt more comfortable with their accents due to exposure to a larger amount of American pop culture and entertainment. It's also true that there are a lot of American businesses in Japan (and vice versa) and most people who study English do so for work. They want to hear the accent they expect to hear in their real life use of English. The preference for Americans remains true to this day with Canadians and British following second and third as more desirable English teachers. Australians remain the least favored due to the difficulty many Japanese people have with their accents.*

Hostessing work wasn't related to nationality. For those who don't know about hostessing jobs, they essentially pay women to sit and chat with men in pubs, bars, or clubs. The men drink and often get drunk and can get a little grabby, but it isn't a situation in which physical contact is an expected or even accepted part of the job. Needless to say, it wasn't the sort of work that I would do, particularly not as a newly married woman who came from a rural area and didn't feel comfortable navigating nightclubs or dealing with drunken Japanese businessmen. At the age of 24, I was young enough at the time to apply for such jobs as the cut-off age tended to be 26 or 28, but I wasn't adventurous enough or particularly interested. Frankly, I think it's got to be terribly hard work and quite stressful, though I had heard that the tips were large and one could make a lot more money hostessing than at other types of jobs that foreign women could do.

There were plenty of teaching jobs, but I needed something which would provide visa sponsorship and was full-time. My husband and I both had educational debts to pay, not to mention substantial start-up expenses from moving to Japan which we borrowed money from my brother-in-law to pay, and we needed as much cash up front to pay people and institutions back. A lot of jobs were part-time, didn't offer sponsorship, or required having had actual teaching experience. The ones that fit my needs and limits were not exactly available in abundance.

I can't speak to the current job market, but at that time, there were two main types of hiring techniques. One type of company recruited from abroad primarily (or entirely). My then-boyfriend-now-husband's first job was acquired via one of those types of companies. After he finished his Bachelor's degree, he interviewed at AMVIC's (a now defunct company) offices in California and they hired him from inside the U.S. and sent him over for training in Japan. This was the best way to get a job back then because there was a period of time during which you could not get a work visa from inside of Japan if you had a regular tourist visa. You had to get it from outside of the country. So, if you were hired from home, all of that got taken care of while you waited in the comfort of your own home. Those who had to be sponsored from inside of Japan often made a quick trip to Korea and applied at the Japanese embassy. It could be done from any country outside of Japan with a Japanese consulate, but Korea was fastest and cheapest. 

The other type of company hired from within Japan (and a small number did both). Those companies tended to target people who were jumping from job to job and a current work visa could be renewed by a new company or people who had other types of visas (a spouse visa or permanent residence). One of the biggest companies that hired within Japan at that time was the notorious conversation school, Nova. 

Nova was infamous even back then for cheating its employees. The manner in which it was regarded and the working experience itself is something I will cover in a subsequent post because it is far too vast to cover here. At any rate, because it was a huge company with many schools, it hired those who were inexperienced, it provided visa sponsorship, and it offered full-time hours. For a greenhorn like me, it was the fastest point of entry into a market that I had no experience in and I took the job when they offered it and was grateful... at least at that time. ;-)

Three years later, I was less green and back on the job market after recovering from gall bladder surgery. Once again, I turned to the Japan Times and found an ad for a temporary job at a company that didn't need face-to-face teachers. The truth was that I was totally burned out from teaching at Nova and the idea of not having to sit there and get stared at while metaphorically pulling conversational teeth was very appealing. That temp. job turned into 12 years of full-time work followed by about a half dozen years of part-time work from home concurrent with private teaching via a referral agency

By the end of my stay in Japan, finding work as well as working conditions had changed greatly. Jobs were now found mainly online. Metropolis, a free publication in English, had supplanted the Japan Times as the print publication to run to for jobs. You could also look at their listings online, but Gaijinpot and other online resources were strong options as well. The changes weren't limited to using online resources instead of papers, but also the number of jobs relative to the number of foreigners seeking them had dramatically altered. Now, it wasn't enough to be breathing and foreign. If you want a really good position, it also helps to have connections and experience was much more valuable than before. The job I once held at a correspondence school that involved no face-to-face teaching and materials creation is one of the most desirable needles in the employment haystack. You only get that type of work when someone refers you or you get lucky in the job lottery.

My last job in Japan was working part-time at a language school in Shinjuku. I took that job for various reasons, and the experience of working there is yet another post that I'll get to later. However, I most likely got it because of the March 11, 2011 earthquake. When the mass exodus of frightened foreigners occurred, schools were left in the lurch by those who abandoned their posts with no notice to run home. I was ready to enter the world of working outside of my own apartment at that time and I saw a chance to strike while the iron was hot. I knew a school I wanted to work at, applied, and got hired pretty quickly and easily, but I don't know if that would have happened, even with my experience level and visa (I had a dependent spouse visa at the time).

Finding a job in Japan is a very different experience now as compared to what it once was. It used to be easy, and you just made sure to get that copy of the Monday Japan Times paper and start making calls or sending resumes. The simplicity of it was a reflection of Japan's boom times and the scarcity of foreign bodies. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was actually a golden age for foreign folks in Japan. That age is long gone. That doesn't mean you can't get work in Japan, but the bar is higher, harder to get over, harder to locate, and the rewards are smaller. I would still be more confident about finding a job in Japan than I am in the U.S., but I am fully cognizant of all of the advantages I had there (being female, blonde, blue-eyed, and very experienced), that are of no value whatsoever here. 

*Note to Australians: Please do not get mad at me for this. It's not something I have power over, but a reflection of reality in terms of the market in Japan. I personally have no preference for accents or any type of English, but I do know that a lot of ads asked specifically for Americans, Canadians, or British teachers. I never saw an ad asking for Australians (or for that matter, New Zealanders) and had many experiences with students who avoided or did not like to be taught by Australians due to their problems understanding them. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Won't Miss #514 - kamaboko

Sometimes you'll go into a market or convenience store in Japan and see pretty pink and white or green spirals with scalloped edges that look like some sort of candy. In fact, they bring to mind slices of potato candy, a concoction of peanut butter, mashed potatoes and powdered sugar which sounds horrible, but is tasty in a way that is hard to describe, especially when you're a poor child and that's what your granny makes you.

Those lovely spirals are not, of course, candy. You'll figure that out soon enough if you see some floating in a savory stew, or, if you have the misfortune to bite into it. This harmless looking substance is fish paste or kamaboko. I don't know about you, but logs of colorful spiraled slabs do not bring fish to mind and this seems like a real bait and switch or perhaps more of an effort to put lipstick on a pig (or a stinky fish in this case).

I am open-minded about food. There is little that I won't actually try at least once, often two or three times. In fact, my husband was once given a cheese-flavored cricket which I was game to sample, but he was so disgusted by the idea that I abstained. I tried kamaboko and it was a horrible experience. Though I'm not the greatest fan of fish to begin with, I do eat fish and even enjoy it on occasion, but this is just disgusting to me personally and I absolutely do not miss kamaboko.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Will Miss #513 - culture of luck

When I was a kid, I remember finding an odd fuzzy, finger-shaped thing with a metal cap and a beaded key chain on one end at my grandparents' home. I asked what it was and my grandmother said that it was a rabbit's foot. I asked her why she would have such a thing and she said it was for luck. These days, I doubt that many people have the decapitated body parts of unfortunate lapine creatures, but we still have things which we see as lucky like 4-leaf clovers, found pennies, and the bigger half of a wishbone.

That being said, luck does not tend to pervade our cultural habits the same way they do in Japan. Part of the New Years celebration includes taking a large container full of long sticks that predict your level of luck for the coming year. There are also good luck charms for various life events and activities sold at shrines all over Japan. Unless one is a gambler in the U.S., good luck charms occupy a very tiny part of their life whereas average people tend to buy or take part in luck-based activities in Japan. 

The thing about all of the talk and engaging in actions related to luck in Japan is that people tend not to sincerely believe that luck will come their way. It's more of a way of sending positive energy or thought toward a particular outcome or simply a way to have fun. There was something appealingly light-hearted and attractive about the way in which luck is spoken of and dealt with in Japanese culture and I miss it. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Random Thoughts: Imperfect Among Equals

I audited (took, but didn't get credit for) a class on psychopharmacology at my husband's graduate school during the previous quarter. This is one of those things which I can do here that I couldn't imagine being able to do in Japan. I somehow doubt that spouses can take part in their partner's classes, let alone do so for free.

This experience was an interesting way of being immersed in a specific social setting and it gave me further experience with something I mentioned when I reviewed Baye McNeil's book. That is, I was faced with a bunch of people who had a lot of baseless preconceptions about Japan. Those experiences inspired "The Lost Horizon" post, though I didn't detail the contents of them there. I mainly focused on the thinking that formed the basis for what I was exposed to. For this post, I want to mention more specific assertions and what they said about the people who said them.

Part of the class I took part in included discussion of medical treatment, which is no surprise since the class was about medication for mental health disorders. During a "triad" (3-person) discussion involving my husband, me, and another man in the class who was around his mid-30's in age and had actually taken a short vacation in Japan, he mentioned not trusting doctors in America to properly medicate people.

When he said this, I replied that how drugs are prescribed is a problem in many countries, not just the U.S. I said that, and this is something that is discussed on blogs about Japan all over the place, that doctors in Japan are notorious for prescribing three different medications in three different forms nearly regardless of the problem at hand. The fact that it is relatively uniform that you get 3 drugs, usually a tablet/capsule, liquid, and a powder, can't be a coincidence and indicates a high likelihood of drugs being given according to a formula rather than according to need.

When I mentioned that drugs are over-prescribed or inappropriately offered in many countries, not just the U.S., he said that he still would "trust" a Japanese doctor more than an American one. He went on to say that he was sure that Japanese doctors would listen more carefully to problems and attend more to what was said. He said he was sure they "cared" more than American doctors about dealing with the patients' needs.

To this, I had to hold back on scoffing. Mind you, I'm not saying Japanese doctors are bad nor that  American doctors are worse. The Japanese doctors are just as variable as those in other countries. There are great ones, decent ones, and terrible ones. However, all medical practice is influenced by the systems within which they operate and this fellow had no clue about how the system in Japan made what he said about time and care as a blanket statement absurd. If anything, the system, both cultural and politically-imposed, in Japan promotes less time with patients less attention, and an overall more cursory standard of care.

One aspect of socialized medicine which is a dual-edged sword is price control. The government sets the rate that a medical practitioner or entity can charge for each particular service when they accept the national health insurance. Only private practitioners can charge more, and most people don't have the cash to go to them. That means that the doctor can only make so much money per consultation. The only way for him to increase his salary is to see more people. This is an incentive to keep the amount of time spent with the patient to a minimum. In fact, some doctors schedule patients as little as 10 minutes apart, often as little as 15. This means they start running increasingly late, of course, but they'd rather bet on no-shows or cancellations than reduce the profitability of the day.

The notion that a doctor in Japan would spend more time with a patient is laughable. I found that they only way you got "more" time was to repeatedly return for future short visits. The doctors barely listened on the first visit because they wanted to solve the problem as simply and rapidly as possible. I read a blog once where a foreign woman went in due to a particular kind of pain (sore throat, perhaps) and lingering fatigue. The doctor gave her a gargling liquid, a powder to drink, and a pill to take and when she said that she was worried about the persistent tiredness, his response was, "we're all tired." He simply wanted to hustle her out of the office and get to the next patient.

My mentioning the general way in which doctors tend to handle things is not meant to say you won't get decent care. The truth is that many Japanese people run to a doctor at the drop of a hat and this quick diagnosis and treatment probably works most of the time. If you have a persistent problem, you can go back again and again and you will eventually be referred to a specialist or sent for testing if you don't get better from the first consult. It's imperfect with good and bad points, but it is one in which time and careful listening are not supported by the system as a whole.

The truth is that many doctors in Japan in private practice with their own little clinics struggle to be sufficiently profitable to make their career choice worthwhile. I don't believe they live in poverty, but they aren't making nearly as much as doctors in the U.S. can due to the price controls put in place by the government. General practitioners in particular have a lot of trouble covering costs and making a decent salary relative to their investment in education and time. They work very hard, and aren't exactly making money hand over fist.

Half of my former classmate's uninformed opinion about Japanese doctors was that they'd spend more time with patients. The other half was that they'd care more and listen more carefully. This imagined situation is less likely because of the manner in which status is handled in Japan. Those who are regarded as being in higher status like teachers, doctors, bosses, etc. expect to speak and be listened to. Patients give the symptoms and doctors then do the explaining and treating. The patients' role is generally to passively accept whatever is given by the doctor, not to ask a lot of questions. The patient is seen as possessing inferior knowledge and is generally not seen as being in a position to make informed conclusions or ask intelligent questions about the condition.

One of the side effects of this situation is that patients in Japan are far less proactive in their treatment. They tend to question the effectiveness less and have more implicit trust that the doctor is doing the best thing to treat them. Needless to say, this creates a culture in which malpractice is under-recognized and rarely dealt with in the legal system unless it is very clear cut and fairly egregious. Compared to the American system in which people seem to be far too eager to blame the doctor for death or medical difficulties that only an omniscient entity could have predicted with great accuracy, this may sound like a vast improvement. Unfortunately though, it's actually just the flip-side of a really unhappy coin. It's too far in the other direction and does not serve people well.

The interesting thing about this particular classmate was that he was a staunch supporter of the idea that people must advocate for themselves in their health treatment, both medical and physical. He asserted quite stridently that they should do research online and ask informed questions. In my experience, most Japanese people feel that the doctor is the one who knows best because he's the one who went to medical school and it is his duty and responsibility to treat you competently. It is not their job to manage their own care.

I wasn't stunned necessarily that an American who only had experience as a tourist in Japan would not know the deeper details of how a particular aspect of society works. What I am surprised by, however, is that someone would say that they'd "trust" a medical practitioner from another culture more based on not having had any experience with medicine in that culture and with not having researched the situation. What is informing that conclusion? Is it because they export good cars? Is it because they're Buddhist? Is it because we have an image of them as hard-working?

I can't know what it is that makes people think what they do about Japan, but I can say that I continue to experience the default assumption that whatever systems exist in America are worse than those in Japan. What is more, I frequently encounter the idea that they are ideal or far superior to others. While I do believe this is related to the type of thinking I discussed in my Lost Horizon post, that is, a need to believe that there is an ideal society of people who know and embrace their roles in peace, harmony, and contentment, I think there is something else in play. Just as there are jingoistic people in America who have a need to elevate the U.S. above other cultures despite the obvious problems we have, there are people who need to denigrate American culture to suit their pessimistic outlook. In order to validate that pessimism, they need to concurrently elevate another system so that they can believe that another culture has a more perfect system.

To see all cultures as equally possessing merits and demerits and simply choosing one set of good points over another and suffering the resulting bad points would mean that they would have to see America as imperfect among equals. If your perspective requires that you paint the U.S. as the mustache-twirling bad guy, then this sort of balanced view of societies in general upsets the apple cart on your worldview.

Since it's ascendance in the 80's, Japan has served as a comfortable blank canvas upon which people can project their notions of a superior society in accord with their need to believe such exists. This was part of my motivation in writing this blog. It doesn't have to do with bursting the bubbles of those who idealize it, though a lot of the vitriol I have gotten about my posts proves that it certainly has that effect. It has to do with humanizing the Japanese people and making people understand that there is bad and good everywhere in the world and it serves us all poorly to vilify any culture.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Won't Miss #18 - high price of fresh fruit (reflection)

One of the things I've had the luxury of doing since returning to the U.S. is consuming a steady diet of strawberries, grapes, pineapple, and clementines. I can buy them in copious amounts at Costco for reasonable or cheap prices (depending on the season). What is more, I actually own a refrigerator which is big enough to accommodate the large volume containers.

What is that you say about not being able to eat enormous amounts of fruit before it goes bad? Well, here is the thing, the fruit I get in California is significantly longer-lived than that I bought in Tokyo. It clearly is fresher and hasn't been sitting around aging such that it wilts fast. The combination of fresher fruit that can be refrigerated means that I have ample time in most cases to eat it all before it spoils. 

I don't miss the high prices on fresh fruit or the fact that it wasn't incredibly fresh.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Will Miss #18 - strange station art (reflection)

I've been on public transport relatively little in America, and that's because there is relatively little of such transport. What little "art" I tend to see related to such areas tends to be graffiti which has been scrawled by bored miscreants. While I do believe that some graffiti art is quite impressive, the vast majority is balloon words with faux depth and hastily scrawled words.

In Japan, because the train and subway stations are such a huge part of people's daily lives (at least in major metropolitan areas), they tend to be quite well kept and there is often an eye toward making them pleasant places to spend time. I saw the artwork and decor so often that I tended to only heed it when it was especially strange. Now, I have a greater appreciation for all of it rather than just the peculiar types.

The way in which art was used throughout Tokyo, even in areas which aren't necessarily the most glamorous, was an indication that there was a concern for making spaces more pleasant for everyone and I miss that attention to detail. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Random Memories #29

Studio Alta, around spring of 1989.

I once read a book written by a woman who believed she remembered past lives and could access future lives. The book was published quite some time ago, and one of the things she talked about enjoying in the future was interactive displays at stores. At the time the book was written, that seemed on the futuristic side. By the time I left Japan, such things were becoming increasingly common in Tokyo.

Upon returning to the U.S., I was surprised to learn that not all U.S. shops had the same level of technological advancement as some of the markets and department stores in Japan. Many of them had micro digital displays with pricing or even interactive advertising. The future described in that woman's book appeared to be happening "now", at least in Tokyo, though it is not yet here in America.

Given the pace of technological advancement and subsequent reduction in the cost of technology, it may be hard to imagine a time in the relatively recent past when something like a massive T.V. screen on the front of a building was pretty uncommon. Such screens were on display in New York City in the 80's, but they were relatively crude in terms of their capacity to show video compared to what was once the most famous display in Japan's capital city, the display at Studio Alta in Shinjuku. 

Back in those days, the video content that you could see playing on Alta was often hard to see anywhere else. There was no or limited cable and satellite T.V. so hanging out around Alta could often offer you a glimpse of something rare for the times. The photos in this post are of Weird Al Yankovic's "Fat" video, which my then-boyfriend was delighted to be able to see via the big screen since it was the only way he was likely to see it until he returned to the U.S.

Because Alta was such a visible building relative to others, it was often a popular meeting place for people who wanted a central place to meet others. It probably still is a common place to get together because you can watch the screen while you wait and everyone knows where it is. That being said, cell phones and the ability to call and announce your location make having such a well-known meeting place much less important than it once was.

Image from the Studio Alta web site (2013).

The current look of Alta is much nicer than it used to be, but then again, the need and value of it has greatly diminished as there are many such screens in Tokyo now. It is the largest high definition screen in Japan, but when your audience is so far away, I'm not sure that they can necessarily appreciate its qualities. In the promo shot above, you can see far fewer people in front of the screen than in the 1989 shot my future husband took at the top of this post. I don't know if the picture was simply taken at a less busy time of day, or if Alta's premiere spot as the meeting place du jour has changed with the times. I will always remember it as the central hub at which I met friends in the early days of my time in Japan.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Won't Miss #513 - crowded graphic design

After 3 years in Japan, 2 of which I spent teaching English at Nova conversation school and the 3rd of which I spent recovering from surgery, I started to work for a company that sold and produced correspondence lessons. During the busy times, about half the year, I corrected student homework essays and talked to them on the phone for 5-minute "lessons". During the other half of the year, I helped to create the materials that were sold.

Early on, I ran into a culture clash between the aesthetic of the West and that of Japan. The president and others wanted everything to be crammed as full of content as possible and felt that white space made it look sparse and like we were lacking in content. One of my former students is a freelance graphic designer and she told me she has similar problems dealing with clients who want everything to be crammed and cluttered in layout and design.

This visual clutter is ugly and more stressful to look at. I don't miss this crowded graphic design aesthetic which I encountered not infrequently in Japan.