Thursday, June 27, 2013

Will Miss #26 - humorous misspellings (reflection)

One of the experiences that happened casually that added color and humor to my days in Japan was finding places with misspelled words that carried unintended meaning. I have to say that life in America seems a lot "flatter" due to not running across such innocent signs and messages. In Japan, my husband and I would be walking along and he'd says, "look at that" and point out something funny and we'd both smile. In America, if we're walking along and he says, "look at that," there's a good chance that it's something awful, scary, or painfully inappropriate or stupid like a guy jogging on a heavily trafficked road with his dog and the dog is not on a leash. It's far more likely that we'll be cringing than smiling at random encounters.

I continue to miss the humor and innocent charm of those misspellings we not infrequently encountered in Tokyo. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Random Memories #38

This is the last in a series of memories related to my experiences with sumo in Japan. The first part is here and the second is here, though you really don't have to read all of them to follow this part.

Humans experience the world through their senses: sight, sounds, smell, touch, taste. Those of us who have grown up with television have been conditioned to focus on what we see and hear because fictional realities have been conveyed to us without the benefit of other the other types of sensory stimuli. One of the advantages of reading over watching and hearing is that someone just might take the time to fill you in on the part of the picture that isn't filled in by the eyes and ears.

When I had my first experience with sumo "in the flesh" after having only seen it on television, those other aspects became vividly clear. The air around and inside the Kokugikan is filled with scents. It's an aspect of the experience that you'd never imagine sitting at home watching the bulging bubble of your CRT screen show nearly naked guys slapping and shoving each other. As you approach the stadium, you may encounter a sweet scent somewhat reminiscent of baby powder accompanied by the sound of rubbing fabric and clacking geta (wooden Japanese sandals). This is your cue to look around to see if there are any wrestlers making their way to the special entrance through which only they can pass.

The smell of the chamomile oil that is used to slick back and style sumo wrestlers hair always surrounds them like a sweet cloud. Their size and weight often means they're walking with thighs that rub together and make a particular noise. The wearing of traditional Japanese footware means they make a particular sound as they move, especially since they are shuffling from wearing yukata that restrict their leg extension as they walk.

Once you walk into the Kokugikan, you're greeted with wide hallways on either side. The perimeter around the dojo (ring) and theater for viewers is scattered with vendors selling sumo-themed items, some tacking and some tasteful, and food vendors. Most of the food vendors sell boxes of cold, low-quality food that is clearly prepared off-site. It's about the lowest of the low food in Japan and to be avoided if possible. The worst yakitori (grilled chicken sticks) I ever had in my 23 years in Tokyo came from the a box at the Kokugikan. The taste of sumo is far less sweet than the smell. Of course, most of the people there are looking more at the drinking of sake or tea than at the consumption of otsumami (drinking noshes).

When my husband were there in the early 90s, Lynn Matsuoka's work was very well-known and popular so her art was on sale at the sort of prices we lowly English teachers could not afford. Some of it was sold as prints and others as postcards. On a few occasions, there may have been actual original work, but I was just guessing that was the case based on the exorbitant price tags.

I don't believe that we bought anything that day, and there is a reason why. There was a mistake made in our favor, which I shall explain soon enough. We mainly checked out towels, cloths, cups, and paraphernalia as well as the bean cakes. If we bought anything, it was probably something with white bean paste inside as that was one of the few traditional snacks that we enjoyed at that time.

Once we walked into the area with the ring, it felt expansive, but compact enough for nearly anyone, even those with "bad" seats, to have a decent view. We noticed the shrine-like "roof" hanging over the dojo, and noted that it seemed like a bad idea in a country prone to earthquakes. Most impressively though, we saw the ring of huge portraits of tournament winners that ringed the wall around the area. The portraits are about twice a person's height and about as wide as a tall man. I can't remember how many are there, but one old one gets bumped after each tournament as a new one goes up to replace it.

It's hard to get a good shot of them, but the tournament winner portraits are between the scaffolding of the roof and the upper tier of seats.

When we arrived at the Kokugikan with the tickets that we'd purchased via Andy Adams, publisher of Sumo World magazine, we expected that the "box" of 4 seats was going to be the same sort of thing we often saw on T.V. That is, we expected 4 cushions on a tatami mat flooring and to have to endure sitting cross-legged in a cramped space. It turns out that there was another option for those who occupied the very last row of seats on the first level.

For our 32,000 yen, we got 4 seats alright, but not on the floor. The ring of seats around the back of the lower deck were Western-style swivel chairs. To the best of my recollection, they were wine-colored, velour bucket seats. There was a small round table between them so you could put your drinks and snacks on it and eat them like a civilized person. To me, this was the sky box of sumo viewing from a Western point of view. Sure, it was not so close to the ring that a sumo wrestler who fell the wrong way might fall into your lap and crush your pelvis. And, yes, you weren't close enough to toss cushions into the ring when the wrestler you favored upset the one who was in disfavor with you. There were better views, but there were not more comfortable seats.

The Japanese-style boxes and seats which cost about 3-6 months rent. 

With a Western-sized ass and a spine that was shaped by seats that allowed shorter legs to actually dangle, this was the bee's knees of accommodations. It seemed too good to be true, especially since we'd heard so many times that the cramped little Japanese-style boxes would have cost ten to fifteen times what we were paying for our box. Not only that, but it had little partitions between so it was about as "private" as a space at the national stadium could be. Seated in our cushy chairs, we settled in to watch some sumo.

I can't honestly say that I remember the bouts, but I do remember the energy in the air. This is the biggest reason to see any sport in person instead of just watching it on T.V. Though it is not talked about as a "sense", there is a palpable feeling when you are exposed to a a large number of people who are reacting emotionally to the events they are all there to witness. We lack good words to describe it so we fall back on inadequate language and talk about the "vibe", as if it were like a cheap hotel bed that can shake our bodies if we put a quarter in the slot. I think it's something we can't measure and therefore are afraid to truly name.

If we gave it a proper label, we'd have to acknowledge that there is something humans feel when in the presence of other humans which does not exist when we are around inanimate objects. Science and those who are only at peace with things which can be measured by our current technology would then mock and attempt to humiliate us for having the audacity to claim something which could not be perceived by our five puny senses existed. However, we can all feel it, and it is in the air and has its own unique feel and shape when you're sharing an experience with a large number of people.  Watching sumo was no different. I felt that, and I loved it. It was what kept my husband and I going back for more throughout the years to watch sumo. That was where the real "magic" of the experience lay.

The staging area for goodie bag preparation.

At some point just before the major players started engaging in their bouts, a man came by our box with a shopping bag. For reasons unknown to us, he handed the bag over to us and insisted that it was okay for us to take it. We felt a bit strange about it because he didn't ask for money and we couldn't communicate well enough to ask any questions. Rather tentatively and almost surreptitiously, as if someone was going to come and "catch" us doing something "wrong", we poked around in the bag. It had a few boxes of the Kokugikan's bad yakitori, cold and conjealed in cardboard boxes, some sembei which we ignored, and a box of something heavy.

Terrible tsukune (like a chicken meatball) and yakitori (grilled chicken) - pre-cooked, dry, and cold.

After waiting long enough to be sure someone wasn't going to come out and slap our hands or demand money, we opened the box and found that it was full of eight little blue and white dishes with two different designs. I cannot recall what both patterns were, but one was a sumo referee's fan. We had those small plates, which looked about the right size for Japanese pickles or yakitori dipping sauce, for many years. Eventually, one by one, they all broke from clumsy mishandling.

(these are pictures from 2011 - we didn't have a camera back when we started going to sumo)

It turned out that someone had made a mistake. One of the benefits of those super expensive Japanese-style boxes was that you got a goodie bag as part of the ticket price. That was not supposed to be the case with the press box we had purchased the rights to inhabit. Someone in the concessions area had made a mistake and gave us one that first time. During four or so subsequent uses of that same space, we never got such gifts again.

Our first experience with sumo was a great one, full of surprises and new experiences. It was the sort of thing that you couldn't choreograph if you tried and definitely contributed to our desire to continue to go to the Kokugikan. That being said, as with all things, the novelty eventually wore off and our interest in going waned as the sumo itself started to become more formulaic.

When we first started watching sumo, there was no true dominance and the potential for upsets always existed. Chiyonofuji, who was the greatest wrestler of the modern era, was someone who worked for every win. He wasn't a big guy and you could tell that he worked hard to be strong and muscular as well as to develop good technique. It was always possible, though not necessarily probable, that he'd lose. Once the sumo "royalty" of Takanohana and Wakanohana started to ascend, things go much less interesting. It's hard to explain this to people who have nothing more than a passing interest, but imagine that there are "teams" in sumo and the members of the same team can't compete against one another. If you get too many very good members of that team in the upper levels and not so many teams with good members to defeat them, one team will essentially be hitting softballs for much of the tournament. It's boring watching good players spend most of their days beating much weaker players, and that's when our fandom started to fade away.

I believe that sumo was integral to keeping my husband in Japan far longer than planned. It provided us with a strong cultural connection and a deeper interest through the hard adjustment years when we were confused, sometimes angry, and, at least in my case, depressed at all of the differences which could be so vexing. I can't say for sure that we wouldn't have stayed for 23 years had it not been for sumo, but I think it's possible that we may not have made it through the first five.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Won't Miss #519 - fundoshi

These type, super thin shorts have replaced fundoshi for many modern participants in festivals, and the audience members are grateful.

Fundoshi are the thongs that men sometimes wear in rituals or festivals in Japan. They amount to a thong made from twisted cloth. They tend to be worn by men who have been around the track a few times and are closer to retirement age than university graduation age. Need I really say more about why this is something I won't particularly miss?

Well, actually, I should say more because, as someone who saw her share of robust, hairy, and even spotty behinds as a sumo fan, you'd think I'd be less squeamish about this. However, sumo is a context in which I'm comfortable seeing men in thongs. Public places and normal people wearing them is not one of those contexts. My first experience with seeing this public exposure was watching men in the summer hauling a mikoshi down the street. It dampened my ardor for further such festivities. Fortunately, future mikoshi hauling was done with less revealing attire, at least as far as I saw.

I won't miss seeing men wearing fundoshi.

Incidentally, what sumo wrestlers wear is called a mawashi and is made of silk. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Will Miss #518 - few or no tacky clothes

Maybe making them "cute" makes them seem less tacky? Or maybe I've lost my mind.

Perhaps this is my imagination, or I don't frequent nice enough stores in the U.S., but I see a lot of profoundly ugly clothes in America. In fact, in some stores, the styles and types of designs that I see are almost painful to look at. Even the strange T-shirts in Japan didn't look as stupid as the T-shirts here. They're full of the sort of contrived "jokes" and sayings which are far less clever than the writer seems to believe they are. I'm talking about shirts which say, "pobody's nerfect," or "think ahea..." with the "d" not fitting on the line and being crammed off to the side. The designs are also ugly as hell most of the time compared to those I saw in Japan.

It seems that the Japanese aesthetic influenced even their cheap clothes in this regard and kept designs that might be cheesy out of public view most of the time. That's not to say that there were never any tacky clothes, but it was always my sense that those were intentionally tacky. I really miss the clothing designs in Japan.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Random Memories #37

The Kokugikan, or "national stadium", located in Ryogoku, Tokyo. 

This is a continuation of last week's post about random memories.

One of the things about being new to a place, any place, including a new city in your home country, is that you don't know the ropes. Before information became something anyone could access via a Google search, it could take years to learn what was possible, if you ever learned at all. In the absence of a central database of information and in the presence of a language we could not read or speak particularly well, we relied on word of mouth in our early days in Japan.

When it came to seeing sumo live, the words coming from the mouths of everyone we spoke to was that it was insanely expensive. This was back in the days of the last great yokozuna, Chiyonofuji. Sumo at that time was probably just as corrupt as it is now, but it wasn't public knowledge, at least not to the extent that it is now. It was also before there were any foreign grand champions (yokozuna) and the only well-known foreign wrestler was Hawaiian behemoth, Konishiki.

At that point, foreigners were not a threat to Japanese domination of their national sport as they are now. They were simply novelties to construct rivalries around in order to add color and a more competitive spirit to the game. Seeing Konishiki lose was an affirmation of Japanese superiority at their own game. Seeing him win was seeing an underdog triumph. It was all good back then, except if you were Konishiki and being denied a promotion to "grand champion" that you debatably deserved because the fans simply could not bear granting the status of "yokozuna" on a gaijin (foreigner).

Because the balance of power was favorable, and the wrestlers appeared to have integrity and skill, sumo was immensely popular in the late 80s and early 90s. That meant demand for the box seats that were close to the ring was high and prices were in a range only successful executives and indulgent small company owners could afford. These seats, called "masu-seki" in Japanese, were going for around 500,000 yen apiece. At modern exchange rates, that's $5,000 for a box that seated 2-4 people depending on the "box" size, and more importantly, the patron size. You might cram 4 tiny, shrunken grannies in one of some of them, but I wouldn't bet on it.

For the privilege of occupying these spots closest to the ring, you sat on a thin cushion and were served tea and snacks for "free" as well as received a bag full of souvenir goodies. The cushion came in handy when a bout ended in a particularly gratifying way, such as when Konishiki lost to a Japanese wrestler. You could huck the "zabuton" at the ring to show your approval of the result. Of course, then your bony ass would be sitting on the hard ground, but a pillow about as thick as a matzo wasn't going to be providing much comfort anyway.

Since even most of the Japanese folks around us had no experience actually seeing sumo outside of their viewing of it on the idiot box, they always told us it was too monstrously expensive to contemplate going, ever. Seemingly miraculously, Andy Adams, the editor and publisher of the English language sumo magazine, Sumo World, started to offer up his press box tickets on select days. He was obliged to buy the box for 32,000 yen for every single day of a 15-day tournament, and he didn't want to go all of the time.

Considering that we thought the alternative was to pay 500,000 yen, we lept at the chance to buy the box for this "bargain" price and arranged to go on one of the weekdays that we, as teachers, were not working, and that, he, as a journalist who was getting perhaps a little bored with seeing so often and sick of having empty his wallet, did not care about. For him, what really mattered was the first day and the last day. I'm guessing he sold the popular weekend days to buddies at the press club. The "dregs", weekdays during which the more affluent set among foreign folks in Japan were working like normal people, were offered to readers for purchase.

Remember what I said about not knowing how to navigate a new environment and not having the magic of the internet to assist? Later, we were to find that all of the word of mouth we'd heard about outrageous ticket prices wasn't exactly the whole truth of the matter. While tickets were in incredibly high demand, the people who ran the Kokugikan, the national stadium in Tokyo at which three of the year's six tournaments were held, kept back a certain number of the "worst" seat tickets to sell on the day of the match. I'm sure this move was done to ensure at least some access for the less advantaged in the population, because they absolutely could have sold them for higher prices as pre-sale tickets during sumo's heyday.

These "general admission" tickets could be purchased at the office of the stadium and the number, which my husband and I used to know exactly but is lost in the cobwebby recesses of my mind, was around 250-300, I believe. If you got up super early and stood in a long line for two or three hours, you could buy these tickets for 2100 yen (about $21). It wasn't until we learned more about how things worked and a bit more Japanese that we found out that this option existed. Granted, it cost you hours standing in a line and the stress of worrying that, somehow, they'd sell out before you got up to the office, but it was certainly a more economical option.

A seating plan and information about the stadium in both Japanese and English. This picture was taken in 2012 when we walked by the Kokugikan and a woman out front was offering to help foreigners buy tickets. Sumo is far less popular now, and much more international. Such service and information in English was not available in the late 80s and throughout the 90s.

In later years, my husband and I would get up at 6:00 am, rush out the door to catch the earliest train to Ryogoku and hustle from the station to the line that had already formed. During the popular years, we tended to hit near the 200th spot in line. I recall that I'd stand and hold our place while he'd leave the line and count the number of people in front of us. If we were close to the cut-off point, we'd fret about wasting our time and not getting tickets, but I don't believe that ever actually happened.

We'd happily get the tickets when the office opened at 8:30 or 9:00 am and then wander around Ryogoku until the first matches with the greenhorn wrestlers started. We'd sleepily hang around, sometimes trying and failing to get in a nap in our uncomfortable cheap-theater-style seats, until the big boys came out to play. During these times, we'd spend about 6 hours inside the stadium with only about 2 hours of "important" action to watch. From 4:00-6:00 was when the highest ranked players did their thing, with the final hour being the one most people really came to see.

Going for the general admission tickets over the press box ones saved us money, though at the expense of sleep and time, but it also had a particular advantage. We spent hours and hours in the Kokugikan and came to know its nooks and crannies well. We also watched the lower level players and developed a keener sense of what it was to be "really good at" sumo and what sort of mistakes those who were not yet there in their abilities were making. The full scope and range of what was going on opened up to a far greater extent as a result of those experiences. That was worth a little lost sleep.

In the next and final installment in this little series, I'll be talking about what it was actually like occupying the press box and watching sumo live.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Won't Miss #23 - bigoted taxis (reflection)

I'm going to say something which probably sounds a little crazy, but bear with me. When I fill out a survey here in the U.S., and I do so more often than you'd think, I feel like I've somehow failed as a person when I have to check the box which says "white/Caucasian". Since I have returned, I've had "white privilege" tossed in my face so many times that I feel like I've done the part of America that gets to check other boxes a huge disservice by virtue of having been born with my particular genetics. I want to say, "please forgive me, I didn't choose this skin color!" Such is the life of a person living in a liberal state which makes sure to throw it in the faces of the "privileged" as often as possible that they are living lives of ease and comfort that others do not. There is a presumption that I can't possibly know what it is like to live as a minority and that I need to be "educated", and it needs to be happening constantly, to make me understand

My skin color means I can't possibly "know" what it's like for police to follow you and question you without cause, for clerks to be rude to you, or for taxis that you hail to drive by you... except, you know, I can and do. However, I still get talked at like I didn't live for over two decades in a place in which about .56% of the population was not visibly Asian in appearance and I was treated like an alien who'd just stepped off the mother ship on a daily basis. 

The truth is that, having been snubbed by businesses in Japan, I know what it is like to be on the other side. To the extent that I don't get treated that way now, I can understand the concept of "white privilege", though I quibble with the vocabulary choice. I think that what it really is is "minority disadvantage", but the words were changed at some point to make white folks feel like they're getting something they don't deserve and didn't earn instead of focusing on the fact that other people aren't getting something they deserve and shouldn't have to earn. It's meant to make one group feel guilty for what it has, rather than make that same group feel sorry for those who don't have something they should. Somewhere along the line, somebody figured making the majority feel bad created a better prospect for change than relying on their empathy and compassion for those who were being denied basic human rights and dignity. 

Because of my 23 years in Japan, I know what it's like to be treated like dirt because of your skin color, and the taxis in Tokyo that drove by when we tried to flag them down were one of the better indicators of that. I don't miss the way in which it made me feel like a lesser human being.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Will Miss #25 - Japanese postal service (reflection)

Notice that there's a postal worker (in the right, wearing a tie, and white shirt) helping people in the line as well as several at the counters. 

I made more than my share of trips to various post offices in my life, more so than many folks due to my carrying on a long distance relationship in pre-internet days from the U.S. and conducted a mail order service for collectible records from Japan. Since coming back, I have been reminded of the level of indifference that American postal workers often exercise while doing their jobs. The lines are slow and the workers couldn't be bothered to offer a little warmth or humanity while they weigh and stamp your packages.

That's not to say that Japanese postal workers were a bundle of kindness and humanity. It was actually far from it. They were generally the perfect picture of efficiency and professionalism. Here, the postal service itself runs quite well and the postal carriers are very nice, but the people in the post offices tend to be very sluggish, lines move slowly, and service is indifferent. Both will get your packages and letters there, but I felt like the ones I experienced in Japan were generally approached by people who took their job seriously and handled customers more carefully and with an eye toward good service.

I continue to miss the level of service and the attitude portrayed by postal workers who I encountered in Japan.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Random Memories #36

Image from "sumo forum". This was an issue we almost certainly once owned. It shows Kirishima fighting Konishiki.  

I have always felt that people approach cultural experiences backwards. They go to Japan, watch kabuki, attend a tea ceremony, climb Mt. Fuji, or attend a sumo match. These things are done without any real understanding of the events that one is witnessing or taking part in. The complexities tend to pass the participant by and they only gain the most superficial of value from the experience.

While I would never suggest that one should be an expert before taking part in a cultural enterprise, I would say that it's not a bad idea to get a pretty good handle on what is going on before paying a lot of money or going to a lot of trouble to see or do something. I wouldn't fly to Japan on vacation and watch kabuki cold, as Dave Barry did when he formed the basis of his book, "Dave Barry Does Japan." As he wrote about it, it was a lot of "shrieking" and "mincing". I'm sure that it does entail both of these things, but I'm also sure that the types of movements are done for a reason. Since I never was drawn to kabuki theater, despite my many years as a KISS fan and being exposed to guys who wore similar make-up in their performances, so I don't know what the deeper meaning is. I do know, however, that knowing what you're watching transforms an experience into something better and more engrossing.

To that end, I want to talk about my memories of being a fan of sumo. If you don't know what's going on, it's just a couple of fat or chubby guys in fashionable diapers pimp- or bitch-slapping each other around a raised clump of clay until one of them falls over. The seconds of actual action are preceded, in the eyes of the uneducated, by a long, tedious phase of prowling the ring, stopping to crouch and stare occasionally and huck salt into the ring. That's the sum total of the experience unless you understand the culture of sumo.

Before I ever saw sumo live, I watched bits of it on occasion on the "Sumo Digest". Live sumo spans an entire day and hundreds of bouts played by men whose ranks start at rock bottom and work their way to the top, to the "grand champion", or "yokozuna". The "Sumo Digest", which used to be one of the few bilingual programs on Japanese T.V., compressed the day's major bouts into about a half hour of programming so that businessmen who liked the sport but couldn't sit around for the hours it aired on NHK (Japan's public television network). The long-form airing was for the old men who had retired. The shorter one catered to those who worked and wanted to skip the preparatory casing of the dojo (ring) and psyching out with stares.

After watching bits and pieces of the "Sumo Digest" after a day of slaving away at Nova conversation school, I started to figure out what was going on. Why was some guy in an elaborate headpiece and kimono holding a fan and yelling next to them? Why did it take forever to get started on a match that was over so fast in most cases? What was put on top of the fan at the end of some bouts and grabbed by the winner before he left the ring? Why are they wearing such undignified attire? How is it that enormous guys sometimes lose to little guys, but always seem to defeat strong, bigger wrestlers?

Watching sumo little by little didn't answer these questions. What it did was give me enough experience with it to think about asking them. Seeing sumo again and again took it from the superficial observation that this was a sport in which "two fat guys were shoving each other around" to something with details and nuances. I just didn't understand them. I imagine this is the same way that someone who has a cursory experience with tea ceremony is aware that tea is being stirred, but they don't notice how it's being stirred or why it's being stirred in a particular manner (it's to reduce foam).

Once I had enough sumo viewing from T.V. under my belt to think to ask such questions, I had to find a way to answer them. During my embryonic stages as a sumo fan, from 1989-1991, there was no internet as we know it and very little in the way of English language information on it. What little there was tended to be very cursory and offered with an eye toward giving English speakers just enough education to not go rushing up the the dojo and give the wrestlers bear hugs. Just in case you may think they look like big, sweaty, nearly naked teddy bears and are inclined to rush them for a cuddle, that's a big "no-no", especially if you're a woman.

Fortunately, there was one bastion of sumo information out there in the form of an English language magazine called "Sumo World". This print publication came out six times a year, one issue before every tournament, and provided English-language sumo enthusiasts with a conduit to the inner workings of sumo. If you couldn't catch the names of the wrestlers because the referee called them out in such a sing-song manner that they were incredibly distorted to the untrained foreigner ear, the magazine provided you with a clearer pronunciation.

There was also a bit of history, some insider tidbits, and a focus on various aspects of the sport that the Japanese could access easily, but English speakers could not. One of the features in each issue focused on one of the 70 "winning moves". It spoon-fed the neophytes the details which taught us that they weren't merely slapping, shoving, and pushing each other around. There was a method to the madness. In fact, there were a great many methods, but you couldn't see them unless you knew enough to look and, with bouts lasting mere seconds in many cases, you'd have to have a keen eye to distinguish the grip one guy had on the others belt before he got hucked over the edge.

Early on in our stay, one of our great pleasures was finding the new "Sumo World" magazine at Kinokuniya book store (one of the few places that carried English language magazines). It became part of our regular routine to pick up an issue as soon as it was released. Little did we know that it would also be the conduit through which we'd access our first live experience with sumo (to be continued next week).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Won't Miss #518 - puny meat portions

A Thai meal "set" in Tokyo. See that little blob of chicken in the middle of my curry? See that enormous mound of rice? Discuss.

My husband and I have been back since the end of March 2012 and, oddly, we bought our first chain-made pizza yesterday. It was from Pizza Hut, and, coincidentally, that was the chain we patronized most in Japan. That means I have copious amounts of experience with pizza from said maker there. We bought a one-topping (pepperoni) pizza and were shocked to lift the lid on it and find that it was wall to wall with slices of said cured meat-stuff. Both of us remarked that we would never see that much meat on a pizza in Japan.

Ironically, that was the second time in as many days that we had an "American meat experience". We also attended a Portuguese cultural festival (because that's what you do when you're one of us) and got a pork dish from them which had half as much rice as pork. We both noted that such proportions would have been reversed in Japan.

I am not an enormous meat eater, but the carb to protein ratios in Japan when you went to restaurants were often insane. Here, there may be too much meat, but for a couple that has a strong inclination to split their entrees when eating out, this just means the whole experience costs that much less. I don't miss the puny meat portions in Japan. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Will Miss #517 - (fearlessly) taking pictures of food

I didn't realize it until I returned, but people in the U.S. think it's really freakish to take pictures of your food when you're at a restaurant. In Japan, it's practically a sport. Many people use their cell phones or cameras to catalog what they're eating and then post the picture on social media sites. It's not only considered socially acceptable by your cohorts, but also by the restaurant staff. They realize that it's actually a form of promotion of their business because a Facebook status or Tweet that shows the food might lure customers to them. Of course, food is usually pretty appealing in appearance in Japan so few have anything to fear.

In America, restaurants sometimes actually tell you that you can't take pictures of their food and will get upset if you do so. They think you're trying to mock their slop online. Other Americans simply think you're strange.

I liked taking pictures of my food in Japan and am glad to have recorded what I ate. It has not been unusual for me to look back through Facebook albums to locate a restaurant based on my pictures and descriptions so I could go there again or recommend that place to others. I miss the way it was socially acceptable to take pictures of your food in Japan.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Random Thoughts: Little Culture, Big Culture

One of the things about living in Northern California in the Bay Area is that it has a lot of people from various cultures. It is far more ethnically diverse than most parts of the U.S. and has ample numbers of people of Hispanic origin, African America, Middle Eastern, Indian and a wide representation of Asian cultures including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. It's rare that a day goes by in which I don't hear a language other than English spoken. For me, this is actually pretty awesome since I'm used to not completely understanding what people are saying and it makes it feel more like "home" after 23 years in Japan.

Beyond the sense that this is a "right" atmosphere to live in, I also have access to a large number of markets and restaurants offering ethnic food. In fact, it's been very gratifying for me as someone who runs a blog about snacks to have a chance to continue to experiment with different food and write about it. What is more, the people I have met and gotten to know also represent different cultural backgrounds and this has given me a chance to explore other cultures in a way which was not so accessible in Tokyo, aside from, obviously, Japanese culture.

It is this last point which I want to talk about and that is the idea of culture (and I have talked of this in another context in this blog before). My husband and I had lunch with a cohort of his from graduate school. She is of Korean descent, and remarked about how Koreans do this or that in their culture and that her family's ways were different than the way her husband (who is of European descent and more conventionally or stereotypically what people regard as "American") grew up. What I told her at that point was that it wasn't just people of different ethnic backgrounds who experienced such things. Each family or group has its own "little culture". This is what fuels in-law problems in large part. We all see what we experience growing up as "normal" and when we start to encounter people in the broader world, we see what they do as atypical, even when those people superficially resemble us in every way. You don't have to have what society views as a "cross-cultural relationship" to experience cross-cultural problems. They're just either reflections of big or little cultural differences, but they are differences nonetheless.

The somewhat frightening thing about this is that our "normal" can be exceedingly abnormal, but we don't even know it because our experiences are such that we believe our everyday life is the same as other people's everyday lives. We are not aware of the idea of having a "family culture" because no one teaches us that this is the case.

For example, I grew up with an emotionally fragile mother who was prone to depression and who acted out on her pain by raging at her family members, usually my sister or me. Any tiny little mistake could set off a tirade full of personal attacks deriding us as stupid, malicious, and selfish. In my mother's world, others were responsible for keeping her from suffering and any time they upset her, they were doing so willfully. If she misplaced her handbag, something she frequently did because she was careless with where she left it, she would say we "hid" it just to upset her. The notion that we would do anything willfully to set off one of her tirades was absurd as no one would be foolish enough to invite such verbal abuse, but it didn't stop her from continuing to believe this was the case.

In the early days of my relationship with my husband, when he did something which upset me, I would accuse him of intentionally upsetting me. I did this because this was "normal" to me. In my thinking at the time, people who were close to you were responsible for not upsetting you with their careless actions (or what you perceived as such) and they must have intentionally set out to make you unhappy if they did not fulfill your needs.

My family dynamic, which was fueled by my parents' problems, "normalized" a dysfunctional mindset and my guess is that my mother's actions were emulating those of her parents to some extent. Fortunately, my husband reflected my actions back to me and I saw the light rather quickly. He did not grow up with such a "norm" in his family culture, and rather obviously, found this way of dealing with emotions troubling. Had he grown up in a family with similar problems and felt that it was normal to blame others for upsetting you or for not keeping you happy, we both may have simply engaged in such destructive behavior and never changed. A culture "clash" in this case resulted in a better outcome for all and a cultural "compatibility" would have resulted in continued pain.

This brings me, perhaps strangely, to talking about Japan. Culture can be small, as in a family's own culture, or it can be big, as in a country's culture. When I was teaching, students often asked me about "America" as if it were a monolithic entity full of people who thought and acted alike. They asked the question that way because that is closer to how Japan operates and they assume that their "normal" is every country's normal, just as I believed my family's normal was every family's. Once I came to conceptualize this, I got less irritated with what appeared to be ignorant or bigoted questions. They assumed a "sameness" because that's what they tended to experience.

Just as they assumed people operated by similarities, Americans tend to assume there are differences and diversity. If you grow up in a society that struggles to educate people in tolerance and egalitarianism, you assume people will think and behave differently than you and that's okay. We are taught to respect differences, though we may often fail in our efforts to do so. In Japan, we all know the saying about the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. They are not taught to respect differences, but rather to smash them out of existence. They assume people will think the same and behave the same. It is their norm.

The Western reaction to this idea in Japan is to see them as "sheeple" who mindlessly follow their society's wishes. I've challenged this notion before and I will challenge it again. Just because they do what is expected, it doesn't mean they don't question it and it absolutely does not mean they like it. However, in their culture, the "normal" thing to do is to go along to get along, to put up and shut up, and to avoid conflict and confrontation in order to preserve relationships. Whether willfully or grudgingly, they frequently comply.

They face the same choices we face when they deal with people and they feel the same things we might feel to greater or lesser degrees, but they are compelled by their society's norms and expectations to make a particular choice, as are we. We are compelled to speak out and voice our individual opinions. In fact, we often celebrate "speaking your mind". We feel weak and cowardly if we hold back on our opinions or back down from a confrontation and see those who demur as spineless and fearful of being disliked. We believe people should be strong enough not to care what others think. Conversely, the Japanese feel as if they are masters of their emotions and have chosen to preserve a good relationship at the expense of their own ego gratification if they hold their tongues. The norm for "success" in Japan in terms of how people are dealt with is very different than that in the U.S.

In line with this way of handling people, we find that the Japanese are far more likely to obfuscate, lie, mislead, or withhold information in situations in which Americans (or other Westerners) might desire honesty about, even if said honesty results in emotional pain. It can be maddening from a Western perspective to communicate with Japanese people because their culture has different priorities. It is normal for them to do what they can to avoid upsetting any apple carts in communication in order to preserve a particular relationship or situation, either for the benefit of themselves, all parties involved, or for their entire organization.

What is more, since everyone is indoctrinated into a culture which values this type of preservation to greater or lesser degrees, they expect it and have learned to read a situation. The talk of "reading the air" or "reading between the lines" in Japan is related to this form of communication. Western folks don't expect this and don't know how to interpret situations that Japanese people do. It's not that we can't do it if we get enough experience and know what is happening, but more often than not, we are taking things and people at face value because that is our cultural norm. There's a game being played and we not only aren't aware of the rules and procedures, but that there is a game at all.

For many years, I railed against the lying and duplicity I felt I faced in Japan. I hated the way in which people seemed to never have said what they meant or to have meant what they said. There was a lot of capriciousness in how I was dealt with that had meaningful effects on my life and I felt frustrated and powerless. People said "no" then later said "yes" or vice versa. It felt like I was being toyed with, sometimes cruelly.

My husband had an experience when he worked alone in Japan in 1988 in which he was given permission to take a day off to attend a concert and that permission was rescinded weeks later after he'd already bought the tickets. After painful days of shilly-shallying about as they bandied back and forth about what was to happen, they finally re-granted permission with a word about how magnanimous they were being in doing so. In his mind, they gave him permission to do something, went back on their word, and then pretended it was an enormous concession to fulfill their original agreement. It was the height of arrogance and not a little mean-spirited in his estimation and I'm sure in the estimation of other Western folks.

The truth was that my husband had been caught in a crossfire between his boss and his boss's boss and he had committed what the Japanese saw as a faux pas. His boss gave him permission and the boss's boss didn't like it when she discovered it so she simply withdrew it. This was a way of not only showing power over his direct boss and pointing out her disapproval, but also a way of letting my husband know that he was out of line in having ever made such a request in the first place in the boss's boss's mind. This sort of game-playing is abhorrent to me, and to many Western folks, but it is not uncommon as a means of indirect communication in Japan and they are accustomed on the whole to ones word not being ones bond. Contracts, for instance, are seen as starting points for business, not the final word that they are in the West. It is not meant as cruelty or a reflection of exercising of whim at the expense of others. It is simply meant to let something be known without confrontation or directly asserting that the direct boss stupidly did something that her corporate overlord didn't like. It is communication, Japan-style.

Another example of this sort of thing was how vacations worked differently for foreign employees and Japanese ones at my former company. The president gave us far fewer vacation days than he gave the Japanese. While they got the mandated 10 days per year for the first year of employment plus 1 day for each additional year up to a maximum of 20, my boss got frozen at 7 days per year and I got frozen at 5, even after a decade of employment for both of us. The reason the president did this, and I will say that he was breaking labor laws in the process, was that he knew the Japanese would not take off their entire allotted time, but we foreigners would. There was an unofficial understanding that no one took more than 5 days off per year if they were of a certain status and no more than 7 if they were of a somewhat higher status. He gave us as many days as he felt people in our positions "should" take off according to Japanese sensibilities so that the Japanese employees would not resent us and there would not be discord in the office.

For years, I was angry at all of this type of behavior in Japan because it seemed so unfair and even mean-spirited. The rules for gaijin were different than for Japanese and it seemed very, very wrong to me. My anger faded over time as I understood that this wasn't about me, but about their culture and how they operated in it. I still didn't like that I was treated differently, nor that I wasn't given what I viewed as reasonable autonomy to manage my life in ways that I felt I should, but I did understand it better when I saw in in the proper context rather than as a personal affront or prejudice.

Just as I had to change in my marriage when I began to live with someone whose family culture was different than mine (better, actually), I had to change when I lived in a nation's culture which was different than mine. I didn't have to change my core values or what I thought was best, particularly not when dealing with people of my own culture, but I did have to change how I received and operated in their culture.

Knowing the reasons things sometimes happen as they do doesn't make the situation any "better" for Western folks. It's still frustrating to be "played with" in this fashion if you are not accustomed to this sort of "communication". However, understanding this helped me not take such things so personally. It also helped me learn to (crudely) navigate the treacherous waters of Japanese communication style and why choices were made.

It's a tough balance to remain true to yourself and your own values, especially when one of those values is being honest, but it can be done. I had to learn more to read and understand the context of their communication than to subscribe to it as there was more said to me than I had to say to them in most cases given the power structure. That being said, a white lie now and then smoothed things over and made all concerned more comfortable. If a student wanted to schedule a lesson at a time when I had social or personal plans (a rare, but not unheard of occurrence), I would not say that I was going to meet my husband for lunch and didn't want to change that, but rather that I had another student. Japanese people respect work commitments more than personal ones, and the outcome was the same.

What was more, I learned that Japanese people not only have no problem with white lies or obfuscation, but they prefer them or it in many cases if they smooth things over and the outcome will be the same whether you tell the truth or not. They know you're lying or confabulating, but they don't call you on it because they would often do the same thing in your shoes. It's only important that the lie be in the service of preserving dignity and a good relationship. A lie that does not serve those ends will be received differently and not understood or appreciated.

I also learned how to say "no" without saying "no", though this was one of the harder things for me to bring myself to do. If I was overloaded at work and our president wanted to heap another task onto the backbreaking pile, I wouldn't say, "no, I can't do it," but rather that I would do it, but a more pressing task would not be completed until a time which would be, in his estimation, too late. He would withdraw the request in such cases, because the primary work could not wait and he knew it. This was true, after a fashion, but the important point was that it placed the power for the decision with him rather than with me. If I judged the workload to be too big, then I was taking power into my hands. If I offered him two choices and he chose, it stayed with him and that respected his status as president.

The byzantine path of communication in Japan is hard for straightforward-speaking folks to understand and it does waste a lot of time, but there is a positive side to it and that is that it does tend to preserve relationships and, yes, that old canard about "saving face". It's embarrassing or insulting to be starkly told "no" and can make people feel powerless and diminished, even for Western folks in some situations. It's far worse in Japan where such bluntness is not the norm. Once I understood where all of this was coming from and the purpose it was serving, I gained empathy for how people were dealing with me and how I needed to deal with them. In most cases, they weren't trying to be mean, duplicitous, dishonest, or misleading. They were just being "normal" for their culture.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Won't Miss #23 - people shouting outside of shops (reflection)

In Tokyo, it was rare that a day went by when I didn't pass by someone shouting outside of a storefront as a way of beckoning them into the store. In the U.S., I sometimes see people standing on street corners waving signs around, but they never shout out to people. I don't know if they can't do that by law, or if they realize it's pointless to shout at people passing by in cars. All I know is that I absolutely do not miss this particular layer of noise pollution and how it was so obnoxious at times that I didn't even want to go into the stores that were being advertised in this particular manner.

I don't miss the noisy people standing outside of shops and shouting about sales and wares.