Thursday, August 29, 2013

Will Miss #523 - no "gluten-free"

The irony is that a lot of food in Japan is naturally gluten-free due to the "rice culture".

One of my former coworkers asked me what I was doing during the March 11, 2011 earthquake and I told him that I was baking muffins. He said, "I bet you were," in a way which patronizingly said, 'you prairie muffin housewife, you'. When men become chefs of all sorts, they are masters who are perfecting a craft. When women do it at home, they're good little wifeys fulfilling their role and duty. I wanted to let him know how unintentionally condescending he was being, but I'm convinced that people who are lacking in self-awareness cannot have it forced upon them by others. I let it go.

Nonetheless, I do like to cook and bake, and it's not to make my husband happy. It's an exercise in creativity. In fact, some of my most satisfying endeavors are inedible to him with his particular tastes and purely created for me or others. It's one of the reasons that vegetarians are interesting to cook for when we have them to our home as guests. The restrictions that are placed on you force you to think outside the box. And, then, there are the gluten-free types...

Since coming back to the U.S., I've witnessed firsthand the gluten-free fad, and it is a fad. Yes, there are people who have celiac disease and are actually made sick by gluten, but there are also people who just see a bandwagon and are jumping on it. Gluten-free is the carb-free and low-carb of the 2010's. Before that, we had low-fat and fat-free. While I've actually found the challenges of baking gluten-free somewhat interesting, I find all of the labels on products that never had gluten pronouncing their absence of evil wheat protein ridiculous.

I am glad that I was spared this sort of happy nonsense in Japan, and I doubt that they'll ever adopt this particular fad. In fact, the main food fad related to diet that I saw in Japan was about reduced cholesterol products or those with collagen enhancement. I miss the fact that this sort of dietary restriction was rare there, and never in my experience quite so broad as things like gluten-free.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Random Memories #45

This is a continuation of a story I've been telling in multiple parts. The other parts are here: 1, 2, 3

In my last post, I talked about the president of my former company and how his idiosyncrasies made life difficult for the employees. In fact, if one reads through the rather long laundry list of the things he did which showed his lack of trust and disrespect for the foreign staff, it would seem that I should have gotten the hell out of there as soon as possible rather than hang around for over a decade.

There were a lot of reasons that I hung on to that job. Indeed, I discovered that I clung to it far too long for the wrong reasons as time went by. That being said, I did hang in there for at least 8 of my 12 years there for what could be considered the "right" reasons.

The employment world in Japan is a relatively narrow one for English-speaking folks. You can translate if your Japanese is good enough, teach English, or be a hostess or model if you have the looks. If you have the right sort of visa as well as a very high level of fluency, you can sometimes work at a normal Japanese office job as Japanese folks.

The last one is a relatively rare case for two reasons. The primary one is that most Japanese companies don't want foreigners in such jobs unless they can pay you less than Japanese folks or unless your work requires your particular language skills. The other one is that many Japanese companies, especially the big name ones with good career potential, have a particular manner in which they like to hire people and that is to get them fresh out of college so they can mold and shape their young workers to their liking.Getting regular office work of any sort is rare, and I had something about as close to that as I was going to get.

After teaching for two years at Nova in a working atmosphere with was factory-like and exhausting, I wanted nothing more than to avoid face to face contact with students. When I applied for my job at the correspondence lessons company, I was about 10 months into a painful recovery from surgery and looking for work. There was an ad for temporary work in the Japan Times which expressly advertised that it was a "nice break from teaching".

Working for Nova was an enormous experience in burn-out and the fatigue you can only know from having three passive people numbly peering at you for hours on end expecting you to drag information out of them or entertain them. You can't check out for a moment and your head has to constantly be in the game. I wanted nothing more than to have a job where it would be okay if my mind wandered occasionally, not to mention that I could get up and go to the bathroom any time I needed to instead of rushing it in between lessons.

One of the major reasons I stayed in my former job despite the bad treatment by the president is that I wasn't looking at the job situation in Japan outside of the company and thinking there was much on offer for me. The last thing I wanted was being drained again by hours of trying to coax words out of people. My view of the employment world was pretty binary at the time. I saw the only possibilities as my office job, or an English school "factory" job.

Beyond the desire to avoid what I felt was an unpleasant fate, there was the opportunity to do a type of work which allowed me to improve my skills. The school had two "busy seasons" in the winter and summer with a fair bit of slack time in the spring and autumn. Most of the other teachers would spend that time writing letters (by hand, it was that long ago), reading books or magazines, or twiddling their thumbs. There were photos of my boss sitting at the break area playing cards during such dead times.

For me, these were times to boost my abilities. Since both my husband and I were working during those early days and personal computers were increasing in availability and decreasing in price, I started to learn all I could about them. I learned to manage the OS on my Mac including how to repair and manage it as well as do networking. This was in the days before every 2-year-old could do that in his sleep. I started with Mac OS 7, after all. That was before they all started getting named after big kitties.

Beyond learning this new-fangled thing called "computers", I bought several pieces of Adobe's expensive desktop publishing software. I started with Photoshop then learned Pagemaker and finally Illustrator and GoLive (their former web publishing software). I didn't simply learn to tinker and play with the filters in Photoshop. I learned what all of that stuff actually means and why it's better to use Curves than Levels or Brightness and Contrast. I know why "Unsharp Mask" is better than "Sharpen" and exactly how it works as a numerical operation. I got certified as an ACE (Adobe Certified Expert) by taking a test in Tokyo on my own dime (which cost about $200 at the time).

As I mastered each piece of software, I moved on to the next. This was no small feat and took several years of pushing my skill level. The down time during the non-busy season was ideal for doing this and it had the benefit of adding to my ability to make textbooks for the company. They had enormous black and white drawings that they used to illustrate the books, but the files were so enormous that the printer could not manage them when the books were published. I learned to rapidly convert them to vector images using special techniques in Photoshop. This shrunk the file sizes down to manageable levels.

The fact that I could qualitatively improve my life based on the schedule my job afforded as well as do better for that job and at it was probably one of the single biggest reasons that I hung in there. That being said, there was a much, much bigger reasons. Saying that is my cue to say that this will be continued next time. ;-)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Won't Miss #31 - culture of victim-hood (reflection)

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I'm a person who favors balanced perspective. I have mentioned "yin" and "yang" many times in posts and I find it far more difficult to believe in the starkness of "good" and "bad". I think that the world would be a far better place if we taught people perspective-taking in school. By that, I mean that we helped them place themselves very effective in the shoes of another person rather than simply adopt an attitude that they stand on the better, higher ground.

One enduring frustration for me since returning to the U.S. is how reactionary people can be and how incapable they are of seeing value or validity to opposing viewpoints. It's as if people feel that understanding an opposing viewpoint is the same as accepting it and choosing not to change the world. I wrote a post about gun control in which I said I understand where such thinking comes from. I don't believe it comes from a fundamentally "evil" or "wrong" place, but from a perspective that I personally do not embrace. That doesn't mean I won't continue to oppose personal gun ownership, but simply that I know why people feel the way they feel and it's not because they are stupid, mean, inherently violent, or inferior in their critical thinking skills.

If you truly want to be open-minded and embrace the complexity of life, you cannot paint things as being all black or all white. In fact, I think we do our children a disservice for their futures if we indoctrinate them into such thinking. Generally, I felt that Japanese people were better at perspective-taking than most Western folks (and Americans in particular), but the huge acceptance to this was anything related to World War II.

There's a South Park joke about how the Japanese talk about the atomic bombs as if they were standing around minding their own business when America just decided to annihilate a bunch of them. That joke comes from the fact that Trey Parker spent some time in Japan and studied Japanese (and possibly also because his former wife was Japanese). He had some insight into the highly polarized and biased way in which Japan teaches its children about WW II. Trust me when I say that American kids aren't being taught that what the U.S. did to Japan was a good idea. They are well aware of the horror that resulted and as many (if not more) Americans are prone to viewing the bombs as unnecessary as necessary. In Japan, well, South Park got it right.

I continue not to miss the culture of victimhood that surrounds the way in which the war is regarded and the way in which it presents a one-sided view of history to Japanese children.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Will Miss #30 - saying anything in public (reflection)

I assumed when I came home that doing things like swearing in public would be off the table for me. Certainly, talking out loud about anything that was going on around me would be off limits. Well, I was wrong. There were a few things that I didn't account for when making my assumptions about life back home.

The primary one was just how few people actually walk around outdoors in the U.S. It isn't like Tokyo where you're almost always in a crowd. The chances that anyone is in earshot most of the time is far lower than I anticipated. Another thing that I didn't account for was the levels of self-absorption. There have been times when I've noticed people raptly listening in on conversations, especially at Starbucks when I've been telling a story which is relatively entertaining, but  most of the time people are in their own little world and can't be bothered to attend to what I'm saying. Finally, most people are walking around saying anything including profanity. While it wouldn't be true that I can swear a blue streak, the odd profanity here and there isn't out of the ordinary for anyone.

It turns out that I don't exactly have to miss saying anything in public. While I can't say absolutely anything, I certainly don't have to censor myself nearly as much as I may have expected. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Random Memories #44

This is a continuation of a sequence of stories on working in a Japanese office, an experience that I had over 12 of my 23 years in Japan. Here are parts 1 and 2.

In the previous post, I introduced information about my former company, which I believe was like a lot of little companies in Japan in that it operated as the private fiefdom of the man who ran it. The company survived, in part, on the largess created by Japan's economic boom times, but also on laws and loopholes meant to keep employment levels high and allow companies that were not especially competitive to continue to exist.

Over the years, the number of such companies has slowly decreased as tax codes have been changed and laws less oriented toward keeping such businesses alive, but there are still likely thousands of them all over Japan. I believe, and this is pure speculation, that this is one of the reasons you see tiny shops that occupy a niche of the market, never seem to get more than a handful of customers, but continue to stay in business for decades.

In terms of our company, Mr. O, the president, was essentially the master of his domain. Once the company expanded to the point at which he no longer operated as a salesperson, he spent most of his days meddling in the affairs of whatever section he felt could "benefit" from his attention. For many years, he mainly fiddled in sales because he felt that was an area in which he had expertise.

Indeed, he may have had skills at one point or another in time and some important knowledge to impart. When I first joined the company, the salespeople would gather around a meeting table in his lavish office and he would hold them as his captive audience for hours. As sales continued to tank, in part due to changes in the tax laws that cut out breaks for companies for English training that went beyond the most basic level and in part due to the bursting of the bubble economy, he lost interest in managing the sales people. After all, if he kept instructing them and sales did not improve, then it would mean he failed. It was far easier to blame the sales people than to take responsibility himself.

After the president took his finger out of the sales pie, he turned to our section's efforts in regards to writing textbooks. His English was so-so, and he had no knowledge of how to publish, edit, or write, but this was a product that was not directly related to his expertise and he could get in our way to his heart's content without feeling like he could be blamed.

One of my earliest experiences with this was his thwarting any efforts we made to modernize. When I started at the company, they were using a paste-down method and I wanted to update to using digital publishing. He insisted that the "homemade" look was part of the company's "know how" and I had to keep using a ruler and a special "gum" to create pages that the publisher would take pictures of and convert into printing plates. It was only after the printer refused to do this anymore as they had converted to digital that he magnanimously permitted me to use my own scanner, laptop, and copy of Pagemaker to do the job properly.

When Mr. O wasn't too busy interfering with our jobs, he spent much of his time deciding how to rearrange the office. At least twice a year, he'd pore over elaborately drawn plans and figure out how to move our desks and change our work spaces to suit his whims. There was never any rhyme or reason for this, beyond the fact that the foreign employees always had to be close enough to his office so that he could keep us within sight and earshot so that he could tell us what we did wrong. He also made sure that the foreigners always were seated on the side of the office that had the fewest or no windows and was the hottest in summer and the coldest in winter. If there was an unattractive area for your desk to be placed in, we were placed there.

When he got bored with meddling, rearranging the furniture tended to keep him entertained. Never mind that all of this caused a huge disruption in workflow for everyone else. The Japanese staff gamely came in early, stayed late, or gave up their entire weekend to cooperate with his games of musical chairs.

The president also had a flaw common to many people who are placed in charge and who lack empathy for their subordinates. Every time one tiny thing went wrong, he'd create a new and quite punitive rule. This was bad management, but it helped him deal with his frustration over any little thing going awry.

My shift was 11:00 am to 7:00 pm when I first started working for the company. The last two hours were always occupied by two hours of talking on the phone as part of the correspondence course. The way it worked was that two people were to call in the first quarter hour, then three in the next quarter hour followed by another round of two and then three. Each call was five minutes so every other fifteen minutes was tight and we had to adjust the time as needed if someone called outside of the rigid structure of the schedule block. That is, we'd give someone only four minutes or run a little late into the block with thetwo people that followed.

As one might imagine, this scheduling was tricky at the very end of the day. If three people needed to get through from 6:45 to 7:00 and one was late, we'd run past 7:00 pm or give a very short call. We weren't allowed to give less than three minutes, so someone who called super late just stole our time and there was nothing we could do about that. The second-to-worst ones would call at 6:59 and hold us up for the duration. The worst ones would call at 7:00 on the dot.

Because we didn't want to be leaving late (and not be paid for the time), each teacher would be sitting there watching the digital clock on the phone like a hawk and turn the switch off the second it clicked over to 7:00 pm. One day, a single student called and complained that he had called at 6:59 pm and not gotten an answer. As a result, we were all told that we couldn't turn the phones off until 7:05.

It may seem very petty that we cared so much about the theft of a few minutes here or there, but it's important to keep in mind that the president did not respect our work. It wasn't only that he put us in the darkest, most uncomfortable spot or watched us like a hawk because he clearly mistrusted us, but also a plethora of choices that added up to showing he had zero respect for us.

One example of this could be seen in the way he arranged to buy office treats for tea time one day a week. None of the teachers worked on Mondays and that was the day that he chose to buy ice cream, special beverages, or snacks for all of the office workers. Every Tuesday, we'd come in to find the refrigerator full of the things the staff had chosen not to eat.

Another example of this was the fact that the Japanese staff got to take a tea time break at all. At around 3:30 or 4:00, they'd all head for the kitchen for tea and then sit in a lounge area and read newspapers or chat for about 15-30 minutes while we worked on.

Beyond that was the fact that our concerns were never taken seriously, even when we had a legitimate point. The air conditioning system operated by having a sensor on one half of the unit that managed the temperature control. The president had included the sensor in his enclosed office space and we were on the other side without a sensor. In summer, his office would get super cool in the enclosed space and ours, which was bigger and more open as it had to accommodate more people, would stay hot.

We'd be sitting in summer with hot air blowing on us and it was a constant fight to get the air conditioner set low enough so that we wouldn't be in a well-heated room. The president didn't see this as a practical matter, even as his daughter verified that, yes, the air conditioning was spewing heat. He saw it as a power issue. He wanted the AC set at 26-28 degrees C. (79-82.4 degrees F.) and we needed it set at 23 (73.4) in order not to be blasted with heat of around 29.4 C. or 85 degrees F.

It wasn't an issue of us wanting it colder, but the problem with the mechanical system. The president saw our request as a pissing contest that he was going to win. He felt we should "gaman" (endure) the discomfort because that is what he believed subordinates should do. It took weeks and weeks of suffering before he'd concede that we were experiencing temperatures hotter than those outside on most days. You don't know what hell is like until you're working in a heated room in summer because of the petty need to prove ones power over ones employees. Humane working conditions never entered into his thinking. It was all about status and power.

The president got upset that the foreigners did not have the work ethic of the Japanese, but he treated us like bad dogs that had to be whipped to kept in line. How much company loyalty did that inspire? Beyond the idiosyncratic choices he made that always worked to our disadvantage, there was also the fact that he gave us piddly raises when he gave us raises at all and that he divvied them out based on gender.

My male coworker, who did the basic phone and correction work, got a 10,000 yen raise ($100) a month while I got 2,000 yen ($20) despite my desktop publishing, writing, and editing work on top of the usual work. The differences in our raises were only because I am a woman. His logic was that my coworker being a man meant that he had to support his "family" and that meant his wife, who also had a full-time job so they weren't exactly struggling for their daily bread. The irony was that my husband was studying Japanese full-time and I was the main breadwinner, but the facts absolutely did not interfere with his notions of what was "right".

Beyond all of these issues, Mr. O almost fired me for refusing to work on a day off as well and he had a habit of dismissing every foreign employee after three years of employment regardless of how hard they worked because he preferred to have "fresh faces". I stayed for 12 years largely because my Australian boss convinced him of the pragmatic concerns. He knew they were never going to get someone with my skills for the wages they offered and his workload would have increased greatly without my assistance.

I don't mean to paint Mr. O as entirely bad, though there certainly was little that tended to be "good" about him objectively speaking. There obviously was a reason that I remained for 12 years. Mr. O wasn't any part of it though, but I'll get into that in the next piece. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Won't Miss #523 - plodding meticulousness

One day, while I was in the post office in Japan to mail a few letters. There were three postal workers and three customers. It took more than 7 minutes per customer because the postal workers moved at glacial speed and paused to check every little detail as they went. One of the customers was filling out a single simple customs form and another was simply buying some stamps. This sort of meticulousness is common in Japan because perfection is valued over efficiency. In fact, it is frequently an issue when U.S. companies set up branches here as the time it takes to complete basic office tasks is unacceptably long and wastes money.

I won't miss wasting time waiting while people slowly go through every niggling detail as if the fate of the world depended on getting it perfect every time.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Will Miss #522 - metric measuring

A B5 notepad. I'm more familiar with A3, B4, A4, etc. than I am with things like "letter" size thanks to having done more work in publishing in Japan than in America.

When any discussion about the metric system vs. whatever the hell America uses* comes up, the smug Europeans go on about how superior the former is and talk about how we should change. Let me say right now that it's attitudes like that that keep us using things like "foot", "yard", and "inches" and having to remember that there are twelve inches in a foot, sixteen tablespoons in a cup and I don't know how quatloos are in a bar of latinum. The more superior you come across and the more you look down your nose at Americans, the less you will be heard. That's a shame because there's a good point to be made. The metric system, which I used in Japan and is a better system, is the way to go. It makes everything easier, unless, of course, you have to keep hopping back and forth between the two and have to remember that there are 28 grams in an ounce or 15 ml. in a tablespoon (yes, I had to know these things).

I miss using the metric system, which was easier to understand and measure. So, all of you countries who make this point and are assholes about it, cut it out, please, so that Americans can stop seeing such an important thing as an international pissing contest in which we are fighting over who can pee further in centimeters or inches.

*I know it's often called the "Imperial System", which means we get to blame England, right?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Random Memories #43

Note: This is a continuation of a post from last week. Part 1 is here

My former company was established in the same year as Apple computer, 1976. It started as a dinky operation in a rundown part of Nishi-Shinjuku and expanded along with Japan's economic bubble. Mr. and Mrs. O, as we often referred to the president and his wife, had an idea for marketing correspondence English lesson packages based on his experiences selling similar concepts for Time-Life.

It was interesting for me to note that the Mr. O had essentially stolen the concept from a bigger company when he worked there as a salesman. During my tenure at the company, there was always talk about their "know how". It was spoken about as if they had some special secret formula for success that, if it were shared, would spread like wildfire and other companies would copy it and consume some of the vast market that they dominated. The core idea of the company was actually pretty silly and ineffective, but they subscribed to the illusion that this was the all important edge that helped them succeed where others supposedly failed.

The "big secret" which they didn't want anyone to know was not really much of a secret since anyone who bought a lesson package from them would learn of their core concept. Mrs. O, who created this concept, believed that the best way to master English was to memorize a long list of "basic sentences" and then use those for conversation. Each of the three courses (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) that the company sold contained these 260 "basic sentences" and students were encouraged to listen to them on cassette (later, on CD) and repeat them over and over until they were seared into their brains like a second-language-cattle brand. Supposedly, this would magically impart a better degree of fluency.

In reality, the sentences were pretty useless for anything other than selling people something they were comfortable with. My boss, an Australian possessed of far greater patience than most, tried for many years to convince the Japanese staff that this concept was as stupid as it sounds. Eventually, one of the salesmen, Mr. S, told him the truth. He said that they knew that it didn't work in helping people learn English, but it was a method which with Japanese students were comfortable based on the way in which they have to memorize facts in the school system. It didn't matter that they didn't get squat out of it. What mattered was that the concept was one they were familiar with and were therefore more likely to buy.

Mr. and Mrs. O would never admit what Mr. S did about the concept. It was very much a case of the Emperor's new clothes. All of the salespeople knew he was naked, but they weren't about to inform him of this truth. The salespeople only cared about the fact that they could get companies to buy these lesson packages, and, for many years, they did.

It's important to note that my former company did not sell its lessons to individuals. Most of the people who study English in Japan are those going to English conversation schools (eikaiwa) or attending kindergarten to 12th grade. When you hear English teachers talk about their experiences, 99.9% of the time, they are talking about these types of people. My students were very different than the usual.

The company sold their packages to corporations. My clients were not bored housewives, sleepy businessmen lamely prepping for work abroad, or junior high school students hoping for an edge in the college entrance exam game. They were usually from one of two groups. They were either working at a major manufacturer or in their last year of college and preparing to do so in the coming year. When they were the former, they provided me with a wealth of insight into a part of Japanese business that most people never have a chance to receive. My clients worked for NTT, Toyota, Toyo Ink, Omron, and a host of lesser-known, but very important names.

The sales concept was about going to one of these big fish and selling an enormous number of these fairly expensive lesson packages at once. If the company hired 300 new employees a year (and many did), the salesmen wanted to get them to buy 300 packages to train them. When I started working at the company, each package, which included a largish professionally printed textbook, several cassettes, a small booklet with the 260 basic sentences, postage-paid envelopes, and 4-page essay booklets for homework in a very smart-looking plastic case with an interior molded to hold everything in place, sold for around 30,000 yen (about $300). Each of these big clients represented an enormous chunk of revenue and, at that time, those companies had money to burn and our salesmen were right there with a handy lighter.

The company's success wasn't only based on the economic bubble and appealing to comfortable learning methods, it was also based on tax codes and loopholes. For a period of time that I am uncertain about, the Japanese government encouraged companies to educate employees by compensating them for the costs of doing so. If a company's training package met certain criteria, a business could get the taxpayers to splash out for a piece of the cost. This was all part of the great socialist wheel that turned in Japan and helped keep unemployment numbers low and small companies with dubious concepts afloat.

Mr. O had three or four large documents framed and mounted on his office wall and I asked what they were one day. They were his proud display of certifications that his company's lessons qualified for the tax break status. I was never sure why the president was sufficiently proud of the fact that one of the reasons that he could sell so many lessons to the corporate world was that they could fleece the public for part of the cost, but there was a lot about that old duck that was idiosyncratic, and I'll get to that next week. (to be continued)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Won't Miss #30 - Japanese cheese (reflection)

The type of food you enjoy is entirely a subjective matter. Whether we want to believe it or not, most of us like what we are used to. Though the human brain is designed to desire certain types of things more than others, namely, sweet, fatty, and salty food, the degree to which we like these things is governed by experience rather than any sort of objective measure. Whether you like subtle sweetness or blast in your mouth sweetness is a matter of experience and biology. Americans aren't born congenitally desirous of Twinkies. They learn to like them. In general, you like what you like because it's what you've had before. 

From an evolutionary viewpoint, this makes perfect sense. If you've been eating something for years and you haven't been poisoned by it for died of  a lack nourishment, then it's good to seek out that same experience. Familiarity breeds fondness because it encourages survival. These are the reasons why I get irritated at the opinion that one type of cuisine is "superior" to another. Most of us didn't choose our tastes, they were foisted upon us by culture. Sure, we can alter them if we have the will and desire to do so, but the biochemical cards aren't encouraging us to do so.

All of that being said, from my totally subjective and ethnocentric viewpoint, Japanese cheese remains a major failure in most respects. With the exception of the little wheels of Camembert that you can pick up nearly anywhere (including convenience stores), the overwhelming majority is plastic- or foil-wrapped slices of processed cheese. I absolutely continue to be grateful that I don't have to deal with the limited options for cheese that I had in Japan.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Will Miss #29 - statues of the Colonel (reflection)

Continuity can be a potent cultural touchstone, and one of the ones that I loved most in Japan were the statues of Colonel Sanders that were place outside of Japanese branches of KFC. I can't say that a reproduction of him graced every outlet, but it was at most of them in Tokyo. The Colonel is even part of local folklore in that there is supposedly a curse associated with a statue of him in the Kansai area.

In Japan, it seemed that these sort of plastic mascots to welcome people were quite common and they put an artificial "face" on the brands. The Colonel, in my experience, was the biggest physically and the one most likely to change costumes regularly in tune with the seasons or the times. He certainly wasn't the only one because I did see the Sato elephant and the Fujiya girl attired according to the times on occasion as well, but he was always the most noticeable. Ronald McDonald also showed up on occasion, usually sitting on a bench so that people could pose with him and have a picture taken, but the Colonel was always my favorite mascot (even though, frankly, I don't like his chicken at all).

I miss seeing those statues of the Colonel, and have noticed that we don't do this same sort of thing much (if at all) here in America. I'm guessing it has to do with vandalism, and that makes me sad.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Random Memories #42

If the internet is any reflection of what people think about Japan, it would seem that, when most foreigners conceptualize Japanese men, they seem to embrace one of two stereotypes. The first is the wacky-weirdo-otaku (geek) who dresses funny, plays with toys, watches anime, or does some such man-boy activities. These are the guys whose pictures show up in various photo memes demonstrating how freak flags are flying from every mast in Japan.

The second stereotype is the boring, stoic, "salaryman". This is the guy who spends all day at the office, grunts in response to questions, wears a suit that makes him look like every other guy, and plays golf on weekends. He supports his family, but knows little about them and he and his wife live largely separate lives.

Neither of these images is especially nuanced or even true. They are superficial and reductionist. Real people are diversely strange and lead far more interesting lives than is demonstrated by the cursory glances you get of them from mass media. Those boring salarymen might be lying to their wives and blowing their kids college income at pachinko or their business trips to Thailand may include visits to every bizarre sex show and prostitute in Bangkok. The wearing of diapers may also be involved. Those geeks may be pretty boring when they're not putting on maid uniforms and walking around Akihabara. You just never know.

Well, I know, since I worked in a Japanese office for 12 years and got to know a wide range of people. Some of them were superficially suited to the stereotype, but, as time went by when you scratched the surface, they took on far more depth and texture. Yes, Japanese are people, too.

The company I used to work in was located in an area of Tokyo called Nishi-Shinjuku for the vast majority of my twelve years with them. It was a fair trek from the far better known Shinjuku station. Shinjuku is one of the biggest urban centers in terms of nightlife and shopping in Tokyo. It was also my favorite area because it had more variety packed into one somewhat expansive area than any other district that I experienced. People don't tend to talk about it as a monolithic entity, but rather focus on Shinjuku-ni-chome for the shopping, Kabuki-cho as a night club and red-light district, and Nishi-shinjuku as an outskirt area in which less affluent businesses can rent some office space while still retaining a prestigious Shinjuku address. I always thought of Shinjuku as the Manhatten of Tokyo. That perception is mine alone, of course.

My former place of work, as I've mentioned on many occasions, was a correspondence lessons company. It was started by a man who once considered becoming a Buddhist priest. That probably conjures up thoughts of a bald, robe-wearing, zen man who was seeking enlightenment and attempting to be one with the universe, but you have to keep in mind that Japan isn't a religious country. Getting into religion is a business there. People run their own temples and make money at it. It's a job, not a calling. I'm sure there are some deeply spiritual people in Japan. I'm just not sure they're aspiring to be running their own temples, and the former president was definitely not the sort who was seeking enlightenment.

In fact, this man was an opportunist. Instead of becoming a priest, he decided to marry a woman who, in that time frame, was considered too tainted to be taken by another man. She had lived abroad in England in the 60's and spoke English well. By the time she came back to Japan, she not only was too influenced by foreign culture to be acceptable to most men, but she was well past her sell-by date. Keep in mind that as late as the early 90's, the idea of "Christmas cake" (women who were "no good after 25") was still alive. No one wanted to marry a woman who was not painfully young and naive back when those two were "courting".

The truth was that their union was a classic "omai" (arranged marriage) one in which a few go-betweens put them together. Ultimately, the former president was paid a large sum of money to marry this woman who'd become fairly unacceptable in the eyes of most men in Japanese society. After spending some time as a salesman for Time-Life company in Japan and learning the ropes for sales, he eventually quit his job and used the bribe money to start the company I worked at.

The president was a lucky man in one particular regard. He started the company at the beginning of Japan's economic bubble. This was a time when people were throwing cash at gold statues and snapping up high profile real estate abroad. It was the build-up to fears that Japan would take over the world and companies were throwing money willy-nilly at anything and everything. It was the equivalent of lighting cigars with twenty-dollar bills.

In this environment, the president started a company in which he and his wife ran a two-person business. He sold textbooks that she wrote and they self-published. These lesson packages included correction by hand of homework essays as well as telephone call "lessons". She did the correction and calls from a tiny little office until the business expanded and they hired a native speaker to start doing this work.

The fact of the matter was that, while she was an excellent English speaker, she still was not perfect. Her English, as is the case with many people who lived abroad and returned, was frozen at a point and level at which she learned it. She made mistakes and often used antiquated English. Sometimes, working with her reminded me of the way Mr. Burns spoke on "The Simpsons" when he used phrases like "so-called iced cream" and "pretzeled bread". The dialect of the time had passed him by and he didn't know the rest of us called these things "ice cream" and "pretzels". Mrs. O, as I will refer to this lady from now on, was frozen in the language of the time as well as her preconceived notions of grammar.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Won't Miss #522 - my neighbors

The yellow and fake brick building had our former apartment. The cement wall defines the edge of our neighbors home. Their front door was about a meter (about three feet) from the edge of the wall closest to us.

It should be noted before I indulge in this particular whinging session that I lived in Tokyo for the duration of my 23 years. I'm sure that living in other places would have afforded a different experience, but I can only speak from my own subjective state of mind. If I could break into someone else's head and steal their perspective... well, I wouldn't do that because I have enough trouble with my own version of reality... If I could, I'd probably have a different idea right now.

At any rate, my neighbors were right behind my living room double glass doors. Their front door was about eight feet (2.4 m.) from mine - literally. They also had a tendency to stand in front of their home and have long and loud conversations. It was, again, literally, like they were in the same house with me in terms of the volume and the sense of personal space.

Beyond the fact that they were fairly oblivious to the concept that you could invite someone into your home to have conversations or speak at a volume which didn't carry halfway across the block, they also complained to our landlord if we listened to music or T.V. too loudly for their delicate sensibilities. Apparently, it's okay to have bombastic chats with people, but not to watch "Star Wars" at relatively high volume in order to get the full aural effect. Finally, there was the smoking issue. With units being so small, most people smoked outside so as not to stink up their own places, so they stood on their balconies and it wafted downward to our window. In the U.S., houses tend to be far enough apart that this isn't quite as bad as it was in Tokyo.

I don't miss the experience of living in such close proximity to people that their habits can't help but interfere with my daily life. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Will Miss #521 - the limited selection

A refreshingly puny selection of products for lightening your coffee. Also, "Creap" is an awesome name for a product.

Studies have shown that giving people more than three choices creates stress for them, yet every time I walk into a supermarket in America, there are umpteen variations to choose from for almost every popular product. When I first arrived here, it was like a wonderland, but it was also oppressive and overwhelming as I tried to take it all in.

In Japan, there was always limited variety along with the limited space. They introduced variety via a revolving door approach. You could have this type for awhile, and then it went away. Sometimes, it came back, but there tended to be one core product and one variant and little more at any given time.

At times, these limits were maddening, especially when I liked a variety and it vanished forever. This was the yang to the yin of the reduced stress of fewer options. It meant we tended to go overboard stocking up when something we liked came around. However, overall, I'd rather have fewer choices and less stress. I miss the way in which fewer choices created a sense that I knew and could take in the environment.