Thursday, January 30, 2014

Will Miss #533 - the liberal zoning laws

A restaurant (with vending machine in front), temple, hotel and apartment complexes all in close proximity. I don't know if this is usual for cities in the U.S., but it's the common crazy quilt in Tokyo.

I grew up in a rural area, so things like zoning laws never really meant much to me. There was so much land between homes and businesses that it never occurred to me in my youth that people shouldn't or wouldn't be allowed to build anything anywhere they wanted to. My husband, on the other hand, grew up in the suburbs and was aware of the way in which small cities and large towns drew lines between where business and homes could be located.

I have a relic from my past which is a jewel in my collection of Japan memories and that is the very first cassette tape that my husband made for me when he started his one-year contract in Japan. That tape is full of initial impressions made by someone who just got off the boat. When you live in a foreign country long enough, you become blind to things which you could see very clearly at first. One of the things that he noticed was the apparent lack of zoning laws which resulted in a mixture of businesses and residences.

Since I have never lived in a major city in the U.S., I didn't think twice about how much more interesting and colorful Tokyo was as a city as a result of the way in which shops and homes freely intermingled. In fact, they not only were up in each others businesses, but they shared buildings. It was very common for the first floor of an apartment building to contain a convenience store, a tea shop, or some other "mom and pop" establishment. I loved this when I was in Japan because it not only made things more convenient, but also you were never too far from a useful shop. I miss the way the liberal zoning laws allowed residences and businesses to mix.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Random Memories #62 - things I wish I'd kept or photographed - part 1

Some memories exist fully formed in my mind as "stories" of life in Japan. Others are little fragments which are jogged back into recollection by some random circumstantial experience. Those fragments tend to come and go randomly and I often feel that if I don't grab them and trap them in words, they may flit away forever as the chances that some stimulus will compel one to come forward again are rather low.

When I remember such things, or my husband does, one or the other of us will say that we wished we had kept some little memento of the experience. That would help preserve the memory in a more concrete manner, not to mention leave us with some neat little object around which to tell our story.

This post is about those little things which I wish I'd either kept or photographed during my years in Japan. Some of them are things which are hard to believe existed as they were idiosyncratic even in that country. Some of them were a product of an age that has passed by. All of them are the kinds of things which we did not experience at home. No memories that I can offer are more "random" than these. Warning: if you are someone who is made uncomfortable by talk of the three-letter "S" word, then you may want to skip this post. I don't use any profanity, but I do use technical words for male and female anatomy. And I apologize in advance if any disturbing ads load as a result of this post's content being misunderstood by search engines.

Here are some of these little fragments:

The pornographic vending machine

You may read this paragraphs title and think I'm speaking of a machine selling pornographic materials such as magazines or pictures. Though such items were in the machine that I saw, it was much more than that. If I had had a camera at that time, I would have taken pictures, but this was before I owned one (before 1994 when I bought a QuickTake digital camera) and definitely before I carried one around with me.

My husband and I were walking toward the West side of Asagaya, the neighborhood in which we lived for 23 years, and wandering around a largely residential space. This was, very likely, in 1990-1991 as it was before I had gall bladder surgery in Tokyo. We were still exploring the nooks and crannies of all of the confusing streets when we noticed a well-lit vending machine under a stairwell of an apartment building. It was twilight so it stood out a bit and we went over to investigate.

We were still at that stage of life in Japan when we carefully inspected the contents of many of the vending machines as we weren't yet familar with all of the Japanese drink types like "Boss" coffee or Dydo cocoa or whatnot. Beer and soft drink machines were the norm, of course, but this appeared at a distance to be another type of animal.

The machine we saw was quite wide and the objects within were relatively large and varied in size. As we approached it, it became clear that it was filled with wonders meant to appeal to prurient interests. In addition to a handful of pornographic videos and magazines depicting fully naked slack-jawed vixens in moments of carnal ecstasy (but with hands or other objects obscuring their most private of parts), there were marital aids. It wasn't just a garden variety offering of "vibrators", but also a very large and freaky-looking artificial vagina and a pump-style object which either was meant to enlarge or engorge a male member. I couldn't read any Japanese at the time so I'm not sure what sort of promises it was making.

If I could travel back in time, I'd certainly give my younger self a camera and take a whole roll of film of the contents of that machine. It wasn't only that such objects being peddled in a vending machine was so strange, but that it was situated in front of what looked very much like an average Japanese apartment building. Certainly, I could see such a thing placed in front of a love hotel, but this place did not appear to be such an establishment. Perhaps it was a building designed for men who lived the Playboy lifestyle, or at least one sans all of the real bunnies. That would be the only way to explain the value of such a machine to the inhabitants.

Q-Dial Pens

One of the things I've mentioned in another post was the way in which our mailbox was frequently mail-bombed by flyers. Toward the end of our stay, it was usually for services that would come and haul your large trash items away for a fee, cleaning services, health clubs, beauty treatments, or restaurants. In the early days, we saw a lot more flyers related to sex-related services.

Though we couldn't read the flyers very well, we received them for so many years that my husband (who studied Japanese for several years in a school and got pretty good at kanji/Chinese characters) figured a few of them out. One of the most common ones offered a list of pornographic movies for rent or purchase. Another offered the equivalent of a visiting masseuse, though I'm pretty sure she was going to rub a lot more than your back. My memory about the financial information on those flyers is fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure there was some mention of tips or bonuses that could be paid for extra service.

Beyond these items, we sometimes got a ballpoint pen. It was always a yellow pen with blue writing and blue ink and said "Q-dial" on it in English along with Japanese writing. For quite awhile, we just took our free pen and used it without worrying about what was being offered. After a few years, we learned that "Q-dial" service was either phone sex or a way of calling one of the ladies that would come and rub your body in various ways. I don't recall whether it was call girls or girls you call, but I do remember that it was related to sex servicing.

My husband and I have both thought on occasion that we should have saved one of those pens. It would have served both as a reminder of Japan, and of an era in which such services couldn't be had via the internet. The times, they have changed from a primitive era in which men rode around on bicycles dropping papers or free pens into everyone's mailbox in order to meet their needs for certain types of gratification. Based on what I hear about Japan these days, men have lost most of their interest in that sort of thing.

Not all of my memory fragments pertain to sex. Next week, my mind will be out of the gutter... well, maybe not, but at least I won't be parading its location in the next post (at least, that's not the plan). To be continued...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Won't Miss #46 - washing in cold water (reflection)

My old laundry machine in Japan - and it was actually a fairly modern one!

The first time in 23+ years that I was faced with an American washing machine, I was stunned by the buttons that allowed you to make choices about water temperature. I'm sure that our washing machine when I was growing up had such choices, but I frankly did not pay any attention to them at all. In my youth, laundry was hardly a primary concern - unlike now when it's something I have concerns about so that I don't end up ruining my clothes.

One interesting thing about the option to choose hot, cold, or warm water wash is that there is a risk of wrecking something. The default cold water wash in Japan meant things didn't get as clean as they might, but it also meant I never had to worry about mixing colors and whites because there was little risk that one would bleed into the other. In fact, I rarely sorted my laundry when I lived in Japan for this reason.

Still, despite the lack of risk of turning all of my husband's shirts pink by including a red shirt in the mix, I hated the way in which the laundry was freezing cold and wet when I removed it and had to handle it for prolonged periods of time in winter. With no central heating and very cold and wet things, this put my fingers at risk.

I still don't miss only being able to wash my clothes in cold water.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Will Miss #45 - New Year's Trinkets (reflection)

Shortly before the new year, my husband and I met a Japanese acquaintance at a Starbucks. We talked about a variety of things, including what it was like to go to shrines during the biggest holiday of the year in Japan. She thought it might be fun to go to a shrine in America on New Year's day. However, despite the fact that there is a large community of Japanese people in the area, there were no shrines offering services of any sort on the day, and only one make-shift church doing so on January 3rd. We were all disappointed by this fact, though not necessarily surprised.

While it is impossible to go to shrines where I'm living now, it is actually within the realm of possibility to buy the trinkets that are sold each year in accord with the Chinese horoscope (pictured above). They are sold, somewhat expensively, in souvenir shops in Japan town in San Jose as well as in a few places in other cities that are not too far from where we're living. That being said, stripped of the time and the place in which they held significance and stronger symbolism, they are reduced to feeling like mere knicknacks.

I can say that I don't necessarily miss the physical objects, but I very much miss the memories they would carry for me when I bought one at a shrine in Tokyo. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Random Memories #61 - First Impressions

All those people behind us? I didn't see any of them.

One of the questions that my students loved to ask was what my first impression was of Japan. Any time that this question was asked, I wondered what answer they would have expected. It made me think about what I initially expected when I arrived in Japan. The fact of the matter was that the circumstances under which I entered were so unique, as my readers know, that I wasn't really attending to the idea that I was in Japan. That was incidental and a mere backdrop to the main event.

My guess was that my students were expecting things like my noticing that the people were smaller (both shorter and thinner) or something about the architecture or the public transportation - perhaps praise for the food. The truth is that I don't think they thought much about the circumstances under which a foreign person forms an initial impression of Japan. I think my students were imagining a wide-eyed foreigner looking around Shibuya or Roppongi, likely dazzled by the stores, the lights, the noise, and the vast oceans of smartly dressed people.

The truth is that my first impressions were formed largely by a few relatively mundane places - the airport, the Skyliner which took me from the airport to Kita-senju, and my boyfriend's apartment. I took an American airline from Pittsburgh to Tokyo (with a stop in Detroit) so I didn't have the bi-lingual announcements in English and Japanese nor the polite Japanese air hostesses that one experiences on JAL (Japan Airlines).

My boyfriend at the time, and future husband, had flown in on JAL and wrote me a 16-page letter describing all parts of the flight experience and it included having to wait for every announcement to be translated before he knew what was going on. He also mentioned that the food was rather weird in his estimation and that he went for the "safe-looking" parts like the rice and anything that resembled meat. For me, it was packages of cheese and turkey cold cuts as well as boring American food.

My plane was nearly empty save a neighbor who was reading some sort of engineering information on water reclamation or some such boring thing. He was from Hong Kon and I didn't even lay eyes on a Japanese person until I stumbled off the plane, bleary-eyed and feeling disgusting after a 14-hour flight and a sweaty run to reach my connecting flight in Detroit on time. The first Japanese person that I spoke with was the officious, quiet, and business-like customs man who inspected my passport as I dragged my suitcases behind me on a trolley.

The first thing I noticed though was not Japanese people, but rather my boyfriend - who as those who know the story know I saw in the flesh for the first time in that airport. He was surrounded by Japanese people, of course, and they gawked at us as we had a five-minute hug, but I only know they were there because of the pictures that were taken. If those pictures didn't tell me that we were being looked at and crowds of Japanese folks were around us, I wouldn't have known.

So, there was actually far more that I didn't notice than I did. The truth was that my first impression of Japan, the very first thing that I actually noticed, was the smell in the airport. It was remarkable because it wasn't the sort of thing one usually encountered in the U.S. outside of a specific restaurant. The airport had the aroma of cooking fish. My guess is that it was wafting from some restaurant located not too far from where we were or that some errant ventilation shaft brought in a whiff from some place.

When I relayed this memory to students, they were surprised. I think they were also disappointed. It was hard to explain to them that my first impressions were formed in a type of blindness to my surroundings that most people were unlikely to encounter. In fact, it was nearly impossible to make them understand.

Beyond that very first impression, there was the noises. On the Skyliner, I noticed the rattle of the train on the tracks. I'm pretty sure that it was not unique and that I only noticed because it was the first time I'd ridden on a train. Again, I was far more aware of the way it felt to have my boyfriend's arm around me for the first time and how he accidentally grazed one of my breasts with his hand (truly, it was an accident - he's not that sort of guy).

The final lasting early impression was again, related to a smell. The moment you walk into any Japanese apartment with tatami mats, you will smell the scent of the straw. It's possible that the age of the straw mats has something to do with it, or the number of windows that are open or how long they've been open, but that smell is very distinct. If you're around it every day, you stop smelling that tatami scent, but if you go away for awhile and come back, it's there again.

That scent, which is earthy, but also slightly musty, starts to permeate your possessions if you store them in the same room and don't routinely move them around or wash them (as you do with clothing). We kept our suitcases in the highest section of our bedroom closet, but when we visited home, my husband's father said that he could smell a familiar smell that he'd first experienced when my brother-in-law (who also lives in Japan) came home for a visit. Despite being stored a good 6 feet above the floor, the smell of tatami made its way into our suitcases as they so rarely left the room.

So, my first impressions are not glamorous, exciting, or particularly flattering, but they were very real. They are about smells and clattering noises. I think my friends back home expected me to talk about my impressions of geisha, zen gardens in temples, and Mt. Fuji. I think that's because most people experience a foreign culture at a distance through pictures or, at best, video. The full sensory experience is one they don't tend to imagine and Japanese people, who are inured to the scents and sounds that are so much a part of their daily life, don't expect those elements will form the first impressions a foreigner may have. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Won't Miss #533 - fear about retirement

One of the things that we all have to face as we get older is how we're going to look after ourselves in our old age. No matter what country you are in, this is something of concern. My husband and I saved a fairly decent nest egg (which we are now using to pay for his graduate school and life expenses) while in Japan, and no doubt that nest egg would have continued to grow had we stayed in Japan and continued to save money. That being said, it would not have been the same as having an actual pension or social security.

Part of the problem with living in Japan for foreign folks is that you have to pay into the pension system for 20 years in order to get anything out of it. My former company, at which I had worked for 12 years, ignored the law in regard to the foreign employees and did not pay into pension plans or the government retirement program which is equivalent to social security. Had they done so, I'd have been able to transfer that and accrue Social Security in the U.S., but I didn't even know that they were breaking the law until the company was acquired by a more lawful one 10 years into my employment there.

The specter of what was going to happen when we were too old to work was always with us. We both knew we'd have to return to the U.S. and work there to get something in order beyond our savings. I don't miss worrying even more about retirement as a result of being in Japan. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Will Miss #532 - lack of New Year's resolutions

No resolutions, but plenty of bananas for New Year's day consumption. No, I don't know why, but there are always chocolate-covered bananas around the shrines. 

Most years, after returning from the holidays, I asked my students whether or not they made any New Year's resolutions. Each time I asked this question, I got a quizzical look. They didn't understand the word "resolution" and that was a part of their confusion, but even after I explained it, the concept appeared fairly alien to them. In my experience, the Japanese are not in the habit of making such resolutions and, to my mind, that is all for the best.

I've read that most people fail at their resolutions within three months - five months on the outside. The key to lasting change and accomplishing ones goals is not to indulge in excess for a month and then do a 180-degree turn-around on a given date, but to make gradual progress toward a goal and to exercise moderation. I miss the fact that people aren't talking about New Year's resolutions at the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Random Thoughts: You are where you live

A very long time ago, when my husband was my boyfriend and we were in love but had never met face to face, we had an argument about children not yet born. Though it turned out that these hypothetical children were never to be and all our disagreements were moot, the exchanges we had on this topic are forever preserved in our audio correspondence from 1987.

One of the many topics that we disagreed on was whether or not parents were obliged to fund their children's further education should they decide to go to college. I was of a mind that, if you procreated, you owed it to your kids to fund their education. He was of the opinion that, if your offspring wanted a higher education, he or she should get a job and pay the way on his or her own. He not only said this, but suggested that it was easy enough for one to get some random office job and rake in some scratch. When I heard him say this, I openly scoffed in reply to such an absurd notion.

This exchange illustrated a fundamental issue that many people fail to understand. That is, in my husband's "world" in the Bay Area (in California), a young man with some brain cells to rub together could go out and grab an office job via a temp agency and save a tidy sum for whatever his needs were. In my "world", in rural Pennsylvania, any job of any type was hard to come by. Office jobs were generally reserved for professionals, not young guys looking to pay their car insurance or college tuition.

Both of us assumed the world operated according to the fundamentals that we grew up in. It didn't occur to us that life could operate so differently because of the real estate we occupied. In fact, like many people, we assumed the core of life and people was the same, but the superficial aspects were different. That is, he had sunny winters and I had gloom and heavy snow. Our cars had to have winter tires and snow chains and theirs were good year-round. We didn't think about the fact that there was more to it than such trivial differences.

When thinking about Japan, or life in any foreign culture, I think people often view the differences through a similar superficial lens. That is, they think that, at the core, the people are the same, but the little details are different. We sleep in beds. They sleep on floors. We tend to drink coffee. They tend to drink tea. We eat meat more often and they eat fish. They are comparatively polite and passive. We are comparatively rude and aggressive.

These observations, while true, regard the central character of individuals as roughly similar. They assume we're operating from the same core and making choices based on available options, but it's much deeper than that. My husband was a calm, placid, somewhat lazy, even-tempered optimist. I was an anxious, hard-working, temperamental and passionate pessimist. Both of us over the years have gravitated more toward the center, but our characters were shaped as much by environment as by genetics. A recent study talked about how weather, geography, etc. shape character. That notion that Californians are laid back? It's as much about the region as anything else and it's true.

The same holds for Japan, of course, and every other country. Living in close quarters and in largely hostile land (quite mountainous so therefore harder to build on and cultivate agriculture) with few natural resources with just enough weather variation to create life-threatening hardship creates people who need to go along to get along. While an American may look at a Japanese person and think that he simply can just make a choice to stand up for himself rather than suppress his opinions, that option is frequently as out of the question for him as it was for my hypothetical future child to casually go out and grab an office job in rural Pennsylvania.

That isn't the world that a Japanese person lives in. The notion that it is possible seems a little on the absurd side. They have to live in the world they're born into and can't simply make the same choices that could be made in the world you're born into. It's difficult for us to fathom that, but there are consequences that are far more dire in Japan to self-assertion that do not exist in the West.

Though things are changing, there are more serious consequences to being outspoken in Japan than there are in places like the U.S. One of my last students in Japan, a much older woman who I only taught twice, was an excellent example of the price one pays for being outspoken. She had lived a unique life off of the beaten track. She talked about how her family was "weird" because they ate steak instead of fish and that she was viewed as strange not only because she had lived in the U.S. for some time, but also because she had never married. Of course, no Japanese man would have endured her.

The career impact of her oddness, that is, her not keeping her mouth shut, was that she had to follow a path in which she had no coworkers. She chose to become a practitioner of Chinese medicine after spending some time being a stylist in the fashion industry in New York City so she could do her own thing as no one else would have her in their company. She said that she had no friends at all in Japan because of her inability to keep her opinions to herself. What is more, she was not the only person who told me this. On more than one occasion, a student told me that he or she could only talk about this or that topic with me because doing so with other Japanese people would result in ostracism. The option to speak freely simply was not on the table for them.

My point in this post is not to talk about how oppressive Japanese society is in terms of the level of expressiveness being there permits. It's rather to create a perspective in my reader's minds about how worldview isn't something we get to choose in many cases, but rather chooses us based on where we are born and the circumstances we are born into. What seems like a simple and obvious choice to us, like my husband's notion that one day a grown child of ours could get an office job and earn a tidy sum for college because that was what he could do, is not so simple, certainly not obvious, and sometimes impossible for other people. When one fully embraces this idea, it becomes easier to understand why others, both within and without our own culture, make choices that make no sense to us. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Won't Miss #45 - pitifiul economies of scale (reflection)

Now that I'm back in the U.S. with access to all of the types of sales that are common here, I conceptualize what it means to be able to buy a lot of something in order to get it cheaper. One of the common sales here is at Safeway supermarket at which I can buy cases of soda for about half the usual price during sales. They tend to do a "buy 2, get 2 (or 3)" free deal. Sure, we have stacks of soda sitting around for ages, but there is an enormous price advantage.

What I have realized is that, except on the rarest of occasions, the economies of scale gain isn't really worthwhile for a "family" of only two people. You can often buy a dozen donuts for a cheaper price than each donut individually sells for, but the two of us can't possibly consume them (and our freezer space is too precious for such an indulgence). Given the small sizes of things in Japan, economies of scale were actually more useful there than they are here.

It turns out that economies of scale sounded a lot better in theory than in practice and it's not really an issue here... either that or it was an issue there and only there. Either way, it doesn't appear to matter anymore.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Will Miss #44 - Akiyoshi yakitori-ya (reflection)

Sticks served on a stainless steel rim around the food preparation area at Akiyoshi.

One of the things that I mentioned to my husband about living in California was that it was not a happy place for me because I had no good memories associated with being here. In fact, I only had bad memories connected to it as the 10 months that I lived here from the summer of 1988 to the late spring of 1989 were not happy ones. He grew up where we are living now, so he at least has some sense of nostalgia and sentiment connected to the location. That being said, during our 23-year absence, the area he grew up in changed a great deal so even he doesn't have a lot of fond connections for particular places.

There is a lot to be said for places at which you've built memories by frequenting them. Akiyoshi was one of the first places in Tokyo that became familiar to me, both in terms of the food and the atmosphere. There were three locations in range of our apartment or our workplaces - Nakano, Ogikubo, and Ikebukuro. We used to hit the one in Nakano 2-3 times a month during our first year or two and the one in Ogikubo became our once a month visit during our last year. In fact, we had our last meal in Japan at the Ogikubo branch of Akyoshi.

I have so many memories of Akiyoshi and they are all quite good. It's a place which not only had good food, but a convivial atmosphere and a menu any foreigner could find tasty dishes on. I truly miss Akiyoshi and probably will for the rest of my life. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Random Memories #60

This is the conclusion of my series of memories based on working at a Japanese company for 12 years. It may not be the last memory of my experiences, but it will complete this series. The other parts are here:
1234567891011121314151617, 18.

After my company was purchased by a Nova subsidiary, my work experience took on a new cast. Yes, there was a lot of uncertainty with the imported staff from the new boss's former company, but, when the dust settled, my working situation became much more stable and there was a good deal less drama and strife. Rather ironically, it also lead to a bout with what would likely have been diagnosed as clinical depression (or quite close to it) and my eventual decision to quit.

While the old president brought a lot of strife into the workplace with his power playing, idiosyncratic behavior, and obsession with every little detail, the place felt more "alive" while he was there. There were periods of constant adjustment in which we created new content, flirted with new areas of business, and tended to work together as a team. Having been through the golden age brought on by the economic bubble in Japan, the old president, Mr. O., was always trying to revive his dying patient with some new economic therapy.

One of the early attempts to expand the company into the modern age which I absolutely dreaded the thought of was the inclusion of video phone calls. This was back before every granny and her grandchildren could log on to Skype using a camera seamlessly built into their computer and have a chat. In fact, it was back when ISDN (for those who don't remember, this was a step up in speed from dial-up internet back in the old days) was the cutting edge in connection speed technology. Mr. O. hitched his wagon to NTT (the Japanese equivalent to AT & T in the U.S.), bought some clunky-looking web cams, and finally upgraded our badly aging PCs to something with a snowball's chance in hell of running the proprietary software that was supposed to make talking with students and allowing them to see us at the same time a reality.

On the surface, the idea seems just grand. However, the president wanted this to be a one-way street. They wanted the students to see us, but did not want them to have to be seen. What was more, our students often conducted their telephone lessons on the fly from poor quality (and camera-less) cell phones, office phones, or pay phones. The chances that they'd choose not to call and miss their lessons was exponentially greater if they had to sit down at a specific time in front of a special PC outfitted with the right gear and software to process a video signal.

There was another aspect to this which we also hated. The fact was that we had to enter a ton of data into the computer as well as fill out various feedback forms while we talked to the students. There was no getting around the fact that we couldn't possibly be looking into the camera lens most of the time while doing the job. At least half of the calls required the sort of paperwork that one had to attend to rather consistently like drawing directions on a map, filling in a schedule in a roleplay in which an appointment was being made, or completing a final evaluation form which required specific comments. All of this had to be done during the lesson because we didn't have a guarantee of down time between calls. We simply could not see the value in such an upgrade when we'd likely spend the call looking at paperwork on the desk or at the computer screen and not the camera perched above it.

In the end, the entire idea was scrapped because the technology just was not there. The president appeared on camera for a test call and the video was so sluggish that he appeared to be moving in a jittery Matrix slow-motion scene. It was also simply a fact that the students did not care to see the teacher badly enough to bother. Even now, I teach one of my former face-to-face students via Skype and she could easily have a video lesson with me but prefers to just do it as an audio call. It's just not that important to see the other person's face and it takes a toll on the quality of the experience if the connection on either side or the equipment is not up-to-date.

During Mr. O's reign, my manager, D., and I worked closely together to weather the upheavals and develop new materials for each passing fancy. The experience felt fairly dynamic, though it obviously could be very stressful as well. When the new guy took over, everything felt flat and lifeless. We moved offices and I was placed at the other end of the building because of the noise and air conditioning issues. The phone cubicles needed to be away from the office workers and the salesmen in particular as they tended to get loud and raucous without regard for the fact that we were doing telephone lessons and their behavior interfered with our ability to do our jobs. Putting me - the only full-time instructor left - at the opposite end killed two birds with one stone. I no longer had to fry in the summer because I didn't have to compete with the reptilian metabolism of the office ladies and the noise situation was greatly reduced.

Unfortunately, D. was no longer doing telephone call lessons or did them so little that I was totally alone all day every day. The new president, Mr. G., was concerned mainly with growing sales through setting up a system of quotas with increasing sales targets rather than expanding the business. He did not want to invest in trying new things or building up new materials. We did refine old textbooks and I actually wrote and laid out an entire new book on my own only to have it set aside and abandoned, but materials development was not something which was being pushed anymore.

My work situation was stagnant and isolated. While I once used my down time to learn how to do desktop publishing and taught myself how to use Adobe's big ticket software, I'd largely mastered everything to the level needed for my work and that work was no longer even of much use. Beyond this situation, I'd also been cheated, mistreated, unappreciated, and taken for granted at the company for so many years that I felt quite worn out by it all. There was nothing behind me to be loyal to and nothing ahead to look forward to. What was more, business was so bad that the prospect of my husband coming to work there during busy seasons was vanishing from a low commitment by the company of employing him for only three months to zero. 

I've talked before about how life in Japan can be especially hard on women and that I knew no small number who became very depressed while living there. I saw it "break" more than one woman and I know how it happens because it broke me as well. It is a fact that women's brains work differently than men's. They process information and perceive the world differently on a neurochemical level. That tends to mean that they aren't missing much, especially if it has an emotional impact, whereas men tend to be more analytical and attend to less overall stimuli. 

Women don't miss much and multi-task. Men do see less and single-task. This is actually of great benefit in complex environments in which there are many people and things. This isn't a choice on either's part. It's a function of biology. If you couple women's sensitivity to the environment with living in a metropolis in which you are constantly bombarded with emotional stimuli, objectified both as a foreigner and as a female, and are generally without any substantial support system, it is a recipe for emotional difficulty.  

If you don't know the difference between being "depressed" and suffering from "depression", I'll tell you that a big part of it is energy. You lose the energy to go out and do what you have to do or struggle to get through the day. What is more, you often can't or don't enjoy things that you used to enjoy (in psychological terms, this is called anhedonia). As time went by, I became anhedonic and listless. You cannot "cheer up" because you lose the capacity to be happy about anything. It is not a choice to be sad or down in the dumps. It is a state which you cannot change by force of will.

I'm a strong person who is very disciplined. The fact that I write eight posts a week for two blogs regularly should speak to that. I can push myself in ways that most people cannot even when I am sick or having problems. It was that which kept me going to my job through depression for far too long. 

Over the course of a year, I started to feel more dead inside every day and it got harder and harder to go to work each morning. I took the longest vacation I could and came back feeling no better for having gotten away for three weeks. I knew it was long past time that I quit, but it was incredibly difficult to walk away for many reasons. The primary one was that I wasn't sure that I'd ever get a job in Japan which didn't involve face-to-face teaching again and I really believed that I didn't want to do that anymore (this ended up being a mistaken impression). I also felt an attachment to D. and my company which was hard to simply let go of. I think that, mainly, I was just afraid of making such a big change after having been in the same place - the same rut, really - for such a very long time.

During the vacation that was supposed to give me the boost I needed to go on, my husband and I talked and I finally decided to do what he'd been encouraging me to do for years - quit. I came in to work after that vacation and told D. that I didn't want to leave, but felt I had to. He said he understood and asked if I'd stay on for a little more than two more months rather than the one month I was contractually obliged to remain after giving notice. I agreed because I knew they would find it difficult to replace me and I also knew that he was looking at hiring as a lead up to the busy season. D.'s acceptance of my news reflected the fact that he knew I should have quit long ago as well, though I also knew he also wanted me to stay on some level. 

For a month, I cried every day because I was leaving. It may sound silly, but a lot of my identity and sense of stability was wrapped up in my job and company. It was like a family - an awful one that took me for granted and didn't always treat me well, but was always there for me. In Japan, where I had little else other than my husband to offer a sense of grounding, it was a lot to give up. 

After the first month, I cried myself out, but I was still sad to go and had moments in which I became emotional. I also started to train not one, but two successors. It seemed that I couldn't be replaced by a single party, especially when they'd been planning on dumping more responsibilities on me shortly before I left (though, honestly, that had nothing to do with my leaving - I was fine to do more work). Neither ended up lasting very long at the company after I left. 

One left within a year and the other within two. Neither was very good at the job and I knew this for a fact because one disappeared for over a month and I was sent the work at home that could not be done. It turned out he got arrested for getting into a fight at a soccer game and was being held by the police. Sometimes, even while he was there, I was sent some of the work he simply couldn't get done. While I was there, I did everything that was there no matter how large the load. It was difficult at times, but it could be done if one tried hard enough. My successors simply didn't care enough to try.

Later, he would just bug out and I was sent his work again until they replaced him.  I wonder in retrospect if the company appreciated the stability and work I did after the series of unstable employees who had no dedication to getting the work done. My best guess is that they never gave it a second thought. The chances that they suddenly had any regard for me or what I did after I was gone were pretty slim. 

The final time at the company was hard as much because of the depression I suffered from as any real loss, but the last day finally came. Mr. Saito, who was there the day I got hired, said he never thought I'd actually leave. Both D. and I had been there so long that he figured we'd be there when the lights were turned out or when we were both old and gray (D. was already gray, and I was well on my way).

The story that the office workers were told was that I was leaving to become a housewife. Only D. knew the truth about how I was just too mentally ill to go on there any longer. They bought me a nice set of dishes in line with this story and kindly shipped these heavy objects to my apartment rather than make me schlep them home. I gave a great goodbye speech which emphasized the aspects of working there that had me sobbing my way through so many final days and skipped over the negative parts that had ground me down over the years. There was no reason to burn bridges or grind axes at the end. 

I can remember what it felt like to stand in front of everyone and give that speech. I can't remember what it was like to get on a train for the last time and head home. I can only remember that the next year was spent in a state of depression in which I'd spend hours talking to my sister or playing Guild Wars or Diablo II with her and a friend of mine in the U.S. Besides that, I learned the ropes for how to shop in our local neighborhood at the cheapest places and how to become a better cook. I also started picking up private students one by one from ETC and my depression slowly lifted. It was also around that time (2006) that I started doing my first personal blog and I think a lot of the posts that I made at that time were a reflection of my state of mind. 

My views on life were certainly more negative then, but I think the writing was a way of trying to sort things out. That being said, once you have been seriously depressed, it alters your brain forever and you are inclined to be that way again and again. To this day, I continue to struggle, especially when times are hard as they have been since returning to the U.S.

It took nearly two years before I started to substantially find my way out of my depression and another year to make the next step and think seriously about leaving Japan. In retrospect, I think that my job was a trap that I stayed in of my own volition. I both wanted out and to stay in. I felt secure staying in it, even as it was taking away my sense of self-worth and represented living at a dead end. Having that job kept me in Japan which kept me from facing the scary prospect of leaving and trying to find my way in the U.S.- a place that had become more alien to me as the years went by and remains so to a great extent now.

Part of me knew quitting that job meant in some respects that I'd be "quitting" Japan. If I hadn't gotten depressed and become so dysfunctional, I'm not sure that I wouldn't still be there now. It's a sad truth that many people, including myself, are only motivated to change when they are miserable. It turned out that my life and mental health got greatly better between 2006 when I quit and 2012 when I left. I learned to love Japan more in the last three years than I had in the first 20, and that made leaving all that much harder when the time came. Those years are a story for another time, and possibly another place. 

(Yes, this is the end of this series, finally. However, more random memories from different points will be along. Thank you for reading this long-winded series!)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Won't Miss #532 - stain-orific mugs

I knew that there would be some things that I'd realize about life in Japan only after coming back to the U.S., but this is one that I never expected and couldn't have guessed. Awhile back, I posted about the habit in Japan of bleaching the crap out of everything, especially drinking cups. At that time, I thought they did this because of  an obsession with things looking clean that those of us in the West lacked. It turns out that there may be a bit more to it than that.

Just before Christmas, my brother-in-law came back for a visit and, to my utter delight, brought me some debu neko cups. I love the old debu neko (chubby cat) design and collected quite a few of these stuffed toys before coming to the U.S. The mugs he brought are just another way of bringing a little of their charm into my day and I switched over from a French-made cup (on the right in the picture above) to these charming little cups.

I have been drinking tea in the green cup on the right for quite some time and washing it by hand with regular dishwashing liquid. Shortly after I started using the debu neko cup from Japan, I found that it didn't wash clean the same way that my other coffee cups do despite having the exact same beverage and the same washing regime. I do not know why this is the case, but the Japanese cups stain from tea in a way that the other cups I have do not (and in a way I experienced in Japan for years). I'm guessing there is something about regulations or composition of the material that is different, but I now know why they bleach everything so often. If they don't, their cups will look like the cup pictured above on the left.

I don't miss this tendency for the cups to stain. In fact, now that I have these adorable cups and intend to keep using them, I can't possibly miss it. ;-)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Will Miss #531 - card delivery on holidays

This year, I had some expectations that I'd receive some real Christmas cards. No, I did not expect to receive them from Americans. I expected to get them from Japanese friends and I did receive a few (and they were gorgeous). When Christmas day arrived and I'd only gotten four cards, I had a strange sense of anticipation about possibly getting just one more on the holiday itself. Of course, in the U.S., there is no mail on national holidays. In Japan, I simply got spoiled by the fact that they deliver cards on the biggest holiday of the year - New Year's.

There was a culture in which New Year's cards played a huge role in the celebration of the holiday which created circumstances in which the post office delivered on that day. I miss having this to look forward to. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Random Memories #59

This is the enormous butt of a duck in stuffed toy form. Given what I mention in this post, the reason for showing something's tail end will become clear. FYI, this is in Sugamo, Tokyo. And, no, I don't get it either. 

This is part of an ongoing series that I've been doing about my memories of working at the same place for 12 years. The other parts are here: 
12345678910111213141516, 17.

While Steve was the foreigner half of the materials development "team" that was brought in when our company was acquired - if two people can even be called such - Mr. Hagihara was the Japanese half. From the start, he was a strange entity. We weren't even sure of what to call him because sometimes he wrote his name in roman letters as "Hagiwara" and sometimes as "Hagihara". While the Chinese characters for his name could be read either way, surely he had a way that he was generally addressed in Japanese and that was the reading his family followed. It seemed as if he couldn't even make up his mind about who he was or wanted to present himself to be at the most basic level.

A superficial examination would lead one to conclude that Hagihara was a slightly mod version of the average Japanese businessman. He wore his hair a little long in the front and had a habit of theatrically tossing a lock back with a snap of his head when it fell in his eyes. He wore suits and ties, but his pants were stove-pipe cuts that resembled the early Beatles' attire. On one occasion, he came in with a fuzzy tail pinned to the back of his pants. It was a fashion choice that I hadn't seen since my high school days in the early 80's and seemed extremely bizarre on a Japanese businessman in the 2000's, especially as a choice for wearing in a conventional office environment.

When he first assumed his position, my boss, D. (who is from Australia) was uncertain of the command structure and was rather deferential to Hagihara. He didn't know if they were at the same level or if this strange creature was his boss. To that end, he tried to accommodate him as best he could. At one point, someone had left a cup of hot water with a tea bag in the break room and this apparently offended Hagihara's delicate sensibilities. D. asked me if it was my cup and I said that it was not. When I queried about why this was a cause for concern, he said that Hagihara wanted the offending item removed from the kitchen as he felt it was "starting to stink." That was the first and last time that I ever heard anyone object to the aroma of an over-steeped teabag.

As time went by, D.'s initial regard for Hagihara degraded as we learned that he was very poor at the job he was supposed to be doing. When he did the work, it was barely adequate English teaching material. More often than not, he seemed to get very little done at all and presented us with far too little far too late more often than not.

D. was in a bit of a bind not only due to the confusion about the hierarchy, but also the fact that our new boss/president, Mr. G., seemed to be friends with Hagihara. It was difficult for him to lodge a complaint about the slipshod work that was being done when he was under the impression that he would be narcing on the president's buddy. All of us who were from the original company were wary of our status compared to those brought in from our acquirer's company. D. kept mum, and time eventually solved the problem.

Hagihara was never great at the job, but he did initially show up for work. As time went on, he started to miss days and, when he did show up, he appeared increasingly bedraggled in appearance. Frequently, there were no calls to the office to say that he would be absent. When someone tried to reach him at home, there would be no reply. As time went by, he didn't seem to be shaving or showering every day. His clothes were sometimes rumpled or the same ones that he wore the previous day. Days on which he looked groomed and appropriate were becoming rarer and rarer. 

His absences became so common that it took over a month of missing work for us to wonder if he was not coming back. D. and I worked around him when finally word came down that Mr. G. was giving up on him entirely. For several months, there was not a peep from Hagihara about why he was gone or for how long. When D. finally made an enquiry, he learned the sorts of truths that rarely reach foreign ears when working in Japanese companies.

After talking to Mr. G., D. learned that the president and Hagihara were never buddies despite what the latter lead D. to believe. They had worked together at the parent company, sure, but they weren't in any way closer than most employees. Mr. G. believed that Hagihara was deeply in debt to loan sharks and that his absences were related both to the reason for those debts and his attempts to avoid his creditors. Chances were that his disheveled appearance on so many occasions was the result of not being able to go home to wash and dress for fear of running into whatever goons were chasing after him for money. 

It took about eight months of this sort of behavior and Hagihara's seemingly permanent disappearance before the company decided that he was finished working for them. They tolerated his erratic behavior, poor work product, and unaccounced absences. This may surprise those who see Japanese workers as cogs in well-oiled machines, but Hagihara was not the first Japanese person whose unprofessional behavior was tolerated nor was Mr. G. the only top boss who put up with it. One thing I certainly learned during my years in Japan was that the Japanese can be incredibly patient and tolerant when they want to be, or at least they are with employees who are not foreign. (to be continued)

Happy New Year to my kind readers

This year will be the year of the horse. The fact that I pay attention to that is one of the lasting effects - one among many - of my time in Japan. It may seem a mere bit of trivia or an aspect of culture meant to add color and interesting fiction to the changing of the year. To me, it is more than that. It is a reflection of the  the way in which the shape of time passing is framed differently in various cultures. We see it mainly as numbers. They see it as rather different types of numbers or as something affiliated with an animal or different characteristics for those born in that year.

The important thing to me is to keep the understanding of varying perspective in mind. I see "2014", someone else sees it as Heisei 26, and others may see it as the year of the horse. Perspective is affected by numerous things such as this. For example, if you see the year as Heisei 26, then you're framing time through the number of years that someone has been emperor. Culture and the characters shaped within a particular one are built by such things. When you understand that, you start to appreciate and digest the complexity that makes up all of we humans.

I hope 2014 brings all of my readers a world full of the richness, personal growth and enlightenment that such complexity can bring.