Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Will Miss #544 - not being condescended to

There are some experiences in America that I have had which I did not have in Japan which are hard to encapsulate into a post heading. This is going to be one of them. In 1988, when I left the U.S. for my three- to five-year planned stay in Japan that ended up lasting 23 years, the culture was not nearly so politically correct or corrective in America. When I say, "corrective", I mean a culture which seems to shove the word "privilege" in my face every three seconds and makes enormous and frequently erroneous assumptions about who I am and the life I've lead based on my skin color alone.

One of the things which has happened to me many times is that I'm lectured to, often in a condescending or patronizing way, about how little I understand what it's like to be a minority, to be poor, to be around mentally ill people or criminals, live with people people with substance abuse problems, have limited opportunities, or understand the impact of certain types of dangerous and difficult work on the underprivileged (particularly as it applies to those who are in developing countries or undeveloped countries). As someone who grew up poor in an economically depressed area and in the middle of strip mines with an alcoholic father, verbally abusive mother, criminal drug-using and selling relatives, and who worked and lived with severely mentally ill people, and who lived in a country in which I was part of a minority that represented .2% of the population with there are no enforced protections of minority rights, I'm more than a little sick of this attitude and the assumptions underlying it.

My white skin, I guess rather shockingly for most people, hasn't produced someone who has grown up ignorant of hardship or what it's like to be a minority and face prejudice and discrimination (thank you, Japan for an unintended gift of empathy in this regard). The irony is that I'm often lectured to about such things by people who have not actually experienced such things themselves and simply assume that I, like they, grew up in some sort of protected existence. They labor under the assumption that they know something I don't and, by God, I need to be enlightened by their superior wisdom of such things! That's my way of saying the biggest gas bags in this regard are privileged white people.

In Japan, people may have reached a lot of silly, stereotyped conclusions about me based on being an American, but they never assumed that it was their place to enlighten me about the hardships of life while they sat in their ivory towers.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Winners of the "Things Japanese" book contest announcement

Many thanks to everyone who entered the contest to win a copy of Tuttle's "Things Japanese" book. I appreciate everyone who took the time to talk about their favorite books (though I could not comment in the thread as it would cause problems with the selection of a winner by random number generator). The winners were "LostinThought" and "Monica Gilbert". Please e-mail me at I will be forwarding your information directly to my contact at Tuttle and she will communicate directly with you about sending you your book.

Thanks again to everyone who took part!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Random Memories: Brush with Terrorism

Have you ever seen one of those old detective stories in which a cop asks someone "Where were you on the morning of March 20, 1995?" Most of the suspects haven't a clue what they were doing and, if enough time had passed, they also would have little idea of where they were. We only remember where we were on specific dates is something special happened. I remember exactly where I was on the morning of March 20, 1995 because something very unusual indeed occurred.

Those with a head for dates already know that I'm referring to the date of the sarin gas attacks carried out in the Tokyo subway system. It was a Monday. I remember this very well because that Sunday and Monday were my days off from work and I generally stayed in my home area and avoided trains on Mondays. I wanted nothing more on that day to blissfully stay home and relax as I so often did, but that wasn't the way things were going to be.

I had a doctor's appointment in Hiroo that morning, however, and had to get onto the subway, the Marunouchi line, that morning. I dreaded not only going to the doctor because nobody likes going to the doctor, but also the profound physical pain that was going to accompany the trip. I was subjecting myself to medical treatment in service of my terrible back pain and it was always arduous enduring the walk as well as standing on super crowded trains. I knew that I had a great deal of agony ahead of me.

My appointment was rather early in the day, around 9:15 or so, and I'm one of those nervous types who likes to be no later than 15 minutes early. My husband is the sort of person who thinks that there's plenty of time if he believes he's got a minute to go before the train arrives. It has been a bit of a tug-of-war between us to find the happy medium between his pedantic adherence to punctuality which leaves no margin for the unexpected and my neurotic and paranoid desire to be early in anticipation of everything going wrong. On that Monday morning, "everything" did go wrong.

My husband's tendencies resulted in he and I leaving the apartment eight minutes later than I'd hoped to go. That meant that we missed the train I wanted to take to Hiroo and were one later. This meant my window of making the appointment was narrowed down to being "only" about five minutes early. It's important to note that my concerns weren't entirely due to a personality quirk. With my back pain, I often needed to find a spot even on a short walk to stop and rest to recover from the pain. I sometimes needed that extra time for good reason.

As we hustled out the door, I was more than a little angry at my husband for making us miss the train I wanted to make and very stressed out. I'm sure I was snarky with him and generally in a terrible mood for all of the aforementioned reasons. It turned out that my husband's lateness on that day may have saved our lives.

When we reached Ebisu station, everything stopped and there were crowds everywhere. We couldn't understand the announcements or what was going on, but things were utter chaos. All we knew was that we were stuck there and couldn't make our connection to the Hibiya line. It was also impossible to get a cab to Hiroo from there because of the stranded throngs. At that point, we didn't know the bus routes well enough to hop on one so we walked to Hiroo in a great state of annoyance.

As we headed around the block toward the clinic's location, there was a bakery with a T.V. on. There was an enormous crowd of people in front of it watching something, but we had no time to stop and see what it was. We knew something was going on, but we didn't know what. My husband said he suspected it related to what happened with our subway train.

When we arrived at the clinic, I profusely apologized for being so late, but they were quite nonchalant. They said something had happened and no one was getting there anyway. The doctor saw me and we had to figure out a way to get home using JR (the train line) and avoid the stopped subway.

It wasn't until a little later that we found out all of the details of what we'd barely missed being a part of. Had we made the train that I wanted to make, there was a good chance that we may have been on one of the exposed trains or in a station at which it stopped and station personnel were handling the packages.

I read later that a man who worked at one of the stations had picked up one of the paper bags and tossed it in the trash because he didn't know what it was. He later died because of his contact with the poison. The tiniest amount can kill and that poor man was just doing the job he did everyday keeping the trains tidy for the fastidious Japanese commuters and he paid with his life. Even if we hadn't been on the train itself, being in one of the exposed areas (like Shin-Koenji station) could have had a terrible effect on us.

I sometimes think back on that day and how fate kept us a few steps behind the worst of things either as more direct witnesses or as potential victims. I'm a lot less hard on my husband now for making us "late" and a lot less uptight about being early. The fact that I never went out on a Monday morning and probably hadn't done so for years at that point made the close call even more chilling and I haven't forgot that either.

The thing which has stuck with me the most though, and what compelled me to think back on this memory and write this post was the change in everyday life that followed. Because the attacks were carried out by placing newspapers wrapped around plastic bags of sarin gas (which were then punctured with the tip of an umbrella), the stations started telling everyone to immediately report any packages or items left behind on the trains. A random magazine left on the rack above the seats could incite fear and paranoia. An abandoned plastic shopping bag with the remains of someone's lunch that was abandoned by someone too lazy to find a trash can could compel one to walk from one car to the next one.

For many years after the attack, "wasuremono", or things left behind or forgotten, created an atmosphere of concern and paranoia. Signs were put up on the trains and stations warning people not to touch them and to inform personnel immediately. I don't remember at what point this sort of instruction stopped being issued, but it was definitely not for quite some time.

Recently, I was taking a walk around the park in order to clear my head. I do this at times to help me write. Creativity does not generally flourish in a state of mental chaos. As I exited the park, I walked through a parking lot. In the middle of a certain open area, there was an unlabeled red and black box. It made me sufficiently paranoid that a bomb might be in it that I walked more quickly out of the park.

Though my rational mind knows that it was a box left behind by someone who took part in the Fourth of July festivities earlier in the week, the irrational part is thinking "probably", "maybe", "most likely" instead of "definitely". I have no doubt that this was the mental tattoo left on me as a result of the sarin gas attack. It may fade as time goes by, but I don't know if it will ever completely disappear.

A little reminder that a previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter. The contest will end on July 25, 2014. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Won't Miss #57 - drunkenness as an excuse (reflection)

This topic is one that has been on my mind for other reasons as of late. There are several things that have inspired thoughts about drinking and behavioral control, not the least of which has been the national debate about rape and alcohol in college culture. I took a graduate course in addiction last summer so I have a deep understanding of the effects of alcohol on the brain. It lowers inhibitions, it reduces sensory capacity (you can't hear, feel, see, etc. as well), and it impairs memory. It inhibits bodily control as well as mental control. Alcohol has a profound impact on control. That means that, technically speaking, being drunk is actually an "excuse" or reason for doing things that you wouldn't do if you weren't intoxicated.

That being said, most people know these things on certain levels already. In the U.S., we have drunk driver checkpoints and a judicial system that does not offer more lenient sentences because an offender was intoxicated. In fact, the system tends to be harsher on people who hurt others while drunk. The opposite continues to be so in Japan and, in my opinion, all this does is continue to encourage people not to control their drinking. As long as "he was drunk" means "he was less responsible for his actions," people have no incentive to be cautious about their alcohol consumption. I still don't miss a culture in which drunkenness is considered an reasonable excuse for bad or even criminal behavior.


A little reminder that my previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter. The contest will end on July 25, 2014. I will announce winners (Tuttle has generously offer two books) based on comment order using a random number generator.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A word about lost comments

Several people have mentioned that comments are missing. I'm not sure what is going on, but Blogger seems to be having a bad time of it lately. Unfortunately, there is nothing that I can do about this as I have no control over what Google does once a comment is submitted. I either get notified of a comment and publish it or I never see it at all. If you are using a particular account and failing, it sometimes helps to use a different account to post a comment from.

I realize that this is frustrating for readers, especially when a contest is going on and your comments serve as your entry, but please know that I'm not failing to publish the comments. I'm just not seeing them at all. If you try to comment and it doesn't show up in 8 hours, please e-mail me the comment and I will post it for you. I'm sorry for the inconvenience. If it were in my power to do something about it, I certainly would!

Will Miss #56 - surgical masks (reflection)

One thing I have realized since coming back to the U.S. is that cultural context truly matters. This is something I've pondered in relationship to the debate over face-obscuring hijab or burkas being worn by women in the name of their native culture. In America, a country in which there is a fair bit of crime, covering ones face in a manner which obscures identity is a very different kettle of fish than it is in cultures in which there is less crime or crime in which identity is obscured.

In Japan, people wore surgical masks regularly to protect themselves from the flu or colds or to prevent allergens from getting through during certain seasons. In the context of Japanese society, which has little crime and people rarely rob and cover their faces to hide their identities, the wearing of such masks seems cute, quirky, and endearingly paranoid (if paranoia can be seen as "endearing"). Everything I read framed it as less than "useful", but I think the jury is still out on that.

I find that I not only miss how seeing the masks made me smile a little inside, but also knowing that I lived in a society in which covering one's face in this fashion was not seen as any sort of problem as it did not link potential criminal behavior. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Random Thoughts: The Curious Relationship Between Fish and Aggression

My mother was (and probably still is) a terrible cook. When I was growing up, I was taught that meat of any sort was not safe to eat unless it was cooked until its texture was close to shoe leather. To this day, my father will not eat a piece of meat if any sort of juice runs freely within it. Chicken in particular was considered a potential source of food poisoning unless all of the moisture was cooked out of it and the exterior was similar to jerky.

You may believe that I am exaggerating. My sister, who has the unfortunate task of living with and caring for my aging parents, would support me in my contention. She still has to contend with their notions of what "properly cooked" means and it complicates her life when it comes to meal preparation. While she'd like not to resemble a crazed wolf tearing at a carcass while eating, the level at which meat must be cooked in order to satisfy my parents requires her to contend with levels of toughness which give the jaw a good workout and wear down tooth enamel.

Because I grew up with the idea that anything close to raw (or not cooked to death) would expose one to fatal food poisoning, it took me many years in Japan before I'd eat anything that was raw. Even now, I'm a bit repulsed by the notion of raw fish or egg and eat it with a small amount of trepidation. I no longer believe it's unsafe, but the quivery look and texture are not things which I grew up feeling were a part of a great eating experience. This is one of the reasons I'm not crazy about sushi and sashimi, but the truth is that I've avoided even cooked fish for most of my life.

My family did eat fish on occasion. Because we were so poor (and we actually were really poor - the sort where you ran out of money for food and had to scrounge for change or things to sell off in the pre-eBay era), the fish we ate rarely came from a store. It generally came from a river or lake. We didn't eat it very often even though it was, ostensibly, free, because my father wasn't the world's greatest fisherman, the lakes and rivers weren't well-stocked because it was nature's way or nothing, and my mother hated cleaning it. I don't know if you've ever had to gut and scale a fish, but it is pretty gross. The inside of a fish smells about a hundred times worse than the outside and the exterior is no trip to the perfume counter at Macy's.

Beyond the gutting and scaling issues, there was the fact that not all fish is created equal in terms of taste and texture. The type of fish that my father could catch, freshwater fish, is supposedly a lot less tasty than saltwater varieties and I have to say that I never enjoyed eating it. Any time my mother baked a fish, I'd opt for grilled cheese because, beyond not tasting great, I hated picking out all of those tiny bones.

One of my students once said that her husband went fishing and, when I asked her if she ate the fish he caught, she said that he caught and released because she didn't like the taste of freshwater fish. She said the saltwater has an effect on the flesh such that it's better, but, being no fish expert, I merely took her word for it and concluded what I often have about tastes and cuisine. That is, people like what they grew up eating and Japanese people grew up eating a lot more fish than me.

I've spoken before on this blog about how I think the Japanese diet is over-rated in terms of health, but it can't be denied that the composition of their diet is much heavier in seafood. It's important that I hasten to say that this is not because they are such health-minded people who take care to eat nutritiously, but rather because they live on a tiny island with a lot of accessible water and rather hard going when it comes to farming in certain places. They eat fish because their ancestors could survive on it more easily than other things. It was essentially the lowest hanging fruit when it came to food. The cuisine developed around what was available, not around what was best for their bodies. This is the case with every country.

It is quite serendipitous on many levels that the Japanese food culture is so saturated with fish consumption. Most people know that it is a good source of lean protein and essential fatty acids. Only a tiny handful know what I have learned only recently and that is that eating fish, especially if you are a pregnant woman or a young child, decreases the likelihood that you will grow up to be a violent adult. Yes, you read that right. The brains of people who are gestated by women who eat diets rich in Omega-3 fatty acids (which are available commonly in fish and dark, leafy greens - including kelp and seaweed which are also a part of the Japanese diet) and who eat such food as children have a far lower chance of growing up to have the type of brains that aggressive and violent people do.

I'm not going to go into the structural information here because I'm sure it'd bore readers to tears, or confuse those who aren't into reading about the specifics of brain chemistry for fun. If you want the details, you're welcome to read what I've read from Adriane Raine. If you don't want to buy his book, The Anatomy of Violence, check it out of your local library and read chapter 7 ("A Recipe for Violence"). He talks about a great many factors which go into breeding people with a propensity for psychopathy and violent behavior and the picture is eye-opening. It's not only about fish, but the Omega-3 fatty acid connection is pretty strong, as are factors like smoking and alcohol during gestation and income inequality.

I have always felt that Japanese society was less violent because they have relative income parity and the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" was pretty small. That is a piece of it (and studies support that), but it could also be that poverty brings other aspects along with it such as poor nutrition in essential areas that make American brains more prone to violence and self-control. Reading his book has confirmed something I've believed for a long time and that is that we create the society in which we live.

By not attending to the needs of people at the bottom of the economic scale and insuring that their children are well-fed and cared for, we create criminals on a neurological level. It's not that they are making a bad choice and we are making good ones, but rather that they have a fundamental lack of ability to make the better choices because of all of the factors that went into their upbringing. What is more, their brains are such that it's too late for them to change these tendencies later in life. You can't undo the damage once its done anymore than you can reverse brain damage from an accident (and I'll resist the almost knee-jerk explanation about what happened to Phineas Gage here).

After reading The Anatomy of Violence, I'm left with the rather stunning possibility that Japanese people are fundamentally gentler and more passive than people in other cultures because, at least in part, their exposure in utero and in youth to fish and the Omega-3 fatty acids they offer built brains that make them less aggressive. A piece of that is culture, but I have to ponder if that culture is informed by a nature that was bred in them as a result of what they eat rather than who they are. That is, their culture advocates passivity to some extent because they are inclined that way rather than they are inclined that way because of culture. It's a fascinating piece of the cultural puzzle. The evidence is quite compelling and, if I were to ever get pregnant (not bloody likely), I'd be certain to eat fish as much as I could stomach despite my general lack of affinity for it.


A little reminder that my previous post contains a contest to win a free (and beautiful) book about Japan. Check out the last paragraph or so and leave a comment to enter.

Friday, July 4, 2014

"Things Japanese" (A Book Review and Contest)

Image courtesy of Tuttle Publishing

It was not uncommon in my English lessons for students to ask me about those aspects of Japanese culture to which I felt particularly drawn. In my earlier days in Japan, I often mentioned that I really liked sumo wrestling. This response invariably elicited a someone patronizing little smile and a question about which wrestler I liked best. The answer to that question was actually more loaded than one might imagine.

The sumo wrestler I chose would convey something about not only my understanding of Japanese culture, but also whether or not I had nationalistic tendencies. If I said an American wrestler's name, they'd conclude that my enjoyment was based solely on seeing one of my countrymen participate. If I chose a popular and physically appealing Japanese wrestler, they'd think that I was only attracted superficially to the sport and did not have real depth of understanding.  And, yes, there were physically "pretty" wrestlers who had a lot of muscle and handsome faces. The Western notion of blubbery guys in thongs is not entirely incorrect, but often is based on insufficient experience with the sport.

Knowing that an answer was going to say something about me and my knowledge of the deeper aspects of the culture steered me toward saying "Mitoizumi". During my formative years in Japan, he was known for his lavish tosses of salt into the ring before bouts and his happier than usual nature for a sumo wrestler. In fact, one of the reasons I liked him was his, by Japanese standards, "flamboyant" behavior and lack of suppression of his joy when victorious. When he won his first and only tournament, he shed tears of happiness. This was nearly unheard of in the sumo world, but I loved him for it.

My choice of Mitoizumi was calculated because it not only allowed me to show that I wasn't a superficial fan, but it encouraged follow-up questions that allowed me to show off my in-depth knowledge of this particular corner of Japanese culture. When I talked about how I loved it when a wrestler won using a dramatic "utchari" move - a winning maneuver in which a man with his back against the edge of the ring who looked close to being pushed out would pick up his opponent and swing him around to lift him out (famously performed on many occasions by one of the aforementioned pretty boys of sumo, Kirishima) - the patronizing smiles were history. They unerstood that I knew what I was talking about, and often remarked (quite accurately) that I knew far more about sumo than they did.

It's not particularly uncommon for foreign folks who have a niche interest in some part of Japanese culture to know more than the natives in one or two areas. Japanese people often could not answer my questions about the deeper meaning or history of many of the tokens of their culture and I found that rather disappointing at times. I am not only a curious person by nature, but I also like to be educated rather than only know things superficially. This could be rather troublesome at times for my students who would often have to tell me they didn't know the answers to my probing questions about their culture.

When I was interested in sumo, I scoured the bookstores for resources to inform me in English about it so that I could understand it since I couldn't really query my Japanese acquaintances for answers I knew they didn't have. One of the places which I often visited was a bookstore in Jimbocho called "Tuttle". This is the name of a publishing company that many foreign folks know well for their excellent materials on Japan. If you bought a book that told you all you needed to know about a subject, there was a very good chance that their name was on the spine. One of my earliest guides, a book that I kept with me for many years called A Guide to Food Buying in Japan, came courtesy of Tuttle.

The folks at Tuttle contacted me and offered me a chance to review the release of a beautiful book they're releasing called Things Japanese. Considering the name of my blog, how could I say "no?" Their brief description of the book gave me some idea of what it may be like in terms of the pictures, but the content was much more than I had expected. It offers an in-depth guide to those little things that you see all over Japan, but don't know what they mean, how they came about, or even why they happen to be placed where they are. It answered a lot of the questions that I asked my students about why something is designed in a particular way or how it came about.

What I expected from this book was that it was going to be full of pretty pictures, and it is. The photography makes this a splendid coffee table book at a softcover price. What I didn't expect was that it would provide background information in such great detail and answer questions like, "Why do Japanese people still use tatami when it needs to be replaced so often and attracts dust mites?" It even answered a question I would have asked had I thought of it and that was why my living room was the only room in my old apartment that included a "half mat" as part of its measurements. 

Reading though this book reminded me of my experience with sumo because it allows a non-Japanese person to know Japanese culture in a way that Japanese people often do not. If I were still teaching, I would love to have this book on hand as a resource for starting conversations about Japanese culture. It was always my experience that my students enjoyed talking about Japanese culture both because it was something they had intimate experience with and because they were flattered when a foreign person showed such interest in it. Given that it is often difficult for Japanese people to express themselves in English, being well-versed in a cultural aspect allowed me to help students complete thoughts or find vocabulary for things they wanted to talk about when it came to icons and various elements in their environment. In essence, I was a better teacher for already knowing the answers to at least some of the questions I asked my students. 

Beyond the aid to teaching this book might represent, it's quite interesting to anyone who wants to dig a little deeper into what those stone lantern things are sitting in Japanese gardens, why and what those curtains that are in the doorways or many businesses, or why those short coats worn during summer festivals. The truth is, despite my many years in Japan, I don't know what the history or in-depth information is on such items. I know the names, sure, and I've seen such things plenty of times, but I still don't know the background or reasons. This is a very informative, not to mention attractive, book for those who'd like to achieve the same sort of deeper understanding of Japanese culture that I have of sumo.

In addition to providing me with a free copy of Things Japanese, Tuttle has offered two of my readers a chance to win their own. If you'd like a chance to win a copy in a random drawing, please leave a comment on this post (comments on other posts will not count) telling me your favorite book about Japan (fiction or non-fiction) or, if you don't have one, the cultural icon or aspect that you find most appealing or intriguing. Winners will be announced on this blog at a later date and receive a copy directly from the publisher.

Please make only one comment. If you make multiple comments, I will have to delete one of them because it would be equivalent to two entries in the contest. If you have another comment, please leave it on a different post and note that it refers to this post. Thank you!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Won't Miss #544 - emergency call fear

One of my greatest fears in Japan was that something would happen and I'd need to call for the police or an ambulance. Communicating in a foreign language can sometimes be trying in the best of times depending on the context, the person you're speaking with, and the vocabulary required. Doing so in a situation in which one is in a panic is almost unimaginable. If there is ever a situation in which you won't be able to get your head straight, it's when a loved one is lying unconscious on the floor.

I'm very happy that nothing ever happened which required me to call for emergency services in Japan and I don't miss the fear that occasionally popped into my head at the notion of having to do so.