City skyscape photo that I took from Odaiba

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Kimono day!

My coworker Shiho is probably my best Japanese friend. She is fun, smart, cool, and kind-hearted. She also teaches Japanese at another school, so she has been a great help for language learning. Additionally, I often bring my cultural questions to her, and she has offered me some wonderful insight. Conversely, whenever she has questions about English or American culture, I'm happy to share my knowledge.

Well, the other day, several of us coworkers were riding the subway home from work and chatting (as normal). We all live at different stops, and when the Australian coworker I was sitting next to exited, I leaned over and gave her a quick hug and air kiss on the cheek as we said our nightly goodbyes. Shiho and I live the furthest from work, so when I got off, we were the last two coworkers left, and I gave her the same hug and air kiss. While walking home, I got a text from Shiho saying that she really appreciates how I include her in our foreign culture and that in Japan they don't hug or kiss like foreigners do, but that she likes that aspect of our culture. She said that she wanted to be able to share her culture with me more and said that her mom knows how to dress people in kimonos; she thought perhaps that might be a fun experience for me to get dressed up in one before I leave Japan. I was very excited about the idea, and we ended up planning a kimono day for us three foreign women at work. It was great fun!! We finished the night off with an amazing sushi and tempura dinner at Shiho's parents' place.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Jouzu desu ne! (You're skilled, aren't you!)

One of the first Japanese phrases I learned how to say was, "I speak a little Japanese, but I am not skilled yet." As this seemed beyond blatantly obvious to me, I remember being quite annoyed that the CD audio lesson was wasting my memorization efforts on this phrase instead of something more useful, like "Where is the bathroom?"

But after I got to Japan, I realized why learning how to say I was unskilled was important. In Japan, there are proper protocols for interacting and certain prescribed conversations for different situations. Often these will involve uplifting others and downgrading yourself. One of the prescribed conversations Japanese people are expected to have with foreigners involves telling them that they are skilled at the language and with using chopsticks.

My initial reaction to being told I was skilled at Japanese was one of excitement. I was happy to know my efforts were paying off and people thought my pronunciation was clear. This quickly turned to annoyance, however, as I felt like I was being patronized. Clearly I wasn't skilled at the language, and it seemed like the worse you were at Japanese, the more often people told you that you were skilled. I felt like every time I had to respond with, "No, I'm not skilled" that I was inflating their ego. It was as if no one expected a dumb foreigner to be able to master their most difficult and complex language, but they would give me a little pat on the back for trying.

People also sometimes tell me I'm skilled with chopsticks. This took me off guard the first couple times I heard it, as we don't generally go around complimenting people about their utensil skills in the U.S. I would just mutter short responses of thanks. Then I began to get annoyed hearing that I was skilled at chopsticks because I just wanted to eat and not feel like my feeding method was being scrutinized. My responses began going along the lines of, "Well, I do live in Japan. I use chopsticks everyday."

Then on one particular evening, my view of the "you're skilled" conversations changed. I was at dinner with some students and another co-worker. A student in his 50's told me I was skilled at chopsticks. I responded with, "Thanks. You too." To which he responded, "Oh no, actually, I do not hold my chopsticks the regular way." And he showed me how most Japanese people hold their chopsticks and how his style was incorrect. In essence, I feel like his response would be the equivalent of a left-handed person deflecting a penmanship compliment by saying he doesn't hold his pen in the same hand as most people. In other words, the way my student held his chopsticks did not have any bearing on his ability to use them well. Thus, I concluded that if a Japanese person in his 50's, who clearly knows how to use chopsticks, still deflects the "you're skilled" compliment, then I most certainly should too.

So, from then on out, I haven't become too annoyed when people have told me I am skilled at Japanese or using chopsticks. For the language, I respond with, "No, I'm not skilled. Japanese is very difficult." And for chopsticks, something along the lines of, "Thank you, but I am still not very good at cutting meat with chopsticks like Japanese people are." Then the conversations move on, and I realize I am actually just integrating myself a little better. I'm responding to the prescribed conversations correctly and therefore making our connection and interactions more pleasant. They can uplift me, and I can show I know that I have a long ways to go, which in essence uplifts their skills in return.

Monday, September 15, 2008

No purse snatchers here

Japan has a low crime rate. Overall, I would say this is the country where I have felt the safest. Not to say crime doesn't happen or you don't hear stories, because you do. But generally, I think it's okay to let your guard be a little lower here.

For example, the first time I ever got my haircut in Japan, the assistant at the salon offered to take my purse before she showed me to the stylist's chair. I paused to consider the offer, then politely declined as best I could (why on earth would I let my purse out of my sight with a stranger?). Instead, I set it on the floor next to the chair. Well, as all floors in Japan are considered dirty and the customer service is impeccable, the assistant quickly rushed back over with a basket that I could put my purse in. I felt a bit self-conscious for not following protocol, and in all subsequent trips to the salon, I have let them take my purse up front. It has been been kept very clean.

Anyway, the other day, I was at a cafe near work on my lunch break, sitting outside and enjoying the pleasant weather. A woman walked up to the table across from me, set her rather large purse down, then walked inside the cafe. I was dumbfounded. I mean, I know this is a safe country, but who reserves their outdoor seating with a purse?? Utterly amazed, I counted how many people walked by (the number of potential suspects, you see) before she returned: 10. Nobody seemed to care about the abandoned purse. And as nobody but myself was sitting outside, I even took out my cell phone and blatantly framed my picture. Probably 4-5 minutes later, the woman nonchalantly returned with her latte, and sat in the empty chair across from her purse, ready to enjoy the sunshine. Now that is leaving your guard down.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Three languages

Yesterday I conversed with native speakers in English, Japanese, and Spanish. It was the first day of my life that I ever had a small glimpse of what it would feel like to be "multi-lingual." It was great. I was out with friends, and we spotted a Mundo Latino store, which turned out to be a small convenience store with goods from South America. I bought chifles and talked a little bit with the store keeper, who was from Chile and had been living and working in Japan for the past six years. And later in the day, a Japanese woman who was hanging out with us asked how much Japanese I knew and then was asking me questions in Japanese to let me practice some. And also last night, I got my first e-mail in Japanese (written with Roman characters though -- I can't read kanji) that I could for the most part understand what it meant. Anyway, so it was a very exciting/motivating day. :)

Monday, April 14, 2008

A love of flowers

As I heard on the Tokyo news tonight (they do simultaneous translation to English which I listen to using my TV's bilingual function):

"And now the weather. The dandelions are now in bloom. The weather has been warming up, so they are now visible for us to enjoy. When it rains or is cloudy, they close up. So, it depends on the weather. And when it is windy, their seeds scatter. So we can enjoy the flower again next year."

That's certainly a different perspective.

And then they proceeded to talk about the cherry blossom front.

They have maps to show when the flowers are blooming across the country.

The cherry blossoms are a huge deal here. They are a signal of spring and a time to celebrate their fleeting beauty. People come out in droves for cherry blossom viewing parties, or hanami. Basically, people gather at parks, sit on tarps, and eat and drink under the blossoms. It has been wonderful fun. The weather has been much more pleasant lately and the blossoms provide an excellent excuse to be outside. Public drinking is legal here, so it has been interesting to see families with babies picnicking next to loud, drunk college-aged party-goers. Anyway, here are some of my best cherry blossom photos from the last couple weeks:

Gibberish no more!

So, I was chatting with one of my friends back home who likes origami. Actually, that is an understatement -- who is obsessed by origami creations in his free time (to my friend: if you're reading this post, by obsession I mean that you are an origami sensei, a master ;) ). Apparently, there is this out of print book called "Super Complex Origami" by Issei Yoshino. My friend really wants to be able to get a copy, but he can't read the Japanese Amazon site and can't figure out where he can buy one. Well, I have the ability on my computer to type with hiragana and katakana (the basic Japanese alphabets), so I tried to search with origami (おりがみ) and the author's name (よしの いっせい) in hiragana. But I think because the book is out of print, I wasn't having much luck on Amazon. Then my friend sends me a link with a picture of the book:

And I thought, "Oh! That's fantastic. The book title is in katakana, which I can read and search on." So I did a search on スーパー コンプレックス おりがみ and got the following results list, which I sent to my friend:

But he said his computer didn't have the ability to read Japanese characters, so he couldn't tell what anything said. So I was clicking on the links and most of them were just people proudly displaying their super complex origami masterpieces. However, then I found one that was an auction site for the book. So, I happily sent my friend the link.

Again, though, he told me his computer couldn't display Japanese, and he sent me the image of what he could see:

So I took a screen shot and sent it to him, so he could read it. I told him it was ¥10,000 though, which is about $100. And that I couldn't really tell what it said, but it looked like maybe the auction actually ended in December...

To which he responded, "Let me get this straight. I send you an image of gibberish that I can't read. To help me, you send me back another image of gibberish, albeight more organized-looking, but which I also can't read."

Then we had a good laugh. :)

But what was notable about the exchange was that one, I actually successfully found the book for sale while searching in Japanese and two, I hadn't really thought that sending him the screen shot image wouldn't be helpful. I actually typed along with the attachment, "Here, now you can read it." Anyway, so perhaps I am beginning to think much less of Japanese as "gibberish" than I used to.

My usual reaction to a page of Japanese characters used to be one of natural indifference, and therefore in a sense avoidance, because they held no meaning for me. But still, I really don't know hardly any kanji (the main characters that make up the Japanese language), so I still don't understand the Japanese I see for the most part, but slowly more and more is coming together.

I remember the very first time I ever recognized kanji on my own in a real life situation. I was on the subway and we had just stopped at a station. I was looking at an advertisement out the subway window that was of an old Japanese map, which correspondingly, had lots of Japanese writing all over it. And suddenly it dawned on me that some of the writing was the name of the areas and their respective number for the address system. So the area's name kept repeating, but the number would be different at the end. Esp. the first three numbers in Japanese are very simple, so it was easy to see: 1: 一 2: 二 3: 三 . So, for example, some sections on the map would have looked something like this: 西新宿 西新宿 西新宿三. And then when I recognized the pattern, I was able to understand what it meant, and I was quite delighted that I had figured it out in the short 15 seconds that the subway stopped at that station. And as counterintuitive as it may seem, at the same time, I remember feeling surprised that the usually nonsensical characters held meaning.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I just got pulled over by a cop

Quick background. We just had two of our old foreign teachers finish their contracts two weeks ago and two new ones come. Although I already had a bike (it was a small, fold-up one with tiny wheels [read = slow and sweat-producing]), I bought a regular-sized bike, with a basket, from one of the outgoing teachers. I then sold my small bike (at quite a bargain price, to be fair) to one of the new teachers.

So the new coworker who bought my bike lives one station north of me, which is fairly close (maybe 5 minutes by bike, 15ish walking). So he came with me to my apartment tonight to pick up the bike, and then, because I know the area better, I went with him (both of us with bikes now) to show him how to get to his station from my place. And afterwards we got dinner and drinks at an izakaya.

So then after dinner, a little before 1:00 a.m., I am biking home and I pull up at a stoplight right after I pass a cop. He then walks over to me and we have the following conversation [in brackets = conversation in Japanese]:

Cop: [Do you speak Japanese?]
Me: [A little]
Cop: [What's your name?] your name?
Me: (I dismount my bike and say my name)
Cop: (pointing at the registration number on my bike) [Is this bike registered in your name?]

Important sidenote:
1. Bikes must be registered in your name and police officers sometimes stop people to ask this question to help prevent bike thefts. They also sometimes ask stop foreigners to ask to see their Alien Registration Card.
2. I still had not changed the bike registration from my previous coworker's name to mine.
3. From what I understand, it is illegal to drink and ride your bicycle here, and there is a zero-limit for alcohol. Although I was not drunk, I did have a beer and some sake.
4. Throughout our entire conversation, people are passing by and staring, trying to overhear why the cop has stopped the gaijin.

Me: [No. My friend.]
Cop: [What is your friend's name?]
Me: Sarah Johnson*
Cop: [Where is she?]
Me: [Saitama (the prefecture north of Tokyo).] She moved two weeks ago. [work]. We were coworkers... [I bought the bike (although I used the wa particle instead of the o particle, so I said this sentence a bit wrong)]
Cop: ?
Me: [I bought the bike...]
Cop: ?
Me: [bought... buy... I bought the bike.]
Cop: [Whose name is the bike registered under?]
Me: Sarah.

The the cop radios some station, gives them the bike registration number, and they respond back with the name. But it sounded kinda fuzzy, and I'm not sure he could really make out the name anyway... So at this point, he looked slightly perplexed as to what to do.

Cop: [Bike] something something something
Me: [I'm sorry. Bike?]
Cop: [Bike] something, something, something
Me: [I'm sorry. I don't understand.]

pause while he contemplates what to do.

Cop: [Can you call Sarah?]
Me: [Yes. On my cellphone?]
Cop: [Yes. Or is it too late?]
Me: [I don't know.] (knowing actually that yes, it was too late and she would be asleep...)
Cop: [Does Sarah speak Japanese? Sarah] do you speak Japanese?
Me: [Yes, she speaks Japanese.] Should I call?
Cop: [Yes.]

I call, but it goes straight to her voicemail, thankfully. However, he could at least see Sarah's name come up on my cell phone. And then I tried to call again to let him listen to the voicemail, but he didn't seem to want to listen. So then we are stuck again.

Me: [I'm sorry... Do you understand English?]
Cop: [a little]
Me: (pausing frequently, talking slowing, and using some gestures) Sarah and I worked together... [work.] Two weeks ago, she finished work. She got a new job in Saitama, two weeks ago. [I bought the bike. But,] I need to change the registration.
Cop: pause as he contemplates what to do. [It's okay. I'm sorry. You can go.]
Me: (bowing) [I'm sorry. Excuse me.]

And then we both rode off rather quickly, I think happy to do be done with our awkward, attention-creating exchange.

Anyway, so that all turned out okay, I guess. But I was really nervous that 1. he was going to confiscate my bike or 2. I was going to get in trouble for drinking and riding my bike. Add onto my nervousness the fact that all this took place at the crosswalk of a fairly busy traffic light (considering the time) and at least 10 people went by sticking their neck out and staring, curious to overhear why the foreigner was being stopped by the cop. I think I spoke just enough Japanese to explain what was happening, kind of, but not enough to be able to understand him tell me what I was doing wasn't allowed.

Moral is: register your bike and don't stop at crosswalks near cops on unregistered bikes.

*I changed my coworker's name.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A land of contradictions and the group mentality

I realize I have not posted a blog entry in a while, and I finally decided the reason for my avoidance is because it is difficult to articulate impressions in a "land of contradictions."

For every piece of cultural understanding I glean from my experiences here, I can think of a counter-example to show why that perception is not totally accurate. Coupled with the certainty that there are layers I can't yet decipher, I hesitate to blog about my interpretation of events because I know I won't be painting the full picture. I further hesitate because I am afraid some of my Japanese friends, coworkers, and students would be offended by and/or defensive of some of my frustrations and critiques. These factors combined have, in effect, rendered me mute.

My inability to explain life here, with both enthusiasm and tact, bothers me.

Before I came here, I read many things about Japan, and especially Tokyo, being a model in contradictions. The yin and yang. The old and new. The east and west. Etc. etc. Nearly every guidebook or information website I read made some sort of reference to this juxtaposition. For example, my Lonely Planet: Japan guidebook states:
Tokyo is a riddle of contradictions that springs from tensions between large-scale commercialization and meticulous detail; the frantic rhythms of contemporary consumer culture and the still, quiet moments that are the legacy of other, older traditions. It is a creative behemoth, inevitably reinventing, re-creating, resolving itself... and it may well be the perfect metaphor for the globe as it spins and wobbles through the 21st century.

But after a while, I found it annoying that no one could really concretely explain Japan. It's this, but also that. It has this, but also that. It's unique. It's Japan. While I certainly didn't expect any country or culture to be without idiosyncrasies, I did presume there would be some common characteristics that could help me frame my understanding. To me, it almost felt like the explanations were cop-outs -- as if to imply that making any definitive analysis of Japan would be erroneous.

Thus far, I have tried to avoid writing about Japan in this way. I have taken the approach that this "riddle" must be answerable. That by describing my experiences and insights, I will begin to see the puzzle pieces come together, a picture will emerge, and I will be able to make sense of it all.

Maybe, though, my problem is I'm approaching it as though I have a 100-piece puzzle, but really it's a 1,000-piece. For example, I am trying to figure out how to explain Japan's group mentality. It seems like one piece of the puzzle. But then I as try to figure out how to articulate it, I am faced with contradicting experiences and attitudes, and I realize I still haven't quite made sense of it. It's like a small cloud in a landscape puzzle. On the 100-piece puzzle, the cloud is on one piece, and I could just fit it into the larger picture very easily. But on the 1,000-piece puzzle, I feel like I'm at the point when I have all the pieces of the cloud gathered together, and I think two of the cloud pieces should fit together, but even when I force them, they clearly weren't meant to connect.

So, I will just have to reframe my thinking and realize that while I can shed some light on a topic, the whole issue is still nowhere close to being illuminated.

So, with that preface, I will attempt to simply shed light on the group mentality aspect of Japanese culture. Because mentality is beneath the surface, yet shapes all aspects of behavior, this has been a topic that affects my daily interactions with Japanese people, but has also been difficult to put a finger on.

The basic idea (although as stated, this is not the whole picture) is that in the West, we value individual thought and personal initiative, and we generally view the actions and beliefs of individuals as separate from their family, state, or country. In Japan, there is a famous saying that my students like to tell me: "The nail that sticks up will be pounded down." Here, everyone has this heightened awareness of being a part of a group and that their actions and beliefs represent their family, coworkers, and country. The goal is to think of others first and not to rock the boat.

This plays itself out in subtle ways, like the requirement to constantly keep the glasses of your drinking companions filled, lest you be unaware to their needs. Or the pressure to work unpaid overtime because it is selfish to leave work while your colleagues are continuing to labor. When there are any sort of personality clashes or conflicts of ideas at work, for example, the best solution is to move on and avoid talking about them. Direct conflict resolution -- a value I was raised with -- is seen as aggressive and problematic. Why should you want to point out how we are not getting along? The idea of agreeing to disagree doesn't really exist; rather consensus-building is the ideal.

There is a website that one of my foreign coworkers told me about because it described some of the Japanese traits I had been discussing with her. It's called Japanese Culture: A Primer for Newcomers ( I found it incredibly informative, and I will probably try to break down and go over some of its explanations and my personal experiences with those topics in future blog entries. On the subject of group think, it has this to say:

Uchi-Soto ("Us and Them")

This is one of the first things you will notice about the Japanese. The Japanese have been raised to think of themselves as part of a group, and their group is always dealing with other groups. This is viewed on many angles -- internationally it is "We Japanese" vs. everyone else (more on that later), but in schools, companies, sections of companies etc. there are many groups and sub-groups -- and not always in perfect harmony and cooperation as it may look on the surface. Dealing with Japanese on a one-to-one basis usually comes very easy to non-Japanese, but dealing with Japanese as a group can be a different matter altogether. And no matter how nice you are, or how good your Japanese becomes, you will always be treated as an outsider. In fact the literal meaning of "gaijin" is outsider. Many westerners see Japanese as aloof, shy, and always walking on eggshells. There is a lot of truth in that -- Japanese are extremely sensitive to what others might think of them (or worse -- what they say behind their backs, and Japanese really do engage in gossip) and are very hesitant to do something new, different, or independent. Being ostracized is one of the worst things that can happen to a Japanese, who is raised to be part of a group and depend on others. Therefore, when making requests, it often takes more time since the person asked usually consults others in the group to reach a consensus. It also might interfere with what your goals are -- when teaching an English class a teacher gave some subjects for the students to debate. Of course the goal was for the students to use as much English as possible and improve their abilities. But what happened was the students reverted to their old habits and tried to compromise and reach a consensus -- in which case, the debate promptly ended. In short, however, while the westerner starts so many sentences with "I", the Japanese "I" usually means "with the approval of the group". This is not to pass judgement on this trait, as in many things there are both positive and negative aspects. For the westerner, it can be good in that you are often not subject to what sometimes becomes excessive, even oppressive methodologies. On the negative side, even if you do find a group or niche that you want to be in, you may be frozen out or the last one to find out about many decisions that profoundly affect your schedule and work.
And then to further this explanation, here is another section on the group mentality, but with an international perspective. While I think the whole section explains this topic very well, I'm going to change the text color to red in the part I specifically want to highlight.

Nihonjinron and Kokusaika - "We Japanese" and Internationalization

The term Nihonjinron (or "Ware Ware Nihonjin") is a "We Japanese" mentality. It is part of the Uchi-Soto mindset except it is almost always applied in a "Japanese and everyone else" kind of way. Japan is the center of the world -- and if you buy a map of the world don't be surprised to find Japan in the middle of it. This can be very bewildering to westerners in Japan. If there's a Japanese news report of a plane crash somewhere in the world with 398 non-Japanese and 2 Japanese people, the news report will focus on the crash and then the lives, family, and friends of the 2 Japanese. The rest of the people? They don't exist. They're never even mentioned. Another example is when 2 Japanese baseball players, Hideo Nomo and Irabu, made it on US teams. Suddenly, you start seeing lots of major league baseball games on Japanese TV, with the promos blaring "Major League Baseball--Nomo!!" as if he were the captain, manager, and God's greatest gift to the team. Other MLB games without Japanese players are never shown. And all this in spite of the fact that Nomo became a persona non grata in Japan's leagues because he wanted to throw the ball his way, not the way the manager dictated. (Nomo now says he'll never play baseball for a Japanese team ever again. And he's still hailed as the baseball hero of Japan.) As stated, when Japan is involved in an issue, the Japanese often find it hard if not impossible to look objectively. If a foreigner criticizes some act of corruption in the Japanese government, many Japanese will feel offended that this foreigner is attacking "us". In other words, in a society where show takes precedence over substance and getting along with the group is more important than work performance, there are more than a few Japanese who'd take anything even slightly negative against Japan as a sweeping condemnation of everything Japanese as well as insulting their mother's honor, and might be answered with "then why don't you just go home, you racist foreigner". Japanese don't have a monopoly on this attitude by any means, but it can be quite surprising to suddenly get such a retort. Hypocrisy is something attacked in the West, but in Japan it is often standard procedure. Even today, when western nations ask Japan to open its markets (to the benefit of the whole Japanese population), many Japanese initially see it as an attack on the Japanese way of life and culture. Rice, the most heavily protected product in Japan, is the by far the biggest example of this. The agricultural unions cranked up their propaganda machines about how rice is the soul of Japan and how "unsafe" foreign rice is. And the Japanese people bought it hook, line and sinker. The current recession is testing this notion however, and due to GATT Japan has been forced to grant "minimum access" to foreign rice. The powerful yen also has sent many Japanese shopping overseas. Yet instead of wondering why Japan is so expensive, the typical reaction is how weird it is that other nations are so cheap.

The term "Kokusaika" or "Internationalization" is another trendy buzzword being bounced around the country. Everyone is supposed to become more international these days. However, since the Japanese never bothered to define what exactly "international" is, it is just another vacuous idea. To many Japanese women being international is carrying a Louis Vouitton bag and drinking Budweiser. To others it's meeting foreigners (i.e. white people--the rest of the world doesn't matter) and speaking English. And many Japanese can't even picture anything of what "international" is supposed to be. This is not surprising since many Japanese haven't a clue as to what "being Japanese" is either. It is often the subject on tv shows. McDonalds was first told they'd never make it in Japan, since "Japanese eat rice-balls, not hamburgers". Coca-cola got the same message with green tea. Now both have billions of dollars in revenue from Japan. Some Japanese even ask Americans if Kentucky Fried Chicken is in America, as if it were a Japanese invention, or even ask if there are 4 seasons in your country, believing that Japan is the only nation in the world where the seasons change. Since no working definition exists however, "being Japanese" usually means doing things the traditional way -- a backwards looking view. Whenever some big reform happens, it's always decried as anti-Japanese, but Japanese soon adapt and it disappears from mind. And Japan is still Japan.

Coming around full-circle now, I am afraid voicing any of my frustrations about Japanese culture or society might be found offensive by the Japanese people I know. And while that wouldn't be how I would intend it, it still might be how it is taken. In the U.S., we have this idea of constructive criticism, and just because you say you don't like a government policy, or apple pie, or even the racist attitudes of someone you know, it doesn't automatically translate into you disliking the entire society, or all American food, or even your racist friend/relative/coworker. Mentally, I separate these in my mind. But here, I have found a somewhat different reaction to these types of comments. If I say in one of my discussion classes that I think a Japanese government policy is flawed, I can feel the tension rise in the room. If I say I don't like one particular Japanese food (except for the few pat ones that Westerns aren't expected to like), then the people I'm talking to seem personally sad that I don't enjoy the food and my life here. If I try to explain that there are some difficulties that come with being a white person here, it seems as though people feel a bit indignant because of my ungratefulness for all the nice things they have done for me (but I do recognize and value the enormous generosity that has been shown to me, and my statements are not meant to deny that).

So, I guess I have been unsure how to proceed. Because this is a land of contradictions, there does always seem to be a flip side to any topic that I think I'm beginning to understand. And because the perspective is different here, I don't want to be insensitive or unappreciative when I show the more negative side of the coin. Yet in order for me to more fully understand this country, I want to proceed with honesty. So, I resolve to continue chipping away at things, and hopefully the puzzle does indeed come together with time.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Jehovah's Witnesses and Latter Day Saints

I've never had a Jehovah's Witness come knocking on my door, until yesterday. The proselytizer was a foreign, native-English speaking woman, maybe in her late 30's, who was alone. Her opening sentence was something to the effect of: it's easy to be scared with the increased news reports of violence that we have in our world today. I must admit, that intro put me on my guard.

However, in my apartment, I have a small video screen that shows me the live footage of the person at the front door when they buzz my apartment. Upon realizing that: a. we were separated by two locked doors, so I wasn't in harm's way, and b. it was cold, but she was still outside trying to follow her religious convictions; I decided to be polite.

She never at any point asked me if I wanted to be having this conversation with her. And apart from asking if she could share a scripture passage with me, there were no other simple yes or no questions. She seemed to have a basic script that she followed, which I'll paraphrase. First she said that Scripture offers hope for the dire situation of the world, and she read me a passage in Psalms. Then she asked me if I believed what it said. And I asked her how she got my address. She said that usually they get people's addresses because some Japanese person informed them that there was an English-speaking person at an address, who they should go talk to. Then she asked me again if I believed the message of the passage. I told her well, yes, and that I was going to a church here in Tokyo, of which she wanted to know which one. She was friendly about it and said that she knew my church. Then she asked me if I thought it was possible for God's kingdom to exist here on earth. And I told her, "I don't mean to be rude, but I am talking to a friend on the computer right now, through Skype." She told me that she understood and we courteously wished each other well.

I do wonder how (or perhaps from whom) she got my address though...

Additionally, a couple weeks ago, as two of my coworkers and I were going home from work, a pair of Mormon missionaries got on our same train. They promptly interrupted my lively explanation of the current state of the U.S. primaries, without even so much as an inkling of any recognition of or remorse for their intrusion. They asked us what we were doing in Tokyo and tried to relate to us. As it turned out, they live at my same train station (my other two coworkers live at the stop before mine). So when the missionaries and I exited the station ticket gates, they informed me that they were here to serve everyone and they gave me a paper that had a map and their contact information on it. I asked them if there was a Latter Day Saint church at our station, and as it turns out, there is. Huh.

Anyway, I have found it interesting to encounter these two religious groups in Tokyo. It just doesn't seem like their standard approach to proselytizing would go over very well with the average Japanese person. But who knows. And regardless, here they are.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday in Tokyo

News about the U.S. presidential primaries has been featured semi-prominently here. Back during the week before the New Hampshire primary, I saw Hillary "cry" three times on TV. As they were covering the Super Tuesday contest tonight (which is Tuesday daytime back in the U.S.), I was struck by a cartoon of the Clintons and Obama sprinting for the "goal." I started taping it so people could see what some of the coverage here has included. Generally speaking, the news does cover both the Republican and the Democrat race, but the two faces I've seen on the news by far the most have been Clinton and Obama.

Clintons vs. Obama race

Here's another video -- this one is about the Hispanic vote. At the end, they go back to the newsroom in Tokyo and then transition to their correspondent in New York.

What I find most interesting about the coverage on TV here is how detailed it is. I have been keeping up on the news of the presidential elections (using the Internet) on a daily basis for at least the past month. Japanese viewers watching the first video could see how small things like Hillary's tearing up or Bill Clinton's negative attacks on Obama have impacted who leads in the polls. In the second video, people can see: 1. how the support of Senator Edward Kennedy and comparisons to President John F. Kennedy are impacting Obama's popularity, and 2: how ethnic voting demographics are an important part of U.S. elections. Also visible in the news: color-coded maps of the U.S.; graphs; clips from other rallies, debates, venues, and conferences; brief footage of candidates and their key surrogates speaking; explanations and graphics about the U.S. political process; etc. All this adds up to several Japanese people at work (both coworkers and students) being able to make small talk about the U.S. election. And perhaps even more interestingly, multiple people have told me they know more about what's going on in U.S. politics right now than they do in Japanese politics. The reason: eh, they don't care about Japanese politics.

P.S. If anyone knows how to record video on TV using a digital camera without getting those dark waves, please let me know...

Friday, February 1, 2008

add raw horse meat to the list

Back at our favorite izakaya tonight, I tried raws horse meat (basashi). It tasted...kind of like steak and buffalo. It was okay -- a bit chewy. I wouldn't go out of my way to order it again. A couple of the people I was with really love it though. You eat it like regular sashimi, dipped in soy sauce.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I eat fish testicles

Yesterday, we had our "New Year Party" for the teachers and management staff at my school. We ate at one of our favorite izakayas, Watami. Now, I have already had my fair share of new kinds of foods at this particular izakaya, including grilled pregnant fish (shishamo), deep fat fried chicken cartilage, and cow tongue salad, but yesterday I got to add one more exotic food to the list: fish testicles.

And the conclusion: fish testicles are creamy, fishy, salty, flavorful, and actually pretty tasty. The cow tongue salad is delicious (whatever dressing they use is fabulous) and the cow tongue just taste like beef. The pregnant fish is alright by taste (crispy on the outside and soft where the eggs are), but a bit nerve-raking by sight (see the pictures below) -- they come whole, are about three to four inches long, look slightly bloated, and when you bite into them you can see all the little white eggs inside. And the deep fat fried chicken cartilage is crunchy, chewy, oily, and generally just unappetizing to my Western palate. The pregnant fish and chicken cartilage are a favorite among the Japanese staff, so I usually just let them eat my share. :)

So what did I eat last night? Sashimi, three different kinds of salads, nabe, pizza, yakitori, and fish testicles. All in all, it made for a most delicious kick off to the New Year in Japan. :)

Staff favorite: shishamo -- grilled pregnant fish

Monday, January 28, 2008

sexually repressed?

I have heard and read that Japan is "sexually repressed." For the most part, I would say there is not very much sex appeal used in advertising here. And while people do seem extremely conscious of how they dress and present themselves, celebrities and regular people alike tend to dress less provocatively than in the U.S. Now, making no comment on the pros or cons of a culture being "sexually repressed," I will say that sex seems to come out here in ways that I have been unaccustomed to.

For example, I often see people reading magna, a kind of Japanese comics, on the train or in convenience stores (it is perfectly acceptable to read magazines in stores with no intention of purchasing them). Magna takes on many different forms, but one kind, called seinen, is geared for young adult males and often contains pornographic material. Usually, I avoid looking at people or what they are reading while on trains -- because people usually keep to themselves here, and so I would feel intrusive -- but one of my coworkers says she has often seen people reading this seinen magna on the train.

Seinen can also be found in anime, a type of Japanese cartoon. For example, I was watching TV the other night, just before midnight, and I saw a series of anime girls become undressed. They started out wearing (mostly schoolgirl) clothing, but as a car drove over the curves of their bodies, the clothes would disappear to reveal nothing but barely-there lingerie. The series went on for long enough, that I had time to be semi-shocked (I don't even have cable), and still to grab my camera and actually record a few of the scenes. If you want to watch, the video clip is below:

This video clip brings up another point. There seems to be a (sexual) fascination with school-aged girls. Many schools require uniforms, and I have been surprised by how short some of the pleated skirts are. It seems to be okay for older men to have an interest in them as well.

And this brings up the point that I have had a few interactions with older (including married) men flirting with me, which I find quite uncomfortable. This isn't at all the norm, by any means, but it has surprised me how the age differential (and the married factor for that matter) didn't seem to be an issue for them. Now, no need for anyone to be worried, I have been able to deflect and defend myself fine from these come ons. I just find the seeming acceptableness of this off-putting.

Monday, January 21, 2008

I get a haircut in Japanese

Today I got a haircut near my apartment at a Japanese-speaking salon! :) It was very fun to successfully get my hair cut speaking Japanese and to feel like I was integrating myself into a regular salon that local people use.

Previously, I had went to an English-speaking stylist that one of my coworkers recommended, who was used to foreign hair, and who I really liked. However, I made an appointment for my haircut right before I went home for New Year's. When I came back a week later and showed up for my hair appointment, I was told the salon had been suddenly shut down and the boss fired... They said it wasn't opening again until late February... Meanwhile, I have taken at least 10 coupon fliers from people passing them out in front of my subway station for a nearby hair salon. It was really cheap for a haircut in Tokyo, ¥2,300, and included a free shampoo. So, I decided I would go there to get a trim.

Armed with my Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook with a small section on hairdressing and a few phrases one of my Japanese coworkers helped me with, I successfully got a trim. Plus, the stylist was very nice, and we were even able to make some very basic conversation in Japanese, something quite exciting for me. He asked me simple questions like where I was from and what I was doing and about my Japanese studying/understanding. He told me he had been to Hawaii, and that he has a Japanese friend living in Beverly Hills right now. We talked about a few other things too, and also didn't understand each other for a few things, but just laughed when we lacked the ability to communicate. All in all, it was very empowering. I was nervous to go beforehand, but I'm delighted I did. :)

Here is an article on Tokyo hair salons in Metropolis, the most widely distributed English-language magazine in Japan:

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Japan has awesome toilets.

The one in my apartment (the first picture) has a heated toilet seat, big flush/little flush option depending which way you turn the handle, and a faucet on top where the water that comes out to refill the tank when you flush doubles as the water for you to wash your hands.

Many toilets have various bidets and extra features, including the one we have work. Squat toilets are also common.

Additionally, public restrooms sometimes have motion sensors that make flushing sounds while you are in the stall in order to cover up "toilet noises." Apparently, too much water was getting wasted by people flushing the toilets only for their audio effects. And many stalls also have "emergency buttons;" I haven't completely figured that one out.

I think the toilets here can be a great analogy for Japanese society. You find a mix of traditional (squat toilets) amidst the Western styles. But then the western styles take on a uniquely Japanese form. Cool gadgets are added to improve the design and overall customer satisfaction. Some aspects of the design seem very environmentally-conscious (like low-flush options, using the water for washing your hands before it fills the tank), while some of the more flashy features seem like unnecessarily energy-wasting additions (like motion sensors to automatically lift the lid or continuous loud flushing audio while you are in the stall) -- but even so, they're still cool features to oo and ah over. :)

One of the first things I noticed (audibly even) when I went home for New Year's was how cold the toilet seats were.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Metro system

Tokyo's metro system is wonderful. It's a complex and well-designed train/subway network that results in insanely efficient transportation. And therefore, it's also quite crowded.

Luckily for me, I avoid any rush-hour traffic on my commute, as I live closer to the center of the city than where I work and my hours are a bit later than normal (afternoons and evenings), so I always have a seat for my 10 minute subway ride to and from work.

When I go into central Tokyo though, sometimes I do find myself on very crowded trains. It is interesting, because while people are very polite in Japan and there are still rules for how to line up, wait, and enter/exit the trains, some people become rather aggressive to get the empty seat or just get on the train. Granted though, it is out of necessity that we all push each other forward in a mini-stampede in order to guarantee those already inside make room for us.

Hypderia is a wonderful website I use to help me navigate from point A to point B:
Additionally, my cell phone (as well as everyone's mothers') can look up train routes. It can also show the "last train" schedule, so I know by when I need to be on board in order to not have to catch a taxi, walk, or stay out until the morning schedule starts.

I live 15 minutes away from Shinjuku Station, which is the busiest train station in the world. It is the first major station (and therefore transfer point for me) on my line. The station itself is also a odious maze that has left me running an untold number of times now trying to find my line before the last train or meeting point with friends. Therefore, in general, if I'm not hanging out in Shinjuku, I try to avoid transferring there when possible.

Overall, I love the metro system here. I can get almost anywhere I need to go in an efficient manner. Before I came here, I by far spent more time studying metro system maps than the Japanese language itself. It definitely did pay off in allowing me to get to places, fairly easily for a newcomer; albeit, I couldn't communicate with people or read signs upon arriving. ;)

Monday, December 24, 2007



Video sent by KonchuX

Yoshio Kojima is a very popular up-and-coming comedian right now. He always wears a speedo in his comedy routines and starts by talking normally about a topic. He then makes a mistake and falls down in shame. He then begins his famous "dance" while chanting: "demo sonna no kanke ne, sonna no kanke ne, hai o papi," which translates to, "but that doesn't matter, that doesn't matter, yes (and then nonsense words)." Then rest of his routine rotates between him saying jokes and then doing his dance.

Many of my kids students LOVE him and imitate his dance/chant on a weekly basis...

September 9, 2007 -- e-mail to a friend

Last night we talked about the movie theaters here a little bit. Last week, I went with my Australian coworker Michelle to see Transformers. It was corny and funny. She and I were basically the only people laughing out loud. Last night at Los Amigos we were talking about that and they said the foreigners really do laugh loudly at movies and one woman did a very humorous impression where she doubled over a bit and clapped her hands. They said, more or less, I don't know, we don't laugh out loud at movies too much.

September 23, 2007 -- e-mail to friend
Yes, no sarcasm. The culture seems kinda prescribed and sarcasm would not fit.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

I go to the hospital

October 26, 2007 -- e-mail to Mom

We are dressing up at school right now for the whole week before Halloween. I am a vampire -- I found the costume in our props room.

I have no voice right now. I got a cough on Sunday, and last night I lost my voice. I still had to teach 3 kids classes today though, b/c it is my parent observation week and Halloween. The little kids dress up too, and our management thought that maybe parents were taking off work to come. Tomorrow I have 6 classes. I saw a dumb doctor and he prescribed me 6 different medications (I'm not exaggerating -- I'm not taking them though...). I asked him what I should do about my classes I have to teach. He said, and I quote, "maybe you should rest?" Yes, with the question mark. I whispered (b/c I literally had no vocal chords (it goes in and out a bit, but they are pretty shot)), "yeah probably." And then instead he prescribed me a bunch of stuff. And so I still have to teach. And I had to pay for the appointment and the medication. I'm on national health insurance so I only pay 30%, but the total was around $30.00. Seriously though, he didn't ask me if I am on any medications, and he told me he was going to give me antibiotics. I've taken antibiotics with my medication before, so I was like, ok, whatever. When I asked my head teacher what all the medication were though she said, this one is an antibiotic, this one is to prevent rashes... Me: I don't have a rash. Her: maybe one of the other medicines could cause a rash. Then she said the next one is to stop flem (I don't really have too much of a flem problem). Another is to help my stomach with all the medications. These four I'm supposed to take three times a day, after meals. Then there is one I'm supposed to take twice a day for bronchitis, which I also don't have. And then he gave me one for fever and pain (which I don't have), in case I get them. And then there are some drops to suck on. Which actually, I have used. Pretty stupid, huh? I'm irritated. And when I slightly reacted to the management that it seemed like an awful lot of medicine, they are just like, well you better take it b/c that is what the doctor told you to do. They just want me to be able to teach b/c they don't want to cancel my lessons, which I do understand, but it is annoying, b/c I'm just making my voice worse. What I really need to do is not be talking. See, look at what "boogeywoogy" says.;_ylt=AjdQdODBOzl5_Bl8qnbbvttFzKIX;_ylv=3?qid=20070919224815AAcLrkx

Anyway, so, I'm just typing to Andy [my college friend who was visiting] and not talking. I took some ibprofin. And tomorrow, I'm just going to try to avoid talking about the medication...



Conveyer belt sushi restaurants are popular. This one even had a dispenser for your plates, which counted up your total bill (you pay by the plate).

  1. taiyaki -- one of my favorite foods here. It is a pancake filled with sweet red bean paste.
  2. traditional Japanese breakfast at a ryokan (Japanese inn) I stayed at in Atami (hot spring resort town).
  3. Mikan picking in Atami. Mikans (mandarin oranges) are a very popular fruit, esp. in late fall.
  4. onsen omiyage (hot spring souvenir gift) -- it is customary to purchase your friends and coworkers an omiyage (gift) when you travel. I bought some of these red bean paste filled pastries in Atami. They have the Japanese character for onsen marked on them.
  5. An izakaya meal in Ikebukuro in Tokyo.

I absolutely LOVE the food in Japan. It is amazingly delicious nearly every time. Taste, quality, and presentation are all important. Overall in comparison to the U.S., I would say Japan has a lot more vegetables, fish, and rice in their dishes and uses less sugar. Additionally, desserts, turkey, and cheese are far less common here.

Some of my absolute favorite Japanese foods include: sushi, sashimi, taiyaki, mochi, katsudon, sukiyaki, eggs in general (they're more flavorful and have a much oranger yolk here), udon, terayaki chicken, edamame, nabe, yakitori...

Some of the foods I don't care for include natto (sticky/stringy fermented soy beans), pickled plums, and wasabi.

Many of my students enjoy asking me about Japanese food. They seem particularly happy when I know the names of different foods and say that I like them.

Interestingly, just last week after I was answering a student's question about which Japanese foods I enjoyed, I reversed the question and simply asked, "What food do you like?" He responded in turn by saying, "Junk food." Now, in all reality, I do not think junk food was actually his favorite food. But after I had just rattled off 10 or so of my favorite Japanese dishes, I think he was trying to reciprocate the sentiment and offer that he enjoyed American food. As has been my experience in a few other conversations, sadly I think many people here may view all or most American food as synonymous with unhealthy eating.

Also, when I go out to eat with students, some of them seem surprised/impressed that I know how to use chopsticks. Their reaction frankly surprises me a bit, because why wouldn't I know how to use chopsticks if I were living in Japan? My only reasoning for it is that people seem sensitive here to how I, as a foreigner, view and integrate myself into Japan. Either that, or they are trying to be nice and give me a compliment. I'm not really sure which.

Because I cannot read Japanese, grocery shopping has been an interesting experience. Slowly, I'm learning more and more about what different foods are. However, for the most part, I buy foods that don't require instructions (such as fruit, vegetables, bread, dressings, pasta, frozen foods, etc.) or packages that have English or diagrams.

The very first time I went grocery shopping after I had moved into my apartment, I almost cried in the store. I love sushi and was planning to make some on my own since finally I would have easy access to all the ingredients. I had found my favorite ingredients: tuna sashimi, avocado, seaweed, and rice. But, I could not figure out where the sushi flavoring packets were. So, I thought it's okay, I can make my own sushi flavoring with vinegar, salt, and sugar. I had some sugar in the apartment that the teacher before me had left, so I just had to get vinegar. But, after seeing that there were 5,000 clear bottles of liquid on the shelves, of which had nothing but kanji to inform me of their contents, I admitted defeat. It was so frustrating to know that the ingredients I needed existed in the store, but that I didn't have the language skills to access them. I didn't have a dictionary on me either, so I couldn't ask anyone for help.

Meanwhile, it turned out the grocery store had two floors, with these bottled liquids, canned foods, etc. being located on the 2nd floor and the refrigerated and produce sections on the 1st floor. Therefore, I didn't necessarily shop in the most logical order and the ice cream I had picked up as a special treat had melted by the time I finally gave up and checked out. The store clerk asked me if I wanted it exchanged, but I also didn't really understand what she was saying at first either. Eventually I got the point and indicated it could be switched, but I definitely felt like the dumb foreigner with about three people in line behind me -- not only could I not understand what the clerk was saying to me, I wasn't even smart enough to know to put the frozen goods in my cart last...

The first time I bought soy sauce here, I was in a 100 yen store that had a small grocery section. I looked up the word for soy sauce in my pocket dictionary (shoyu), and then picked up a bottle that I thought looked like soy sauce (which it indeed was). I went up to a woman nearby, and said, "Sumimasen, shoyu?" ("Excuse me, soy sauce?"). She gave me a very uncertain stare and an ever so slight head nod. I think maybe she wasn't exactly sure how I wanted her to respond, since I didn't really form a proper question, she didn't work at the store, and probably my pronunciation was off too. Ha. :) But, I remember feeling very satisfied, nonetheless, to have found soy sauce. I've since learned how to read hiragana (one of the Japanese alphabets), and shoyu(しょうゆ)is actually written on the bottles in hiragana, so I can read it now.

I bought a small oven from one of my coworkers when she left Japan in October. One of the first creations I wanted to make was a long-time favorite of mine, baked oatmeal. So, I bought all the ingredients and spent at least a good hour chopping apples, mixing things together without an electric beater, greasing cupcake tins, and pouring the oatmeal batter into the tins. While I was doing this, some spilled onto the tray, so I scooped it up and just ate it. However, it tasted very wrong. I tried some more and then it hit me: the cup of "sugar" I added was actually salt. Cursed illiteracy. I don't know why I had been so certain that I bought sugar -- I just had spent a while analyzing everything around the "sugar" package in the grocery store that when I finally made up my mind that the bag was indeed filled with sugar, I didn't think to check once I came home. Since then, I always taste test. And in fact, the "powdered sugar" I bought to make frosting about a month later turned out to be flour, but I didn't mess up everything that time. I've also now taken to carrying my dictionary with me in the grocery store when I know ahead of time I want to buy a new ingredient, so I am able to compare kanji in the store.

Anyway, despite some of the above experiences, I actually have really enjoyed the food I buy here. Back in September, my mom asked me about what I ate, and below is my response:

Sept. 25, 2007 e-mail to Mom
I cook for myself sometimes. I also eat out a decent amount. The food here is delicious. So far, cooking for myself has been going pretty well. I have been buying healthy food and have been pretty happy with the variety. Sometimes it is time-consuming to cook. I convinced a few other people at work to do meal sharing, so one or two days a week, someone else brings in lunch for me. :)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Language learning

Pictured: I bought hiragana, katakana, and basic kanji posters and hung them up in my bathroom.

A brief explanation of the Japanese writing system, borrowed from wikipedia:
"The Japanese language is written with a combination of three different types of scripts: Chinese characters called kanji (漢字 かんじ), and two syllabic scripts made up of modified Chinese characters, hiragana (平仮名 ひらがな) and katakana (片仮名 カタカナ). The Latin alphabet, romaji, is also often used in modern Japanese, especially for company names and logos, advertising, and when inputting Japanese into a computer. Western style Arabic numerals are generally used for numbers, but traditional Sino-Japanese numerals are also commonplace."

August 1, 2007. e-mail to training people.
Navigating is the one thing that makes me feel like I have some control here and is quite empowering to be able to successfully get places. Otherwise, that whole language barrier causes problems, you know...

For example, today it literally took me over half an hour, "talking" to about 8 various shop workers, and being directed to 5 different locations (on different floors of a mall) in order to get my box of chocolates for my school gift wrapped. At each counter, we would repeat whatever we were saying to the other person many times, before it became clear that neither of us was going to understand what the other person was saying. At the first gift wrap counter, it went like this:
Me: "Omiyage. Gift wrap (with hand motions)."
Her: "Receipto something something something."
Me: "(Slowly and enunciated) Oh, I do not have receipt. I bought this in the United States."
Her: "something something something receipto something something something." Then she takes my box of chocolates and tries scan it.
Me: "No, no, no. No receipt. I did not buy here. I bought in the United States. Gift wrap (more hand motions)."
Her: "Something something receipto something something gifto wrapu something something something."
Repeat the conversation about 6 more times, until it finally became clear that she would not wrap my gift unless I had bought it there, even if I would pay for wrapping. Then I got sent up 4 flights of stairs, I believe, to buy wrapping paper. Anyway, this story is getting too long, so in the end, four people ushered me around looking for wrapping paper while we had unintelligible conversations, until some very nice and friendly worker finally gift-wrapped my chocolates for free as a "service."

August 27, 2007 -- e-mail to multiple people.
I have signed up for Japanese classes through our city ward office. I will begin taking them next week. I have also bought kana (the two basic Japanese alphabets) flash cards and am trying to memorize the characters. The flash cards I got are very good and have little pictures and mnemonic devices to help you remember them.

A general note
Before coming here, I could have recited all the Japanese I knew in less than five minutes. Although I would not recommend this strategy to others, I think I half-way subconsciously didn't study that much because I was curious to see what the experience would be like. And, it has been insightful. Here are a few things I think I've learned:
  • being illiterate is frustrating
  • being dependent on English, either finding people who speak it or finding signs in it, is obviously limiting
  • when you cannot read, you look for other things to convey meaning. For example, if I'm not with Japanese speakers, I generally won't go to restaurants that don't have pictures and/or English on the menu (although I have a couple times, and luckily I think both we and the waiters just thought it was amusing). If the restaurant has pictures on their menus, then I can still find something that looks appetizing and point and say "kore onegaishimasu" ("this please").
  • you miss a lot of what is going on around when you don't know the local language, which feels kind of isolating
  • having conversations (although so far they have just been brief) in the local language is very satisfying
  • slowly recognizing and gaining meaning from written characters is empowering
  • learning a language is a slow process and takes time
  • I appreciate people who are understanding of my language ineptitude, but who also realize my potential to learn, and try to use gestures and/or more simple language in order to help me understand. Although I understand why people would also shy away, it makes me feel like more of an inconvenient outsider who causes discomfort.

I think I have been spending a lot of the past few months soaking up the language sounds and common words and expressions. I took a very good class at the International Relations section of the City Ward office for about 5 weeks, starting in late August. However, it rapidly become too advanced for me, so I had to drop out. I've been trying to study on my own in the meantime and hope to take the class again when it restarts at the beginning in January. My studying mostly involves watching Japanese television, having my little kid students talk to me in Japanese and hearing Japanese at work, listening to these Pimsleur audio courses I bought, and looking up words and phrases in my dictionary and phrasebook. I will share two quick stories below.

One of my most exciting language moments came from the first "conversation" I had with a stranger. This little old lady and I were both waiting for an elevator in the blazing August heat, and although we had not made eye-contact, she knew there was a person next to her, so she said, "Atsui desu, ne?" (It's hot, isn't it?) as she turned to look at me. But as she turned, she seemed to show in her expression that she thought perhaps she should not have said that because I was foreign and might not understand. However, I responded in turn with, "So desu, ne?" (Yes, it is, isn't it?) and an ever so slight smile of relief and agreement spread on both of our faces.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating things to me is how I have learned some Japanese through the natural acquisition process. A good example of this happened one time when I was going to the large 100 Yen store that is close to work on one of my breaks. As I was walking, I noticed another shop and went over to look at briefly. When I left and tried to head to the 100 Yen store again, I turned and went around a corner that was a dead end. Out of my mouth came a quick and muttered "chigao." I was utterly dumbfounded, as I had no idea what this word meant. I kept repeating it in my head, so that when I got back to work I could ask about it. As it turns out, it means "wrong." And indeed, I had headed the wrong way. This has happened to me a couple other times, where a situation warrants a certain word or phrase that I know to say, but then have to ask others of the meaning. It's very interesting.

Adjusting to life here

I've been in Tokyo for 5 months now and finally feel much more adjusted. However, the initial transition period was a bit rocky. I've looked back over e-mails and journal entries that reference getting settled in, developing a routine, and adjusting to a new society and culture. I've decided to share some of the more revealing excerpts here, including both good and bad, in order to give an honest picture of the Tokyo culture shock I experienced.

As a quick background, I graduated from a college in Washington state in May of 2006. I moved back home to Indiana for a year. In June, I took a three week vacation with my friend before heading to Japan to meet up with my Tokyo exchange sister and her husband (who were also on vacation in Tokyo, but are permanently settled in my hometown in Indiana). My training for work didn't start until late July.

July 9, 2007 -- journal entry. my first day in Tokyo.
I feel like my head is spinning with transitions. No sooner did I end one of, if not the, best trips of my life, than have I dived into another chapter. I'm not sure I was fully able to process the trip [to Southeast Asia]. And now here I am in Tokyo -- on vacation still, but really -- preparing to embark on a one year commitment abroad, in a culture and language I do not yet understand.

e-mails and journal entries during July -- a summary.
In general, most of my initial e-mails have to do with various observations about my new settings or situations I encountered. I summed up most of them in my first blog post entitled "Initial Impressions."

July 13, 2007 -- journal entry.
I am kinda nervous for this year. But it still feels like the right thing, although I'm not sure why. Perhaps spiritually it will be a good year to grow, or maybe career-wise, it will be important in shaping my path. Possibly, personality-wise, I can learn things from the courteous Japanese behavior. Or maybe I will meet someone who significantly impacts my future... Who knows though. ...a good friend [here] would be nice, really nice. I hope to find a good church family too.

July 29, 2007 -- journal entry.
This week has been good, yet interesting. Training, from a purely professional level, has been very helpful and productive. Emotionally, I feel a bit uncertain/excited/confused/nervous.

July 31, 2007 -- journal entry. before my first official day of work.
[Background -- one of my current American coworkers started the same time I did, so we had our initial training week together. This excerpt begins with a conversation I was having with her the night after we got a tour of our school and met our staff and coworkers. She and I were staying in a "weekly mansion" at this point, and weren't moving into our respective apartments for another week still, although I had already gone and looked at mine from the outside].

Afterwards, we were talking. I told her I felt intimidated. Intimidated about teaching so may classes, intimidated about living on my own and feeling lonely, and intimidated about living in a country where I'm illiterate and can't speak or understand the language. Then she and I went to the station, looked around, and found her apartment. Then we walked over to mine (they're really close) and saw the small shrine by the apartment, and then we got dinner together. Navigating is the one thing currently that gives me a sense of control and ability. I can, at the very least, read a map.

August 1, 2007 -- e-mail to training group.
Yesterday, we got our bank accounts and applied for our Alien Registration Card`s. We haven`t gotten our cell phones yet, although our head teacher wanted us to sign up for this family plan from AU that cost ¥3,000+ each per month that included 60 minutes of calling, no free texting, and one of us would have to make our monthly payments at a convenience store... We are "thinking about it."

Aug. 5, 2007. journal entry.
[Background: This entry was after the first time I attended the church of which I have since become a member]
I had a wonderful time this morning at church. It was so comforting and nice to worship with other Christians. I quickly felt "at home."... It seems they have an active young adult program -- they invited me along to lunch. Maybe about 15 or so of us were there. They said the church has members/attendees from 40 countries. At lunch I talked to someone from Paris, and someone who is Japanese but lived in Latin America until age 10 (we talked in Spanish some :) ) in Chile, Ecuador (Quito!), Argentina, and El Salvador, and who went to law school at Northwestern in Chicago...

Tomorrow, I move into my apartment. After almost two months of living out of a suitcase, I am really looking forward to having my own space.

August 5, 2007 -- e-mail update to several people.
I don't have a routine yet, so in general, I have avoided trying to make any summary statements of life. I just need a bit to get into it, and then I will describe things more. In general, everything just seems new and uncertain, yet exciting and fun. Overall, life seems a bit intimidating, but I believe things will work out, at least I hope so.

August 15, 2007 -- e-mail to Mom
…the weather here sucks and is very hot, humid, and sweaty right now…

It has been fun exploring.

We went to the grocery store today. It is frustrating to not be able to read.

I got a new cell phone: Talking is expensive (42 yen a minute to be precise).

My bike has a flat tire. I need to buy a new tire. I took it to a car repair shop, which was about a ten minute walk from my apartment. They put air in it for free, which was nice, but then it deflated quickly. They said the bike shops were closed for Obon. So, I will try to figure that out later.

August 23, 2007 -- journal entry.
Life has been spinning. Finally, perhaps a direction will settle out. I'm not sure what I feel, but I have so many emotions...

Japan is difficult. I miss living in an English or Spanish society. I love both of those cultures, too. Here, I can't function. I can't read. I can't speak the language. I don't understand input. I don't know the social rules. Everything is incomprehensible...

...where do I go from here? I feel unsettled. I realize how it is I feel: I feel lost. Where am I? Why I am here?... I feel so very, very lost...

[However,] life is similar enough here, it is not so hard to adjust, but different enough, I feel out of place.

August 27, 2007 -- e-mail update to several people.
I have been in Tokyo about one month now teaching English. So far, I think life could best be summed up with: unfamiliar and interesting.

Tokyo has been very hot. Several days have hovered around 100 F with humidity. Despite that, I have been doing a lot of sightseeing...

Work is starting to feel a little more routine. There are many details to remember, but I think I am beginning to get the hang of time management for lesson planning. I teach somewhere around 25 - 30 fifty-minute classes a week...

My coworkers seem nice...

Moving into my apartment has been nice. It is refreshing to have places to put things and have my own space. My apartment is quite small, but I like it nonetheless. I think it will make anything seem giant after this. Yesterday and today, I have been saying hello to my neighbors. In Japan, the traditional thing to do when you move to a new area is buy a little gift for your new neighbors and introduce yourself. Some family friends of my exchange sister kindly helped explain to me the proper presents (I bought little cakes) and etiquette and wrote out and recorded on my cell phone the Japanese phrasing for: "Hello. I moved in next door. Nice to meet you." So after much rehearsing, I nervously delivered my cakes and said hello. Greeting your neighbors with gifts is becoming less common among younger generations and also for people living in Tokyo. So my introductions were a bit of a mixed bag. A couple neighbors, I believe, thought it was quite odd that I was knocking on their door and introducing myself. A couple others though (including who I think were my landlords) were very gracious and friendly. Regardless, I am glad to have faces for my neighbors, and I think it cannot have hurt to say hello.

September 9, 2007 -- journal entry.
Life is confusing. Life feels so uncertain. I have no idea what direction it will go. Should I be an English teacher? It is rather cool to help give others keys to the global language... I am in a unique position to help others learn a very powerful language. And language is powerful. How glaringly obvious has that become to me here? I am helpless without Japanese. Except not totally, because I happen to be a native speaker of the most influential global language...

September 9, 2007 -- e-mail to a friend.
Ok, so anyway, life is pretty good. Everything just still feels strange. I don't know. Japan is different.

Last night some of our students invited both my American coworker and me to dinner. It was quite fun. The age range of people who go out here is really interesting. I was the youngest. The youngest Japanese person was about 30, I think and the oldest said she was 76 -- but she was quite spunky, esp. with some alcohol in her!

Today, some Japanese family friends are taking another friend from training and me to sumo! Should be interesting. We have boxed seats too. :)

Japanese classes started this week. They are good, but will very, very quickly be over my head. It doesn't matter I guess because it is still good practice, but that again adds to the frustration of not being able to communicate here very well.

There was a typhoon here a couple days ago. My first. About 15 inches of rain. It just rained and was windy for a while. It was never too powerful at any one point though. Typhoon #9 of the season and they said it was the worst one yet. My umbrella broke in the morning. But, mainly just it rained a long time. Interesting to compare with Midwest storms, which are much shorter but much more powerful.

September 12, 2007 -- e-mail to Mom
Things are beginning to become a bit more routine, which is nice. I am taking Japanese classes two mornings a week (Tuesday and Friday). I have to concentrate pretty hard to follow along, but it is good to finally start learning more of the language. Soon, I will check out "home groups" that meet once a week and organized by the church I have been going to.

September 18, 2007 -- journal entry.
Life in Japan is hard. I am not happy here. I don't know what to do. Maybe I should ask my brother for advice [he's in the Peace Corps]. I wish I understood Japanese. But I don't really like studying it, so that kinda screws me over.

I just wish I had a/some good Japanese friends. Life is so hard here... I just know that I am experiencing culture shock, and it is difficult. It is hard to overcome so much unfamiliar territory. Work is okay, but I still have much to learn.

I feel so lost. I wish I had a friend. I wish I spoke Japanese. I must learn the language if I'm going to survive. How does one go about making Japanese friends? It's so difficult here. I feel like such an outsider. I want to cry.

Maybe I am not so mature, not so adventurous. I feel homesick for the familiar...

September 23, 2007. e-mail to a friend.
I'm glad you spent time in Japan and can relate. Yes, no sarcasm. The culture seems kinda prescribed and sarcasm would not fit. This past week, I have been doing more reflecting and thinking about how I have been experiencing some culture shock. While it's kinda annoying to recognize that I experiencing it -- and esp. to still have to go through it -- I think the realization is positive so that I can continue adjusting. I know it will just take some more time and effort.

In general, life is interesting and new, and I am learning things and enjoying myself. Last night some students invited a couple of us teachers out to an Italian dinner and we did karaoke afterwards. It was a really fun evening...

..last week I became a member of the church I have been attending, and this morning, I went up to the front during the service with the other new members to affirm our faith and be welcomed into the congregation. Then there was a dance performance after the service, which included ballet, flamenco, and Japanese dancing.

This afternoon, I met up with one of my Japanese coworkers to go shopping/explore a college neighborhood and also do some English Japanese language exchange.

Anyway, so, I guess that's all kinda to say life is very varied -- interesting and enjoyable, yes -- but I think the newness, the language barrier, and the cultural differences have been difficult to take in all at once, and so I have been at the point where I am just trying to figure out my place and adjust to the new surroundings/customs.

Oct. 5, 2007. e-mail to Mom
Yes, it has finally gotten cooler. The temperature has been very pleasant the last week or so. I've enjoyed it a lot.

October 15, 2007. e-mail to a friend.
Life in Japan is okay. Nothing too fabulous and nothing too horrendous. I've been able to see some very cool and interesting stuff. And I've made some fine friends (no amazing bonds or anything, but some people to hang out with and enjoy each other's company). But, the culture here doesn't exactly fit who I am that well, and I don't really have this deep desire to learn the language other than to make life easier, and so... things are alright. I do enjoy exploring Tokyo. On a work note, I have really enjoyed teaching English for the most part, and I'm thinking about pursuing that more, maybe even as a possible career. Who knows. But that has been kinda exciting to think of having some direction for myself in that respect.

So anyway, having these staggered visits with people I'm close to is nice. It makes the year not seem as long, in a way. And actually, it's hard to believe, but I've been in Japan for three months already.

November 14, 2007 -- journal entry.
...I am making more friends -- students, coworkers, and people at church. My Japanese is very slowly getting slightly better...

end of November -- facebook update.
I've been in Tokyo since the end of July, and I think I'm finally over the largest portion of the culture shock hump... Knock on wood. lol.

December 15, 2007 -- e-mail to friend
Things have been going really well here actually. I finally am feeling more settled in and at home here. We had our work Christmas party yesterday with karaoke afterwards, and it was lots of fun. I've had a couple visitors come through recently, which has been nice...