City skyscape photo that I took from Odaiba

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. ;)