Thursday, August 31, 2006

Effective Propaganda?

the full comic and original picture are at Coal's blog

This morning I ran into my landlord and had a curious discussion. As I posted yesterday, there was concern that I was upset about the cleaning crew that was cleaning the screens and the apartment just above mine. Apparently, the cleaning crew felt that, because I was American, I was unhappy and taking pictures in preparation to take some sort of "legal action." When I reassured the landlord that I would never do such a thing, he said he was relieved.

This conversation was odd not because I think it's inconceivable that a foreign resident might overreact and do such a thing but that my landlord would think I would do such a thing. I've lived in the same apartment for 17 years now. My husband and I have not complained about anything except when about 10 years ago the tenant above us was throwing dirty cleaning water out on her balcony which dripped down onto our laundry hanging on our balcony. We have also never missed our rent payments and pay "gift" money upon every rent contract renewal without complaint. That means we fork over an extra month's rent every two years for the honor of being allowed to continue to pay our regular rent each month for the next two years.

There's a long history of us not getting uptight about things and being decent tenants. So, why, after all this time, would my taking a few pictures result in the absurd conclusion that I was preparing for a lawsuit? And what exactly could I possibly sue about? A little cleaning-related noise? My screens temporarily being removed for cleaning? The guys parking in the street in front of the landlord's house?

After some time passed, I started to wonder if some of the propaganda I read about on Coal's blog is taking root. The full article with translated cartoons is available here but the gist of it is that foreigner's rights, if protected, will result in the Japanese having to tolerate bad behavior. The cartoons essentially say that discrimination is necessary to protect the rights of business owners and landlords from foreign people who will be disruptive and destructive.

I'm not concluding for now that this propaganda directly caused the cleaning crew's suspicion (which then led to my landlord's worries) because there are other possibilities. For instance, exposure to news of some of the more outrageous cases of litigiousness in the U.S. could easily lead the Japanese to believe we're all just looking for any pocket we can legally find a means to pick. I am, however, disappointed that my landlord didn't know better after my husband's and my long and well-behaved tenancy. It points out the sad fact that no matter how we behave, we are, first and foremost viewed as "gaijin" and subject to all the preconceptions and misperceptions that go along with being a foreigner in Japan.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Cocoa Frappucino

Summer in Japan usually has everyone breaking out the mugicha (that's barley tea for those who aren't living in Japan) but I've never been a fan of any of the cold Japanese teas. I find them all roughly inoffensive and mugicha would actually be my favored cold tea among what I consider the 3 "biggies" - mugicha, oolong tea, and ju-rokucha (a blend of 16 ingredients in an herbal tea) but I pretty much prefer western drinks.

When I get tired of diet sodas and want something with more frost to it, I turn to a frappucino. Since Starbucks is a fair distance away and their frappucinos are full of sugar, I wanted to work out how to make one on my own. I'm sure this is a lot easier to accomplish back home than in Japan because crushed ice machines aren't commonly included with refrigerators here as they are in the U.S.

The first step is getting the equipment which isn't all that hard if you can locate a blender which is powerful enough to crush ice. I've had really bad luck with blenders burning out on me after short-term use though. So, I decided to order the ice crusher/blender attachment for my Braun Multiquick hand mixer. The good folks at Yodobashi will order all sorts of extras for you if you tell them the part number and the attachment is listed in the back of the Multiquick manual.

The Multiquick mixer unit along with a whisk attachment and a small food processor bowl can be purchased at Costco in Japan or at Amazon Japan for about 6,000-8,000 yen. I can't recommend this mixer enough for its various uses and small size. It beats my old small food processor hands down and makes a mean smoothie.

For a low-fat,sugar-free chocolate frappucino, the ingredients are:

1/2 cup low-fat milk
1 tablespoon (soluble) cocoa powder (Van Houten is very good and sold at Costco and some Japanese supermarkets)
1 tablespoon low-fat powdered milk
1 teaspoon of pectin (sold in supermarkets near the gelatin under the katakana letters - pe-ku-chi-n)
3 packets of sweetener (I use Splenda purchased from the Foreign Buyer's Club)
dash of vanilla extract
dash of cinnamon
about 1 cup of crushed ice (about 6-8 Japanese cubes)

Put all of the ingredients except the ice into the blender and blend until it is mixed well. You should probably mix it for between 30 seconds to a minute to try and get the cocoa to dissolve and the pectin to thicken. Add the crushed ice and blend again for from 30 seconds to a minute until it resembles melted chocolate ice cream from the top (see picture below).

You can vary this recipe to make a coffee frappucino but be careful not to overdo the liquid relative to the ice quantity or all the ice will dissolve into the coffee and leave you with a coffee shake drink. Make sure you keep the ratio of liquid to ice the same (a half cup of liquid ingredients to a cup of ice). Also, make sure your coffee is very cold and strong if you use espresso and ditch the powdered milk but keep the pectin. In fact, I recommend you use 2 measures of ground coffee to one measure of water in your espresso machine to make it very, very strong and then use 1/4 cup of full fat milk and 1/4 cup of espresso as the 1/2 cup of liquid. Alternately, you could try the recipe above and substitute instant coffee for the cocoa powder although perhaps reducing the quantity.

All of these ingredients can be found in Japan relatively easily, particularly if you are flexible about brands. The hardest to find item at regular supermarkets like Seiyu or Ito Yokado is pectin. It is probably only carried by about 1 in 4 markets so you'll have to hunt around.

If you're on a diet and dying for something with chocolate, this will likely satisfy you with a very low caloric hit (about 70-100 calories depending on the milk type) and it's full of water so you feel full after drinking it.

Won't you be my neighbor?

no matter how clean it is, it still looks ugly

This morning I stumbled out into the kitchen to make the elixir of wakefulness (aka coffee) and noticed that the screen covering the kitchen window was half open. This allows a whole host of unsavory crawling and flying creatures to infiltrate my apartment. My husband is particularly peeved about mosquitos getting in and quite rightfully so. He's spent the last 3 days with two bites prominently on display on his forehead causing students to peer quizzically at them or ask about what happened.

I pushed on the open screen to close it and it fell right out of the frame onto the ground outside. I figured someone had broken it carrying something awkward to the apartment next door. I was dissuaded from this notion by a note on the genkan from my landloard explaining that the screens in the front of the apartment were being cleaned today. I wondered why the screens in the back of the apartment, which are so dirty that they give off puffs of dust if you bump into them, never get cleaned as part of the 2,000 yen a month maintenance fee we pay.

I figured out the reason why when I stepped out to go grocery shopping and noticed the apartment above ours (pictured above) had been vacated and was now being cleaned. They were sprucing up the front of the building so it'd look better for propsective tenants. They don't bother with the back because it's gated off and inaccesible.

This reminded me of the often stated (by both foreigners and Japanese alike) that Japanese people are only concerned about cleanliness in as far as it personally concerns them and have little concern for how their actions affect the environment of others. In other words, my landlord doesn't care about how clean my screens are. He only cares about how dirty the ones a possible tenant might see are.

All that being said, my landlord is a very nice person who has been supportive and understanding. He communicates with us in meticulously written notes in English (see below) or speaks to us in English. If I asked him to clean the back screens, he'd probably do it. He just isn't going to do it spontaneously. In fact, the very act of taking a few pictures for this posting made him worry that I was upset about what was happening and he called to apologize for the inconvenience. He's just that considerate.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Many Meanings of "Diet"

pay no attention to the fingerprints on that oven

Even though I've been in Japan for a long time, I sometimes forget that anything labelled "diet" that is not produced by a foreign company is likely to be meant as an aid in losing weight. To an American, "diet" usually means a product has reduced caloric content.

It was with a thoroughly American state of mind that I decided to pick up a bottle of "Aqua Dieta" at a local convenience store. Who doesn't want to try a lovely new diet beverage? A cursory look at the bottle caused me to think it was some sort of sugar-free grapefruit/lemon soft drink.

When I got home, I looked up the web site for the drink and learned that it is supposed to suppress appetite and provide fiber that will assist to that end. The two ingredients that supposedly accomplish this task are arabinose and polydextrose. Arabinose is a form of pectin (which is derived from the cell walls of plants) and it is used to thicken jams and jellies as well as some beverages. In fact, pectin is used in frappucinos made at Starbucks to make them thicker and creamier. Polydextrose is a partially indigestible synthetic substance made from sugar used for thickening and sweetening. It includes citric acid and sorbitol (a naturally-occurring low calorie sweetener with a laxative effect).

Despite having a thickener and a sweetener, Aqua Dieta tastes like mild tonic water. It is lightly carbonated and slightly bitter. I think there's not enough of anything in it to have an effect on appetite. A bit of club soda with a squeeze of lemon and grapefruit in it would probably be more satisfying with fewer chemicals.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Sitting, Sleeping and Storing Pretty

When I was a kid, I hated going camping with my parents. The primary reason for this was having to sleep on the ground in a sleeping bag. Given that the standard futon is little better than a good sleeping bag and tatami doesn't feel much softer than a good bed of grass, I wasn't very fond of sleeping on the floor in Japan either.

Initially, my husband and I dealt with this with an air mattress but waking up in the middle of the night on the floor for a week or so convinced us purchasing a real bed was in order. We visited the local Salvation Army and picked up a double bed for about 12,000 yen that served us for quite awhile. Eventually, we graduated to a real queen-size bed from the Simmons Gallery and it has since taken up most of our 6-mat bedroom.

For those who are living alone though, I'd strongly recommend this nifty alternative, particularly if you're planning on staying more than a year and wouldn't mind investing about 18,000-40,000 yen on a nice piece of furniture. About 12 years ago, we bought the sofa pictured above. It has served us extremely well particularly as a second bed for guests or for my husband or I on nights when one of us is unable to sleep with the other for health reasons.

Unlike most sofa beds that you open up and pull out, this one slides and falls down flat so that the front and back join together seamlessly to make a platform you can sleep on (pictured below).

So, there's no danger of waking up hunched over like Elaine on Seinfeld because a bar was digging into your back. What's more, it's a snap to put away and set up. You pick up the base, the back slides down then you push the base forward until it clicks then lower it down. The same in reverse puts it away.

This being Japan though, there is an added bonus to using this sort of sofa bed. The base doubles as a very large storage area (pictured below).

If you live in a small apartment with a 6-mat room, small kicthen and bath, this is an incredibly smooth and comfortable way to allow it to double as a living room and bedroom. You can also use the space underneath for storing bedclothes or your own clothes.

We bought ours at Odakyu department store for about 35,000 yen but less elaborate but similarly functional sofa beds can be bought for 18,000 yen online from

Sumo Cups

About a decade or so ago, my husband and I were rabid sumo fans. Our interest started near the end of the career of the incredible grand champion Chiyonofuji and continued up until around the point in time when the first American grand champion, Akebono, retired. Most foreign residents of Japan have limited interest in sumo and it's somewhat easy to understand why. The "sport" or "skill" as it's probably more aptly translated to, is very complicated under the surface but appears to be two fat guys shoving each other for a few seconds at first glance.

The way sumo wrestlers train is by living at and training in a "stable" (or "heya" in Japanese). Each stable has a different name and is ran by a master, usually a retired high level wrestler, along with several other managers who are also retired wrestlers though likely those who never reached the upper ranks. The rule is that no wrestler has to wrestle someone in his own stable. This makes sense in that it reduces the chance of a wrestler taking a dive to a stable-mate. Unfortunately, at one point one stable, Futagoyama, had about 8 wrestlers in the upper ranks. This meant that their wrestlers were exempt from fighting some of the toughest people because they happened to belong to the same stable. The problem with this is that the competition was so poorly balanced that this group of wrestlers were staying at the top in part because they had all made it to the top. This made sumo far less interesting to watch and was the point at which my husband and I lost interest.

The cups pictured above were used to serve beer at the Kokugikan in Tokyo. The Kokugikan is the main stadium for tournaments and all official Tokyo championships are held there. The Kokugikan is situated in Ryogoku which also happens to host a lot of sumo stables. However, there are stables in other areas including where my husband and I live. We occasionally see a wrestler walking around or at the train station. While seeing a wrestler is interesting, the thing most people notice is that you smell them. Their topknots are created using chammomile oil and they have a pleasant semi-floral, semi-talcum powder smell about them.

Anyway, my husband and I collected those cups during the height of our interest in sumo and the wrestlers shown on them are some of the ones we enjoyed watching the most. On the bottom row, the second, third and fourth from the left are all Americans - Musashimaru, Akebono, and Konishiki.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Messy Hands

There's a chain of stores called Tokyu Hands which specializes in items the Japanese might call "lifestyle goods". Each floor is devoted to different categories of items. It's different from most department stores in that it carries a large selection of craft-making items and DIY tools. Unlike in the U.S., it's rather difficult to locate such things, at least in Tokyo.

I think this is in part because space restrictions in Japanese homes discourage people from pursing more elaborate hobbies such as those related to carpentry. Most men don't have garages they can set up shop in. Most people don't have garages that they can keep their cars in for that matter. The best they tend to have are car ports or parking areas just big enough to park in.

Other reasons probably include the fact that the Japanese already have a whole host of hobbies as part of their culture which are different than western pursuits and men don't seem squeamish about learning things like flower arrangement. The former president of my former company used to proudly display pictures of his flowers.

The flyer pictured above says "Hands Quality Bargain" and offers a whole host of items for sale. I'm not sure what "Hands Messe" is supposed to refer to but my best guess is "Hands Message".

Why are my teacups full of water?

Though I live in the best place possible to drink the healtiest tea on the planet (that's green tea for those who have been living in seclusion), I only drink what the Japanese call "black tea". Americans just call it "tea" because that's the simple description we inherited from our former British overlords.

I teach lessons at home and try to do the hospitable thing and serve my students a refreshing beverage during the lesson. More often than not, they do not drink it but I don't take it personally. I've read that Japanese people have small bladders and are reluctant to consume liquids in a situation where they would prefer not to use the toilet. I will note that not one student has ever asked to take advantage of my facilities.

As for why the cups are full of water, I'm sure every British person knows why already. You're supposed to heat the cups before pouring tea into them. I'm not sure why this is the case but I'm guessing that it has something to do with keeping the tea warm for a longer period of time in thin bone china cups.

Why "so-called" Japanese life?

Before I get started, let me first say that I am well aware of how overused the phrase "so-called life" is so please don't tell me how utterly boring my choice of names is. The truth is that this is a rare instance where it fits the situation. I live in Japan and people assume I live a Japanese lifestyle but I do not. In fact, I live about as western a lifestyle as I can manage.

It's not that I hate anything related to Japan or being Japanese but rather that I want to be comfortable and have the comforts of home when I'm, well, home. My main interest in Japan and Japanese culture is the people and particularly their psychology. The way the people think, feel and act is of far greater interest to me than sleeping on a futon, drinking green tea, or watching high school baseball. I think the people are the most important component of their culture.

It's not that I haven't tried most of the things associated with life in Japan. I've spent my nights sleeping on a futon on the tatami mats with aching hips and back, attended more sumo tournaments at the Kokugikan than most Japanese people have, and had my share of food that you'd only find in Japan. It's just that I've been there, done that, and decided I'd rather live my way.

About This Blog

Sometimes I get comments which indicate that people aren't clear on what this blog is. The "nutshell" reply is that it's a record of my thoughts and experiences which I choose to share with others who may find them interesting. The audience is a combination of friends, family, and folks who have found their way here through my comments on their sites, links from other blogs they read or random searches. This is not intended to be a mass market blog and I make no money from the effort I put into it. It's a personal blog, though it is one with an atypical writing style compared to most personal blogs.

There are some things that this blog purposefully is not. It is not intended to be a resource for Japan-related news, photos or tourist advice. That being said, if you live in Japan, you will likely find some practical advice in my posts from time to time as well as a perspective and chronicle of experiences which you may not encounter in other blogs from folks living in Japan. I do talk a fair bit about the mechanics of living here and I discuss my experiences in Japan and that may help you understand things better here.

In terms of how I approach my posts, there are certain things I consciously try to avoid. One thing I try very hard not to do is post reactions to hot topics of the moment in the news either world-wide or in Japan. If I have a reaction to a bit of news, I usually reply as a comment on a site which is devoted to that news, not on my own site. I see no point in recreating the news story here so I can comment on it in my blog when Japan news sites and U.S. newspaper sites conveniently allow me to add a comment right under the original story. This site is not intended to be an echo of other sites and I try to avoid "recycling" the content of news sites for my own purposes.

A lot of what I do is think about things from a psychological perspective. To some, this is going to appear like I make a lot of very little. That's probably a fair perspective, but it's also beside the point. I analyze things and consider them based on patterns I see and in light of the psychology I studied in university and my ongoing personal study since graduation. It's what I do. It's what enjoy doing. If that doesn't suit your interests, I can understand that, and you may want to give this blog a miss.

This blog is also about me exercising my writing skills. They may not be perfect, but they are quite good. In fact, I know they are better than average and I don't say that to boast or brag, but rather because I think that false modesty is a bit ridiculous past a certain point. I point this out because I believe that this blog is as much about my style as about substance. My style can be quite indirect and some people prefer strict directness and brevity. Again, you can show yourself out if you don't enjoy taking the verbally scenic route.

Finally, I believe it's also worth noting that this is not a forum. While comments are allowed on most posts, this isn't a democracy where everyone gets to say whatever they want. I warmly welcome people to offer their perspective and take the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences and genuinely enjoy when they do so.

However, if you're got a chip on your shoulder or feel the need to be abusive or cop an attitude when you have an opposing viewpoint, you can save your poisonous typing. If you think that you can hide your contemptuous attitude behind passive-aggressive or vaguely disdainful wording, think again. Anyone with a pattern of negativity will not be allowed to continue to comment. Comments are moderated strictly by a third party. That's right. They aren't moderated by me so if you feel like being a jerk even knowing your comment won't get posted because you get some satisfaction from the notion that I'll bear the brunt of your attack when I read through comments during moderation, you can think again. I won't even see it. You'll be completely wasting your time.

Though I know this may sound a bit "defensive", the attitude of some of the commenters to this blog have forced me to make the situation clear. There are a lot of folks out there who seem mainly to read other people's content so that they can take issue with it and aggressively respond. They don't simply disagree, they want to cut you down in the process so they can feel superior. I don't do this so people can elevate themselves at my expense. I do it as a creative exercise and an archive.

Finally, as regards my posting a link to other blogs, I put up links to blogs based on the comments I receive on my blog. I follow the profiles of commenters and look at their blogs if they have them. So, the best way to get me to link you is to comment. I also am very happy if anyone would like to link to me as well, though it is not a quid pro quo situation. You don't have to link to me just because I link to you and I won't take your link away if you aren't reciprocating.

Thanks for reading.