Sunday, December 31, 2006

End of Year Cleaning

Just prior to the start of the New Year's holiday, most Japanese people embark on a serious cleaning jag (sususarai). This often includes tossing out junk that has been cluttering their homes and doing deep cleaning of various areas.

Most of my students say they will be doing this sort of cleaning but not all. Some say they can't be bothered or will just be doing more usual cursory cleaning so not everyone does this. I equate this cleaning to what is commonly done during spring cleaning in the U.S. Personally, I try to do this sort of thing on an on-going basis so I don't have to do it all at once.

During my years at my former company, I witnessed the office equivalent of this pre-holiday clean-up. On the last day of work before the holiday (which usually lasts a week for most Japanese employees), most of the Japanese employees would come to the office in casual clothes and commence with scouring the office from top to bottom. This generally included scrubbing floors, washing windows, removing and cleaning light fixtures and bulbs, and cleaning out desks of accumulated paperwork and junk.

Every year, the foreign employees worked as usual on this day because our schedule was not modified to allow us to assist. We'd have to do scheduled telephone lessons and mark homework while the Japanese toiled away happily. Of course, not everyone toiled. My boss and I amused ourselves each year by noting who managed not to do any heavy cleaning work.

One of the more senior salesmen was particularly slack and made such a chore of tidying his desk that he never touched the vacuum cleaner or scrubbed a surface. He managed to do this for every one of the 10 years he worked in the office with us. Eventually, he was transferred to another office and quit soon thereafter. I'm pretty sure his laziness at cleaning time was linked to a certain lackadaisical attitude toward his work which eventually got him fired Japan-style (that is, put into an undesirable situation which is meant to force one to quit).

The president's wife, who worked part-time at the office, carped about how inadequate the office ladies were at cleaning the tiny office kitchen or how lazy they were. She felt they should scrub the floor under all the furniture and scrub off the front of every cabinet. When they refused to do it, she did it herself so she deserves credit for getting down and dirty as she expected others to do.

The idiosyncratic and mercurial fellow who owned the company and acted as president sold us off after my first 10 years at the company and a cleaning company handled the office cleaning when new ownership took over. Apparently, only small, cheap companies force their employees to do this clean-up and most places have outside help do the year-end scrub-down.

I'm sure that the Japanese workers were happy to not have to do the end of each year janitorial duties but there was a camaraderie in it all that was likely lost. During this last day, people not only dressed informally but also could break out of their usual roles in the office and they tended to be more jovial and let their hair down a bit. Interestingly, their zealousness for cleaning always mirrored their general work ethic.

The company also bought their lunch and had it delivered (though the foreign employees were not included in this) and there was a little "party" of sorts at the end where snacks were served and the beer from the winter gifts was consumed.

Quite often, I was the last one to leave on such days because the Japanese workers could leave when the cleaning was done and my schedule was full and finished at a later time or I would work the next day (a Saturday) alone. I always had a strong sense of being abandoned in a sterile room which wasn't going to be touched for some time.

After the party, a traditional New Year's ornament (shimenawa - Roy has a nice picture of one here on his blog) was hung on the front door and everyone headed off for vacation. Seeing these decorations on closed shops in my neighborhood on New Year's day always fills me with a strong sense of completion and an odd sense of emptiness. I will always associate these decorations with hard work that has been completed, a fresh and clean area prepared, and everyone deserting the premises because of my years of witnessing the yearly cleaning at my office.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

My 2006

Goodbye, year of the dog.

I'm not one for reviewing the past year because, in my experience, one year has been much like another. Since I quit my job though, there have been more changes and I've been considering that fact as 2006 draws to a close. I've written about some of these things before and some I have not mentioned. For my own sake (if nothing else), I'm going to list them here for future reference:
  • I started this blog as a means of fulfilling a desire to write and to record my thoughts and experiences living in Japan. I did so with a great many trepidations because so many blogs are ego trips. However, I was greatly inspired by the blogs that I enjoy which I feel are not about overt ego gratification or self-involvement. My primary "style" inspiration has been Q-taro as I've always enjoyed Roy's posts about his observations and life in Japan.
  • I started writing for blogcritics to force myself to write in a more structured manner and to try and push myself to recapture some of my old academic writing style. I haven't written as often as I'd like but have been largely satisfied with how I've written. However, I hope to do better next year and with greater frequency.
  • I learned how to pump up a bicycle tire. Previously, my husband had always taken care of this little task. It was a good example of some easy little thing which you never bother to learn because someone else did it that you finally get around to tackling.
  • I seriously considered getting a distance Master's degree in adult education from Penn State University and even tracked down two references from my old professors who graciously recalled me after 20 years. I gave up on the idea when I considered the expense and my income. Ironically, money was the reason I didn't go to grad school when I first graduated from university and it's still a factor now.
  • My husband and I had to replace a great many things at not inconsiderable expense including his entire wardrobe (down to the shoes and ties), his eyeglasses, my computer monitor, his notebook computer, our DVD player, telephone, my bed-side lamp, my pillows and our bed comforter. Considering our income was greatly reduced this year, I'm amazed that we managed this without going into debt.
  • I started private teaching in February after not having done so for about a decade. After working in an office for so long, I was pretty insecure about going back to face to face teaching but it's like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it.
  • I developed a new recurring, annoying, and painful psychosomatic illness or an allergy. I'm not sure which yet but I'll have to work harder at relaxing so it doesn't happen again. I'm aware of what a contradiction in terms that statement appears to be.
  • My kitchen floor was replaced.
  • I installed a video card in my PC.
  • I did my largest volunteer project to date and laid out a complete 270-page cookbook for my sister's library. It looked beautiful and allowed me to learn to use the automatic indexing and table of contents functions of Adobe InDesign. Unfortunately, due to some conflicts with the new director at the library, the entire effort will not be used. I even busted my ass while very sick to get it done by an absurdly early deadline (which I made but has since been indefinitely extended). I have a lovely, complete cookbook but no one will ever see it. Needless to say, this was a very disappointing experience.
  • My friendship with my friend Shawn was revived to full life after lapsing for about a year. This wasn't one of those falling-out things. It was more about lives going in different directions. I'm glad our paths re-converged.
  • I started playing Guild Wars after a long absence from on-line multiplayer gaming.
  • My husband started going swimming at a local health club after a very long absence from it. He did this after I found a flyer for reduced cost membership in our mailbox. Sometimes the junk they constantly cram in our mailbox is actually useful.
  • I rearranged the furniture in our bedroom so the air conditioning would hit my husband. This included laying down a mat "carpet". I did it all by myself and it was a Herculean task but it is functionally a much better arrangement.
  • We paid $6,000 in health insurance and reduced our bank account to $15 thanks to the way in which health insurance is calculated based on last year's income and my, ahem, delinquent payment from a previous year.
  • I got a new digital camera courtesy of my father-in-law.
  • I finally read my husband's Harry Potter fan fiction novels (which he wrote 2 years ago).
  • I captured all of my home VHS video tapes and converted them to playable DVDs.
  • I budgeted for the first time since coming to Japan and formed a fact-based understanding of how much it costs to live in Tokyo for the first time. However, it was so tedious that I stopped after 2 months but that was long enough to get an accurate picture of our situation.
  • I made a conscious and conscientious effort to learn new recipes and vary our meals now that I have to cook most of the time to reduce expenses.
  • My last uncle (I had 3) passed away. I hardly knew him but I still felt bad for my mother and the rest of the family.
  • I've written a lot of content for lessons which could be developed further into a textbook for cultural discussions and have pondered doing just that.
All in all, it's been a pretty good but very expensive year. I've relaxed a lot compared to a year ago but still have a ways to go. I'm not one for New Year's resolutions and I'm not about to start now. I always have been one for having goals toward gradually improving or learning new things though I don't always meet them.

Hello, year of the boar.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Corrections That Are Incorrect

Back when I was in college, my Spanish teacher thought it was his job to enlighten us about news of which we should be socially conscious (rather than simply teach us how to speak Spanish). This was around the time that every bleeding heart rock singer and his brother were using the situation in South Africa to advance their media exposure. It was also while Nelson Mandela was still in jail.

This teacher asked the class if they knew what the problem was called and I raised my hand and said "apartheid" pronouncing it correctly and he reiterated my reply by saying "a-par-THede". He clearly was pronouncing it incorrectly but was not so subtly attempting to "correct" me.

Among the things I've overheard many times while working as a teacher is other teachers offering up corrections which are incorrect, giving out incorrect information, serving up dubious theories, and making serious grammatical errors themselves. My husband says he overhears a fair amount of such behavior in his work as well, particularly from certain specific teachers.

One of my former coworkers (who was a total nightmare) had the "dog" and "cat" theory of personality which he felt students needed to know and understand. I never really sat through the whole lecture but multiple exposure to snippets of his bizarre theory indicated that bad people were supposed to have the personality of dogs and good people that of cats (or vice versa). I can only imagine what the students thought of this notion and what it said about western people if they felt it necessary to reverse-anthropomorphize themselves in such a fashion.

Even when the students know the teacher is wrong (as was the case with my Spanish teacher and myself) or full of baloney (as was the case with the "dog" and "cat" guy), they don't say anything. In some cases, they resist out of uncertainty. In others, they don't want to anger the teacher out of fear about how it'll affect their grade or rapport with the teacher. I'm guessing in some cases it's also about being polite.

To be honest, I occasionally misspeak and make a grammatical error (as I'm sure everyone does) but I always correct myself. I think some people are embarrassed to acknowledge a slip of the tongue with self-correction and some people aren't aware that they're making mistakes. Teachers aren't perfect, no matter how educated they are or how hard they try. Still, it's hard not to cringe when you hear someone reinforcing a mistake with students or making their correct English incorrect.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Turkish Delights

The Turkish coffee shop where my husband acquired dates (as I mentioned in a previous post) also carries imported candy bars. My husband doesn't tend to buy these types of things very often. However, he is often compelled to purchase such things when he comes across something we've never seen before, particularly if it is not made in Japan. I guess that buying chocolates only when they are novel is one way to reduce the frequency of one's consumption of sweets. These bars were relatively expensive so that would probably dissuade us from repeat consumption on a regular basis if nothing else does.

All of these bars were produced in Turkey and have information on them in 4 languages including Turkish and English. One of them also has Arabic writing. It's specifically stated on one that it contains "no lard and alcohol". I'm guessing this is to make it clear that it is acceptable for those of the Islamic faith.

My husband and I split the Alpella bar this evening and I had a small nibble of the Peki and Kranci bars. The Alpella was incredibly good and it required a great deal of restraint not to gobble it down in its entirety. It's wafers full of hazelnut creme (my favorite). The name "Alpella" is clearly meant as a play on "Alpine" and "Caramio" for caramel.

"Peki" means "okay" in Turkish and I'm guessing it is a translation of the Nestle "Yes" bar (which this bar closely resembles). There's no Nestle logo on the bar so it's either a rip-off or Nestle doesn't include its logo on it's Turkish products. I didn't care much for the Peki as it seemed overly sweet and had what I felt was an odd texture. The Kranci is straightforward chocolate covered specs of hazelnut.

My husband and I rarely buy Japanese chocolate except for the occasional special Kit-Kat once in a blue moon. I'm pretty sure Japan must have the world's record for greatest number of Kit-Kat flavor variations. To date, I have seen white chocolate, pumpkin, lemon cheesecake, green tea, cappuccino, coconut, strawberry, banana, mango, maple, sakura (cherry), adzuki (red bean), bitter, mild bitter, passion fruit, yogurt and there are several white chocolate varieties made with various kinds of milk from different regions of Japan.

The Wikipedia entry on Kit-Kats lists an even greater variety than I have personally seen. It also mentions that they are the number one candy bar in Japan and that "kitto katto" roughly translates into "I hope you succeed". That last bit of information was news to me. I'm sure it doesn't hurt to have a name that translates appealingly though I think the general appeal of a chocolate-covered wafer and an infinite variety of possibilities has a lot more to do with its success. One thing the Japanese market seems to love is novelty.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Fake Concern

One of my students works for a major electronics manufacturer and has been working a lot of overtime over the past 6 months. Recently, she had planned to go to Australia for a vacation with her husband on the heels of a business trip to Hong Kong. Unfortunately, due to her poor health from working too much, she couldn't go to Australia.

During her last lesson with me, she related some details of her business trip to Hong Kong which were of interest. She said that she was feeling under the weather during the trip and her manager insisted that she return prematurely to Japan. He said that he, as the boss, was responsible for her health and well-being.

After a day's rest, she insisted that she was fine and could remain in Hong Kong for the duration of the trip. The manager told her she had to go anyway and reiterated his responsibility. My student said that she couldn't understand his logic because, if he were so concerned about her health, it would make sense that he'd stop working her so hard in Japan.

My student's naivete left me somewhat amused. I guess she's not cynical enough to realize that her boss had no concern for her health per se. He was worried about her becoming ill in Hong Kong because she'd have to go to a hospital there and the company would have to pay the expense. Additionally, her travel arrangements (hotel, plane tickets) may have to be adjusted in a manner which would cost the company more money. The reason he didn't express concern for her health in Japan is that working her to the point of illness in Japan costs the company nothing. If she misses work due to illness, her work just piles up and she has to work that much harder upon her eventual return.

Fortunately for her, she's being changed to a different area of work and will have a different boss. She told me her new boss will be a woman and her new work will be about dealing with advertising on the web in English. I'm not so sure she'll endure any less stress but she's fairly confident that her days of working overnight or until the wee hours of the morning are over.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Krispy Kreme madness

Hello, it's Shari's husband. I thought I'd just jump on for a minute to give an update on the Krispy Kreme situation (which I know is of the utmost importance to all of my wife's readers). There are still lines every day, and it seems to be getting worse.

I went there on Saturday the 16th, the day after it opened, at 9:30, and there was a line of twenty people, which grew to a hundred by noon. Two days ago, on Saturday the 23rd, I went again at 9:30 only to find over a hundred people already waiting. I find this significant because as most who live in Japan know, most shops don't open until 10:00, so people don't start shopping in earnest until around then.

On the 16th, I assume most of the people at KK were people just walking around Shinjuku a bit early, and decided to check out the new donut shop. But there's no way that a hundred people just happened to be in that area of Shinjuku on a Saturday morning, so it must be that they went there specifically to go to Krispy Kreme, knowing they'd have to stand in line. Why is beyond me, and the consistently long lines have mystifed my students as well. Anyway, I think this means that for the foreseeable future, there will be long lines all day long, except perhaps just after they open at 7:00 a.m. (And maybe even then, God only knows; I haven't checked.)

Note from Shari: Today it's rainy and dismal and I wonder if those lines are dampened a bit by this type of weather. Of course, neither my husband nor I wonders enough to check. ;-)

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas in Tokyo (2006)

A "Hello Kitty" papier mache figure at a tea shop in a Santa suit.

Since it's Christmas day, my husband and I decided to stroll around the neighborhood to see what the locals were up to. One thing we learned was that, by Christmas day, the holiday is essentially over for the Japanese because the commercial value has sufficiently diminished that it's far less worthwhile than the days leading up to the 25th. People have spent all the money they are going to on Christmas by this point. (As always, click any picture to see a much larger version.)

A Santa costume and various Christmas-themed headbands for sale at an accessories shop for young women and girls.

Last night, my husband passed by a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop and saw 40 people waiting in line to get their Christmas repast. He also saw the usual convenience store employees standing outside of 7-11 and others hawking Christmas cakes. Despite the fact that I've spent many Christmases in Japan, I've neither bought nor sampled a Christmas cake. I've asked my students if they usually have them and all of them say they do. One of them said the cakes are pretty poor quality as many of them are made far ahead of time, frozen, and then thawed before handing them over to customers.

Additionally, I've asked them if they give each other gifts and most adults do not. Most of them received one present on Christmas morning when they were children. Even if they had a tree, the gift was usually left near the futon. Most had trees though usually they were artificial. In the case of one of my students, she said her family had a real (about 4 feet tall) tree which they dug up and replanted every year so she had a rare experience with a live tree.

This sign was hanging in the shopping street we were walking along. It advertises a campaign where you could get chances to win either one of ten dinners for two at the Four Seasons Hotel or one of a hundred pairs of tickets for Disneyland or Disney Sea (hence the illustration of Santa next to a present with a dinner table and Mickey Mouse popping out of it). You could earn the chances by purchasing items from shops on this shopping street.

Our main goal in going out and about was to see what might be happening but our secondary goal was to visit the Baskin Robbins that had only recently opened up in the middle of the shopping street. I wanted to treat myself to some orange sherbet since no Japanese stores sell it and, hey, it's Christmas. My husband bought more properly festive blueberry gingerbread ice cream.

From previous experiences during Christmas, one thing we know for a fact is that every scrap that indicates the Japanese celebrate Christmas will vanish by tomorrow morning. It's like they are all set to self-destruct by midnight on the 25th. They're immediately replaced by traditional Japanese New Year's decorations so that the new cycle of sales can begin.

Addendum: I wanted to note I received a really lovely Christmas card from my friend Shawn on December 24th which helped boost my holiday spirit. I love the artwork as it reminds me of Calvin and Hobbes. I also like the joke. :-) Thanks again, Shawn.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Peanut Butter Cookies

This being the holiday season, I've been making more sweets than usual. Rest assured, I haven't been eating all the things I bake. Two days ago, I made about 6 dozen chocolate chip cookies and didn't eat one of them. Three days ago, I made just short of 6 dozen peanut butter cookies and didn't eat any of them either. In the case of the peanut butter ones, I'm not even tempted because I don't care for them. There's something about the texture that doesn't appeal to me. My husband, on the other hand, loves them and asked that I make a boatload for his students.

This recipe is very old and I have no idea where I got it. I can say that it's a huge hit with everyone who receives these cookies, including my former Japanese coworkers. My former boss told me he could sit down with a bag in front of the T.V. and consume large quantities of them.

These cookies are easy to make and probably a good recipe to try if you want your kids to help you make them. They aren't fussy (no dropping, rolling, or cutting) and the dough isn't sticky or troublesome. They're pretty much no fail as long as you measure properly and don't overbake.

This is also another recipe which requires no special ingredients though I will caution those who live in Japan not to use "peanutsu cureamu" and to be careful to buy actual peanut butter. Skippy is available in most Japanese markets which stock peanut butter and it works well. Additionally, do not use Japanese lard (commonly sold in tubes) as a substitute for Crisco. You can use "cake margarine" (keiki margarin I'd enter the katakana but I have no Japanese input on my PC) which is sold in the margarine/butter sections of supermarkets as a complete substitute for the combined Crisco and butter. There are different brands but you can distinguish it from bread spreads by the picture of a cake on the box. Inside the box, you get a light yellow block equal to one cup so you can substitute one entire box for the 1/2 cup of butter plus 1/2 cup of Crisco combined.

Peanut Butter Cookies recipe:

1/2 cup Crisco
1/2 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup peanut butter
2 eggs
3 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Cream the Crisco, butter, brown sugar, and white sugar using an electric mixer. Add the peanut butter and mix well. Add the eggs, salt, baking soda, and vanilla and mix again. Add half of the flour (1 1/2 cups) and mix once more until it is incorporated. At this point, you will have to abandon the mixer as the dough will get too thick for the motor to handle. Add the remainder of the flour (1 1/2 cups) to the mixture and mix it by hand.

It will be mixed completely when it comes together (as above) and resembles soft Play-doh. Also, it shouldn't stick to your hands.

Roll the dough into balls about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. You can do it all at once or you can do it as you need to fill cookie sheets. I usually do it all at once so it's simpler once I start baking.

Place the balls about 2-2 1/2 inches apart on a baking sheet then press down with a fork to make a cross-hatch pattern (as above). Bake at 375 degrees F./190 degrees C. for 8-12 minutes until delicately brown around the edges. Allow them to cool for a minute or two on the cookie sheet before removing as they will be quite soft at first. Remove and cool on clean newspaper sheets (this absorbs oil). Makes 3 dozen. These cookies freeze very well.

This is what just shy of 6 dozen of these looks like. Since my cookie sheets are so small, it took 4 rounds with two sheets (one on the center and one on an upper rack) to get them all done and I was pretty worn out when it was over. If you also use two racks, be careful to rotate them at the midway point while baking so they cook evenly.

Depending on how carefully you roll the balls and how central your criss-cross marks are, these cookies can come out almost perfectly round. In fact, one of my former foreign coworkers seemed to imply that I hadn't made these cookies at home but rather bought them at a bakery because they were almost perfectly round. I explained to her that it was due to how they were made from round balls and squashed down but she still had an air of skepticism about the matter.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Christmas Spirit (or lack thereof)

I wonder which present is for me?

The picture above is from Guild Wars. It's a screenshot of the game environment that was infused with Christmas as of December 21. The makers of the game know how to make the players feel special. In addition to the holiday motif that is added, you can take part in snowball fights, get drunk on eggnog, and collect candy cane shards and whole canes to be used for various purposes in the game.

This beats real life as neither eggnog nor candy canes can be had without a visit to a shop which specializes in selling to foreigners. In Tokyo, that's National Azabu Supermarket. It's sufficiently troublesome to go that one isn't inclined to go there unless there's a more compelling reason than seasonal treats. Also, there's no guarantee that they'll stock any particular item.

Mmmm. Tasty super-size gumdrops.

I wish I could say that the general atmosphere in Japan was 1/10th as good as what I get from a game. Spending Christmas in Japan is like being exposed only to the most commercial aspects of the holiday without any of the spirit-based aspects. I'm not talking about the religious angles as I'm no longer a Christian but rather about the emotional aspects.

While I'm fully aware that Christmas is very commercialized in the United States (and other western countries that celebrate it), there are usually some indications of emotional depth. People may be nicer at times or more helpful. You can perhaps even catch a whiff of the essence of the spirit of giving if you're lucky and not so mired in cynicism that you have the equivalent of a spiritual clothespin over your nose.

When I first arrived in Japan, I used to try and "make" a holiday for myself in spite of the shallow observance of it around me. I used to try and connect with people back home over the holidays and I'd decorate the apartment relatively lavishly. I'd go out of my way to make copious amounts of goodies for friends and coworkers. I'd special order a turkey expensively from the FBC deli and make a special meal.

After nearly a decade of sending out tons of Christmas cards and getting a smattering back, being around foreign coworkers who were indifferent to the holidays (or outright grumpy), having to work on Christmas day, and feeling increasingly disconnected from the U.S., I gave up. I can't even bring myself to take the decorations out of the closet this year, let alone put them up. The only thing I'm doing this year is make cookies for my husband to give his students and I'm having a lot of difficulty getting the energy to do that. I don't do it out of any sense of holiday spirit but mainly because I love my husband and want him to have the pleasure of doling out goodies to his students.

What I've learned is that there are limits to weaving a pocket of western culture in Japan and you hit them pretty hard around the holidays. There aren't really any Japanese holidays which have the same depth of sentiment as Christmas, not even among the Japanese themselves. In my lesson where I discuss every holiday throughout the year with students, none of them seem to have much of a serious affinity for any particular day although they do like the extended time off they get for New Year's vacation. So, it doesn't seem likely that I would be able to try to integrate myself more fully with the culture to find the sense I'm missing elsewhere.

It's rather depressing, to be honest. Still, at least I can run around with a bizarre spiky ice creature with an oddly happy-looking snowman head, drink virtual nog and get virtually drunk, and have virtual snowball fights. It's better than nothing, but not by much.

Friday, December 22, 2006

We Passed

As I mentioned before, one of my students is taking a course at a junior college on one of the military bases. I've been assisting her with her homework and she got her final grade a few days ago. I'm pleased to say that she got an "A" in the class though I'm not so happy that she feels my assistance makes this my grade rather than hers.

My student already has a Bachelor's degree in pharmacy from a Japanese school so she has academic experience but she had problems structuring her replies to essay questions. I'm not sure if her problem was related to having studied pharmacy in school and not having to approach tests from the viewpoint of offering opinions (rather than data or research details) or if it has something to do with how Japanese universities structure their tests.

Her main problem was that she didn't talk "on point" when she answered a question. She tended to offer tangential information which was about a similar topic but wasn't addressing the crux of the question. I tried to teach her to meander around the answer less and to simply get right to it.

To offer a more concrete example, she had a question about whether or not the age of criminal culpability ought to be reduced but rather than say that it should or shouldn't and why she felt that way, she talked about a case in Japan that compelled the Japanese government to lower the age of culpability from 16 to 14. While the case was interesting and related to the general topic, it didn't support any particular opinion.

Many of her lessons were spent with my trying to rework her replies so that her wandering around the point became examples for opinions and my helping her see how to address the question as stated. I'm not sure if she actually "got it" but she definitely got a lot better at getting closer to it by the end of the semester. I'm pretty confident that she'll need far less help next time.

I wonder if this is her particular issue or part of a larger tendency among Japanese people to be vague and indirect. One thing that her writing strongly reminded me of was the business letter sample homework that I used to correct for students at my former job. The students were told to accomplish two straightforward tasks; write a letter asking for details about a pair of trekking boots and ask a hotel that they had stayed at to look for a lost address book. In the case of the former, the students would often begin the letter with long, irrelevant personal tales of having to go hiking and needing good boots. In the case of the latter, they'd start off with extended apple polishing which came across as buttering up the hotel staff.

Even though students were explicitly told not to do these sorts of preambles that are common in Japanese letters, they did it anyway because they were uncomfortable getting down to business. The problem my student had wasn't exactly the same thing but both situations were reminiscent of taking the scenic route to the point.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Great Balls of Fire

The eyesore pictured above is the gas-powered water heating unit that is installed in my kitchen. To operate it, you push in the big blue button on the front, you hear a clicking noise as the pilot light inside lights up and then you can see a blue flame through the narrow window above the button and hot water comes out of the hose. You can control how hot or cool the heated water is by dialing the blue button clock-wise (that controls the water flow) and/or sliding a lever at the bottom right which is under the button (that turns the flame up or down).

This system is not only unattractive, it's also inefficient but Japanese apartments are too small to have the type of water-heating systems that you see in most U.S. homes. A similar type of water heater is in the shower area. It can also be a little scary if you forget to use the ventilation fan in the kitchen while operating the kitchen water heater. If you don't use the fan, occasionally a large blob of flame will burst out of the top and make a loud noise. For real excitement, there are the times when flames shoot out both sides and the top. You can imagine that I try hard to remember to turn on the fan.

I consider us somewhat lucky that we have this type of unit at all. In my husband's first apartment in Japan (before we were together), there was no hot water at all. This was awhile ago so it may be relatively rare for apartments to no longer include hot water in the kitchen but I have heard other foreigners complain about not having hot water to wash their dishes.

In both of the offices occupied by my former company, they had tiny little cylindrical water heaters installed under the sinks so that you didn't have to have this type of monstrosity hanging over your sink. In one case, the water was scalding even at the lowest setting and, in the other, it didn't work at all. I'm guessing that's why few of those types of water heaters are used. I'm also guessing they are more expensive. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure they don't shoot out balls of fire on occasion.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It's All About Portions

Papatto Rice

I've been reading a few other blogs and their comments about the introduction of Krispy Kreme into Japan and it's been pretty interesting. One of the common comments is about whether or not this signals the embracing of an unhealthy lifestyle that will lead to obesity in Japan.

One thing that you learn pretty quickly in Japan is that it's not so much about what you eat but how much of it you eat. People would be surprised to see just how much food which people in western countries consider verboten as part of a healthy diet is commonly consumed in Japan (particularly high fat food). The Japanese are expert at packaging for small portions in order to accomodate small appetites. The package above is 100 grams of rice that you can buy in a package that snaps apart so you can conveniently eat a tiny portion. It's actually one of my favorite buys as it's about right for me when I eat rice.

There are a wide variety of these types of portion-controlling packages in Japan. For instance, you can buy a Kit Kat bar in 8 individually-wrapped pieces which are half the size of one wafer. Imagine taking a regular Kit Kat with 4 bars that snap apart and cutting them all in half and individually wrapping them. Even a regular bar doesn't come packaged as one block of 4 bars. It comes as 2 bars of 2 wafers individually-wrapped. The exception to the small portions in Japan is giant bars (mainly geared toward kids as gifts) which are offered around New Year's. Roy has a picture of one of these big bars in his blog Q-Taro in the archives here. I believe there are also Giant Pocky on offer during this time of year as O-shogatsu (New Year's) gifts.

This picture pinched from Amazon (from which you can buy these in the States).

Beyond the individually-wrapped items, there is the the fact that all food is sold in smaller packages period. A "bag of chips" in Japan is around 70-100 grams (about 3.5-4.5 ounces). In the U.S., an average bag of potato chips (unless it is an individual portion meant to be put in a lunch pail) is 9-12 ounces.

In the U.S., you find that food companies for many years had been offering more and more in each package whereas Japan almost always offers less with a few exceptions. Studies show that people eat more if more is in front of them. This is probably a leftover survival behavior. If you eat all you can when it's there, you store fat and have a greater chance of living through leaner times.

Since food is cheap in the U.S. (the packaging sometimes costs more than the contents), companies have emphasized size as value and people have tended to choose more content for their money rather than less. This has pushed all food and snack companies to make bigger and bigger portions in order to make people feel they are getting value for their money.

It also doesn't help the restaurants have been on the same portion-bloating bandwagon for years. I read recently in an interview on Salon that dinner plate sizes now are similar to serving platter sizes from 80-100 years ago. Dinner plates used to be the size of current salad plates. People in the U.S. have a tendency to feel satisfied about what they're eating when they have a full plate and a bigger plate means more food.

When you mix the marketing value of larger portions with the psychology of eating, you get people eating more and more. Only now in the U.S. is the issue of selling individually-packaged portions to give people an idea of how much they should consider a reasonable amount starting to gain momentum. In Japan, the idea seems to have always been here.

I'm not sure if the control of portion sizes in Japan is the result of a culture which serves a variety of small dishes traditionally, part of the group culture, related to a culture which doesn't view size as such an important factor in "value" or an off-shoot of a culture which values packaging so much. The small portions in separate packages do make it easy to share and in fact encourage it when you're around other people. If you're alone, you're very aware each time you tear open a new package for another cookie that you're tucking in again. You get a feeling of going beyond one portion. You also don't have to think about food going stale if you don't eat it all up because it's vacuum-sealed and will stay just fine for weeks.

So, I believe there is little danger that Krispy Kreme is going to unleash a wave of obesity in Japan. There's far too much cultural push behind moderation and small portions for any one infusion of American culture to convert Japan to a culture of excess.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Fudge Brownies

If you search the internet for certain types of recipes, you'll find that a lot of them are duds even though there are reviews which say they're the bee's knees. Even good recipes for certain foods can disappoint. Homemade brownies are one type of food where the recipes often aren't quite up to snuff, particularly if you're a fan of the kind of fudge brownies with a nice crackly top and a fudgy interior that come from commercial mixes.

Fortunately for me, I don't often make brownies because it's quite a bit more sugar than I'd like to be eating. Unfortunately, on the rare occasions when I want them, I have no access to commercial mixes. Quite some time ago, I came across this recipe which includes an unusual step where you add boiling water. I haven't worked out what the chemistry is behind this step but I do know this is the homemade brownie recipe that comes closest to having the attributes of the venerable Betty Crocker mixes.

The nifty thing about this recipe is that it doesn't require you to deal with baking chocolate or other esoteric ingredients that are rarely on hand. It uses cocoa powder so, if you get a chocolate craving, you have a good chance of finding everything you need in the pantry and you won't have to run off to a grocery store. I use Van Houten cocoa because it's available in most Japanese supermarkets but I've had great results with Hershey's baking cocoa, too. I believe any cocoa will do fine (including the much cheaper Meiji brand in Japan) but there will be flavor variation depending on what kind you use. Hershey's makes a darker brownie with a slightly more bitter undertone. Van Houten makes a smoother-tasting brownie.

With the holidays coming up, you might want to give this a try as a special treat.

Fudge Brownies recipe:
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 cup cocoa (unsweetened baking cocoa)
  • 2/3 cup butter (melted)
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 small or medium eggs
  • 1 1/3 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F/165 degrees C.

In a large bowl, mix the cocoa and baking soda. Blend 1/3 cup of melted butter with the cocoa mixture. (It should look as above.) Note that this is half of the melted butter.

Add the boiling water and stir until well-blended. This will make a fudgey paste (as above). Be careful as it can be very hot (steam is still rising from it in the picture above). Stir the sugar into the paste. Make sure it has cooled enough not to cook the eggs when they're added then add the eggs and remaining melted butter. Mix well. Add the flour, vanilla and salt and mix well. Pour into a well-greased baking pan (13"x9"x2" or 9"x9x3") and bake for 35-40 minutes. Do not overbake. Allow them to cool for at least 15 minutes before cutting.

The best way to test for doneness is to see how liquid-like the center is. If it is very "viscous" in a 3-4 inch radius from the center when you gently rock the dish from side to side, it probably needs more time. A tester or toothpick test (inserting it in the center) will not work as it will come out with moisture on it when it is done. If it comes out clean, you've probably overbaked. The center should be soft to the touch but feel "set" like a soft set custard or pudding. If it feels liquid-like under the surface, it isn't done.

Please note that my friend tried this with Hershey's cocoa and his batter looked rather different than my pictures (in fact, he said his looked the opposite of mine at the two stages above). I'm guessing the fact that Van Houten is more water soluble has an impact on the batter. He also reminded me that the brownies are better the next day and actually get fudgier overnight.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Of Samples and Bias

When I was in university, one of my favorite areas of study was experimental psychology (physiological being my favorite by a head). One of the things you learned pretty early on about psychological experiments and all surveys, from which a lot of behavioral data is gleaned, is that there is always bias and issues with just how well the data you collect reflects real behavior.

One of the things all foreign people tend to do is reach conclusions about Japan based on our anecdotal experience. We don't do this because we want to offer a skewed viewpoint of life here. We do it because that is what we have access to and it makes a huge impression on us. There is very little you can do about this issue except to seek out other sources of information (which will in turn include their own biases and erroneous conclusions) and, most importantly, be open-minded and flexible in your opinion.

Early on, many foreigners tend to form their viewpoints based on their experiences as English teachers. While conversation school teachers tend to meet a fair variety of people, they are still going to get a pretty narrow view of people in Japan. For one thing, the people you meet in schools usually want to have contact with foreigners and have an interest in expressing themselves in English. You don't meet the average person who has no interest or an active distaste for foreigners very often. Additionally, you tend to meet people who are affluent enough to afford attending such schools and who will tell you things which portray Japanese culture in a favorable light because they want you to like them.

Those who moved on from schools to working in Japanese offices and have direct exposure to the corporate environment have a somewhat broader perspective but it's still far from putting us in a position to understand the culture as well as we might. The types of companies that will employ foreigners tend to need foreign employees for their language skills or they tend to be in the tech industry. There are certain kinds of businesses that we don't get an intimate knowledge of. However, I think you really get a good feel for corporate culture from working in an office and can see beyond the stereotypes of Japanese businesspeople that western news sources offer.

Finally, there are those who marry Japanese people and they probably are in the best position to get a full perspective on the culture. However, even foreigners with Japanese spouses will be treated differently than Japanese people treat each other (and possibly shielded from certain behaviors. Also, some foreigners with Japanese spouses start to form a bias to help them integrate with Japanese culture better. That is, some people will start saying that there is little or not prejudice against foreigners in Japan or start to assert that foreigners deserve poor treatment on the occasions when they experience it because they don't try to fit in hard enough.

In my particular case, I have had the chance to speak to copious numbers of people for short periods of time. In my former job, I spoke to a minimum of 700 different people each year in short conversations. This allowed me to ask a lot of people the same questions. In essence, I have functioned as a one-person surveyor on a limited number of points and my sample size is easily over 10,000. This is a far greater sample than you see in most surveys. Unfortunately, my sample is still pretty skewed as 99% of the people I spoke as a part of my job were male company employees (or college students) and probably 70% were 25 or younger.

In my work outside of that company (at a conversation and as a private teacher), I've had many chances for in-depth conversations with a relatively small sampling of people who are predominately female and over 30. Their responses to questions are vastly different from those that I used to get when I was interviewing young men.

One way in which I attempt to find a little balance for my experiences with other perspectives is to read the surveys on What Japan Thinks. These surveys are also, of course, from limited sample sizes. In fact, most of the time, the samples are insignificant for a population the size of Japan's and the fact that all surveys are done voluntarily further degrades the validity of any survey (in any country, by any method, and on any topic). Only a certain personality type will take the time to answer survey questions. However, at least these samples represent people who are responding in Japanese and are done by a method other than a face-to-face encounter so reading them broadens the range of my perspective a bit more. They're also very interesting as anecdotal information. I often discuss them with my students to see if they concur.

I think it's pretty important to allow your theories about Japan and its people and culture to be open to modification as time goes by. It's also important not to take anything you read on the Internet at face value no matter how knowledgeable the source appears to be. Even after a lot of time and conversations with a lot of people, there are still things I get wrong or don't know.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Winter Gift Giving

Japan has two gift-giving seasons, one in the winter and one in the summer. The winter one is called oseibo and the summer one is o-chugen. These gift-giving times are different from the type of holiday gift-giving you find in the U.S. In the States, piles of presents are given at once during Christmas and family and friends are a heavy focal point for such gift-giving.

In Japan, the gifts that are given during the two seasons tend to be less personal and are given to people who you have a relationship with in order to express gratitude for the relationship and to juice the bond between the parties a little. They're also given out of obligation in many cases.

At my former company, we used to receive large quantities of such gifts twice a year. During the first half decade or so of the 12 years I worked at my office, the office ladies would take all the goodies around to every person in the office and distribute them. As the years went on and the company's business diminished and fewer gifts came in, they tended to keep them tucked away as much as possible for themselves, especially if the gift was chocolate, cake, cookies, or Japanese sweets.

They were especially good at skipping the foreigners on distribution rounds of such items because we were tucked away in cubicles and couldn't see what was going on until we entered the main office to see a goodie on every desk. Mind you, I don't think this was about prejudice, I think it was about opportunity. We were the only ones who weren't in the regular open office plan so it was easier to skip us without making it obvious. When it came to a choice between another chocolate in their desk drawer for later snacking or doing the courteous thing, the chocolate won.

Two staple types of gifts were senbei (rice crackers) and beer. Nearly every year we would get a tin the size of a 5-gallon drum full of a variety of senbei that would keep the office girls going for weeks. The cases of beer were very slowly consumed by salespeople or possibly taken home. The truth is that I only saw the staff drink on the job at the end of the end of the year office cleaning session.

Being foreigners, my husband and I are rarely direct recipients of such gifts as they seem to be exchanged more as part of business relationships than personal ones. While students give teachers little souvenir gifts (omiyage) on occasion or small gifts of appreciation, they don't tend to give summer or winter gifts to teachers. My husband received the box of Godiva chocolate and cookies (pictured above) from the mother of one of his very few child students. Given that the Japanese are embracing Christmas gift-giving more and more, it's hard to tell if this was an oseibo gift or related to Christmas but my money is on it being a winter gift (and quite a nice one at that).

Friday, December 15, 2006

Krispy Kreme Shinjuku Opening

I normally don't do posts like this but my husband happened to be nearby at the time of the opening and I sent the camera with him. Please click on any picture to open up a much larger shot. He got these shots of the first day. They were taken around 12:30 pm. As you can see, the shop is pretty large.

Here is the first line. My husband counted and said that there were about 200 people in line, counting this line and the second part of the line, as will be seen below. Considering that this is not something which is available for a limited time or is on sale to the first x number of people, it's rather impressive that people would bother to do this. When my husband asked how long it would take to clear the line and get in for donuts, he was told it would be 2 hours. Needless to say, he didn't get any. He's keen to get them, but not quite that keen.

My husband said that he felt that this line is exactly what the Krispy Kreme people wanted for their opening day to generate publicity. He felt the promotion (which I described in a previous post) was specifically designed to get this type of result. Apparently this too was successful, as he saw a man with a large video camera and a tripod, with an armband indicating that he worked for one of Tokyo's main TV stations.

When a new shop or business opens in Japan, these types of flowers are displayed outside. A shop near our house actually cleans and prepares these sorts of things.

There's someone with a video camera shooting in the center and a very happy woman with a huge quantity of donuts on the left. I believe each of those boxes has a dozen donuts. I have no idea what anyone would do with 8 dozen donuts unless they were taking them back to the office with them. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some offices would give leave to office ladies to wait in line for something this frivilous. Office ladies in my former company would often run out for an hour or so for far less "momentous" events.

Here's the second line that snaked around the building. They're a pretty orderly bunch. One of my husband's students said that she believes Japanese people sometimes see a line and assume anything that people choose to wait in line for must be pretty good. She said she thinks some people don't even know all that much about what they're waiting for but just join in (if they have some free time). Even so, some Japanese at his office were equally mystified that such a long line would form for donuts.

And finally, it's the end of the line. The sign that poor guy is holding says "end of the line". I can't imagine a much crappier job than having to stand around for hours holding a sign like that. My husband said that he was pretty prompt about moving the sign backwards when more people got in line, pushing the end further back.

"I Know How American High School Kids Live...

...because I have watched Beverly Hills 90210." Believe it or not, quite a few students have said this to me. My reaction is somewhere between incredulity and horror though I keep that under wraps. It's pretty important for Japanese people to understand we don't all grow up rich, white, manipulative, and promiscuous with a colorful cadre of close rich white friends and friendly token ethnic friends.

Even though the show went off the air in the U.S. six years ago, it is still ran consistently on cable television (on a woman-oriented channel called LaLa) in Japan. In fact, it appears to be sufficiently popular that, as of 2 years ago, aging cast members were still visiting Japan to promote the show and special behind the scenes shows about the series continue to be shown. That means the show continues to "educate" the Japanese about youth culture in the U.S. to this day. I'm guessing that the O.C. will usurp that role eventually but manage not to portray life any more accurately.

While discussing prejudice, ethnicity and poverty, one of my students told me that she thought all white people in America were middle class or rich. I have to wonder to what extent the aforementioned types of shows foster this erroneous belief or if this particular student has a much more skewed viewpoint than most Japanese people. She felt that only black people were poor. The fact that her black college teacher has reinforced the idea that blacks are constantly living in poor conditions and at an economic disadvantage has probably fueled that notion but it's no more true that all blacks are poor than all whites are rich.

While I used to see my students as quite naive for their notions that U.S. television programs reflected real life in any way, I'm pretty sure now that other cultures and Asians in particular are misunderstood or stereotyped no less by Americans based on how they are portrayed on T.V. While we don't see as much culture imported wholesale into the U.S. from other countries, we do see distorted American views of them inserted into U.S. T.V. programs. This is sometimes for comic effect (e.g., Monty Python's depiction of Chinese and Japanese), it's sometimes fairly earnest and, on older shows, rather racist by current standards.

Given the number of old American shows on Japanese cable, I've at times stumbled on some pretty overt racist statements which were not seen as such at that time. On the old show Quincy M.E., Robert Ito portrayed an assistant for a dozen and a half shows and, at one point, Dr. Quincy remarks on how "inscrutable" he is. In Star Trek, the character of Sulu, being Japanese (yet not having a Japanese name), knew how to use a sword and the character of Keiko on Star Trek the Next Generation seemed to have grown up with less exposure to western culture than Japanese people in our era. Being Japanese, she had to wear her hair with sticks stuck in it, eat food from the sea, grow bansai trees (though to be fair, she was a botanist), and get married in a kimono.

These portrayals seem to be beating us over the head with the characters' ethnicity but I'm pretty sure that the writers didn't realize how trite their characterizations were. Just like my students know Americans from shows like Beverly Hills 90210, those writers know Japan from things like Shogun. Among U.S. television shows, the only one that gets it right is "The Simpsons" though, of course, they exaggerate things for comic effect.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

K Minus 14 Hours and Counting

In about 14 hours, Japan's first Krispy Kreme will open in Shinjuku (Southern Terrace). I'm not so excited about it that I'm keeping a count-down but the Japanese Krispy Kreme web site is set up to do so, so it seems in the spirit of things.

The main reason I'm so aware of this is that my husband works about a 5-minute walk away from the soon-to-be-opened shop. Last week, employees wheeled out carts full of boxes of their raised glazed donuts and gave away entire boxes to passers-by on the streets. My husband didn't get one but a few of his coworkers did and they shared them with the rest of the office. He brought one home for me to try. I was struck by its freshness, which is, after all Krispy Kreme's main selling point in the U.S. There is something different about the donut itself as well. It was much more evenly-raised and not as tough as some raised donuts I sometimes encounter in Japan.

The first person in line for the donuts tomorrow morning will get a dozen free donuts a week for a year and the first 100 will get free T-shirts. I'm not sure how insane the Japanese will be at the prospect of what will amount to about 70,000 yen worth of free donuts but I wouldn't be shocked at all to learn that someone might decide to sit out in the cold all night for that honor.

While I'm sure that there will be a fair amount of hoopla and patronage of the shop early on, I do wonder about the long-term viability of another donut chain in Japan. The freshness will be a plus but Dunkin' Donuts has already lost out to the ever popular Mister Donut in Japan and succeeding in Tokyo takes a lot of business on a daily basis given the high cost of renting space in high traffic areas such as Shinjuku.

Mister Donut has done a good job of finding ways to cater to the Japanese market. This is due, in part, to offering some menu items that uniquely appeal to the Japanese market but it may be more likely that, in a country that almost universally shuns the notion of a free refill, they offer free refills of their (abysmal quality) coffee. In Japan, where many young people can't find privacy in their own home, the ability to linger in restaurants for hours on end nursing a drink is one of the things patrons value most. It's a lot harder to kick people out when you offer bottomless cups. (Incidentally, the reason that young people sometimes can't find privacy in many cases is that they live with their families for far longer than western kids. It's not unusual to find kids residing with their parents up until marriage or work requires them to move out.)

Mister Donut also has adapted to Japanese tastes to some extent by diversifying the menu. They include some noodles and soups as well as steamed buns so that "real food" can be had in addition to sweets. The donuts they offer do not appear to be any less sweet than American-style donuts (in my opinion) of similar varieties but they do offer seasonal variations which include ingredients the Japanese favor such as sweet potato, sesame, and chestnut.

Finally, they offer a "club card" with which customers can accumulate points which allow them to get free gifts. The gifts vary wildly but, at present, they are offering Japanese-style paper lanterns. The campaigns are rather cleverly timed such that you have to consistently patronize the shops in order to get enough points before the campaign's deadline approaches or the points you've accumulated become useless. Most of the items are fairly cute and seem to be designed to appeal to the teenage girl to young office lady crowd. This is probably wise since young Japanese women are notorious for daily consumption of sweets and are likely frequent purchasers of donuts to take back to their office and share.

Given that Krispy Kreme has a relatively limited menu and pretty much hangs it value and reputation on lavishly-sweet treats that are fresh, I'm not sure that they will be showing the adaptability that the Japanese market might require in order to succeed in the long run. So far, the only concession to the Japanese market seems to be a reduction in the variety of donuts that the shops offer. If you compare the U.S. menu to the Japanese one, you'll see that a lot of the more ostentatiously sweet varieties are missing (as are the cinnamon ones for some reason). This could be related to simplifying the preparation process for new workers or due to limited space forcing them to pare down the menu but it also could be that the Japanese don't like piles of sweet crumbly things on top of their donuts.

I'm guessing that it won't take more than a year to find out one way or another if they're here to stay for awhile or if they'll have to give up on the Japanese market and go home. If you're part of the foreign crowd and want to give them a try, I'd recommend trying them out sooner rather than later in case it vanishes in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Happy Birthday, Sharon!

My sister's birthday is December 13th. When we were kids, I was aware of the fact that having this date as a birthday was a drawback on two counts. First of all, and somewhat of limited importance, her birthday sometimes fell on a Friday and everyone would be going on about it being an unlucky day. Second, and much more importantly, her birthday was only 12 days before Christmas and that invited the dreaded combo-gift situation where people would give one gift for both days rather than a separate gift for each day. It rather made me glad that my birthday was in August.

Anyway, the internet has been a great facilitator in allowing my sister and I to build up a relationship again despite distance. When I first came here, we had little or no contact because she's not much of a letter writer and neither of us had the cash for calls (nor are we necessarily big on chatting on the phone). More than the internet itself though, multiplayer gaming has been the force behind a renewed and closer relationship for my sister and I. Starting with Diablo II , we began to regularly meet up on-line to play games. The games gave us a reason to be on-line at the same time as well as a common topic to talk about. After a lot of years apart where we lost track of each other, this was an easy way to re-build our rapport.

Anyone who thinks on-line gaming is about geeks role-playing as they grow pimples and cultivate a pale, unearthly glow doesn't get the point. For a lot of people, it's about the socialization aspect. It allows you to come together in a community and relate to each other through the game. It's little different than couples who used to bond over games of Bridge or Hearts. It just doesn't require you to do it in each other's homes.

At first, we mainly chatted by typing in messages in the game and then later graduated to using talk. Now, it's very much like we're hanging out at home talking like we did when we lived in the same house. We have that same level of comfort that you have where you don't feel obliged to feel the gaps in conversation with idle chatter and you can just say things when you feel like it or just say nothing at all. Cheap computer-based talk has allowed for that and being able to do this with my sister has been immensely valuable to me in my relative social isolation since quitting my job a year ago. It's also been very nice to feel a part of my family again.

A lot of people have blood-bond-based relationships with their families and their siblings in particular. They associate out of obligation rather than a desire to be around each other but my sister is actually my friend. We have a lot of things in common and some things not so much in common but I'd want to hang out with her even if we weren't related. I wish I could be there to bake you a cake, Sharon! Have a great day and see you on!

(The above image was pinched from Nimwendil's Blog - I'd ask for permission but I don't speak the language - I hope he/she doesn't mind! Please visit the blog to see other very nice bits of fantasy artwork.)

Looking Way Back

Since I've been in Japan for so long, I've seen a lot of changes, both big and small. Some of these changes are the result of technological progress and others a result of the encroachment of more western culture and business. While the rest of the world has simultaneously experienced some of these changes, a lot of them are more dramatic when viewed from the perspective of being relatively deprived of the comforts of home in a foreign culture and then being greatly less deprived nearly two decades later.

Here are some of the changes, both big and small, comparing nearly 18 years ago (when we first arrived) to now.
  1. Spoken communication abroad was extremely costly and difficult when we first arrived and is now virtually free due to internet services such as Skype and GoogleTalk. When we first arrived, not only would phone calls back home cost a dollar a minute but a lot of foreigners chose not to have a telephone at all because NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) required a hefty deposit for the privilege of having a phone installed. At that time, the deposit was in the $500-$600 range.
  2. Diet sodas were rare to impossible to find. The best you could do was a Japan-only beverage called "Coca-cola Light" which had reduced calories relative to regular Coke. Pepsi was completely off the radar. Now, you can get both diet Pepsi and Coke though you can't always get both at any particular shop and other types of diet soda can only be purchased at places specializing in imports.
  3. Tokyo was a smoker's paradise. All coffee shops and restaurants allowed smoking and the non-smoking areas, when present, were relatively small and not the least bit shielded from wafting smoke from the smoking section. Nowadays, Starbucks is a smoke-free coffee shop option (the only one, I believe) and restaurants are expanding non-smoking sections relative to the smoking areas. Additionally, some streets are smoking-prohibited in Tokyo. That is, you cannot walk and smoke on them at the same time.
  4. Foreign entertainment was strictly in the form of videotape rental or limited pay access to services which are the Japanese equivalent of HBO (Wow Wow being the biggest). The selection for these channels was pretty poor and the relative cost for the quality high. Access to U.S. television was only possible through the largesse of relatives who were willing to tape shows and send the tapes abroad. Now, there is cable television which shows select T.V. series as quickly as one year behind the U.S. and more channels seem to be dropped in every few years. Currently, "Lost" is airing about a half season behind the U.S. on AXN. However, comedy is still pretty hard to find except for "Friends", "The Simpsons", and other Fox-produced shows (since Fox has its own channel on Japanese cable).
  5. Access to foreign food was limited to the odd item here and there at some markets and the expensive supermarkets in the "gaijin ghetto" areas of Tokyo. I use the term "ghetto" in the sense of it being a pooling of a certain type of person, not as any indication of poverty. The people living in those areas are quite wealthy compared to those of us living in Japanese communities. These days, you can get more foreign food consistently at local markets compared to the past, go to Costco (though only far from central Tokyo in a relatively long day trip), and order from the Foreign Buyer's Club though this takes a month and a half to deliver items.
  6. Getting English language books was very expensive. The main way to get them was through Kinokuniya bookstore where you were charged double the cost of the books back home. A secondary way was through one of the used books stores that kept starting and going out of business like restaurants in bad locations. In both cases, selection was limited. Nowadays, we have a stable used book store to visit (Good Day Books) as well as any branch of Amazon. Both Amazon U.S. and Japan will allow you to buy English books. From the U.S., you can buy anything you want at U.S. prices but the postage can be a nasty bite. From Amazon Japan, the price tends to be higher than Amazon in the States because they don't apply the same discounts. However, selection is far better and overall prices much cheaper than 18 years ago.
  7. The salary structure for foreign employees and working conditions have changed and are far less favorable than they were 18 years ago. The minimum amount a foreigner can make and still qualify for a working visa is 250,000 yen a month. In the past, you could make 250,000 yen in 25 hours of teaching work. Now, that has shifted to 30 hours for the same salary. Additionally, teaching children was a specialty and relatively uncommon as part of the average teacher's workday. These days, because of the shrinking population, almost all major language schools require some teaching of children. This is a way of increasing the market even though there are fewer and fewer people to teach. Finally, most schools have shortened class times as well as teacher break periods and schools that once offered paid national holidays no longer do so.
Some things have actually gotten worse rather than better. For instance, I used to be able to buy more English language computer software and hardware from Cyberian Outpost (now Fry's before Japan jumped whole-heartedly into the tech boom. Once Japan's market bloomed, restrictions on imports seemed to be more wholeheartedly enforced and getting English software became very difficult without the help of a third party back home. This is somewhat off-set by the ability now to download and buy software rather than having to buy it in boxes at shops though you still can't get major releases from a download.

All in all though, it's a lot easier to live in Japan than it used to be. However, it's still not home.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Coddle Me, Or Else

Previously, I posted about a temporary student who was preparing to work in a major international hotel. She had planned for four lessons with me then to sally forth into the exciting new world of information dispersal. It turns out that it was a bit more intimidating than she expected and she decided to come back for another round of lessons.

She told me that she hadn't actually had to offer any information to foreigners yet but she has had to field questions from Japanese guests. The types of questions that she's been asked will be a problem for her if they are in English so she wanted to learn how to deal with the same types of questions in English. I must say though that I felt pretty good when she said, "now I know why you were teaching me those things!" I grilled her pretty hard but now she knows the guests may turn up the heat even higher.

One of the things she asked me about was how to get across various greetings that she is expected to offer guests. People who don't reside in Japan may not know this but it is common for the staff at restaurants and shops to say "irrashaimase" (which is the equivalent of "welcome" in English but there is no direct translation). This is more of an acknowledgement of a customers' or guest's entry into the establishment than a true greeting. My student is required to say "welcome", welcome back", or "good morning/afternoon/evening" to foreign guests when they enter the hotel.

My student wanted to confirm that the translations that were used for these greetings were correct because she noticed that quite a few guests seemed rather embarrassed when such greetings were offered. I explained to her that part of the problem is that westerners aren't used to being addressed each time they enter or exit a place. Usually, people greet you as you approach them for an interaction (like signing into the hotel). If you greet them, they also feel obliged to respond. With multiple greetings from various staff on multiple floors (this is a huge hotel with various annexes), it requires the guest to respond again and again or feel rude in not replying.

The most interesting thing she told me about this greeting business was unrelated to dealing with foreigners and had to do with a Japanese guest. It seems that the hotel believes repeat guests deserve special recognition. For new guests, it's okay to simply say "welcome" and "welcome back". For repeat visitors, the staff are supposed to recognize their faces and say "good morning/afternoon/evening." Even new staff members have to do this and it is accomplished by having pictures of those guests' faces and making the staff memorize them.

In one instance, a new employee failed to recognize a middle-aged Japanese businessman who was a repeat guest and he was so incensed by the young woman's failure to offer a more familiar greeting (she just said "welcome") that he insisted the hotel fire her. The hotel moved her out of a position where she would greet guests but it is amazing how childish this man was. When an employee failed to coddle him in the fashion he expected, he tried to get her fired for a very inconsequential "slight".

Monday, December 11, 2006

Shari's Swedish Meatballs

The point of making Swedish meatballs originally was to use up all the little bits and pieces that are left around the kitchen. Of course, these days, people tend to make them because they taste good rather than because they want to be frugal and use up whatever is lying around. I make them because they're cheap and tasty and pretty much the only way I will eat any sort of beef. I have a rather intense dislike of beef because, to me, it just smells like blood. Since we eat chicken 4-5 nights a week, it gets tedious eating the same thing, so this is a nice change of pace.

Using this recipe, the main portion of the meal (the meatballs) costs about 120 yen per serving if you can get ground beef as cheaply a I can (which is about 70 yen per 100 grams). This is also a dish which doesn't require any specialty (import) shopping. All of the ingredients can be purchased at an average Japanese supermarket and it is cooked on the stove top and requires no special equipment.

Shari's Swedish Meatballs:
  • 500 grams (approx. 1 lb.) ground beef
  • 1/2 small onion
  • 1 medium green pepper or 2 small Japanese piman
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 3/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 cup bread crumbs (dried or fresh)
  • 1 cup near-boiling water
  • 2 beef bouillon cubes
  • 1/3 cup cold milk
  • 1-2 tbsp. corn starch
  • 1 tbsp. sour cream (optional)
  • ~1 tbsp. olive oil (for cooking)

Put the ground beef into a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the garlic, pepper, salt, and nutmeg over the beef. Process the onion in a small food processor (or dice very finely by hand). Add the green pepper and pulse to process into relatively small pieces or dice it by hand. Add 3/4 cup of milk and stir until thoroughly mixed. (Note: I've pureed the onion to mush before and that is fine - chopping too finely is better than too coarsely since the vegetables have to cook completely inside the meatballs. You can click on the picture above to see a larger one that should give you an idea of how finely I process them.).

Add the bread crumbs and stir until well-mixed and the meat mixture starts to clump up (as pictured above) but is not hard to stir (which would mean it's too dry). The mixture shouldn't be soupy. If it seems too wet, throw in more bread crumbs 1/4 cup at a time.

Form small (about 1"-1.25" in diameter) meatballs inside the same mixing bowl. This next step isn't absolutely necessary but it's a good idea to cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for an hour or more (up to a day ahead of time). This will allow the spices to permeate and for the meatballs to firm up and be less likely to fall apart while cooking.

Heat a large skillet and spread just enough olive oil over the bottom to coat it (to keep the meatballs from sticking). Place the meatballs one at a time over the bottom of the pan. It's okay if they touch but they should not be crowded. Cover and cook over medium heat, turning over when they are half-cooked and brown on the bottom. If you don't keep it covered, you won't have enough liquid for making the sauce.

Remove the finished meatballs and keep warm in a covered plate (using the lid you covered the skillet with to cover the plate works well). Skim the fat from the edges of the juices (or leave it if you don't care). Dissolve the bouillon cubes in the near-boiling water and add to the juices in the pan. Stir to mix. Dissolve the corn starch (use 1 tbsp. for thinner sauce and 2 tbsp. for thicker sauce) in the 1/3 cup of cold milk and add to the juices and bouillon. Stir constantly over medium heat until thickened. Stir in sour cream if desired. Skim the fat from the edges again if necessary or use a soup skimmer to remove it.

Spoon the sauce over each serving of meatballs and serve as a main dish. Alternately, add the meatballs back into the sauce and serve over whole wheat pasta as a sauce. The sauce also makes a great gravy for potatoes.

In Japan, I use standard dried breadcrumbs used for tempura that you can pick up almost anywhere and Maggi-brand beef bouillon cubes (as pictured above). I recently picked up a bag with a ton of tiny piman for 99 yen which served me well (though I doubt I'll be able to use them all up before they go off). This recipe will make 4 generous servings or 5 smaller ones and can be frozen for future meals. You can also make sandwiches from the meatballs if you've kept the sauce separate (it gets too messy with the sauce).

In researching this recipe, I found a lot of variations and the common element is the nutmeg. It may seem strange to add a spice generally associated with cakes, pies and cookies to meat but it works extremely well and should not be omitted. My recipe mixes and matches components of various recipes but the main thing I do differently is add in green pepper and prepare the sauce with bouillon. Even if you don't like green pepper (my husband doesn't care for it), it adds in a distinctive and enjoyable flavor and I recommend giving it a try. This was the first time I added sour cream to the sauce and I found that it didn't add much to the flavor but it did give it a super smooth, silky texture.

One of the reasons I like this recipe is that it allows me to pre-prepare the more involved part (the meatballs) far ahead of time then cook later. My husband's work schedule has him coming home at 10:30 pm so we eat dinner at 11:00 and I'm generally pretty tired and not in the mood to do elaborate dinner preparation.