Saturday, March 31, 2007


My student brought us treats from the base. Yum!

As I've mentioned previously, one of my private students is currently attending college on a military base. She's just finished her second class and received an "A" in it (as well as the first one). She had the same teacher for both classes and was considering taking her third from the same instructor.

The instructor has had a rather spotty term this year. He's had a lot of personal issues and commitments and canceled a little over half of the lessons in the past term. Due to some other priorities in his life and the expectation that he'll probably have insufficient time to teach a full number of face-to-face classes, he announced that his next class would be carried out as a distance course next term.

Unfortunately, the teacher hadn't confirmed his ability to do this before telling the class about it and it turned out that he couldn't do it. My student had e-mailed him to confirm the situation but he didn't respond to her. She waited some time then tried again and still got no response. Finally, as the deadline for registration drew near, she had to contact someone else at the school to see what the situation was.

The third party contacted her teacher and then got back to her. It turned out the teacher was essentially recommending she not take his (now face-to-face) class because he anticipated having to cancel a lot of classes again and knew she had to drive a few hours to reach the base. If she attended, he would feel uncomfortable about what he was sure would be the necessity of canceling lessons. Since all the other students are part of the military, a cancellation wouldn't inconvenience them in the manner in which it would her.

My student overheard her teacher discussing a replacement for himself during one of her lessons and she learned that the salary for teaching positions at colleges on military campuses are relatively low and it is difficult to find replacement teachers. This is probably why the teacher is continuing to cover the class knowing cancellations are inevitable.

The entire situation is regrettable because it appears it's not the best situation for anyone concerned. The most unfortunate aspect of it is that the teacher's failure to reply to my student's e-mail has lead her to the conclusion that all of this is simply because he doesn't want to teach her because of her 'inadequate' English ability. I am certain, however, that this is all about the teacher's personal schedule and a desire to have maximum flexibility without any nagging concerns about how it'll cause one student trouble.

I spent quite a bit of time in my student's lesson laboring to make her believe this but I'm not sure that I was 100% successful. I believe that her teacher didn't write back to her because he was either too busy or uncertain of his ability to explain the situation in a manner that she wouldn't interpret as a rejection of her personally. That's no excuse for not writing her back and I think there's a decreased chance she'd feel rejected had he actually replied.

One thing that has come up with my student throughout the playing out of this situation (it has been over a week in coming) is that there are serious cultural differences in the roles and responsibilities of teachers and how they look after their students. In Japan, teachers are expected to a far greater extent to look after their students' well-being academically (and sometimes otherwise). It's not unusual for high school teachers, for example, to visit their students' homes to discuss problems or assist students. In the U.S., the responsibility to cope with problems is mainly on the shoulders of the students (and their parents if the students are young).

My student has expressed on two occasions now that she is very frustrated by what she feels is a certain callous disregard for her on the part of her teacher and some of the people who she is dealing with at the college. While I believe she hasn't been treated as well as she deserves (at least in regard to having her e-mail replied to), I don't think that she's been particularly ill-treated or dealt with with malicious intent. Hopefully, part of her experiences as she continues to go to school on the base will be the ability to find some cross-cultural understanding and not to think poorly of herself when such things happen.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Letting Go of the Half Truth

A news story about the murder of a young (female) British language instructor in Tokyo by a Japanese man whose home she presumably visited to conduct a private language lesson is making the rounds of all the news sites and Japan blogs. If you haven't read the story, you can read a bit of it on Japan Probe as well as follow their links to related articles.

I generally try to refrain from commenting on news stories, particularly when they're as well-covered as this one has been and will continue to be. However, this terrible story hits a bit closer to home for me because I'm female, teach in my home, and have been followed around and harassed by creepy Japanese men before, though fortunately never stalked as the victim was. One even grabbed my ass twice as I was riding down an escalator early on in my stay in Japan (when I was young enough to be worth a pervert's attention, I guess).

This story isn't really about being a foreigner in Japan though. It's really more about the half truth that Japan is a safe country and the reality of being a woman of any nationality in Japan. While Japan is safer than some other countries, that doesn't mean that it is "safe". This is much more so the case for women than men since violence against women is not treated as a serious problem in Japan relative to other developed countries.

Since Japan has all the trappings of a refined, civilized, and polite society where people have better control of their emotions and reactions than people back home, it's easy to believe that people treat each other well most of the time and to conclude the gentle demeanor you witness in public continues in private. The truth is that domestic violence is under-reported and often ignored by the police when it is reported. When rapes are reported, the woman is often held partially or even fully responsible for "allowing" the crime to happen or even "facilitating" it by showing what the police feel is questionable judgment.

Underestimating the potential for violence and brushing off the nuisance of unwanted attention is an easy mistake to make because many Japanese strangers can come across as weak, ingratiating, or amusing in their attentions toward foreign people for the most part. They rarely come across as especially intimidating. If you're an English teacher, it becomes even easier when you hear students telling you day-in and day-out that they don't want to live abroad because Japan is a "safety country" and other places are dangerous.

Japan's safety is a half truth that needs to be let go of. There are violent crimes, petty thefts, and a lot of shady dealings. The statistics you hear about crime in Japan are not representative of reality for a variety of reasons and should not be trusted. Many small crimes go unreported because the Japanese don't want to rock the boat or get someone in trouble because there's a social price to pay for being a petty criminal. The police often adopt a cooperative attitude with organized crime whereby they allow them to go about their business as long as they don't disrupt the orderly flow of society in any appreciable way. There are also a lot of back-door dealings when crimes are committed where apologies are made and money changes hands to keep crimes from being handed over to the criminal justice system.

I abandoned the idea that Japan is safe a long time ago. I always lock my front door (and chain it) and I never open the door to strangers or unexpected visitors. I also approach the front door with my key in hand so I don't have to fumble or delay in getting in. While I do have students come to my home, all but one are women and the lone male is 65 years old and had been attending lessons with another teacher for 3 years before being referred to me.

The fact that my 20-year-old apartment came pre-built with full-size metal shutters that lock over the door-size glass windows on one side of the building and bars over the windows on the other is an indication that the Japanese don't necessarily embrace the idea that their country is safe either. Otherwise, why would such precautions be taken to keep intruders out?

Thursday, March 29, 2007


A lot of people need to have “alone time” where they can be by themselves in a relatively isolated space for awhile. In Japan, where the apartments are small, getting time by yourself can be rather difficult if you are married or have children. In some apartments, even when you are alone in one room, you are so closely-connected to the others that you’re still essentially together with the other inhabitants. True privacy and isolation are sometimes rather hard to come by.

Personally, I’ve never had issues sharing a small space with my husband. Part of the reason for this is that, when my husband and I physically met for the first time, we melded into a Shari-”Shari’s husband” beast which is forever connected and is very reluctant to ever be separated for more than the time it takes to go to the bathroom. Perhaps we were conjoined twins (note the political correctness of my terminology) in a former life. Perhaps we’re two halves of the same soul finally come together. Or, perhaps, we’ve just incredibly strange, but we do love to be together pretty much all the time.

Whatever the case may be, we never feel smothered or antsy in our confined space. The only time it’s the smallest bit of an issue is when one of us wakes up substantially earlier than the other. Given how easily sound travels through the relatively thin walls of the rooms in our apartment, when either of us wakes up early (as I did this morning having awakened 2 hours before the alarm was supposed to go off), we have to be very quiet if we don’t want to wake the slumbering spouse. Unless we want to sit and stare at a Tokyo-smog-coated wall for an extended period of time, this can be a bit of a problem.

On such occasions, my greatest impulse is to use the extra time to “get things done” followed by a desire to eat something for breakfast. I walk carefully around the apartment looking at various tasks and deciding if they can be done quietly enough not to disturb my husband. This morning I considered putting away the clean dishes in the drainer from last night’s dinner. It’s a particularly risky endeavor since the dishes are balanced on each other in such a way that one wrong removal will send them all sliding over each other with a clatter.

Trying to carefully pluck dishes from the pile such that they don’t loudly slide together is like playing a game of “pick up sticks”. For those of you too young to remember it, it was a game in which you dumped a bunch of colored wooden sticks onto a flat surface then tried to remove one at a time without the whole stack toppling. One wrong removal and the stack collapsed and you lost. I think the game got re-invented as Jenga at some point but that was after my time.

After 4 successful removals, I decided further work on the dishes was pressing my luck and the desire for breakfast was mounting. On such occasions, I curse the tendency of engineers to decide that every action you take has to be accompanied by a beep because this makes using the microwave oven an issue in a small place. It’s not enough that it beeps when food is done, it also has to beep every time you press a button and three times when you’re done.

The safest bet is usually toast because the toaster oven only makes one ding when it’s done so I went for that. However, there is also the problem of extracting the bread from the freezer given that it’s in a plastic bag (which crinkles) and surrounded by what appears to be hundreds of other plastic bags tightly wedged in around it. Moving one thing not only risks setting off a chain reaction of other plastic-related noises but also a cascade of food items sliding out of the freezer and falling to the floor because everything is crammed in there so haphazardly. There’s probably a metaphor for this with another childhood game of some sort but I was more of a board game player when I was a kid so I’m at a loss for what it was called.

If we’re low on milk or need something or other, I’ll occasionally tiptoe out of the apartment to a convenience store but this is also a bit risky. When we open and close the door in the apartment, there seems to be an air compression issue where the door will tend to slam shut very loudly if windows are open or there is an almost palpable air vacuum movement when they are closed. This air movement is something I’m very sensitive to and often wakes me when my husband tries to quietly leave on mornings when he’s up before me.

After I’ve given up on doing anything useful and done my best to quietly eat breakfast, I’ve still got about an hour to an hour and a half to kill in relative silence. Since all the fun stuff is in the bedroom (computer, T.V., husband), I’m pretty much stuck in the living room with our books and hundreds of DVDs with nothing to play them on. I do have my ancient iBook which I use in English lessons but it’s not connected to the internet and only has the relatively basic functionality because of its age.

Most of our books actually belong to my husband because I’m more of a “buy one book, read it, and then get rid of it” sort. Most of the books in our shelves are ones he isn’t seriously interested in reading but hasn’t given up on yet or are ones we’ve both already read but will probably re-read some day.

This doesn’t make for the most appetizing selection of early morning reading material so I tend to pick a book at random and read a few chapters then give up on it. This is somewhat useful in that I can say to my husband when he wakes up later, “you know that book, (insert title here), it sucks.” He’ll give me a thoughtful look considering my insightful review and say he’ll give it a look later and then we’ll get rid of it if he doesn’t like it either. Of course, he’ll never really look at the books I mention but we have an understanding about these things. He doesn’t read them and eventually I nag him into getting rid of them but first we have to be bursting at the seams with books. You have to have an effective method for dealing with such things in your marriage. ;-)

Usually, I end up on the old iBook doing something or other. Generally, I play the old game “Heroes of Might and Magic III” but sometimes I also write lesson material for my students and transfer it over to my main computer later. Sometimes, I even write overly long blog posts about how you have to make certain sacrifices living in a small place in Japan where every sound you make might wake your sleeping husband so you have to amuse yourself quietly.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Costco Experience

I had to cut the image of our Costco receipt (click this image for a bigger one) into three pieces to get Blogger to display it properly. This was after putting it together in Photoshop as one nifty-looking long strip that I'd hoped to run down the side of the post. Unfortunately, that yielded a minuscule image as Blogger restricts the vertical length of an image.

My husband made his tri-monthly trip to Costco today to load up on cheap and imported items. There are quite a few treats that you rarely find in local markets in Japan such as large quantities of seedless green grapes for a very low price.

We've been shopping at Costco since the first one opened in Makuhari in December of 2000. At first, we rented a small van and split the cost with my former boss for trips to Costco. This allowed us to buy without concern for how much we could physically carry. This was both fun and somewhat tiring, particularly for my former boss who arranged for rental, drove the van, filled it up with gas, then returned the van. He was an incredible sport for going through all the hassle.

I don't have an international drivers license nor does my husband so we've never driven in Japan but it's not the most enjoyable experience. There are a lot of tolls that you have to stop and pay at along the way and traffic can be rather bad at times, particularly if you drive through the more crowded areas like Shinjuku. Going in the summer is also very hot and uncomfortable, particularly in a van where the air conditioning isn't going to really permeate the back seating area very well.

The fun part of going to Costco this way was that this was as close to a road trip as we can get in Japan. I'd usually bake something to eat on the way there (as breakfast) and we'd talk amongst ourselves during the trip. There was usually a good bit of making fun of my boss's flatmate who was relatively quiet and tended to mumble when he did speak. Unfortunately, doing this added more time to the trip as well as about $35 apiece in expenses. Because public transportation is so good in Japan, it takes about an hour and 15 minutes by train and costs about $9 in train fare as compared to an hour and 45 minutes by van depending on how the traffic treated us.

The other problem was that my former boss didn't have the time or desire to go as often as we did so my husband started going alone. He learned that Costco in Japan will ship items to your home via a commercial delivery service for about $4 a box. Since we usually need only 2 boxes after my husband carries home the fresh food in a huge hiker's backpack, the cost of doing it this way is quite a bit cheaper than the van method.

The trip isn't for the easily fatigued or infirm. Because of my health issues, I generally only go with my husband once a year. We have to transfer trains twice and when we get to the station either walk about 15 minutes, or take a bus or a cab to the store. While this walk isn't too bad on the way there with an empty pack, it can be a real hassle with a pack stuffed to the brim with heavy items and shopping-weary feet. Buses arrive rather infrequently though so it's often faster to walk back than to wait for a bus and put up with the cramped shoulders.

The Japanese Costco shopping experience is roughly similar to the one you may have in the U.S. except for the food court area. When I shopped at Costco in the States, the food court was never packed to the brim and rarely populated almost entirely by women and children (at least on weekdays). In Japan, it's usually very crowded and quite noisy (depending on the time of day) and kids are usually running all over the place. I'm old enough not to remember what it was like to be a kid but I hope I didn't engage in as much random shrieking as I tend to hear around kids these days. If I did, I apologize to my mother and any other adults around me at the time for subjecting them to that.

You also see quite a few Japanese people managing to stuff in the large serving size food Costco sells without much difficulty despite the common protestation that the American portions are just too big. The students I've recommended go to Costco comment on how big the pizza and sandwiches are. When I tell them my husband and I generally buy one chicken bake and split it because it's too huge for one of us to consume, they act like it's a notion that would never have occurred to them. I guess that living in a culture with small portion sizes doesn't exactly inspire you to think about splitting your meals.

My husband bought a great quantity of items so he wouldn't have to return for a long time. The receipt pictured above looks far longer than it should because multiple items are rung up individually.

For the curious who can't read Japanese (and for my future reference should I ever be curious about what I used to buy at Costco Japan when I've finally gone home and forgotten how to read Japanese), the list is as follows (today's exchange rate being $1=118 yen):

Membership renewal fee ¥4,200, steak ¥2,452, sirloin steak ¥3,918, 2 bakery Swiss cake rolls (one chocolate, one strawberry) ¥998, 24 Gladware plastic storage containers ¥1,698 - ¥350 in store coupon, Kirkland paper towels ¥1,938, toasted coconut ¥648, 1 kg. New Zealand cream cheese ¥738, olive oil shampoo ¥1.098, 500 grams asparagus ¥418, Chilean green seedless grapes ¥988, Caesar salad dressing (1 liter) ¥498, Danish Havarti cheese ¥858, whole chicken ¥1,167, whole chicken ¥1,174, Ivory body wash ¥998, coffee filters ¥348, vanilla essence (473 ml.) ¥1,168, garlic bits ¥1,188, lavender body soap ¥898, pine nuts ¥2,187, mini pan chocola (small croissant-style rolls with chocolate chunks) ¥827, 3 packages of American bacon ¥798 each, Ivory dish washing liquid ¥958, Sunmaid raisins ¥757, 5 packages of Starbucks Espresso Roast ¥1,578 each, Albacore tuna in water ¥1,418 (8 cans), hot and spicy peanuts ¥878, Spanish olives ¥998 (2 large jars), 2 containers of cashews ¥1,748, 20 eggs free with store coupon.

This list is somewhat unusual because we almost never buy anything from the bakery. The Swiss cake roll was an extremely rare indulgence. In fact, I believe it's the first time we ever bought any sort of cake from the Costco bakery. The lavender body soap was purchased by accident because my husband didn't know what I wanted and after calling to verify that I didn't want it, he forgot to put it back.

You'll notice the word "delivery" is stamped on the receipt in English. The items are delivered the next day in monstrously huge boxes which are generally padded with smaller folded-up boxes. By the time you dispense with all the cardboard, it looks like you may have just moved into the apartment based on the number of boxes. Costco is very good about wrapping up liquid and glass containers though they tend to go overboard. Plastic shampoo bottles are wrapped in about 50 layers of plastic wrap which you have to remove with a box cutter (being very careful not to rupture the bottle). Glass jars are wrapped at least twice around in bubble wrap such that they appear to be in a bubbly cocoon.

Even with the expenses involved, you can easily save enough on key items to make it worthwhile. For us, savings on the coffee alone pays for the travel expenses and shipping with room to spare. If you're a short timer in Japan, it's probably not worth bothering to go to one of the few Costcos here but, if you've been here more than 2 years, it's well worth a trip.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Center of Attention

This Simpsons image was lifted from a Wikipedia entry.

One of my private students has been attending college at a U.S. military base for a few terms now. She has only taken two classes so far because her English ability isn't sufficient to take multiple classes simultaneously. Both of her classes have been taught by the same instructor and have been composed of largely the same relatively small number students so they have gotten to know her through the two courses they've shared.

In her most recent lesson with me, my student told me of a rather unnerving experience she's been having in her lessons. When the teacher asks her a question in class, all the other students turn around so as to face her. This is something that only occurs when she is being addressed so it's not a class-wide phenomenon.

The other students are all African American, male and belong to the military so she already feels very different from everyone else. She believes that they have developed this habit because she often does not understand the questions as the teacher asks them and they are standing ready to "translate" into simpler English for her. While she appreciates their good intentions, she's very embarrassed when this happens and wanted me to advise her on a way to make it stop without alienating her fellow students.

Unfortunately, I could not come up with a means by which she could discourage their turning around en masse to look at her while encouraging them to continue to be helpful and friendly. Any attempt to address their behavior would probably be viewed as a rebuff of their attempts to assist her.

It occurs to me that a little cultural awareness on the part of her classmates would go a long way in this situation. Japanese people want to blend in. The last thing they want to do is to be singled out in such an obvious manner, even when it is done so with the kindest regard.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

It Started With Lipstick

This is a piece of clip art. I figure I'd better make that clear.

Sometimes you have your day mapped out and it looks rather busy but generally you're okay with it. Then, one little thing goes wrong and it's as if the universe knocked over the first domino in a sequence of misfortune.

Yesterday, my first domino was a student who wore lipstick. She arrived ten minutes late for her lesson then wanted a 90-minute lesson instead of the 60 she'd planned. Since I'd slotted the hour between her lesson and some telephone freelance work I had to do as my lunch time, the circumstances squeezed my free time down to 15 minutes. Instead of the nice curry I'd planned, I scarfed down leftover chicken on crackers before the phone started ringing.

The first student who I was supposed to talk to on the phone called simply to say that he couldn't call and wanted to call at the end. This robbed me of 15 minutes on the other side of my free time between lessons so I had to rush around and clean up the coffee cups and coffee pot before my next in-person private student came along.

This rushed clean-up resulted in me missing a lipstick smudge on my first student's coffee cup. Bear in mind that I don't wear lipstick so I don't often have to clean it off of cups and it doesn't come off easily in some cases. The top rim of the cup was clean but there was a remnant of the smudge a bit lower down. While I was teaching my second student, I noticed this just as he took a drink and was pretty mortified. What was worse was that I'm sure he noticed as well.

After he left, I was hoping the smudge was a shadow and not lipstick and I tentatively reached for the (mostly full) cup to take it into the kitchen and I knocked it off the table and spilled coffee all over the living room carpet. I had to rush and try to clean it up before it stained the carpet. There's now a huge wet spot in front of the sofa and I'm pretty sure there will still be a stain.

At this time, I'm pretty tired from working all afternoon and early evening and a bit of stressed but I have to get dinner together. I planned on making mustard dill burgers (recipe to be posted soon) and I plop all the ground chicken in the bowl and add the spices but when I get to the dill, the jar is nearly empty. The lid had become dislodged while the jar was in the refrigerator and, since I store spices on their side in my small Japanese refrigerator, most of the spice had leaked out onto the shelf.

Even though I'm tired, I have to hop on the bike and go buy dill since you can't have mustard dill burgers with a tiny bit of dill. After all, you need enough to get a nifty pickle flavor in the burger or it's pretty much a plain burger with mustard mixed in. I crammed the partially completed burger mix into the refrigerator and headed off to the nearest store which I know sells "Gaban" brand spices (same brand as my current jar of dill). I search their shelf three times and there's no dill.

Dill isn't a spice you encounter much in Japanese cuisine so I figure I'll have better luck at Queen's Isetan since it tends to carry more imported food. I hop back on the bike and head to that shop (which is further from my home) and search their shelves. You can guess that the dominoes are still falling at this point. There's no joy for me on the dill front. Having no choice, I head for a store that is even further out which also stocks Gaban spices where I'm nearly certain I bought my first jar of dill.

This store is up an incline and I'm riding at night with a friction lamp on my bike and what I soon notice is a low front tire. This is a recipe for hard pedaling. All the traffic lights go against me as I ride there and most of the pedestrians are absorbed in their cell phones or simply meandering all over the sidewalk in a world of their own. It takes a bit of self-control not to resort to aggressively ring my bell at these dreamy obstacles.

When I get to the last shop and check out the spice rack, of course, I see no dill as I carefully scan all the bottle labels. Given that I'm so sure I bought dill at this place before, I check the titles on the rack in addition to the labels and discover that there is dill but it's hidden behind a misplaced bottle of a more common spice that someone has placed in front of it. Sometimes, fate has to be tricky to keep those dominoes of misfortune tumbling but I was triumphant. I also decided a pint of Lady Borden chocolate ice cream was now in order.

An hour after I shoved my bowl of ground chicken into the refrigerator, I trudge back into the apartment and finish up preparation for the burgers. They're wrapped and ready for cooking later and I go into the bedroom to finally relax. On the way in, I notice that there is a piece of orange plastic lying next to my orange iBook. This does not bode well. I pick up the plastic and it's the door to my CD-ROM drive. Somehow, for the first time ever, it simply fell off.

At this point, I'm thinking that if I even try to snap it back on, it'll probably break but I brave the dangers and it goes back on (seemingly) without incident. I haven't tested it yet so it may yet have an unhappy surprise in mind for me.

I realize that none of this constitutes a tragedy but this was definitely a day of a good many paper-cut-size pains. Days like this wouldn't be so bad if they were counterbalanced by the toppling of dominoes of good fortune on a similar number of days but life just doesn't work that way. Here's hoping today is a better day.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Where Sleepovers Are Difficult

When I was a kid, one of my greatest joys was having my current best friend over to my house for overnight stays on the weekends or for several days during the summer. Good friends are like candy when you're a kid. You can never have too much.

While a friend was staying over at my house, my parents generally ignored their presence and went about their business as usual. They didn't feel they had to be overly solicitous or accommodating. They only felt the need on occasion to tell us to shut up and go to bed when giggling or talking carried on late into the night.

A few days ago, I was conducting a lesson with a student and one of the questions was about whether or not the student would like to be famous. She said she would like to be famous because her extended family (cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.) would have more contact with her all the time. When I asked her why they did not have much contact with her now, she said that they lived too far away. She said she liked hanging out with her cousins and talking with them for long periods of time when she was younger and they lived closer and said she envied me because I grew up living near 8 of my cousins (whereas she only has 2). For the record, my student is a friendly, happy, charming young woman and there's no way her family avoids her because of her personality.

Since most young westerners are generally less attached to their family than their friends, I asked her why her university friends weren't sufficient to keep her company. She said that it was very difficult having them over or going to her friends' houses because their fathers came home from work tired and couldn't relax around a visitor. I asked if she ever had her friends stay overnight with her when she was younger and she said that she never had. When I asked her why she felt friends rarely stayed overnight in Japan, she said she thought it was because houses were too small for the parents to have any real privacy when guests visited. She could have her cousins over without putting her parents out because they felt comfortable being themselves around family.

I didn't discuss this point with my student but I wondered if part of the reason parents couldn't fully relax around their children's friends is that Japanese culture is generally more concerned with what others think than American culture. My Dad might have felt perfectly fine in his casual clothes, watching television and drinking a beer while ignoring my friends but a Japanese father may be somewhat concerned with how his actions may be viewed and mentioned to the parents of a child staying over with his child.

I felt rather bad for my student because she never experienced the giddy joy of carrying on with a friend in an extended and relaxed fashion. That sort of camaraderie and bonding doesn't come as easily in public spaces or in small spans of time.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Happy Birthday, Loony

I've tried several times to write a coherent birthday post for my friend Shawn and I'm afraid that it's a relationship that defies coherence in all its forms. In fact, defying logic, sense, sanity, and coherence is pretty much Shawn's goal. Most people are simply not going to understand a word I'm going to say but I'm pretty sure that's something Shawn would appreciate. Creating confusion is his highest goal so it seems appropriate to create some in his honor.

Shawn was there when the Carl was born. He's one of the few people who understands what it is to be a Carl and to act as one as often as possible. He stuffs wombats. He laughs at my Simpsons references. He thinks Ook-ook is a great name. He understands the charm of cartoon tigers and ducks. He shouts "Leeroy Jenkins" at exactly the right moment to make me laugh. He's uber for all the right reasons.

Allow your wombat to give you a hug for me. We'll be raising a glass, blowing a kiss, and maybe even kneeling down for just a moment before the great wombat king on the day of his birth. However, Sharon is still going to want to beat you when you annoy her.

A Lot of Energy for Nothing

Previously, I posted that we'd had some very disappointing results from our cable internet service. The whole mess seems to have come to a relatively quick and unceremonious end. A cable installer showed up, removed the Linksys cable modem they'd installed and a few cables and left in about 10 minutes time.

It felt strange because we spent an hour and a half with the salesman questioning him about the service before it was installed, spent over 6 hours getting it installed and working, and then spent days trying to get someone to do something about canceling it. There was so much energy put into the process and it was all gone in minutes.

It rather reminds me of some of the things that used to happen at my former job because salespeople would often over-promise or communicate in an unclear manner with their clients. For instance, the client would request a 10 hour in-company lesson on travel English. The salesman would tell the client we could do that with no problem.

Of course, we didn't have a travel English course so my boss and I would bust a gut trying to get one written quickly. Usually, we'd need to finish one hour of content by the next day so the salesman would be able to send off a sample and then rush the rest over the next week. The salesman would send off the sample and the client would sit on his hands before saying anything about it. We'd put everything on the back burner and push to finish the rest of the course.

One or two days before our deadline, the client would say his company changed its mind and didn't want it after all and everything we did was a complete waste of time and energy. A week or so of frantic work would end with one phone call from a client. Again, it was a lot of energy for nothing.

I'm not sure if this sort of thing happens everywhere or if it just happens in Japan because of the ambiguity of communication. I'm guessing it happens anywhere that salespeople have quotas they want to meet and are indifferent to the costs to the company when they waste the time of the staff responsible for assembling or creating the product.

Store Brands

At one of the local markets today, I ran across this obvious knock-off of a Kit-Kat right next to the real deal on the shelf. The brand name is "Top Valu" (sic) and this bar was priced at 78 yen whereas Kit-Kats tend to range from 99 yen to 126 yen.

The bar itself is quite similar to a Kit-Kat except that the chocolate is marginally semi-sweet (as the box indicates) and Kit-Kats are milk chocolate. This bar is every bit like a Kit-Kat in other respects and doesn't seem like some cheap knock-off. In fact, it's possible that this is the same bar repackaged under a no name brand. I'm not a connoisseur of Kit-Kats and probably couldn't tell the difference in a side-by-side taste test.

I did some research into the company that made these and they have their own chain of markets. This appears to be their "store brand" but I hadn't seen it at local markets before. The company's name is Aeon (not to be confused with the English language school chain named Aeon).

There are some "generic" brands of food in Japan that come in a plain wrapper but I've never actually noticed the sort of relatively pervasive store brands you often see in the United States in supermarkets (though there are plenty of them in convenience stores). If you don't know what I mean by this, I mean things like the Kirkland brand at Costco which offers cheap versions of a wide variety of products from food to personal care to pet products. There may be a few one-off store brands in Japanese shops (like milk) but nothing like you see in the U.S.

While researching this article, I came across an interesting web site about the Japanese consumer market. I'm adding it to my links list. If you want to get a deeper look at what businesses are doing in Japan, you may want to check it out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


A pencil drawing of Gene Simmons from KISS's Animalize tour.

In an interview, Terry Gilliam once said that he looked back on the interstitial animations he did for Monty Python's Flying Circus and couldn't believe he'd done such a thing. He didn't elaborate on this but I suspect I know how he feels. There's something about the creative impulse and how it works which changes through time. You not only forget how you managed to accomplish a task but also how you ever had the desire to create a particular type of work at all.

A pen and ink drawing of Paul Stanley from KISS's Love Gun tour. The white on the glove was done with liquid paper because the ink was absorbed by the paper so much that the spangled stars were blotted out.

When I was younger, I used to draw all the time. When I was in my early teens, I drew KISS all the time because I was a KISS fanatic. My art teacher used to be driven crazy by this because every project she gave me turned out to be a variation on a picture of KISS. When she assigned us a batik project and I did a poster-size picture of KISS, she insisted that it would be impossible to dye the fabric in a reasonable manner with such a concrete image. Of course, I proved her wrong. I don't know where the batik is now but I do remember it turned out really well and was framed.

As I got older, particularly after I got married, I found I didn't have time to draw and I pretty much "forgot" how to do it. Drawing is a little like speaking a foreign language. If you don't practice, you forget though you may be able to get it back if you start practicing regularly again.

My creative impulses turned to learning how to do graphics on the computer. Even if you are a fairly artistic or creative person, you find that using a computer for art is an entirely different experience. It's pretty unnatural because the tools you use are unintuitive or offer a relatively pale imitation of the real thing.

A very early 3D "gold" landscape I made for a desktop picture. This was made with Bryce when it was in its first version. I think it took 3 hours to render at a smallish size.

Since I started using Photoshop at version 2.5 and all the nifty 3D software when it was shiny and new, it wasn't nearly as polished as it is now, particularly in light of the fact that computers were often too slow to give you good real time feedback. I'd draw a line and it'd take a few seconds to show up on screen. This lead to me giving up pretty quickly on some types of digital tools though I did embrace Photoshop's deeper capabilities with a passion. Mainly I used channels, gradients, and textures to do the sort of thing you couldn't do by hand very well (or at all) rather than attempt to imitate conventional artistic media.

A picture frame made entriely of gradients and textures in Photoshop.

Unfortunately, as time marched on and I learned pretty much all I needed to in Photoshop, my interest in doing creative projects on it also dwindled. You'd think that mastering the tool would fuel the desire to use it but it seemed to render using it a mundane experience.

Illustrator followed Photoshop as the next digital tool I wanted to master though I'm not sure I thoroughly mastered it by the time I burned out on it as well. I can draw nearly anything and can do some pretty nifty stuff, particularly with blends, but I never did much with the gradient mesh tool. That's the tool that lets you imitate painterly effects. I guess that it was another example of my not wanting to use digital tools to imitate what you could do with a brush more easily.

These days, I feel like my creative impulses are funneled mainly into writing rather than drawing or other fine arts activities. I think this is because I spent so much time writing as part of my former job and because it's something which has always come naturally to me. I sometimes miss the fulfillment I used to get from making things with my hands like I used to but find the process of trying to do it again frustrating because I'm so bad at it now relative to how good I used to be. Perhaps we're simply not meant to dwell in one creative medium all our lives or perhaps I've just grown impatient in my "old" age.

Monday, March 19, 2007


My student brought back these kitschy but cute salt and pepper shakers from Arizona for me.

Many Japanese people, particularly young ones, go on homestays in foreign countries to allow them to experience life in another country and to give them a chance to practice English. For those who aren't familiar with what a homestay is, it's when a person from one country lives in the home of a native of another country for a relatively short time. The idea is for the visitor to be incorporated into the family and have a more meaningful social interaction than he or she would a a tourist.

Homestays aren't limited to young people though. My 64-year-old student and his wife also have gone on homestays and they are planning to go on another this year. The main difference between the old and the young is the younger people often do their stays in conjunction with a study program such as attending English conversation schools or attending short-term college or university programs. The older folks tend to go for more of a cultural exchange and pursue various activities they enjoy. My older student particularly enjoys playing golf in Florida as part of his homestays.

One of my students recently returned from a trip to Arizona where she stayed for two weeks with a family. Her trip included a good deal of sightseeing such as planned trips to the Grand Canyon and Native American sites. The company that contracted with her university to provide the arrangments for homestays for all the students also set up a lot of structured activities. This included things like visiting a cactus museum and taking a jeep tour of the desert with an old man who pretended to be a cowboy named "Kimosabe".

The family she stayed with took her skiing, to dinner, and were generally interested in spending time with her and talking to her about her life in Japan. She returned from her homestay very happy and wanting to attend school in Arizona so she could spend a lot more time there.

My student took her trip through an agency in Japan. There are a lot of these types of businesses in Japan. They either pay a family in the U.S. to take someone in for awhile. Some families offer to host a foreign visitor because they really want to offer a good experience to a foreign person. A few families do it because they really want the money.

My student got lucky because her host family was the former type. One of the other students who went to Arizona with her group wasn't so lucky. She was with a family that was never around and said that they were too busy working to do much of anything with her, including provide any meals. That student wanted nothing more during her time in the United States than to get back to Japan.

I find myself wondering if my student will end up enjoying her English studies and seeing them as a means of improving her travel in the future whereas the other student may decide she dislikes English and would prefer not to travel as much in the future, or at the least that she will not want to go to America. A lot depends on the sensitivity of the person but I have had other students who allowed one negative experience to put them off of seeking out related experiences for a very, very long time.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day

March 17 is more often a day I remember because it was my paternal grandmother's birthday than because of St. Patrick's Day. I remember her fondly on this day and regret that I was in Japan during the later years of her life. I guess that it's hard to get into the holiday itself when it frequently involves alcohol consumption and you don't drink alcohol.

St. Patrick's Day is one of those secular holidays (yes, I know it was originally a religious holiday) that Japan hasn't absorbed for commercial purposes yet. Some Irish and British pubs in Tokyo have parties at this time but most Japanese people know little about it.

Interestingly though, the idea that 4-leaf clovers are lucky is something at least a few of my students believe in. This is curious because the number 4 is considered unlucky in Japan because it can be pronounced as "shi" which also means death. This is similar to the situation in western countries where many hotels do not have 13th floors. In Japan, there is often no room 4, seat 4, parking space 4, etc. So, one must wonder how 4-leaf clovers came to be considered lucky where there is almost no Irish cultural influence to make clovers a part of the cultural mythos.

To all those who celebrate this day, Happy St. Patrick's Day. And, Happy Birthday, Grandma. I miss you.

The Purpose of This Blog

While trying to explain the process of writing an essay to a student, I tried to help her understand that the conclusion you reach sometimes changes as a result of the process of writing. You may already have your outline ready and your conclusion reached but as you explain the outlined points, you often find the conclusion mutates to a different, and often better, one.

This blog has been quite a lot like that process. Initially, I wanted it to be a means of telling people about ways of accessing resources that would make living in Japan more comfortable for them as westerners as well as keep family and friends informed about our lives. What this blog has turned into, at least in part, is a means by which I can communicate about life in Japan from a highly personalized and psychologically-oriented perspective. It's turned into a journal of thoughts to some extent.

It occurs to me sometimes that I wish I could compare what I think now to what I thought about similar situations 10 years ago but I lack a detailed record of my thoughts from that time. I'm certain that there was a lot I "got wrong" and am sure that there are still things I'm getting wrong now but the point of my writing is not to be "right". The point is to think about things that happen and to be able to remember them. Writing about them also tends to push me to develop the thoughts a bit more and roll over certain situations in my mind in a more thoughtful manner.

In regards to being "wrong" in my conclusions, one of the best things about putting yourself out there in a public place with your thoughts is that there's a decent chance someone who knows something you don't will come along and (hopefully, kindly) enlighten you. The flip-side though is that people who don't know you will inexplicably develop a problem with you for the things you feel or say. That's the price you pay for putting your thoughts out in public but I believe it's a worthwhile one.

I've also come to prioritize personal news as a part of blogging even though I'm sure it's of limited interest to many of my readers and I sometimes have to push myself to write about such things. The main reason I do this is that so much of what happens in life starts to slip out of memory and days run together when you're preoccupied with the tasks of daily living. It's easy to forget some experiences or at least never find a reason to access the memories of them again. There's something rather comforting knowing I can search this blog and see what happened to me in regards to time as well as topic if I should choose to.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Boy Toy

My husband has had an iPod for several years now. He's been wanting a video iPod with a large screen for well over a year now. Unfortunately, Apple has not been forthcoming on the full-screen front. He also hasn't been all that keen on Apple's DRM or file type limitations for video or music.

Since joining a local health club, he's been desiring a portable off-line web reader in addition to having something which can play video so he can entertain himself with it while using a recumbent bicycle. He's been using my old Visor Prism (a gift from my sister when she graduated to a Treo) to read eBooks and such but it's age and smallish screen size limited the ability to perform the tasks he wanted on it.

After doing a bit of research and factoring in everything he wanted, we decided on a Palm TX. The screen is 320 x 480 pixels and you can re-orient it from portrait to landscape depending on which works better for your needs. The screen is really quite gorgeous and looks far better in real life than it does in the picture I took of it (above).

I've only had it for a day and so far have figured out how to at least get some .avi files to play on it using TCPMP and how to do off-line web reading using Plucker. We were going to use wireless to connect it directly and save content off-line using the Palm itself but our wireless situation sort of fell through when we encountered the cable internet disaster I previously wrote about. We may yet go wireless in the future but it'll have to be through my purchasing a new router and setting it up myself using our existing FLETS connection.

At $300, it was a bit expensive for an electronic "toy" but my husband doesn't buy these sorts of things often and never impulsively. In fact, I always encourage him to buy any "toy" he wants because he works so hard and spends so little on himself. So far, he's been very pleased with the TX. It's far closer to an actual hand-held computer than we've had before.

This is another one of those things that we had to get family assistance to buy. Palm doesn't sell direct to Japan and they also do not appear to sell any models in Japan. Their Japanese web site seems to only be a support site.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Getting the Runaround

(Note: This saga updated at the end)

You often hear people talk about service in Japan in glowing terms and act as though the Japanese will bend over and kiss the boots of their customers to keep them happy. This is an interesting myth but, if you actually live in Japan, you find that good service, by and large, is a function of how much money the customer spends just like it is in every other country. If you go to an expensive place, you get treated like gold. If you go to a cheap place, you are treated in a relatively adequate but unimpressive fashion.

I'm disappointed to say that the same goes for dealing with places like the cable company. As I previously posted, J-Com (Japanese cable company) completely lied to us about the service we'd get. Their salesman displayed behavior I am very familiar with from working at my former company. That is, they tell the customer whatever it takes to get the customer to buy the product/service whether what they're telling you is the truth or not. Once you've agreed, they figure you'll put up with it rather than go through the trouble to get out of it.

The internet service J-Com has offered has been abysmal by anyone's standards. The speeds we get when doing a speed test are around 280-350 kbps. This is supposed to be with a 30 Mbps connection. With NTT's FLETS 1.5 Mbps, the same speed test gets us between 500-800 kbps. J-Com has tried to dismiss this by saying they only regard tests done on a Japanese speed test site as valid.

When they run a test on a site they put their seal of approval on, we get 16 Mbps but I'm pretty sure this is a test ran on internal servers to create the illusion of speed. It's either that or their speeds are horrible when connecting to any site or server outside of Japan which is pretty useless for us and something we should have been told about before being sold a 6-month contract. It's a pretty ridiculous situation, especially since no reputable ISP would sell a service based on getting good connection speeds in a very limited geographical area.

I did contact tech support and they took control remotely of my computer to see if they could fix it up. There was nothing they could do but they were preoccupied with the idea that I had Bitlord installed and kept asking me if torrents were running while I ran tests. Of course, they inappropriately used their access to my computer to troubleshoot my connection to investigate my installed applications to find this out. The thing is, I ran the test and showed it to the tech. fellow while he could see my screen and he saw the abysmal stats for himself and could clearly see no torrents were running. The only thing running was Internet Explorer.

Once the tech person couldn't improve my speed, he then changed his approach and claimed that 16 Mbps was "better than most Japanese households get". I told him the salesman promised each unit in our apartment building would be getting 30 Mbps when he pitched the service. I also asked him why the test was so pathetic with J-Com despite his test saying we had a 16 Mbps test and he had no answer for that.

Since that interaction 2 days ago, I was called again and told that the case was going to be referred back to the sales section and someone would be calling me this morning to discuss it. Instead of someone calling me, a technician showed up at my door and wanted to mess with my hardware. The problem is that I had private lessons and was not in a position to have him do anything. My attempts this afternoon to get anyone from J-Com on the line to talk about it failed.

I'm essentially being given the runaround. They're hoping that avoiding the problem will make it go away. This would be on par with the way in which a lot of problems get dealt with in Japan for a variety of reasons. One is that no one wants to be responsible for making the decisions that would result in a resolution. The other is that they don't want me to break the contract and figure I'll eventually get fed up and just pay out the contract rather than deal with the aggravation of trying to get them to talk to me and deal with the problem. This is how a Japanese person would respond in most cases.

My experiences with J-Com to this point have been very negative and I would strongly advise anyone considering using their internet services to avoid them at all costs and to not believe anything they are told in regards to the quality of their services. Unless you are on a dial-up, you will likely not see much improvement in your internet speed through them, particularly when compared to even the lowest level ADSL access.

Update: Several hours after writing this post, I wrote an extremely irate letter (using words like "lie" and "cheat" relatively liberally) to J-Com and they finally contacted me by phone. They transferred our case over to a different salesperson (a woman) who is arranging to have the offensive technology removed next Tuesday. She said they wouldn't charge us for the internet or phone service for the 3 days they were installed. I'll keep my fingers crossed but I'm not holding my breath (yes, two cliches in one!).

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

No Fuss Banana Bread

One thing you tend to see a lot of in Tokyo are bananas that rapidly get overripe. One reason for this is that they are imported and have often been sitting around for awhile. Another is that it's relatively warm most of the year and bananas ripen rapidly most of the time.

Most banana bread recipes are roughly similar so there won't be anything unique going on in the ingredients for this one. However, it is greatly simplified in the preparation with the help of a food processor. You're spared manually mashing the bananas or combining the fat with the dry ingredients.

If you make this recipe in Japan and use Japanese brown sugar, you'll notice it is much lighter in color than what is pictured above. Also, you won't get the little dark fibers in the banana bread that you remember seeing back home when your mother or grandmother made it. The flavor is better with western-made brown sugar but it's still good with the Japanese type.

No Fuss Banana Bread:
  • 1/2 cup room temperature butter (1/2 a Japanese brick or 1 stick in the U.S.)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
  • 3 quite small or two large bananas
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 tbsp. milk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees . or 175 degrees C. Cut the butter up into cubes and place in a food processor. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Process until the butter is fully integrated with the dry ingredients. It should look like yellow flour and clump easily. Add the brown sugar and process until well mixed.

Empty the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Peel and break the bananas into largish pieces and put them in the food processor bowl (you don't need to wash it between the wet and dry ingredients). Process the bananas until they're pureed. Add the eggs and milk and process again until fully mixed.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until just mixed. Don't over-mix it or worry about lumps. Just make sure all the dry ingredients have been moistened. Pour the batter into a lightly-greased loaf pan and bake for 40-50 minutes (until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean). Allow the banana bread to sit in the pan for about 5 minutes then run a butter knife around the edge. Remove it from the pan and place on a cooling rack.

Variations: You can reduce the sugar down to 3/4 of a cup or you can cut it in half and augment it with granular Splenda. The less sugar you use, the more bread-like the texture of the banana bread will be. It'll also lose some of its glossy appearance with a 50/50 sugar/granular Splenda mix.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Cable Frustration

My husband and I have been using a relatively slow ADSL (NTT FLETS) connection for quite some time. It is 1.5 Mbps which has been just fine for the most part. When our cable company representative came by to evaluate the ability to upgrade our cable access to HD and add in some channels, we discussed getting an integrated cable T.V./internet access/telephone package with an upgrade to 30 Mbps on the internet speed front. Using the integrated package would save us about $20 a month over the total amount of money for services we have been paying to our ISP and the phone company (and for cable T.V.).

My main concern initially was about whether or not the Japanese set-up software would run in a legible fashion on my computers which have English operating systems. The PCs have no Japanese capability installed. The Mac, like all Macs, can pretty much handle any language though it's not always 100% reliable that the software will accept the Mac itself. We asked the cable representative to bring us the software disc so I could test run it. It turned out it was all in Flash and ran just fine on the Mac.

The Flash interface of the set-up program makes everything look like a happy experience.

For those who don't know about the rigors of running software which uses double-byte characters rather than regular characters in English fonts, you can sometimes get total gibberish as your OS attempts to substitute characters for the double-byte ones. Since Flash uses graphics, all the text is nothing more than a picture so no OS fonts have to be used. The software ran okay on my PCs as well though one of the dialog boxes at the end was full of question marks and nothing else.

The cable installers came at around 4:30 yesterday and started working outside the apartment. They had to set up wiring for the phone mainly. We complicated matters for them by insisting that they not disconnect our old NTT ADSL and phone capability in case the cable internet ended up being a disappointment. They had to install a separate phone jack so we could use either one. Of course, we have to pay for both to have this flexibility but we wanted to be able to run them side by side at first. We'll cancel one or the other after we've concluded which is better.

I was afraid my taking pictures of the installation process might worry the guys doing it so I could only sneak in one shot while this fellow's attention was diverted.

The odd thing was that they drilled a hole in the wall in the living room (see picture above) and ran a cable through but they didn't use it. They ended up using the hole that was already in our bedroom. I have no idea why they did this but they capped the wire with a box and nothing is plugged into it.

It took the men doing the installation 4 1/2 hours to get their work done. During that time, they installed the wrong modem and we had to get them to bring a different one but that wasn't their fault. We later learned that we were victims of the all too common lack of communication between a salesman and the people who have to implement what he's sold.

During our initial meeting with the salesman, one of the questions we asked was about how many wired connections we could maintain in addition to a wireless one. The salesman assured us we could have 3 wired and 1 wireless but the modem that was installed was 1 wired and 1 wireless. A Linksys router had to be secured to replace the Motorola they'd brought in. I watched one fellow try to get the internet to work repeatedly and watched him fail and started to get concerned.

The first thing that worked was the cable T.V. It now has about a bazillion specialized functions and a huge remote has replaced our old one.

Ground control to Major Tom. You've left your remote behind.

The new remote has some pretty nifty features including channel listings and the ability to program favorites and call them up. With the new set-up, we no longer need a cable guide for programming. Everything is in Japanese, of course, but we can understand this sort of thing fairly well. However, it's all a bit much for now. It's an overload of features.

So far, the telephone also works fine but that's not what we were worried about. The thing we were most worried about and that turned out to be as much (or more) of a problem than we'd anticipated is the internet. While I ran the Japanese software on all of our computers with no difficulties and followed the instructions with no problems at all, our computers refused to connect.

At 8:30 at night, we had to contact customer service and see if they could help us out. The first thing the tech people told us was that the software would not work on an English OS. The most frustrating thing about this was that the salesman was well aware we were running English operating systems as that was a point we specifically had concerns about and asked about. He was too ignorant about what he was selling to know enough to tell us this would be an issue.

Fortunately, the tech person I dealt with was pretty savvy and I know enough about computers that we went through manual configuration on the PCs. The Mac somehow figured it out for itself once the router was reconfigured to act as a router rather than a bridge. The technician also told us we were only allowed two wired connections but I emphatically said that we were promised three. That was pretty much strike three for the salesman and his baseless promises and assurances.

The technician and I were on the phone for about an hour and a half but we eventually got them all to connect. I wish I could say that was the end of that but I ran speed tests on all of the computers this morning and they are running far slower than our old 1.5 Mbps ADSL connection. Even with only one computer connected, we're getting crappy speed so I know it's not a multiple computer set-up issue.

I'm sorry to say that it's back to the phone and tech support for us again. I can't express how pleased I am though that we didn't put all our eggs in one basket and decided to keep our other connection available. Unfortunately, if the whole thing craps out, we lose a lot of money for 6 months since the cable company wouldn't sign anything less than a 1/2 year contract with us. We may end up having to use double service for the duration of that contract if our issues aren't resolved.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Mr. Donut Feels the Krispy Heat

This is Shari's husband, which means this post must be about donuts. (As they say, you have to go with your strengths.) This morning, for the first time in quite a while I took the three-minute bicycle ride to our local Mr. Donut to get a little sugary breakfast. I saw that there's been one significant change since I was last there: their raised glazed donut, called a 'honey dip,' has been redone. It used to be that it was glazed only very lightly, more along the sides than the top. Now, the glaze is clearly being applied from the top down, there's more of it, and it's presented to customers on wire racks, not in bunches on its side like all other Mister Donut donuts. On the card that identifies the donut, it says 'Rich Donuts,' with some Japanese text about why it's now even better than it used to be.

The ad for the new donuts from Mister Donut's web site.

I found this all very amusing, because it couldn't be more obvious that this is a reaction to the massive (so far) popularity of Krispy Kreme in Japan. The irony is, at least from my point of view, that this donut is still nothing like Krispy Kreme's raised glazed; what's unique about Krispy Kreme is the soft, chewy donut, not the glaze, and the inside of this Mister Donut donut is no different than it used to be. Then again, in Japan, appearance tends to matter more than substance.

Since there's still only the one KK shop in Japan, KK can't be biting into Mister Donut's profits yet, but Mister Donut is clearly not blind to the threat KK represents. Since I wrote about the Krispy Kreme in Shinjuku three months ago, the line one must stand in to get a donut has only gotten longer; the usual wait is an hour, and it can often be an hour and a half.

One student said that there was a long line at 6:30 a.m., a half hour before they open; another said he tried to get in a not-too-long line at 10:30 p.m. only to be told that no further people could get in line, so the shop could close at 11:00 p.m. as scheduled. Most of my students remain mystified as to why so many would wait for so long for donuts, and ascribe it to Japan's well-known herd mentality, the desire to jump onto the current boom. This causes me to wonder if KK can make it in Japan in the long term; what will happen as more shops open, the lines get shorter, people decide that KK is no longer 'hot' and go back to Mister Donut?

Many readers may not have been in Japan long enough to remember the Belgian waffle fad, but there were long lines in front of those shops for a while. We won't know if KK will make it in Japan until at least a few dozen shops have opened. I have no specific knowledge of new shops opening, but if I were them, I'd do it slowly, lest the boom suddenly go bust. Also, KK has an Achilles heel in Japan: some students have said KK donuts are 'too sweet,' a common Japanese comment regarding any American snack food. (Mrs. Fields and Cinnabon failed in Japan because of such sentiment.) Mister Donut may need only wait it out, and keep the Belgian waffles in mind.

One Door Closes, Another One Opens

Just after I started private teaching, I fretted on occasion about the number of students I was maintaining at any given time. In the first month, I picked up 3 students then there seemed to be a pretty big swelling and I was up to 6 rather soon thereafter. Now, I currently have 8 regulars who attend once a week nearly every week and 3 "floaters" who schedule as needed (sometimes quite infrequently).

Lately, more have been canceling here and there than before because of various life issues and a sudden surge in travel abroad amongst them. I think that this is part of the natural "aging" process of the English learning experience. Early on, students are quite keen and tend to attend every lesson. As time goes by, they lose some of that energy and are more likely to cancel scheduled lessons for trivial matters or at the very least more likely not to allow the presence of a regular lesson to interfere with other possible appointments in the same time slot.

The most common reasons for early cancellations (that's the type I don't get paid for) are appointments with physicians, TOEIC tests, big social events and having to work late. As of late, I've been seeing enough scattered cancels to reduce my total number of lessons such that it's as if I had 1 to 1 1/2 fewer students and it was just starting to annoy me because I'm making $120-$180 less a month than I should be. That's a piddly amount of money to a full-time worker but not to someone in my shoes.

Anyway, just as I was looking at an income reduction, my former company tossed more freelance work my way and the referral agency I use to help me find students offered me one more student on Saturday. Of course, the new student might not work out. Sometimes students are keen to have a lesson and then they don't like how far they have to walk from the station or they decide to go with a cheaper lesson elsewhere.

Even though they know the situation before starting and get to pick their teacher from a small selection who meet their criteria, some will bug out after the first lesson for idiosyncratic reasons. In my case, I've lost one to having too long a walk from the train station (and it is a somewhat long walk), one to the referral agency's high rates, one for completely mysterious reasons (after an excellent first lesson, she vanished) and one who was apparently hoping for a girlfriend and didn't find me a suitable prospect. The latter fellow was an utter creep who sponged a half hour of free talk as part of a "demonstration" lesson with a number of teachers. He told me two previous teachers had taught him a few times and then asked the agency not to send him to them anymore so I probably wouldn't have accepted him with that track record anyway. I consider myself lucky to have only lost four so soon after the first lesson.

In language schools, you tend to experience "fade away" where students come for about 10 lessons and then lose interest and stop coming. I've only had one of those. Fortunately, I have had one-year anniversaries recently with the first three students who are still coming so I can say that most of my students have longevity.

In the past, I would have wondered if there was something wrong with me or my lessons when I lost a student, particularly after one lesson. I've come to learn that, while a student may reject a teacher, it rarely is anything the teacher is actually responsible for. I also would have felt depressed at the coming and going of students back when I first started and fretted about the loss of income but I can honestly say that karma has been kind to me since quitting my former job. When I lose one, either one isn't far behind or some freelance work helps me make up for the lost income.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Germ Factory

One of my students came to his lesson this evening with a cold. I'm not talking about a little sniffle or two. His voice was so hoarse it wasn't recognizable. His eyes were very red and his nose was running. It was a cold in its prime and he clearly wasn't in any condition to be speaking English for an hour.

Considering this cold developed two days ago, I don't understand why this student didn't contact the referral agency or me and ask to have his lesson rescheduled yesterday so that he could have attended when he was in better shape.

Even when he's in good health, this student can't keep his fingers off his nostrils and is a veritable fountain of projectile spit when he speaks. Today was rather worse as the impulse to touch his nose or wipe it with his hand then rub his hand on my sofa cover was something he couldn't resist doing with great frequency. Coughing with an open mouth was also the order of the evening. I pretty much wished I could have conducted the lesson from behind one of those white surgical masks that the Japanese are famous for wearing when they're sick.

Unfortunately, that wouldn't be polite so I positioned my chair about a foot further away than usual in case any excited spittle flew my way, moved my coffee cup as far away as possible, and resolved to wash my sofa cover the minute he left.

Since I always serve coffee at this man's lessons, I also had to deal with the cup. One thing I learned awhile back is that dish sponges carry and spread germs far more than people realize. This is because the sponges are used frequently enough that they rarely dry out entirely. I once read that office dish sponges are transporters of teaming swarms of germs because, not only are they used frequently but no one ever makes an effort to squeeze them out to help them dry overnight. However, I read that one way around this is to squeeze the sponge out and toss it in the microwave for a minute (update: in one of the comments, I've been told this takes 2-10 minutes - please read the comment by tito). This will cook the bacteria out and help the sponge to dry quickly.

What this student did reminded me of employees who go to work sick only to infect their coworkers. I realize that people often do this sort of thing with the best of intentions but it's very frustrating to be trapped in a closed room with someone who is sick and indifferent to protecting the other people in the room with him from his illness.


I'm aware that I write a lot of posts that are either about food or mention food. In fact, if I look at my labels, there are more posts labeled "food" than any other topic. The big reason for this is that I am, after all, a housewife now. I probably spend more time every day dealing with food or food-related activities (shopping, cleaning up, etc.) than any other activity aside from sleep. It's also something I take great care with because it is one of the few areas in which I can economize.

I also currently reside in a country that is obsessed with food. Everyone may think that Americans are preoccupied with food but it's a whole other beast in Japan. Prime time shows on the major networks spend an hour doing nothing but showcase food. They find a variety of creative ways to dwell on the subject including regional cooking showcases, chef cook-offs where where they all prepare the same dish in a creative way, and panels of talking heads who gasp in shock at the incredible methods of preparation or taste of the latest food fad.

The other thing which tends to make me talk more about food is that foreigners who suddenly find something which reminds them of something from home or is from home will always feel a little spark of excitement. That's pretty much the reason for this post. Previously, I hadn't come across any Cheerios-style cereals in Japan and a few days ago, I found the Delio cereal pictured above.

This bag is pretty small at 160 grams (3.5 oz.) and cost 400 yen ($3.41). When you open the bag, the o's look like anemic cheerios covered in shiny glaze. This may mislead one into thinking they are sugar-coated and very sweet. Though the bag says "honey taste", they aren't all that sweet, particularly when compared to their closest relative, Honey-nut Cheerios.

The glaze-looking stuff on the cereal seems to have more to do with keeping the cereal crisp rather than making it super sweet. It reminds me of something Chevy Chase said in one of the National Lampoon movies where he played a maker of food additives. He mentioned making a non-nutritive coating for cereal which kept it from getting soggy. It was a joke in the movie but I'm pretty sure it's a reality in this cereal.

The flavor has a much more intense fresh grain taste than other toasted oat cereals and it actually tastes pretty nice. Given the high price for the small quantity though, I wouldn't buy it again.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Friends in Japan Pt. 2

In the previous post, I addressed the situation with foreign friends in Japan (at least in my case). In this second part, I'd like to address the somewhat more complicated and potentially dangerous topic of Japanese friends.

Most Americans grow up being told that all people are equal and therefore the same at heart and that you shouldn't reach any conclusions about someone based on superficial designations such as ethnicity or appearance. When you arrive in Japan, you will rapidly discover that not all people embrace that notion (and you'll realize it's not necessarily true).

The first thing you discover, particularly if you work at a language school, is that the vast number of Japanese people will be judging you and reaching conclusions about you based on stereotypes and sensationalist news reports they hear about life abroad. They won't question the validity of those stereotypes nor consider applying them to you an insult. Their motives are not the least bit malicious. They simply don't grow up in a culture which frames this behavior as unfair or "wrong". It's a way for a culture which is largely homogeneous to find a mental springboard for dealing with foreigners, who they are often rather intimidated by.

You'll find these presumptions are the first barrier to forming solid friendships as it's hard to break some of the conclusions being made about you. As a small example, I've told friends, students and coworkers many times that I never eat hamburgers or steak and bread is not a part of every one of my meals but they can't process this in light of their rock solid knowledge that all Americans are sitting around eating burgers, fries, steak, potatoes and bread at every meal. They also think we all have guns and are shocked when I tell them I didn't have one nor did my husband.

When you first arrive, you don't know that your character has been pre-assigned, of course. Japanese people are friendly and nice and you have an almost endless supply of people who want to spend time with you. This is great for casual friendships and socializing. You can have a light, good time with your students and what few of your coworkers that aren't so overworked that they have time to go out and about with you. If you like, you can call these people Japanese friends.

The problem is that, at least for me, friendship goes deeper than this. Socializing and having a good time is the stuff of acquaintances. For a friendship to develop, it has to move on to another level. Friends talk about their lives and know each other in greater depth. I once read an article which said that Japanese people want different things out of friendships than many westerners and that they value people who do not ask too many personal questions. I don't know if that is true because you can't believe everything you read but it doesn't sound too far-fetched based on my experiences.

There are other cross-cultural issues such as the tendency on the part of Americans (and possibly other native-English speakers) to give opinions and debate them as part of our relationships with friends. We also have very different humor. Japanese people also value "cheerfulness" and remaining positive far more than most Americans. Frankly speaking, many Americans like to complain and criticize, especially about the government and larger issues. Most of the Japanese people I've known have little interest in such topics and some have actually gotten agitated when queried about them.

The main problem my husband and I had, especially early on in our stay, was that people were wanting to spend time with us only because we were foreign. It felt like spending time with a foreign friend was one of those things Japanese people could tell their Japanese friends about the next day like going to Guam (only without the obligatory souvenir purchases and distribution). To offer a good example of this, I'll tell you about one of our experiences.

On one occasion, my husband invited a student he thought was interesting to go to a restaurant with us. She was relatively young but he found her mature enough when he spoke with her in lessons. When he and I met her at the restaurant, she had brought along 5 of her friends (of course, she didn't tell us this was going to be the case).

Rather than have an interesting conversation over okonomiyaki with his student, we were the centerpiece that amused 6 tittering girls who spent most of the lunch talking amongst themselves. When they did speak with us, it felt more like a kid running over and touching something he was afraid of for the experience and then quickly running back to his parents now that he'd triumphantly braved the dangers. This was disheartening and humiliating. We felt used and betrayed.

If you're here long enough, you can add to this type of experience to a string of total strangers who will approach you as you wearily head home from work dying to just rest and ask to converse with you in broken English. You reach the point where you can't know if a Japanese person wants to be your friend because you've got red hair and blue eyes or because you represent a free chance to practice English or because they really want to know you as a human being.

Chances are usually pretty good, especially if you make friends with students, that it's always going to be about novelty and free English practice. If you eventually work in an office, the odds of making a good friend with a Japanese person increase, especially if you either learn Japanese or your coworkers speak English well. The chances you'll be good friends will improve more with someone who has lived abroad for awhile as such people tend to be better able to bridge the cross-cultural gaps. Those who have been abroad long enough to actually be "contaminated" by a foreign culture are all the easier to be good friends with as they are more likely to be open about their lives and opinions.

The biggest barriers to deep friendships though are often rooted in core cultural differences, values and communication styles. One of the mistakes people make early on in Japan is believing Japanese people are "shy" or "timid". The truth is that they aren't expressive or overtly opinionated. They tend to keep more to themselves. This isn't shyness. Shy people don't get up in front of strangers and belt out songs in karaoke. They don't go through their neighbors' garbage and berate them for not sorting it properly. There is a different cultural imperative at work when personalities are developed as compared to the United States.

Japanese people also rely a lot on unspoken communication. They don't feel the need to say everything that is on their minds to you and expect you to understand what they are thinking or feeling from non-verbal clues. They will also be attempting to interpret what they perceive to be your unspoken feelings based on cues they think you are offering. On more than one occasion, I've had students reach conclusions about my feelings which were completely wrong because of this tendency. Americans like people to be straight with them. A Japanese person is unlikely to be so with you because they feel it would insult you or embarrass them.

If you couple a person with a tendency to be assertive, expressive, brash, and opinionated with a person who tends to be passive, introverted, overly solicitous of the concerns of others, and reluctant to express displeasure, you don't exactly have a recipe for a good relationship. Chances are that if you make headway in a friendship and do something offensive accidentally, you'll never know. Japanese people don't like to criticize their friends or get into confrontations. They'll likely just find a graceful way of backing away from you and you'll never know what you did wrong. (Note: This has not happened to me but it has happened to a few of my friends.)

That's not to say that you can't get along or that all Japanese people are the same. It just means that there are serious cultural barriers to forming deep friendships which are very hard to scale.

The Japanese friends I have and have had tend to be those who have lived abroad for awhile. They're the type that are willing to talk about their lives and the ones most likely to complain about their jobs if they are your coworkers. Obviously, you can make friends with Japanese people who haven't lived abroad but you can't expect the friendships you have to be the same as the ones you might have at home since Japanese friendships and communication are different from western ones.

I'll finish by saying that my perspective is mine alone and I'm not offering my perceptions as facts. I'm sure other people have had different experiences and that will shape their views quite differently from mine. As with all things in life, your mileage may vary.

There are a few other perspectives on making friends in Japan at these URLS:

My Nippon

Being A Broad

A discussion on The Mail Archive

ESL Teacher's Board

The Japan Center