Thursday, May 31, 2007

First of the Season

The English on the box says, "Gokiburi Hoi-Hoi is a roach trap which has No. 1 quality in the world."

It's inevitable. Even when you don't see them, they are there. Every summer in Japan, roaches start skittering across the walls or floors of your living space. In our apartment, we generally only see one or two per year. I'm not sure if this is because there are so few or if they stay out of sight. Either way, viewing one often elicits an adrenaline rush and a quick run for a can of spray to douse them with.

My husband and I aren't very comfortable with killing anything, even creepy insect things, but there are two exceptions - roaches and mosquitoes. The latter seem to have a laser targeting system for my husband and wake him up at night when they bite him. In fact, the first night back from his trip to the U.S., he was awakened three times by mosquito bites from three different ones (who have since met their maker for their misdeeds). It's not exactly the best way to spend your first heavily jet-lagged night back home. Fortunately, while he was in the U.S., he ordered a mosquito net from Amazon and carried it back with him and I put it up for his second night back.

Unfortunately, you can't erect a barrier against incursions by roaches and be satisfied they won't find a way around them. They have no respect for your borders and can squeeze around nearly anything you put in their way. You have two options for attempting to keep roaches out of your home. The primary one is to make your environment less inviting. This is done by keeping things cold and clean. The latter is time-consuming but doable. The former is expensive and difficult in the Japanese summer.

I've read about other options for making roaches unhappy but I'm uncertain of their efficacy. One thing I have read is that roaches hate the smell of bay leaves so I scattered bay leaves around last summer after our second sighting. I didn't put any in the bathroom, however, and that's where one showed up today. It's also very likely that the leaves I put out last year have lost their scent through time and it's time to put out fresher ones. You can now pick up big bags of bay leaves cheaply at Costco for about 300 yen so it's not much of a financial risk to give this a try.

The second option is to destroy any roach that dares to cross your threshold. One of my husband's students clued him in on a product in Japan which can best be translated to "roach jelly". It's poison but it's not the same as a spray or one-trick poison. The way it works is the roaches sniff it out and then track it back to the wife and kids where it supposedly poisons the whole lot of them where they live. I put those out last year as well but they also have aged beyond utility (they tend to degrade through time and with moisture collection) and it's time for a fresh round.

The one thing I have not done in the past is set up roach traps (front of box pictured at the top of the post and the back above this paragraph). One of the reasons I've avoided traps is that I didn't think we had enough to make them worthwhile. I'm still not certain we have that many but I did finally conclude that if the trap catches one or two rather than us being shocked by seeing one crawling on the wall, they are worth the small investment.

The way these work is that the unsuspecting roach wanders around your house and gives everything a sniff. Suddenly, he thinks 'something sure smells good' and wanders in the direction of the enticing odor with the idea of finding himself a snack. When he gets there, he finds a cheery little yellow house with a red roof and cute pink shutters. There's even a friendly roach giving him a wave out one of the windows welcoming him inside. The roach moseys on in with a false sense of security only to find himself stuck. Once there, he starves to death.

You can see that, as someone who doesn't like to kill anything, this is a somewhat disturbing concept. I don't like how inhumane this process is. At least poison kills them relatively quickly. I'm also not incredibly comfortable with the idea that the traps attract the roaches. Though I doubt they come far and wide at the scent of beef and shrimp chemically reproduced on a piece of cardboard, I don't want to do anything to draw them inside. However, if I can't ward them off with bay leaves and the level of cleanliness that I can manage, I'd rather trap them than have them fly past my head when I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. Besides, last year I opened a drawer and a roach that was clinging to the bottom of the drawer fell directly on my foot. As far as I'm concerned, that was crossing the line. No more "Mr. Nice Guy".

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


My husband returned yesterday from his week-long visit with his family in the U.S. (and there truly was much rejoicing as well as crying). There is more than one tale to tell but I'll start with souvenirs. In the past, I've mentioned that my husband has received gifts from students and now he's returning the favor. The picture above is the large quantity of See's candy that he bought to give to his favorite students.

There are 13 of the boxes with American flags. They each have 4 pieces of candy and cost about $5 each. My husband chose this design because these are souvenirs from a trip to the U.S., not out of some sense of patriotism. There are 4 of the seashell design boxes and they are pretty much the same as the flag boxes. They just have a different design. My husband will be giving these to the majority of students but the larger boxes wrapped in blue paper are 1 lb. boxes which he'll give to those he enjoys teaching the most (these cost $17.50). The peanut brittle and peanut chews are for anyone he misses with the chocolate, I guess.

This was actually a pretty sizable investment considering See's isn't cheap. However, my husband wants to show those students who have regularly taken his classes for the last few years and who have been fun to teach how much he appreciates them. I guess this may look to some extent like him greasing wheels to ensure that the students continue to be devoted to him but that's not the way he is. He's sweet, generous, sincere and genuine. That's why he has so many regular students who enjoy lessons with him. He doesn't need to bribe them with chocolates.

My husband is a particular fan of See's because he grew up with them and he wouldn't miss the rare chance to pick some up for us as well. This picture is of the friendly See's lady holding the two-pound custom box he picked out for us. I'm guessing it'll take us ages to get through this and it's currently sitting un-opened in the fridge.

One can buy See's candy in Japan (in Shibuya) but the prices are outrageous. My husband dropped by there awhile back and took some pictures. The box pictured above is of a 2 lb. gold box for $112. In the U.S., this box is $35.60. You can guess that we don't buy much See's in Japan and can't blame him for going a little overboard when he patronized one in the U.S.

Incidentally, there is a move by some major chocolate manufacturer's in the U.S. (Hershey's, for one) to re-define chocolate so that the cocoa butter content can be reduced and replaced by vegetable fats and the resulting product can be advertised as real chocolate (despite being more of a "mockolate"). See's was (and may still be) one of the companies that opposes this which is why the topic springs to mind. I actually don't mind if chocolate companies make this switch as long as they are required to print the fact that it's no longer real chocolate on the label. However, the way this is going, it will allow companies to make this substitution and not make it clear which candy is "real" and which is using cheaper ingredients.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Birth Control in Japan

Among the many things that tickle the fancy of newbie expatriates in Japan, are the condom machines and the amusing names and illustrations on the boxes. A lot of people believe that condoms are sold in vending machines to stop shy Japanese from having to approach a drug store clerk face-to-face and request birth control and this may or may not be true. To be honest, I don't even know if condoms are carried in drug stores in Japan. I've never seen them anywhere, even in the behind the counter area.

The male sexually-active expatriate soon learns that Japanese condoms are of diminished utility to him because they are, indeed, smaller than western condoms. For the average (or above average) man, Japanese condoms are perhaps workable but rather tight. Despite the desire of politically-correct and culturally-sensitive sorts to try and avoid making conclusions about penis size and nationality, the smaller condoms in Japan are an indication that size is related to nationality. I read a book quite some time ago called The Male Sexual Machine: An Owner's Manual which included scientific research on this topic (yes, they made measurements) and the book's chart showed that, on average, Japanese men have the smallest penises in the developed world so it makes sense that the condoms would be smaller. Offering them as souvenirs to western friends, as Roy once helpfully suggested, is good for a novelty but not as a practical gift. ;-)

The picture above of a shop in Shibuya shows that not everyone is shy about letting someone know they're purchasing a prophylactic. Going into a place like this makes no bones about what one is in need of. The sign in front has a pink "female" condom saying "George" and the green "male" condom saying another name which I can't quite make out but it may be "Emily" and it says "Give safe sex a chance." This is a fine slogan for a condom shop but, if you look into birth control practices in Japan, you'll find that condoms are not necessarily used in a manner which is consistent with protecting one from disease.

I did some research on the web and found that, while condom usage is high among married couples (about 70% use them), not all of them use them all the time. Many couples only use condoms (or birth control of any kind) when the woman has determined she is actually fertile. One of the studies I read also said that condom use is far lower when one is having a sexual relationship outside of marriage (45%) so those who are more likely to have a variety of partners and are at greater risk of contacting sexually-transmitted diseases aren't using condoms.

I'm sure that the statistics will slowly alter as the pill (finally) became legal in 1999 (mainly because of pressure to do so after making Viagra legal) but I know for a fact that at least some doctors discourage contraceptive pill usage among Japanese women (both because of discussions with female students and students who are doctors). They over-emphasize the health risks when queried about them. Cynics believe this is because the doctors want to keep a lucrative business in abortions going (35% of Japanese women have had abortions compared to 25% in the U.S.) but I do believe that conservatism and patriarchal wishes play a part as well. Most Japanese doctors, like most Japanese people, are very slow to try new things and the pill is relatively new to them. Also, allowing women to take the pill puts control of reproduction in their hands entirely and it does so in a manner which the man in the relationship cannot detect or confirm. I'm sure this doesn't fit well in a culture which still desires to limit the freedom and status of women.

Monday, May 28, 2007

On the Loose

My moratorium on shopping ended today and I headed off to the local market. This is in large part because my husband is coming back tomorrow (and there will be much rejoicing) and there are certain things that I'd like to have on hand for him (such as cream for coffee). I'm also running low on an essential I can't scrounge for. That's Diet Coke. ;-)

I've kvetched before about how annoying things can be while shopping and how Japanese service is highly over-rated by most foreigners. There's a reason for this. Most tourists visit tourist places where the bread and butter of the businesses is providing such good service that you'll not only come back but also recommend the places you visit to others. Most tourists don't go to supermarkets because they don't cook or have refrigerators. None of them have to get household items repaired or services installed. The range of experiences of visitors to Japan are quite limited compared to those who live here so that's why the service is always praised by those who visit compared to those who live here.

Today at the market, I had one of those experiences which is so typical in Japan that tourists almost never experience. I had a basket full of beverages, dairy products, and greens and the clerk was running things past the scanner. I should say that, in Japan, you don't have shopping carts for the most part. You have plastic baskets which you carry by the handles. There are tiny carts you can put the basket in if you want but it's not like in the U.S. where you push a huge cart around and toss stuff in it.

When you have a full basket, the normal procedure among clerks, particularly when there are both heavy items and lighter, crushable items like sprouts and lettuce, if for them to ring up the lighter items and set them aside. They then leave the heavy items in the basket and ring them up then put the lighter items back on top of them. This is different from the usual procedure which is to scan the price of each item in and put it into a second, empty basket which the customer carries off while the clerk puts the original, now empty basket, into a stack beside her.

In my case, the clerk was having a conversation with the clerks behind her and couldn't be bothered to do things properly for me. She separated everything out into two half-full baskets for her convenience making it harder for me to carry them. The baskets are bulky and the aisles in front of the check-out are narrow - too narrow for a person to carry a basket in each hand and walk out unless one does it in an awkward sideways fashion. It's even harder to do when one of the baskets has 5-1.5 liter bottles and 6-500 ml. bottles of soda making it heavy and unwieldy.

As she was finishing up her half-assed job, one of the clerks behind her dropped a 100 yen coin and this pushed her into quarter-assed-job mode. She hurriedly rang up and tossed in the remaining items and roughly crammed bags into each basket so she could get to searching for that coin. I guess dealing with customers comes second when a dangerous 100 yen coin is on the loose.


One of my students works in the accounting section of a company that decided that it was a good idea to build an office building of their own in Kabuki-cho. For those who don't want to go to the Wikipedia link and read up on that area's history, Kabuki-cho is known as Tokyo's "red light district" where there are various gangsters (particularly the Yakuza) running clubs which cater to prurient interests. There are also movie theaters, restaurants and more wholesome pursuits but it's mainly known for offering unique "entertainment".

One of the reasons my student's company decided to build an office in that area was that it was relatively cheap for central Tokyo and they smelled a bargain. Of course, like all areas (in all cities around the world) with a reputation for crime, there is a corresponding reduction in land value. The vice-president of her company had a rather cavalier attitude about the possible safety-related consequences of choosing to build an office building in Kabuki-cho. In recent meetings, she has been admonishing her employees for being concerned about the move (which is coming in late summer). She's also been perplexed with the fact that several people who have interviewed have declined to work at the company after discovering they'll soon move to Kabuki-cho. Clearly, the vice-president isn't the brightest bulb in the box.

It turns out that the cost of setting up shop in an area surrounded by buildings inhabited by gangsters isn't as cheap as it seems. The vice-president has to visit the "president" of the local chapter, pay respects and pay them off so they won't go to the company's customers and scare them away from doing future business with my student's company . This sort of extortion is a more subtle manner of getting businesses to pony up some protection dough than threatening to break legs or cut off thumbs. In fact, it's a tried and true method of intimidation for gangsters in Japan. You'd think that the vice-president would have seen it coming since it's the type of thing that has been going on for a very long time.

My student feels that the president and vice-president are relatively indifferent on the whole about the safety concerns because they are commuting by car and by taxi and don't have to walk from the office to the station (or to the bank to do accounting work). That means they will be relatively unexposed to any night-time dangers en route while their employees will have no choice. The solution, in addition to paying off the Yakuza, is to hire a retired police officer to "guard" the building. You can imagine how unimpressed the employees are with this.

My student continues to be decidedly uncomfortable about the move and she's searching rather aggressively for a different job right now. This situation allowed me to teach my student a new phrase... "like rats deserting a sinking ship."

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Just Short of Being Suable

The pictures of this candy were pinched from the manufacturer's web site.

While I was picking up some milk and an avocado at QQ (99 yen convenience store), I noticed that there was a foil packet of candy with what appeared to be a Paul Stanley make-up design on it. For those who weren't alive or paying attention in the 70s, Paul Stanley is a singer and guitarist for KISS whose make-up design was a star over one eye. This particular candy is "soda" flavored (ramune in Japan).

Behind it was another variety of the same sort of "gumi" candy which made it more obvious that these designs were derivatives of KISS. The second one, lemon-flavored, has a modified version of Gene Simmons's make-up on it as well as a graphical representation of the top-knot he wears when in his stage get-up and pretty much clinches the fact that these two designs were not accidental imitations.

As a lapsed KISS fan who looks in on the doings of the band members from time to time, I know that Gene Simmons is meticulous about protecting his rights to the logos and make-up designs. If he finds out someone is trying to trample on his rights, he goes after them.

The truth is that I've seen plenty of stuff in Japan from time-to-time which does a riff design-wise on KISS's make-up. Some of the KISS-related designs are actually licensed and legal like the Canon advertisements that have appeared on trains and television. I'm not sure though that any companies doing knock-offs can be sued as the designs are (very likely) sufficiently modified to insulate them from legal action. Also, I have to wonder if the fact that KISS's look while in make-up resembled kabuki-style make-up would make it far more difficult for them to get anywhere should they decide to try and sue. Perhaps the Japanese could sue them for ripping them off first. ;-)


I did open up the lemon gumi and gave it a try. It was like chewing on a massively sour pencil eraser. I won't be trying another.

I also had one of those "you know you've been in Japan too long" moments when I sounded out the katakana on the front of the package and only then bothered to check and see that it's written on there in English lettering.

Semi-fredo Pasta (Vegetarian)

I hate to shop. There is something missing in my female genetic structure which renders me immune to the allure of looking at junk and wanting to fork over cash for it. I hate it so much that I haven't done any food shopping (aside from milk and the odd avocado or piece of fruit at the 99 yen convenience store down the street) since my husband left for the U.S. on May 21. The truth is I last shopped for food on May 18th.

With my husband not being here, I don't have to worry about what I cook suiting him so I've been scrounging to avoid heading to the market. On the surface, this must sound pretty pathetic but the truth is that it's been pretty useful in using up things that are around the apartment. From a certain perspective, food is an investment and, if you don't eat it, you throw that money away.

Given that I haven't shopped now for 8 days, you probably realize that I am scraping the bottom of the larder by now. I remain undaunted though in my attempts to avoid going food shopping even as stores of food rich in protein that I'm willing to eat dwindle to nothing. My husband has steaks and a chicken thigh in the freezer but I dislike steak rather intensely and am not a fan of dark meat. I think my dislike of these meats exceeds my dislike of shopping though, if nothing else, I wouldn't want to waste an expensive steak on the likes of me.

I scrounged further and decided that I'd make a semi-alfredo sauce and serve it over pasta with pine nuts (which is where a nice portion of protein comes from). It turned out very well so I thought I'd share the recipe. By the way, there's no picture because I don't have my camera right now.

Semi-fredo sauce recipe:
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1.5 cups whole milk
  • 3 oz./85 grams gouda cheese
  • 3 oz./85 grams mozzarella cheese
  • 3 tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp. coarsely-ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. parsley
  • your choice of pasta (6 servings worth)
  • 1 cup toasted pine nuts
In a heavy-bottomed medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter then stir in the milk over low heat. While the milk is heating, toss all the cheese, spices, and flour into a small bowl food processor and process until the cheese is grated as finely as possible. Turn up the heat under the saucepan to medium and add the cheese. Stir constantly with a whisk until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth and thickened. Serve immediately over hot pasta. Garnish lavishly with toasted pine nuts.

I had this over organic whole wheat pasta and it was very good. You may want to adjust the types or amounts of cheese (particularly the Parmesan as it's pretty strong) depending on your preferences.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

When Being Flexible is Bad

Recently one of my oldest students told me that she's going to take three more lessons with me (which finishes off her contract with the referral agency) and then take a break for at least a month and consider how she's going to continue with her English studies. Since she recently changed her job and is now actually required to study English rather hard and improve her ability, this would seem to be a curious choice.

When my student changed her job, she told me she needed to change the style and content of her English lessons and I set her to doing homework and a business English course according to her wishes. Previously, she had been doing lessons which were mainly free conversation or guided conversation. The book I gave her included a CD for listening practice, essay-writing, reading practice, grammar exercises, useful phrases, vocabulary building and idioms. In the class itself, we would do role plays and practice English used in business situations to reinforce what she was studying in the book. In short, it was an excellent book for someone who wanted a structured course for learning advanced business communication. I know how good this book is for business people because I helped write it for my former company's correspondence lessons. She didn't even have to pay for the book or CD as I loaned them to her.

The plan was to alternate these business lessons with lessons on the Internet and web advertising since that was the focal point of her new job. This would allow her to build her overall skills as well as get help with topics that would apply specifically to her work. All she had to do was do the homework each week from the business book so she'd have a foundation to work from in the class.

Unfortunately, she didn't do the homework. In fact, she didn't do much of anything with the book at all. Weeks went by and we could only do one kind of lesson because she failed to do any self-study at all and her level is sufficiently high that she isn't going to improve from one hour of conversation each week alone. I could have started to do the book's contents with her in the lessons but the truth is that it would have been too tedious for her without preparation and it would have put me in the position of "lecturing" her rather than allowing her to do much speaking and what she really wants is to practice.

Since she's not obliged to do anything in particular, I couldn't force her to do any preparation or study on her own though I did encourage her and gently attempt to "push" her but it didn't work. In the end, I could only teach her what I could when she was with me and I did my best. In fact, I'm certain her understanding of web advertising advanced because of the lessons we had but her overall English ability wasn't really lifted.

I believe the reason I will probably lose her as a student is simply that I'm not in a position to push her too hard and she knows it. She doesn't have the discipline to self-study and I don't have the authority to make her nor is there an incentive built into the arrangement she has with the referral agency. It's simply not part of the contract. I also believe that the fact that she takes man-to-man lessons is a part of the problem. She can proceed at her own leisurely pace and doesn't have to worry about keeping up with anyone else.

My guess is that my student is ultimately going to throw more money at her problem in order to shake her out of her procrastination. If she goes off to some school and buys a series of lessons with a set duration and the teachers follow a course that will proceed without her if she doesn't keep up, she'll be forced to study or to lose her money. This is actually a fairly common tendency among students who lack discipline. It's almost nearly as common that they end up wasting a decent portion of their money since they rarely change their habits after the initial burst of devotion. They tend to attend about 60-70% of the classes and prepare well for the first 30% or so then stop coming at the end once they've rationalized giving up the remainder of the classes when they can convince themselves that they're not wasting that much money.

It's possible that I'm misreading her situation and that she actually has wanted me to be more of a taskmaster but, given her behavior in lessons (she rarely accepts or repeats corrections and doesn't write down new words or phrases), I don't think so. I'm not broken-hearted about losing her as a student since she's relatively reactive and not interactive in the lessons which makes her a drain on my energy to teach. I guess time will tell if she comes back after a break or never returns for my lessons.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Goodbye, Surface Mail

My husband is in the U.S. now mainly to visit his family but he's also using the opportunity to shop for things of consequence and things totally frivolous that we might desire or need. In fact, we prepared for his trip by ordering a fair number of hard to find or relatively more expensive items from Amazon U.S. including a wireless router and a dual-layer DVD player. Neither of these items can be shipped to Japan and Japanese models are significantly pricier.

Since there is an absolute abundance of food in the U.S. that we've never seen or sampled, he decided to pick up some things and bring them back for us and for his students. In fact, looking at the pictures he has taken in the markets makes me think that there are absolutely staggering numbers of choices in the U.S. in regards to food for nearly every niche.

I also started to wonder if one element of Americans being overweight that is often overlooked is the fact that the abundance of land allows shops to put such an incredible variety of goods on shelves (relative to Japan where space is at a premium) that people are compelled to buy more simply to explore all of the attractive possibilities.

Perhaps I've just been in Japan so long that I've forgotten what it's like but I truly don't recall seeing such vast selections when I was back home. I guess it could be the difference between my small, rural home town and my husband's suburban home town but the selection of items isn't really what the point of this post is about. I merely mean to explain that my husband was buying things in the U.S. which we cannot get in Japan with the intention of sending back some boxes of interesting, tasty or trivial items.

He went to the post office to investigate the cost after having already done some shopping only to find that, as of May 14, 2007, the United States Postal Service (USPS) no longer will ship items via surface mail. This is incredibly bad news for those of us living abroad because this was the cheapest way of sending certain types of non-perishable or very heavy items to Japan.

My husband's sister did some investigating and found that UPS (United Parcel Service) will ship items to Japan and charge by box size (rather than by weight as the USPS does) for about half the rate of airmail parcel post. Using this type of shipping takes about 4-5 days. It's still relatively expensive and does reward the shipping of heavy, small items over bulky light items (which are the most common types of items one sends via surface mail) but it appears to be the best option for now.

Update: Apparently, my sister-in-law was misinformed and UPS is actually greatly more expensive than the postal service so there are no quasi-economical options for now.

My guess is the USPS is having trouble, unsurprisingly, breaking even and decided to discontinue the least profitable services. I've known for quite some time that non-First Class mail has been a loser for the USPS and something they mainly provided as a service to those who really needed it. It's possible that they decided that, while they have to keep inferior grade parcel delivery available domestically, they really aren't obliged to do it internationally. It's a shame really and I'm hoping some business will find a way to offer seamail (surface) shipping in the future to fill the gap left by this change.

Static Messages

As is the case with any densely-populated area, if there's a bit of space where someone can hawk their wares to the undulating masses, someone will rent it out and plaster a message. The stations, where people stand as a captive audience waiting for trains to arrive with little to do besides stare at their surroundings or peck at their cell phones, are an ideal place.

The sign above was in Shibuya station and I absolutely detest the message it is offering as it is suggesting we identify with the goods we purchase and see them as a reflection of who we are rather than define ourselves by our actions and thoughts. Of course, no one makes money off of our minds and deeds so it's of no interest to business.

I'm not familiar with the card being advertised here but POS is "point of sale" and I'm guessing the point is to get people to use the card to buy a variety of goods including such mundane items as milk and fast food. In Japan, the average credit card debt per person is only $400 whereas the average in the United States is nearly $9,000 per person. The Japanese don't tend to use credit cards all that often and they certainly don't use them for everyday buying. They tend to use them while traveling abroad or when buying big ticket items like computers or televisions and then pay the balance off immediately upon getting the bill.

I think this ad may be attempting to increase the use of credit cards overall in the hopes that the pesky habits the Japanese have of not paying exorbitant interest rates and letting their debt float can be undermined.

Ads are in the trains themselves, too, of course, as the audience is similarly trapped as they are on the train platforms. This is an advertisement for Nova language school (the McDonald's of schools) which is held to the side of the train (just above the windows and doors) by plastic bands. You'll notice there's a number under the ad. I believe there may be different rates depending on what part of the train the ad is placed on. Ads by the doors probably get read more than those at the ends.

During the worst part of the long recession Japan experienced after the economic bubble burst, it was relatively common to find gaps in the ad spots because fewer companies could afford to place such ads. I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually had to lower their rates as the recession wore on. One other thing I tended to notice while the recession was dragging on was that the advertisements which used to feature 80% foreign models started to use more Japanese models. I'm not sure if this was because the foreign models were more expensive or if the zeitgeist had changed such that the Japanese preferred to see their own faces reflected alongside the goods they might purchase.

Peach John gets the award for dumbest English attempting to come across as sexy or desirable both in this ad and on their web site which says "Very Lingerie, Very Dita." I'm not sure what "Dita" means since it has a different meaning in a variety of languages but the one that makes the most sense is a referral to the model Dita von Teese (who is probably the brunette modeling the overpriced undies on the web site).

Any time I see a striking advertisement (one that was obviously created by an ad agency), I consider the intended audience and the efficacy of the message. Sometimes working out who they're attempting to target taxes the old brain box and sometimes it simply whacks it with a hammer. If the model in the schoolgirl uniform isn't enough to make the message clear, the message (you have to click on the small version here and load the big one to see it) makes it crystal (albeit in poor English). Who else would care about tea making them cute but schoolgirls?

This is an ad for a television show which appears to be called "Operation Love" in English and "Propose + something" in Japanese (the characters are largely covered and are highly stylized and hard to read). From the ad's appearance, I'd guess it has something to do with a skinny, androgynous fellow attempting to convince a woman 120% bigger than him to marry him. Either that or that's a woman in drag on the left trying to woo another woman. The graphical design of the ad is so frothy and stylized that I figure the show has to be targeting dreamy-eyed office ladies, neglected housewives with a penchant for romance novels, and pre-teen girls. This leaves me out.

Advertising in Tokyo is not all big, colorful bulletin boards in well-kept areas. In fact, not all of Tokyo is as clean and nice as one might expect. Believe it or not, this is an area I'm intimately familiar with as the record shop at the top of the hill, Yellow Pop, is a place my husband and I frequented back when I was still collecting Japanese KISS releases. I'm not sure what rules, if any, apply to those posting advertising here. It appears that anything goes but there would have to be some organization involved to paste posters up so high on the building. It looks as if one lot of ads are scraped off (badly) just before another goes up and this process is repeated again and again until a horrific mess is made.

This is a focus shot on another grungy area where "live house" (rock club) adverts have been pasted up. You see a lot of these types of things, particularly around or near used record shops though these postings are in front of a club named Chelsea Hotel. This live house is no doubt named such as an homage to the Hotel Chelsea in New York. You find that a lot of places dealing with music name themselves after famous British or American musicians or places famous for music. I'm not sure if this live house is allowing this mess in front for a "cool" look or if they are just indifferent to cleaning it all up. It certainly wouldn't make me feel comfortable going into such a club but I'm a rigid, middle-aged woman, not a hip, young music lover. My priorities are decidedly different from those who frequent such clubs.


Since my husband went to the U.S. 4 days and 3 nights ago, I've had terrible problems sleeping. I've gone from falling asleep between midnight and 1:00 am to doing so between 3:00 and 4:00 am but waking up at the same time (8:30 am). Last night, I managed to drop off around 2:00 and was hoping to sleep in. I woke up at 6:30, then at 7:18 but could go back to sleep each time then some jack-ass called me at 7:58 am and that was it. I finally was getting a little sleep and someone called and woke me up to a point where I couldn't go back to sleep.

When I answered the phone, there was no one on the other end. Every time I said "hello", my own voice just echoed back to me so I was wondering if this was some sort of automated thing or a person on a speaker phone. I'm guessing it's the former but the latter is also possible. As I've mentioned before, part of my freelance work is doing lessons by telephone for my former company. When I worked in an office, this wasn't a problem because they called me there. Now, they can call me at my home phone number and it's certainly possible that one of the numerous people (mostly young and male) who have my number could be playing around. It used to happen at my office on occasion.

Anyway, three nights with limited sleep have me rather wrecked, not to mention have exposed me to some very dubious late-night cable television. It seems that the least popular sit-coms get aired on Fox in the middle of the night and the truly bad movies come out late at night. I actually ended up watching "Showgirls" and one of Andy Richter's cavalcade of failed television series. The former is like rubber-necking a car crash. It's terrible but you can't look away.

If I don't start getting more sleep, I'm going to turn into a zombie and start seeking out brains for nourishment...well, probably not, but you all might want to start wearing football helmets to bed just in case. ;-)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mobile Messaging

As always, click on the images to see a larger version which will be easier to see the detail in.

What do you do in a city where advertising is expensive because of the high population density? You advertise on mobile billboards so that you don't have to rent ad space elsewhere. On the one hand, it's not a bad idea from a marketing viewpoint. On the other, it's wasteful and creates pollution. I'm also guessing that the number of people who may view or read the message is relatively limited compared to static ads on trains or station areas where an immense amount of foot traffic is constantly flowing by. The type of people who see these trucks are either on the sidewalks or in their cars which are areas with less exposure than trains or stations.

When my husband was in Shibuya several weeks back, he caught several different types of messaging by vehicle. The truck at the top of the post is an obvious "moving billboard" which isn't meant to do much more than offer the message. The truck is far too narrow to be meant for carrying much in the way of goods. Upon seeing these types of vehicles, I have to wonder if they are designed in this way to reduce their overall weight (and therefore reduce fuel consumption) or make them easier to drive on narrow Tokyo streets.

Incidentally, I'm almost certain that play on the phrase "we are the champions" is intentional in the advertising above. It's a little too close to be an example of "funny English". If it were strange English, the word "the" very likely wouldn't be included.

This is the back end of one of those bulletin board-type trucks advertising what I'm guessing is a pop group's new release. I don't follow Japanese music at all (except to know that Mr. Children is the most popular group overall among my students and that Super Butter Dog is the coolest name ever for a Japanese band (note to my friend, Shawn, click that link, one of the Super Butter boys has Koss hair!). It's always a bit of a surprise how many Japanese pop and rock stars have English album titles and sprinkle English words in their songs.

This truck is hard for me to read because it's not as clear as it could be and part of the Japanese is covered (and I'm not the greatest reader of kanji). As best I can tell, it's for some sort of Golden Week show ("attraction") but I can't work out the nature of it aside from a cavalcade of celebrities may be appearing. The funny thing about this truck and the reason my husband took the picture is that they put one of those newish bar codes on the back. It seems to serve no useful purpose in advertising the attraction and wastes the space on the back of the truck.

Not all advertising is on long mobile bulletin boards (which strangely bring to mind tall, thin elephants from India). There are the same types of ads you find on buses in New York city and plenty of ads on vans for the companies employing their drivers. My husband took the shot above largely because of the parade of poodles across the back of the bus.

This car was parked near a vegan restaurant in Shibuya. I'm sure this is a standard PETA vehicle design and I'm also sure it has limited impact on the Japanese. They aren't great endorsers of animal rights. One of the textbooks my company created included an article about "screaming prawns" which was about how prawns were slowly flayed and eaten alive for maximum freshness at a Japanese restaurant. Anyway, it's nice to see that the PETA people are embracing their ideals so strongly that they frequent one of the rare Japanese vegan establishments.

My husband took this shot for the comedic value of the name. I honestly had no idea what the deal was with the name but some research turned up the fact that this is a warehousing and logistics business which offers special storage conditions including temperature and humidity control. One of the reasons there is a wine glass incorporated into the company logo is that wine is one of the types of items that require special handling when moving and storing it. The best guess on the derivation of "reefer" is it may be derived from "refrigerated" but this is by no means certain since the company is not only offering refrigerated logistics services. My guess is they are oblivious to the implications of the name.

Speaking of being oblivious to the implications of a name, this sign (visible above the truck in the previous picture) looks like a dyslexic obscenity (trademarked no less!) but closer inspection reveals it to be an unfortunate abbreviation.

Incidentally, my husband has my camera in the States with him so this is an excellent time to start unclogging my backlog of the interesting shots he took in Shibuya between my usual posts musing about life.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Keeping Occupied

When I mentioned to one of my students that my husband would be in the U.S. for a week while I remained in Japan, she said she thought I'd be lonely (true) and invited me over to her place so I could find some company. Even if I were inclined to hang out with my students while my husband is away, I couldn't because I'm loaded down with extra work this week. During the week he's gone, I've got to:
  • correct 136 4-page homework reports
  • conduct 14 hours of telephone lessons
  • teach 9 hours of private lessons in my apartment
  • re-writing and proofreading (mostly re-writing) a medical research abstract for a doctor
So, I'm keeping plenty busy while my husband is away but it's not really all that entertaining though it is sufficiently profitable that 4 weeks of this type of extra work is paying for my husband's trip. During the time that I spend correcting the reports with their monotonous content, I like to do something else in order to distract me from reading about the same thing for the 4000th time. When I worked at the office and had coworkers in the vicinity, I could conduct full-scale conversations while simultaneously doing my work. Unfortunately, the Japanese didn't appreciate this so I ended up having to listen to music to help cope with the repetitive nature of the work.

While working at home, I'm rather better off on this front because no one is around to tell me what I can and can't do for amusement while reading the same conversations about the weather, buying a suit or Mr. Sato's family for the umpteenth time. When I have this work, I tend to watch T.V. but I can't really watch anything engrossing or that requires a lot of attention because I can only half pay attention to what is on the television while correcting homework.

It's at times like this that I dig out my box of 50 Historic Classics DVDs. This set has a bunch of old movies for about $16.50. I'm a fan of old movies anyway and there's something oddly comforting about watching these types of old movies. They are the sort that would only be played late at night or early in the afternoon on local television stations that are network affiliates trying to fill time between network programming.

In the set, there are 12 discs and all but one have 4 "movies" each (the last one has 5) on double-sided discs though a few of them are "Studio One" T.V. shows. Most of the movies are relatively average fare and all of them reflect the movie-making abilities of their times. None of them are cinematic marvels but some of them are well-acted, well-written and have compelling stories.

They can be roughly broken down into several types - biblical stories (mostly Italian-made and dubbed in English), westerns, classics (e.g, Scrooge, Cyrano de Bergerac), and stories about famous politicians. The historical content of some of the movies is pretty questionable but that's not really a problem since I'm not looking for an educatin. I just finished the 7th disc and so far have only found two movies so unbearable that I couldn't finish watching them, even when all they were doing was droning on in the background while I worked.

I think that these types of movies are more attractive to me because they're the sorts I used to watch back home when I stayed at my grandparent's place. They were the kinds of movies that my grandfather would have on the black and white television (he refused to watch color) while I stayed over. It could explain why I find them comforting, particularly while my husband is gone. Perhaps they take me back to how secure and happy I felt when I was a kid staying with my grandparents. It's funny the associations we form with experiences and emotions that allow us to find comfort (or distress) in the oddest things.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"You're a Liar"

Roppongi is an area of Tokyo well-known for its foreigner-friendly nightlife. It's especially notorious as a hunting ground for young Japanese females looking to secure western boyfriends. Since it's frequented by off-duty military personnel and foreign businesspeople, it's ripe territory for such gentle "predators".

My husband has never availed himself of the nightlife there, of course. During his year as a single male in Japan, he was devoted to me at a distance and we were married when he returned for his second, much longer stint. One of his students had a discussion with him about Roppongi and he told her that he had no interest in going there and in fact had never been to any of the nightclubs or prowling spots because of its reputation for easy one-night stands and gaijin-hunting women.

The student recommended that those points were the very reason that he should go there in her opinion. She felt that he should avail himself of the opportunities while he could. He reminded her that he was married and even if he had the chance to cheat, he would not. In fact, he told her that he had no interest whatsoever in casual sex and he didn't have any interest in it even before he was married or even in a committed relationship with someone. The student's response was to laugh and say, "you're a liar."

Her take on men was such that she couldn't fathom any male who wouldn't want to sleep with any woman who freely offered herself and disbelieved that he wouldn't consider cheating on his wife if he had the chance. I'm pretty sure this was her personal low opinion of men who are ruled by their gonads rather than their hearts but the situation in Japan in regards to cheating spouses appears quite different than that in the west. This student felt that 90% of husbands cheated on their wives.

Since this particular student was so jaded, my husband asked others how they felt and they said they felt it was more like 60%-70% cheated on their wives. The main problem with this question when asked in "scientific" surveys is that it's virtually impossible to get accurate statistics so I can't say how his students' viewpoints measure up to the reality. One of the reasons for this is that some Japanese men feel sex they pay for doesn't constitute infidelity so they are likely to report that they do not cheat if they go to prostitutes. The other reason is that asking the question as part of a survey is almost useless when the respondents may choose to lie.

So, I can't speak to the reality of how many men cheat on their wives but I can say that I've encountered more than one foreign man who had a Japanese girlfriend who told him it was not a problem if he cheated as long as she didn't find out about it. Marriage is generally viewed somewhat differently in Japan than in the West. I've met a few people who were very devoted to their spouses but the overwhelming majority tend to view marriage as a partnership where each party fulfills his or her role to make a successful family and home. Many people feel that the whole notion of romantic love burning bright throughout a marriage is unrealistic.

Given my views on marriage (which include the fact that you can be completely mad about each other forever), this doesn't exactly strike me as "right" but it does go a long way toward explaining the high divorce rate in the United States and the lower one in Japan. Of course, the lower rate in Japan is perhaps more greatly explained by the economically disadvantageous position of women in the culture.

However, if you expect every day to be a date after you're married or if you expect to be in love forever and that fades away in an American relationship, in many cases you end up divorced. In Japan, if you don't expect that sort of passion in the long run but you're both doing your "job" (as it were), you stay together. It's always been my impression that the Japanese set the bar "lower" when it comes to the romance part of marriage and "higher" when it comes to each party fulfilling their mutually-agreed upon roles. That is, a deadbeat husband who doesn't work or make enough money to support his wife and kids would be more likely to cause his wife to divorce him than a good breadwinner who cheats on his wife.

Still, this western mind, particularly this romantic one, bristles at the idea of casual infidelity and it's a much harder push to avoid being ethnocentric about this topic than some others.

Monday, May 21, 2007

"Mr. Sato's Family"

As part of my freelance work, I sometimes correct correspondence homework for my former company. One of the lessons in the lowest level course features a line drawing of a pleasant-looking family that the students are supposed to look at and use the given information to write about the family. This is a pretty basic exercise which allows the students to practice the simple present tense, family relationship words (mother, father, etc.) and possessive adjectives (his, her, etc.). It is meant to prepare them in part for a telephone call where they have to talk about themselves and describe their families.

Almost every report I get reads like the one I have transcribed below (note that I have left the errors intact):

"There are five people in Mr. Sato's family. They are Mr. Sato and his wife and son and daughter and mother. Hiroshi Sato is an accountant. He is 45 years old. He graduated from Waseda Univeristy. His wife's name is Kimiko. She is nurse. She is 40 years old. She graduated from Keio University. His son's name is Taro. He is a high school student. He is 16 years old. His daughter's name is Megumi. She is 8 years old. She is an elementary school student. His mother's name is Michiko. She is widow. She is 65 years old."

If you can imagine this sort of thing multiplied by about, oh, say 1000 then you have an idea of how often I correct this little basic family description with variations in types of errors. As an aside, a frequent error in this passage which did not occur in the one above is calling Michiko "a mother widow" or a "window".

The 1001st report comes from someone with a little imagination and adds in something interesting. The one below particularly tickled my fancy (again, I transcribe it with errors intact):

"There are five people in Mr. Sato's family. They are my debtor. But they disappeared from last month. So, I serch that family and inform some information. In this connection I offer a reward for find this family. In contrast to ten billion dollars. Hiroshi Sato was the accountant on Goldman Sax. He is 45 years old. He graduated from Waseda University. His wife's name is Kimiko. She was the head nurse on Tokyo University Hospital. She is forty years old. She graduated from Keio University. Hiroshi's mother's name is Michiko. She is an widow. So, she often went the host club in Shibuya. She graduated from Ma Institute of Technology. She is 65 years old. Hiroshi's son's name is Taro. He is the Keio high school student. He is sixteen years old. He is playboy. His sisters name is Megumi. She is an elementary school student. Her hobby is investing a money in stocks. She is eight years old."

When I get reports like the latter, I'm always partially amused and partially concerned at the sort of mind that would concoct such a story from a simple, boring line drawing. Mainly, I'm just glad for the break in the monotony.


Today is the day my husband heads off to the U.S. to visit his family for a week. Those who have been following know the potential wrenches in the works started with an expired passport discovered a little over three weeks before his departure time. Last night, another bit of a tangle threatened to snag up the works.

Upon returning home last night, my husband said he felt like he had a cold coming on, mainly due to a sore throat. Being an English teacher and one that works many hours at that, sore throats aren't exactly uncommon but he was also pretty fatigued. We went to bed good and early and I fell asleep quickly, as I often do. My husband always falls asleep after me but I woke up in the middle of the night to find him shivering and closing windows. He didn't have a fever at that time but had one at some point during the night. After asking if there was anything I could do, I went back to sleep.

In the end, he seemed to get it all out of his system overnight but didn't get much sleep (only about 4 hours) and still has the sore throat. It wasn't the best way to start off a long trip from Japan to San Francisco and his family suggested he consider canceling for now and coming some other time but he decided to go anyway because he feels sufficiently recovered and there are a variety of complicated factors to consider if he were to reschedule (not the least of which is getting the time off at some later date).

Now that he's on his way, I feel rather at loose ends. As those who follow what I write and know me are already aware of, I'm unusually strongly attached to my husband, particularly for someone who has been married for 18 years. Even a small apartment can feel empty when you know no one else is going to be around for a week.

Anyway, if everyone who wished us well when the passport situation occurred could send a little positive energy toward my husband having a safe journey, I'd be very grateful.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Knowing the Beat

The day before yesterday, I had a new student scheduled to have a trial lesson at 4:00 pm. When the doorbell rang at 3:00 pm, I thought that the fellow had gotten confused and showed up an hour early. I answered the door and a tall, moon-faced policeman stood there, looking a bit like a retired sumo wrestler who'd managed to lose all his fighting weight, with a large ring binder in hand. This was a routine I'd been through at least twice before, possibly more, so I wasn't all that concerned. In fact, it was this very same policeman who had been at our door in the past.

In Tokyo, and perhaps in other areas as well, the local police go around from door to door in the neighborhood they work in with a binder collecting information. They write down the number of people who reside at each address, their ages, their jobs, and the type of place they work at. In our case, the information hadn't changed so it wasn't very complicated to communicate our situation to him. This evening, the same policeman was parked outside our apartment building around 7:00 pm and was trying to pick up information on the residents of our building who hadn't been home yesterday afternoon (those on the second floor). I passed him on my way home from a store and he thanked me for cooperating with him yesterday and said "good evening" (all in Japanese, of course). After finishing with our building, he trotted off down the street to other buildings nearby.

I'm not sure how often this type of information is collected or updated but I'm guessing it's once a year. On the surface, this all seems like a pretty good idea. On the one hand, the police get some idea of who does and does not belong in an area based on their overview of the residents. If they are patrolling on their bicycles or on foot, they can note suspicious activity if they see someone who doesn't seem to belong based on their data. On the other hand, I don't know if this information is actually put to any use or if it's just one more of those things the Japanese do meticulously as a matter of course. It's possible it's all just dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's". If I had to guess though, I'd wager the information is coordinated with witness testimony in the event that a crime is committed.

Unfortunately, I very much doubt this does much good in the case of most common local crimes. In one of my lessons, I discuss "tansu yokin" with students. "Tansu yokin" is "mattress banking" in Japan. That is, it is akin to the concept in the west of savings one's money under the mattress instead of putting it in a bank though, in this case, it's usually a stash of cash, jewelry, a personal seal ("hanko") used for banking transactions or other valuable items. During this particular lesson, one of my newer students told me that her house was burgled and her family's stash was stolen. When they reported the incident to the police, they were told that three houses had been burgled in the same area on the same night. It seems that the thief (or thieves) cased the area and were able to rob several houses effectively while the residents of those houses were at work on their regular schedules.

Despite the fact that the robbers clearly were around the same area for the duration of committing three robberies, there wasn't enough evidence to do anything about it. In fact, the police told her that it was highly unlikely that they would find the criminals or retrieve the loot. So, even knowing the neighborhood (bear in mind this student lives relatively close to where I do), wouldn't appear to help, particularly if no one notes the appearance of unfamiliar faces while crimes are occurring.

Nonetheless, I do feel it's rather a good thing to have the police become familiar with the people who live in the neighborhoods they are stationed in. If nothing else, I'm guessing the policeman who wished me a good night and came to our door to collect data won't be stopping me to see if I've stolen my bicycle. ;-)

Friday, May 18, 2007


Promotional shot of Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster from the Jeeves & Wooster television series. I'm not sure who to credit for it as it was likely distributed by the BBC when the series was made.

One of my students has a crush on Hugh Laurie. She hasn't said that exactly but she has all the signs of being infatuated with a famous actor. In her last several lessons, she's mentioned that she loves "House" and asked me personal questions about Hugh Laurie. She was very happy to hear that he was in the ballpark of her age (44 - he's nearly 48). She also borrowed "Black Adder" DVDs from a relative of hers and I asked her if she liked the show or if she simply liked Hugh Laurie. She said the latter.

I do wonder if she's keen on him or keen on his character on "House". I wonder if she'd have become as interested in him had she seen him in the first show I had ever seen him in, "Jeeves & Wooster". In "House", he plays an abrasive but highly intelligent doctor with a stylishly stubbled face. In "Jeeves & Wooster", he plays a kind-spirited yet rather dim-witted rich gentleman and spends a lot of his time on screen looking puzzled with mouth agape.

Promotional shot of Hugh Laurie as King George from Black Adder III (or Black Adder the Third). He also appeared regularly as Lt. George in Black Adder IV (or Black Adder Goes Forth). Once more, I'm not sure who to credit for it as it was probably distributed by the BBC when the series was made.

Similarly, the second show in which I encountered Hugh Laurie, Black Adder, also featured him as a clueless prince. In fact, I so associated him with playing dumb guys with a British accent that his portrayal in "House" came as an extreme shock. I primarily saw him as a comedic actor who specialized in playing ebullient half-wits.

One thing that became clear after seeing him in "House" is that he has joined the ranks of comedic actors who have shown they are capable of doing dramatic roles very well (like Robin Williams) though I'm not sure he's made the transition in my mind from a goofy-looking fellow to crush-worthy heartthrob. ;-)


Incidentally, if you're a fan of light-hearted, farcical humor set in a kinder era, I heartily recommend Jeeves & Wooster. The choice of words alone can be quite funny sometimes and the series has the distinct advantage of being utterly lacking in mean-spiritedness though I'm not sure everyone would enjoy the style or the setting (the 1920's-1930's)

If you're a fan of British humor and don't mind if it's a bit on the nasty side (but is extremely funny and witty), then give Black Adder a go. If you do watch Black Adder, you'll see that "House" has included an inside joke referencing the oft-uttered line "I have a cunning plan" when Dr. Cameron said, "you'd better come up with a cunning plan..."

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Why I've Been Here So Long

I'm frequently asked why I've been here so long. Most people ask out of simple curiosity but others do so feeling I have to justify being here, particularly since I'm not a raging Japanophile. In the former case, the question is rather reasonable and I will do my best to answer it in a way which makes sense though I'm not sure it's an easy thing to make clear since it requires one to abandon an existing mindset.

Let me begin by setting up a hypothetical situation. Let's say you grew up in a small rural area in someplace like Ohio. There aren't any decent jobs and there isn't much to do and there are few opportunities to stretch the range of your experience so you decide to move to someplace like Texas. You go to Texas and it's fine but there are some things there which you're not especially keen on like the weather and the red state attributes. You also find that you can't really get ahead because things keep bogging you down financially and your job, while adequate, is rather boring. Finally, you come across a situation in Seattle which really appeals to you and decide to go there.

When you get to Seattle, you find out it rains a lot but you like your job and what you can do there. You find you can be comfortable without having a two-income situation so you get to spend much more time with your spouse than when you could in Texas where you both had to work full-time. You like the people around you in general and live in a safe place in an apartment which may not be as big as you like but is actually as much as you really need and the rent is not ridiculous for your income level. You can also save quite well compared to how you'd be doing in Texas or Ohio and, while a lot of the people you know are in debt, you are able to build a decent nest egg. There's only one problem. People keep asking you why you continue to live in Seattle and have an expectation that you should move back home.

The translation key:
Ohio = Pennsylvania (an equation that is easy to accept)
Texas = California (one that is harder to accept)
Seattle = Tokyo (perhaps the hardest to accept)

The bottom line isn't "why remain in Japan so long" but "why not?" There's an underlying notion that one goes to a foreign country with a goal in mind and then the natural thing to do is achieve that goal and go home as if there is something at home which is better or loftier than what is here. This is a reasonable notion but it doesn't always apply to everyone. I'm not sure that my life would be better back home than it is here. In fact, given what I read about outsourcing in the U.S., I'm not entirely convinced it may not be worse.

Initially, I did have a plan to come for a limited duration and leave but I found a job which I really liked and stayed at for 12 years until health problems forced me to leave. To be honest, I stayed at that job far longer than I should have and started to hate being in Japan and itching to leave. Since I quit, the itch has diminished quite a lot so I'm not sure if the problem was stagnation or the problem was Japan but I'm pretty sure there was a lot of the former going on.

I think I'd feel more strongly compelled to go home if I had a support base (emotionally, physically or financially) waiting for me but I don't. I had sufficient issues with my mother that going back to my family wouldn't be good for either of us (though I love my mother, we are oil and water temperamentally). All of my friends have scattered across the United States. There's not only no or little hope of being in contact with them should I return but no real reason to feel I'd integrate well with them as their lives are now. In fact, there is every reason to believe I couldn't get along with them at all given that a lot of them have changed personality-wise (as have I). My best friend from back home now has a Christian rock group and talks about how the bible was the greatest book ever written and I'm a believer in reincarnation who essentially embraces the writings of Jane Roberts and Seth. He's also got 3 kids and I'm one of those people who really can't get on with children. How do you think we'd get on nowadays?

As for jobs, while I feel that my experience writing, laying out, and doing graphics for textbooks would qualify me for an acceptable job somewhere, I've read that the print publishing industry is dying because of the Internet and jobs in "typesetting" are being sent to India with greater frequency. The field isn't exactly clamoring for the return of one more person to come work in it.

A very long time ago, I realized that it doesn't matter where you settle yourself on the planet so long as it satisfies you in some way and allows you to continue to grow as a person (that is, psychologically). For now, this is the place. It won't be forever but it's good for now and I'm not going to pack up and go because of arbitrary notions that I have to have a "good reason" to stay.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Faux Vanilla Milkshake (Sugar-free)

The other day I was in the mood for something cold and sweet after dinner, no doubt as a result of the warming temperatures. I wasn't really in the mood for the cocoa flavor of my cocoa frappucino so I decided to attempt to modify it to turn it into something more akin to a vanilla shake. The results were surprisingly good.

The exotic ingredients in this recipe can be purchased from the FBC in Japan.

Faux (Vanilla) Milkshake recipe:
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 tbsp. powdered skim milk
  • 1 tsp. pectin
  • 2 tbsp. Sugar-free vanilla Da Vinci syrup
  • 1 packet Splenda sweetener
  • 2 dashes of vanilla essence (or less if you don't like strong vanilla)
  • 1 cup of ice
Depending on your options for ice, you may need to crush the ice before or after the next step. Some blenders have ice crushing attachments. Mine has one which fits on top so it crushes ice into the beverage below. If yours crushes ice in the bottom of the blender, you'll have to crush it first, remove the ice, mix the ingredients and then add the crushed ice back in.

Put all the ingredients except the ice into a blender and blend for about 30 seconds to get it mixed well. It should look a little frothy on top. Add the crushed ice and blend for about a minute. The ice particles should be evenly mixed in such that the drink looks sludgier and does not have tiny icy bumps. If the ice particles are too big, blend it longer. It should resemble melted ice cream. Serve immediately.

I think this recipe could be modified to use other flavors of Da Vinci syrup with varying results. I'm not sure how well the fruit flavors would work but I'd guess the caramel syrup would probably be quite good. However, the other flavors have the drawback of not having an easy to buy essence to enhance their potency like vanilla does. If you try other flavors, you may need to increase the syrup to 3 tbsp. and skip the extra packet of Splenda.

I'm guessing that there may also be a pretty nice variation of this sort of thing using plain yogurt and crushed ice somewhere but I haven't tried one yet.

Japanese Ethnic Joke

There are some things that seem to appear in every culture and ethnic jokes appear to be one of them. Students don't generally relate jokes to their foreign teachers because they fear offending them or because their English isn't up to snuff.

One of my husband's students told him the following joke which reflects the viewpoint of some Japanese people about the character of people from a variety of cultures:

"Four men, a Frenchman, a Chinese man, an American, and a Japanese man, go into a restaurant and order soup. When the soup arrives, all four bowls have flies in them. The Frenchman removes the fly, eats the soup, and then demands a full refund anyway. The Chinese man eats the soup, fly and all, and considers it "extra value". The American whips out his cell phone and calls his lawyer so he can sue the restaurant. The Japanese man takes out his cell phone and calls his company to ask what he should do."

I'm not sure where the idea that a Frenchman would eat the food and demand a refund came from since it seems to pre-suppose that French people are cheap and doesn't fit in with the "known" joking stereotypes in the U.S. but the American and Japanese ones (as exaggerated stereotypes for humor) are spot on.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Banking in Japan

When I first arrived in Japan, I got hired by Nova conversation school and got my first taste of "how things work" in Japan from a financial point of view. First of all, your company chooses the bank you will be paid into based on the bank it does all its business with. The Japanese don't use checks except for rare business transactions so you're paid by direct transfer. If you're new and can't read or speak Japanese, a representative of the company will usually dutifully trot down to a bank with you and you can sit around being confused and writing exactly what you're told to write onto the various forms shoved in front of you.

You can open other bank accounts at different banks, of course, but you'll have to manage moving the funds from the bank your company uses to the bank you want to use and you'll have to pay a transfer fee of about $3.50 each time you make a transfer unless you want to carry around wads of cash. Since you don't get any interest to speak of on Japanese bank accounts (.2%-.5% in general on regular savings), there's really not much point in sending your money somewhere else.

Most mundane business is done using automatic teller machines (ATMs) rather than dealing face-to-face but one does need to do some activities with a real person. The process of arranging for payments to be made as automatic deductions from one's bank account, sending money overseas, and buying traveler's cheques are among those activities which require interaction with a real person. It was the latter which took my husband and I to our bank today.

Dealing face-to-face is a predictably drawn-out experience when it comes to anything requiring foreign currency exchange of any kind. There is never a line for such things so you can get waited on right away. The clerks are meticulous every step of the way and feel obliged to point out the exchange rate on a digital display at least twice to make sure you know what you're getting into. We actually were told four times by two different people.

Once you've communicated what you want, the clerk skitters off and gets the proper forms. You fill them out while she (or he) watches over your shoulder. If you make a mistake, you generally get to do it all over again. The form is then taken away and carefully scrutinized by crack teams of bank personnel for 10 minutes or more (this happens no matter how long or short the form is) and you're asked to move from the seat in front of the desk and sit in a waiting area.

Invariably, someone will rush over to you and say they require something else. It doesn't matter what you give them initially. You could give them every document you own and all your identification and they'd still need something else. If you give them your gaijin card, they'll want your passport. If you give them both of these, they'll probably want your employment contract. I don't think they really need the information, they just have to come over and ask for one more thing.

When the forms have endured all the scrutiny they can bear before bursting into molecules from the sheer force of the inspection they've received, you will be called back over to receive whatever it is you came for. In our case, it was $1000 worth of traveler's checks. The exchange rate we paid was 122.58 yen to the dollar. The math is pretty easy on that one so I said "122,580 yen" when the fellow (who spoke English) came over to explain the cost. He wouldn't take my word for it though and used a calculator twice to verify the total. He repeated the process for the 1% fee though anyone with a grade school education could have done it. Form must be followed at all costs.

After some confusion about where the envelope was to tidily put away all the paperwork and cheques, they gave us the pen and package of pocket tissues pictured above and thanked us with a smile. They are at times pointlessly meticulous but always polite.

Our current bank is Mizuho which was a new bank created from the consolidation of some other banks (including my former bank Daichi Kangyo). At some point in the not too distant past, a lot of banks joined up because of fiscal imprudence on the part of the banking industry on the whole. I guess that merger helped Mizuho scrape up the funds for a better mascot so we now get "Hello Kitty" gifts. In the past, Daichi Kangyo's motif was a pink flower design and no cartoon characters were associated with it. My first bank account ever in Japan had Peanuts characters as mascots. Snoopy was on my first banking card.

I'm never sure why banks feel obliged to have cartoon characters as a part of their advertising or card designs. I'm pretty sure that it does nothing to improve the number of people who bank there since so many people just use the bank their companies use. It certainly doesn't improve any sense of the bank being reliable or trustworthy to know "Hello Kitty" is on their side.