Sunday, September 30, 2007

Apartment Layout

Click the image to load a much larger one which is at a legible size.

Awhile back, I was asked in comments about the layout of our apartment. Most people either have a copy of their apartment's layout or would have had one at some time or another because you get a copy of it when you go to the real estate agency to inquire about a place. In our case, we had never actually seen the layout since our apartment was graciously handled for us before we came over by my husband's brother. This is no small deal in Japan, incidentally, and it was likely an even bigger deal 18 years ago when fewer places accepted foreign tenants. Needless to say, it can be time-consuming and frustrating to find a place and secure and agreement depending on how much you want to pay (cheaper places are harder to get) and where you want to live.

So, I certainly don't mean to imply that we aren't grateful for the effort he went to to find a place when I mention that we didn't get a layout diagram as part of the deal. Honestly, up until I started blogging, it never occurred to me that it'd be interesting to even have such a piece of paper around to show people the size and orientation of our place. Fortunately, and unsurprisingly, the landlord had the copy that they give to the real estate agent to advertise the place and graciously gave me a photocopy which I've scanned in. He also wrote the measurements in pencil at the top and sides. I added other notes in Photoshop to make it clearer.

One thing that the diagram made clear to me was that my impression that the apartment was nearly a perfect square is correct. This means that there is relatively little "wasted" space unlike most Japanese apartments which seem to have "tunnel" areas, particularly at the entrance which are only useful for limited storage areas and tend to make the place feel narrower. When all the access points between rooms in a square-shaped place like ours are open, the space feels relatively large and unified giving the illusion of a bigger place.

If you look at the other two places in the diagram which our neighbors occupy, you'll see that the place on our right is a perfect mirror image of ours. This apartment has been occupied by the same woman ever since we moved in. That's right, we're not the only ones who have remained here for nearly two decades! When we first moved in, I believe this woman was living with her sister but several years after we moved in, the sister moved out. This woman is quiet and never bothers us. She is mainly noteworthy as a neighbor because she seems to go to bed and rise extremely early. We know this because she is meticulous about closes the noisy metal shutters at her back windows (sliding glass doors leading to the balcony). We hear them scraping open between 4:00-5:00 am each morning and shut around 10:00 pm every night. When we are having problems sleeping, that dreaded sound always signals the time for us.

The apartment on the left is occupied at present by a single man. Up until I got this diagram 2 days ago, I didn't know that was a slightly bigger place than ours. This particular apartment has seen more of a rotation of tenants. At one point, a family with a 2-year old lived there. A couple also lived there at one time. The man that lives there now is notable for a variety of habits but primarily for smoking like a chimney. When our kitchen window is open and he come and goes, a breeze full of the odor of stale smoke wafts in. He carries the aroma of ashtray around him like Pig-pen's dust cloud. This fellow also is a bit odd in that he seems to be in and out of his apartment several times a day, everyday, at odd times as if he doesn't have a regular job. I've noticed he often is running in and out at 8:30, 10:00, 1:00, 3:00, etc. However, he must have a job because our apartment is 110,000 yen and his is bigger so it may be more expensive. Other than his odd hours and smoking, he sometimes plays music very loud but we can only hear it from the walkway in front of our place when we approach our front door. We never hear anything through the walls.

For those who don't know, the "DK" on the diagram is for "dining kitchen" and is supposed to indicate that room is to be used for both a kitchen and a dining room but our room is really too small for that considering there is so little built-in cabinet space. If we had overhead shelving built-in and didn't require extra cabinetry for dishes and food storage, we might be able to get a table in there. Doing so now though would require us to constantly walk around a smallish table in the middle of the room and it'd look awkward in addition to being a hassle to constantly circumnavigate.

Most apartments are advertised with "DK" as part of the information. Our apartment is a "2DK" meaning it is a "dining kitchen" plus 2 other rooms. When my husband lived in Kita-senju alone, he lived in a 1DK but it was also one of the aforementioned places with a tunnel-like hallway. In fact, it felt a bit like a barbell with two rectangular rooms at the end of a hall. His apartment there had what is called a "unit bath". It was a smallish western-style tub in the same room with his toilet and a sink. It's considered a "unit" because the plastic of the tub and the plastic floor were all from one huge molded piece of plastic.

Our apartment has a relatively old-style set-up with a water closet containing only a toilet and a separate Japanese-style tiled shower room with a very deep but completely square and short Japanese tub. You can immerse yourself up to nearly your shoulders but your legs are all cramped in. I guess it was designed for shorter people. We never use the tub but I do love the roomy shower area right next to it. I've watched some Japanese apartment tours on Youtube and our shower area is definitely one of the bigger ones among this particular style.

I've asked several of my students about what they believe a place like ours should cost and, since they are taking their lessons in the place, they can gauge its size, age, and amenities accurately. Most of them feel that it is appropriately priced for its size and location. A few said it's slightly expensive and a few said it's slightly cheap. I will note that our rent was 93,000 yen when we first moved in and progressively raised to the point where it is now though it hasn't been changed for at least the last ten years.

Friday, September 28, 2007

At the End of the Tunnel

As the end of August approaches each year, I start thinking that hope that the un-ending muggy and hot weather is at hand. More often than not, relief does not arrive until October but there have been years when the horribleness which is the Japanese summer ends after the first week in September.

I've been checking my weather widget regularly to see what lies ahead. I'm afraid that, more often than not, it's simply wrong. It often predicts rain and no rain comes. I have to give it some credit though. When it's already raining, it does say that there will be rain today.

Anyway, if the widget is to be believed, extended periods of coolness may be right around the corner. After nearly 5 months without an appreciably cool and crisp day, I can't wait.


On an absolutely unrelated side note, and I mention this here for a bookmark in in my personal history, my successor at my former company unceremoniously quit today. He did not give notice and left my former boss holding the bag on the scheduling and paperwork. This isn't the same as a school where schedules are set a few weeks ahead. At my company, the schedules are set 3 months ahead for hundreds of people so it's no small deal. The work is also relatively complex and training takes awhile before someone can take over.

The only reason this fellow gave was that he just 'couldn't do it anymore'. The job isn't that hard but it is repetitive. The company has kept him on despite angry, inappropriate and foul-mouthed interactions with co-workers, cutting out of work early, goofing off rather visibly during working hours and 3 weeks of his being completely incommunicado while he was in prison. The thanks he gives them is that he bugs out without notice. For me, this means more freelance work though it's hard to say how much right now. The sad thing is that he'll be paid in full up to the moment of his departure and my boss is left scrambling to fill the spot before he departs for Australia on October 7 for a long-planned holiday.

The only "bright" side is that, while in the past my former company has gotten lackluster responses to their job ads, the decaying Nova situation (closing branches and fears that they will go bankrupt initiating a mass ship-jumping at the schools) means they'll probably get a lot of takers. The only question is whether or not those takers will be sincere about doing the job well or simply taking the work as a stop-gap between Nova and their next job.


During my formative years, I lied to my parents as many children do in order to avoid punishment. Around the age of 12, however, I developed a rock hard aversion to any sort of lying and stopped doing so. I'm not sure what motivated this change in character. Perhaps my trust was betrayed by a friend or fellow student in such a way that the long-term consequences to a relationship when someone lies were made clear to me. Maybe I just was born with the type of character that would eventually jell into the one I have now. It's also possible that I finally reached an age where I realized that my mother lied whenever it suited her position in discussions or power plays.

In regards to my mother, my father used to say that she lied so much that she eventually believed her lies were true. I recall on more than one occasion when she'd make up some "fact" to back up her assertion that my sister or I should do something or other that she wanted. When we challenged her "facts", she'd just make up more and more ridiculous lies to support what she'd said. When the lies upon lies resulted in the logic of her assertions folding like a house of cards buckling under a gust of wind, she'd get angry and start lashing out and attacking us verbally. I'm guessing that sort of experience might tend to cultivate a strong aversion to fibbing in a person.

During my youth, this wish to avoid lying at all costs translated into a character which was blunt, strident, and abrasive at times. It took until I was nearing 30 or so for me to start learning to seriously moderate these tendencies. While I still hate to lie and having other people lie to me, I began to realize that lies in the service of failing to hurt others, particularly lies that had no long-term impact, were not a betrayal of my principles. For instance, if a student asks me if his English has improved, I won't lie and say it has if it has not though I may say that one aspect has improved (if that is true) as a way of only partially answering the question. Sometimes though, I'll simply tell them that they haven't been putting in enough work to improve based on their current basic level.

"Lies" to students are a part of business though mine tend to take the path of avoiding the crux of the question rather than being out and out lies. I'm not so sure that Japanese people may not prefer this to a 100% accurate answer so that they can have a softened bit of truth. From a certain viewpoint, this may be seen as a self-serving lie since a student who is told blatantly that he isn't getting better despite taking expensive lessons may decide he should just give up and I'll lose a source of income. However, my impulse is not to keep my rosters full of paying customers. I don't want to hurt their feelings or discourage them.

When it comes to lying, two points are always key in determining whether or not the lie serves a positive or negative function. One is whether or not the lie miscommunicates information in such a way as to perpetuate a destructive situation which may eventually eat away at a relationship or result in a future devastating and extremely painful revelation. The most common lie of this sort is related to women lying to their partners about the extent of their sexual satisfaction. If a woman lies about this point, she starts a cycle which confuses her partner about what is best to do to please her and often finds herself pressured to continue to "fake" once she starts doing so.

The other point is whether or not the lie is primarily self-serving rather than in the service of the other party. Yesterday, I was exposed to what I'm certain was this sort of lie. An office worker at my former company was communicating with me regarding scheduling of telephone tests I conduct as freelance work. Since I worked in person with her, I know her character and I've also had issues with her in the past. She can be rude and often doesn't listen to my former boss when he directs her and follows her own counsel rather than his. This always results in a problem because he has good reasons for doing things a certain way but she only has her own interests in mind.

For over a year now, I've been scheduling tests on a case by case basis to accommodate my private lesson schedule changes. This means any time my former company wants me to do tests, my schedule for the times and days in question has to be confirmed. This woman suggested that it was too troublesome to keep asking me about my schedule so it should be "locked down" to avoid the need for the questions. What it seemed to me that she meant was that I should promise I would reserve hours for the tests each week so they could freely slot them in any time without asking about my availability. This would essentially put me in the position of refusing private students indefinitely in such time slots and risking losing income with no guarantee that the infrequent tests would even be scheduled into those slots. In essence, she can skip the part which takes time and set up a situation where I'm the same as I was when I worked in the office.

I told her that the only way they could "reserve" my hours was by paying a retainer for them and she claimed that her suggestion was for my benefit so that I wouldn't have to put up with answering schedule-based questions. This was an incredibly transparent lie as I've never complained about such questions and, in fact, insist it be done this way for maximum flexibility. I should note that that flexibility goes both ways. The company gets far more possible hours for tests (which the companies who buy the tests prefer) by consulting me than locking in a limited schedule of a few hours each week or day.

Like many people who offer up a self-serving lie, she tried to mollify me by saying the situation she wanted was for to my benefit rather than hers. This sort of lie makes me angrier than most because it seems to assume I'm very naive and gullible. The thing about people who lie without a second thought is that they have an unrealistic notion of how effective their lies are. They often believe obvious lies are credible. Of course, in the case of the Japanese, I sometimes feel they know the lies are obvious but they rely on the cultural tendency not to be confrontational to keep them from being called on them.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Windswept Baking

The poor little fellow on the right in front isn't getting his share of heat and has become the runt of the litter.

Though I took delivery of a new oven a little over a month ago, I haven't put it through all of its paces yet. The biggest reason for this has been the lingering hot and humid weather. One is hardly inspired to bake goodies when one is baking oneself everyday.

While I've made several savory dishes and some cinnamon rolls in the new oven with very good results, I hadn't yet attempted to make anything in the cake/muffin style. This evening, I gave a batch of pumpkin muffins a try and learned about some of the uneven heating patterns of the new oven. To be fair, all ovens seem to have this sort of problem though I'm guessing more expensive ones may lack them. My former oven was always hotter toward the front.

The new oven is a convection oven though so I had though it might be a bit better but the muffins tell no lies. If you look at the picture above, you can see it heats unevenly such that the left side bakes faster than the right and the air seems to blow harder from left to right such that the tops appear rather windswept. This doesn't make for very pretty presentation but it's not a big deal. The main thing I'll have to look out for is the fact that the right side seems to stay "raw" while the left cooks through. I'll have to turn the tray around at the mid-point of the cooking time to accommodate this weakness.

The finished muffins. They erupted over the sides because of the way they rose unevenly. Note how the ones in the back were swept both left and right and toward the center. They don't look so great but I'm sure they'll taste fine.

The odd thing is that all the muffins seem to have had their contents shift with the breeze in different directions. All I can imagine is that the convection blows in various directions and, depending on the position of the food on the tray, they are pushed one way or the other. One thing I did notice though was that regardless of position, the silicon bake-ware (the blue stuff) did a better job than the old aluminum ones. I had my husband pick up one "tin" of them while in the U.S. (they are much more expensive and harder to find in Japan) and now I wish I'd had him get two. Silicon "pans" are a bit flimsy and hard to handle when you fill them up (you have to put them on a flat surface that you can carry over to the oven) but they're better at conducting heat, cool off more quickly, easier to clean and don't require oiling (though it does help to oil them a little, they can be turned inside out to remove foods).

Spam, Wonderful Spam

It may be hard to believe but, prior to the 1980's, Spam was known only as an overly-salty meat product. These days, far more people talk about it in its electronic form than eat it in it's pork form. While some products find their sales buckling under the weight of negative associations that form around their names, I'm pretty sure that Spam-brand meat product is not one of them. In fact, I wonder if the association with the Monty Python sketch which (purportedly) inspired the sobriquet "spam" for unwanted messages may actually have made "Spam" kind of cool.

At the very least, the fact that the word became used on a daily basis and became the subject of a good many articles on getting rid of advertising brought the product's name back into the public consciousness. For what it's worth, Spam sales skyrocketed around 2000 after dropping off steadily in the after the 1940's. I'm guessing this had more to do with putting the word out there than it had to do with a sudden and intense spike in a desire for pre-cooked, canned meat.

The picture above was taken in an import shop in Japan. The fact that any store would choose to display such a vast array of Spam products is an indication that they expect there will be a desire for them among Japanese consumers. I daresay that, short of things like salad dressing or seasonings, I have never seen so many varieties of the same type import food on offering. While I don't believe the Japanese adore their Spam, they must like it enough to keep cans on most local market shelves as well as in almost every import shop. I will note that it's also relatively expensive (around $4.50 a can) so it's not being purchased for economic reasons.

I guess the clearest indication that Spam is more popular in Japan or at least less looked down upon as a food stuff is the fact that the fast food chain "Freshness Burger" has a Spam burger on its menus. At 380 yen per sandwich, it's a little more expensive than all the more conventional types of burgers at 320 yen each. I'm pretty sure few people in the U.S. are going to pony up $3.20 for a sandwich made out of canned, processed meat.

As for the other type of spam, when I ask my students about "spam" in it's electronic usage, they have no idea what I'm talking about. They say they know it's a kind of food but were unaware of it referring to unwanted mail promising to increase the size of the tackle in your box or put more ardor in your larder. I guess it's one of those concepts that didn't make the transition in katakana English to Japanese because, while Spam meat product is well-known here, Monty Python and western geek culture are not.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mechanical Merchants

Note in the picture above that the trash areas near the drink machines have a circular slot so that only drink bottles and cans can be put into them. This is so they don't become all-purpose trash receptacles (of which there are nearly none in Tokyo) and only recyclable garbage is put in them.

Given how fascinated foreigners are with Japanese vending machines, I'm a little surprised someone hasn't set up a web site devoted to nothing but these mechanical merchants. Actually, for all I know, someone already has but I haven't stumbled across it.

On occasion, I mention how foreign folks find Japanese vending machines curious to my students and they tend to be a bit baffled by this. They remark, quite correctly, that we have vending machines back home for snacks, drinks, and sundry items. This is a point, of course, but the Japanese have them in much greater quantity and variety than we do. This is the real point of interest for us. It seems that there's little that isn't sold in vending machines here in one place or another.

There are a great many extremely peculiar and somewhat unsettling items being vended through machines that I doubt one would find anywhere else. I'm not talking about the omnipresent condom machines selling comically-named and themed prophylactics but rather about machines selling vast arrays of "marital aids" including but not limited to artificial vaginas, buttocks, and various items that may be inserted into bodily orifices if one finds such types of interaction with rubber and vinyl items stimulating.

While the stranger machines are shocking, they aren't really all that common. They tend to be placed outside of manned establishments selling the same type of goods so people can make purchases after hours or anonymously. The ones that tend to be more common and almost equally curious are those that attempt to offer up goods related to the needs of daily life. The reason these things can strike one as strange is that there are certain food items that seemingly were never meant to be preserved and sold in a can or purchased with the insertion of a few coins and by the push of a button.

The machine on the right in the picture above is selling umbrellas which are certainly natural enough given the rainy seasons in Japan and the not unusual circumstances in which people find themselves caught unaware in a downpour. As an aside, I should mention that people sometimes find themselves acquiring copious numbers of cheap umbrellas because they drop 500 yen on one when it unexpectedly rains. The machine on the right is the more curious one.

The second machine is selling bread in a "can". The illusion that this is part of a nice homey breakfast that the picture on the machine attempts to create by showing the bread cylinders served on a cutting board and the bread itself served on a china plate with butter and a knife is rather undermined by the bizarre shape of the bread itself. While this may be tasty, tasty stuff, I can't shake the feeling that bread is one of those things that was never meant to be sold in this fashion. Of course, that assertion is undermined by the fact that we sell all sorts of bread products (uncooked) in Pillsbury dough-boy emblazoned tubes in the U.S. I guess it's ok to buy cylindrical bread so long as it doesn't look that way after it's baked.

When I see the kinds of food that we associate with a sit-down meal at home crammed into cans and offered up in this fashion, I feel like the Japanese took the (now largely defunct) concept of an Automat and ran wildfire with it. Despite some of the odd-ball concoctions that may come out of this type of modification of food-stuffs, it's actually a pretty good business move. You have people who are rushing to work and in need of sustenance on the go so they toss in a coin, rip open a tube and gobble down some quick, fortifying bread product.

There are also people who are stuck hanging out on the platform with little to do besides wait for the train. Catering to those who may be peckish when the kiosks are over-crowded or closed makes sense, particularly when the sales points are unmanned and require almost no staff to make a sale. Additionally, it's well-known that people will consume more when bored and when things just happen to be around. It's possible that the presence of a vending machine may incite unoccupied people to consume. It could be the equivalent of someone standing in front of the refrigerator inspecting the contents and hoping to find something "good" to eat or drink. If that is the case, the more vending machines, the merrier from a sales point of view.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Militant Minimalism

Lately, I've been looking around for more resources to improve small space living and I've run across some rather extreme notions and opinions which seem to be less about changing your space to support your "living" and more about shoehorning how you live into an aesthetic concept. While I absolutely respect the right of people to live their lives as they see fit and recognize that everyone has a different sense of style, sometimes, it seems that people go too far.

Before I progress any further, I'd like to address the notions that the uninitiated westerner seems to have developed about Japanese people and a minimalist aesthetic. There are some people, mainly your interior design types, who seem to think the Japanese are all sitting in bare rooms with the odd elegantly placed item here and there while viewing their rock gardens with perfectly raked sand "waves" through a window and sipping green tea as they sit seiza-style (on your kneels with heels planted on buttocks) in a kimono. I'd like to be the first to say this image is unadulterated poppycock. Most Japanese people who live in houses have one room that might resemble this sort of thing and the vast majority live in places crammed to the gills with crap. If you don't believe me, check out Tokyo: A Certain Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki. What I sometimes see through random open windows as I go around my neighborhood is clearly displayed in his book.

Getting back to these web sites that endorse decluttering though, I've read some pretty extreme views. One site decided to set up a gallery that any reader who had cleared his or her desk could post a picture on. The reason for this was to show off how various people had managed to tidy up one of the spaces that is often in an advanced state of chaos because it's where work is usually done. Reading some of the comments on these pages, it became clear that some people can't tell the difference between "uncluttered" and "empty".

One person remarked that she was appalled at what was being posted as she showed off her "desk" (actually, a small table) with a notebook computer, a desk lamp and a bud vase. Somewhere in this person's office space, there has to be the equivalent of her desk's portrait of Dorian Grey holding all the stuff she needs to do work at a desk so that she can snootily put down people who have the audacity to organize and tidy the stuff they use and actually keep at their desks. When this person needs to deal with her bills or any paperwork, I'm guessing she runs to a shameful, secret hidey-hole where she stashes unsightly paperwork, pens, notepaper, etc. and drags it all to the desk then and does her work. Eyes darting around nervously for witnesses, she then rapidly deposits it all back to it's holding pen so her barren desk is once again free of unsightly debris. Of course, I guess it's also possible that she doesn't do any actual work and just sits at her computer all day criticizing people who use their desks as desks.

This attitude was nothing though compared to some of the tips about getting rid of things you don't need in your apartment to declutter. One of the headings for one of the posts was something like "shoes are clutter". They weren't recommending you get rid of your Carrie Bradshaw-like collection of shoes in order to free your closet from the groaning burden of several hundred pairs of shoes. They were recommending you go barefoot if you could possibly manage to do so in order to have as few shoes as possible littering your home. I guess stepping on a tick and developing Lyme Disease in summer is just fine so long as you've got one less pair of shoes sullying your decor!

Another suggestion was that people could get rid of their beds and just sleep on the floor. Since I currently live in a culture where people often sleep on the floor out of necessity, I can see where this may have value if you live in a very small place. However, even in Japan, it seems a great many people sleep in beds if they have the space. The only ones who use futon are the ones who live in an apartment that has so few rooms that they still need to put their bedding away regularly to allow the space to serve double duty as both living and sleeping quarters or those who are older and just used to camping-style accommodations. The idea that one would sleep on the floor mainly to service a militant minimalist aesthetic rather than a philosophical wish to have few possessions, a desire to sleep on a hard surface or a space-induced need seems a step too far.

This sort of extremism is a good example of how many people are unable to find moderation in any thing in their lives. We either live in piled up messes or pristine vacant spaces. There's no logic or pragmatism applied to the notions people are applying. They seem to simply adopt a philosophy and live by it regardless of the potential consequences or practicality.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Scratch Fury

No, not this "Scratch Fury" (a PvP character). Image pinched from the PvP (copyright Scott Kurtz - no infringement intended) archives - go, read, enjoy! Click the picture to see a larger version.

(I know this seems a little gross but if you've ever had dogs and cats cohabiting together, you know that it's absolutely true that dogs "snack" from the cat's litter box.)

Back when my husband and I were living in California, we had a somewhat scary experience during a peaceful drive down some quiet back streets in his home city. My husband was driving my small (and very much antiquated) Chevette and had just stopped at an empty intersection with a stop sign. He did an actual stop, not a rolling stop, and he was looking both ways. Just as he was proceeding to accelerate into the intersection, a huge pick-up truck comes barreling up behind us at top speed and careens around us and cuts us off. My husband tapped his horn as he was being cut off as the truck driver not only appeared to be either illiterate or lacking in sufficient reading comprehension to understand the concept of "stop" but also didn't seem to notice he was close to bouncing off our car.

Upon hearing the horn toot at him, the driver of the truck circled around and came roaring head on at our car. I'm guessing that his animal forebrain thought a horn signaled some sort of territorial challenge which, if he won, would result in his penis actually growing less minuscule in size. After satisfying himself that he'd asserted his dominance by playing chicken with my tiny car in his big "manly" truck, he zoomed off to join the other gorillas for what I'm sure was a stimulating evening of scratching, burping, displaying expert feats of flatulence and grunting at potential female mates.

In the U.S., this sort of behavior would be considered a form of "road rage." This is when people are overtly aggressive toward other drivers and can result in accidents or even death. In Japan, I'm sure they also experience road rage but there is another level to it which I call "scratch fury." This sort of incident involves some petty dweeb in a car he polishes once a week (sometimes twice on Sunday) who becomes furious when something as innocuous as a small scratch or blemish caused by minor contact with a bike, motorcycle or other vehicle occurs. The damage done to the vehicle is entirely cosmetic and often barely visible to the naked eye but the driver will get out of his car and start screaming and ranting at the person who has so carelessly abused the finish on his car.

Since I don't drive, I've never had the pleasure of experiencing this as a victim but I have seen it happen on the streets in Tokyo. I've also heard about it happening to others including my brother-in-law. It's not something that just happens between foreigners and Japanese though. My students have mentioned they've seen it happen as well. In fact, this topic came to mind because one of my students visited England and witnessed two cars scrape each others side mirrors such that it twisted them around a bit and both drivers just brushed it off, smiled, and went their merry way. She said she was shocked at their cavalier attitude because men in Japan are so sensitive to the slightest brush up against a vehicle.

I'm not sure why this is such a huge problem for Japanese men. I'm inclined to attribute it to the same cause of the incident we experienced in California (a sub-average male appendage) but it may be related to issues of perceived status, harsh car insurance guidelines or have something to do with how the value of cars is seriously impacted by minor cosmetic problems. Whatever the reason, there's never any good excuse for getting out of your vehicle and acting like a maniac over a small problem. This tendency among some Japanese drivers puts a real black eye on the notion that Japanese people are polite, refined and civilized.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Little Boxes

The old joke that your kids like the boxes their toys come in at Christmas time more than the toys themselves wouldn't ring true to us if it didn't have a grain of truth. When we were kids, any time my parents bought a new appliance or something fairly large, there were arguments over who got the box and what we would do with it. I remember taking big boxes and setting up little houses in a hollow area of some trees at one point and feeling that I had my own little place in the world and I couldn't be happier. Of course, I was about 7 or so at the time.

I'm not sure of the psychology of our love of boxes. I guess it could be that they represent shelter and we respond to the shape from some primitive part of our minds which associates the general shape with the potential for security, warmth, and safety. It could also be that we are conditioned to like them because so many good and new things come in them. Personally, I think humans have an affinity for geometry which appeals to a shared aesthetic sense. This applies not only to boxes but to any balanced shape.

For some time, I've been trying to solve a clutter solution in my one and only bathroom shelf and have been looking for boxes to hold the necessary tidbits we keep in this small but very necessary space. The box pictured at the top of this post is a Japanese paper box from the local 100 yen shop and it turned out to be perfectly sized to fit my shelf.

This little shelf has always been a bit of a curiosity to me. It's clearly homemade out of leftover paneling material but this particular type of paneling is nowhere in our apartment. Based on the size, I'm nearly certain it was made to hold extra rolls of toilet paper as each little area perfectly accommodates one roll. Since our apartment has no built-in storage anywhere, let alone the luxury of a medicine cabinet, I've always used it to store the sort of stuff most people can hide behind their bathroom mirror back home.

Once the boxes hid the chaos of scattered unguents and potions, I decided to tidy up the big bottles of Tums and pain relievers by decanting them into small, corked milk bottles (also from the 100 yen shop). To distinguish them, I put a letter on the cork. They're up high and the letters can't be seen unless you pull them down but I know which is which based on position. The letters are there for my easily-confused husband who can't keep up with all the re-arranging I do.

My bathroom shelf "before".

With my little ersatz medicine box in order, I couldn't leave the tension bar shelf in the state it was in and also revamped it with recycled plastic drawers from other areas I've purged.

My bathroom shelf "after".

The white paper in the front of the clear drawers helps hide the chaos of the contents. It's still not the model of a pristine minimalist water closet with shiny new fixtures but it's good enough for me (at least for now).

The 100 yen shop had two types of these paper boxes and I incorporated one into my desk set-up to store odds and ends that were previously visible desktop supplies.

I'm not sure how well these boxes will hold up as time goes by since they are made of paper and will likely be impossible to clean should they get too dusty. I also don't know if the humid Japanese weather will eventually undo their glued together joints but they are quite a nice little treat for now.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Intestinal Fortitude

When you first arrive in Japan, you are exposed to a lot of facts which may be myths and myths that may be facts. The average foreigner is highly suspicious of most of the little tidbits of information tossed her way. The main reason for this is that, by and large, we're taught in our home countries that we're all the same under our skin and a human is a human is a human. The Japanese, on the other hand, are taught that they are different and unique from other humans and readily accept that there are physiological variations based on ethnic background.

There is some factual data in regards to medical conditions and differences which are clearly ethnically-based so the notion that we may be constructed differently isn't that absurd. There are a lot of examples but a few obvious ones are Sickle Cell disease which mainly affects people descended from or born in sub-Saharan areas and Tay Sachs disease which mainly affects Jewish people. If diseases and certain physical attributes can "discriminate" based on ethnicity, why can't internal biology?

One commonly-mentioned and much disbelieved myth (or fact) is that the Japanese have much longer intestines than those from western cultures. This notion has been used to explain why Japanese people shouldn't consume certain foreign foods. Most foreigners scoff or react incredulously when they are presented with this belief. The credibility of the notion isn't helped by the fact that Japanese people rarely are able to explain why this should be and that there is no readily accessible medical data in foreign languages to support the idea. Some of the Japanese people I've spoken to have stated that such data exists but only in Japanese and only in medical journals. Last night, I got a rudimentary explanation from a student for the first time and did some research into this claim based on what she told me.

One can attempt to view this (bowel length difference) idea objectively without hard evidence and speculate on its feasibility based on related information. Mainly, one can look at the animal world and how intestinal length relates to dietary habits. Herbivores are known to have much longer digestive tracts than carnivores. The reason for this is that they need the added length to break down the vegetable matter they consume in order to extract the nutrients. Carnivores have shorter intestines to allow them to digest meat more rapidly before it deteriorates in their bodies and causes illness.

All of the information regarding herbivores and carnivores in the animal kingdom is absolute fact. However, people are omnivorous (but actually closer to being herbivores than carnivores in terms of their digestive systems). The Japanese contend that they have longer intestines because they are descendants of people whose diets were skewed much more toward a vegetable-based diet than western people who are the descendants of people who included much more meat in their diets. As a theory, this isn't too hard to believe since the modern Japanese diet still contains a lot of soy-based proteins, seafood, and vegetables.

The possibility that longer bowel length is a fact among Japanese (or other Asian) people compared to western people opens up a lot of discussion and theory about how their health may differ compared to westerners. It's been speculated that their slim physiques may be related to longer intestines as digestive processes are metabolically intense. It's also possible that it can increase longevity if more nutrients are extracted from vegetables that are consumed.

The only real question is whether or not someone has ever done comparative autopsies on a statistically valid number of bodies and measured intestinal length and proven this theory. Somehow, I doubt anyone has because the truth is that proving it isn't all that important unless you're Japanese and have health concerns related to your dietary habits. Since most Japanese people already accept this theory as fact, they've already incorporated it into their mindset in regards to health maintenance.

I'm not suggesting that this "myth" is true but rather that we should be a bit more open to the possibility that some of the notions which initially strike us as preposterous may not be so silly after all. Even if they are actually not true, there may be at least some sound logic behind them which make them sound reasonable to the Japanese who believe such ideas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Amazon Vine - Scam, Spam, or Just Badly-ran?

Note: To those who keep commenting on this post (long after it was made) as if it were my last word on Amazon Vine, there is an updated post here. Also, please note this post's date before making snarky comments. It reflects the state of the Vine very early on. If you can do a Google search to find the original post, you should have the grey matter to search for subsequent posts in this blog to make sure you're seeing the whole picture.

Two months ago, my husband and I were invited to join "Amazon Vine". The program was sold to us as an opportunity to get products early and for free in return for reviews. Since I've written about 4 pages worth of Amazon product reviews, I figured this may have been the reason we were chosen.

If you read the banner above (click it for a larger version), it says "Free stuff, spotlight reviews, envious friends. It doesn't get much better than this." I'm beginning to think the only thing my friends are going to feel is that I'm an incredible sucker for believing this program is in any way operated as it has been represented.

In the first two newsletters, attempts to request every single product are met with this message:

In the case of the first newsletter, I assumed my waiting 2 days to ask had something to do with it. Amazon sent out out an e-mail a couple of weeks later saying they'd "underestimated demand" and things would be better in the future. I heard the second newsletter hit my in box with a "ding" and figured I'd try again much more rapidly. Lo and behold, every single item was out of stock within 2 minutes of my having received the message.

The Vine message boards attribute this to a "disconnect" problem. This is a pretty absurd notion as it shouldn't be the case that delayed messages (the claim is 8 hours) should cause a complete shut-out in getting a chance to receive and review items. If the program is always going to be survival of the fastest, then it is essentially useless to anyone who isn't monitoring their e-mail constantly for the message's arrival and clicking madly to get first crack at items to review. This would hardly have anything to do with receiving quality reviews for the products and would have everything to do with a mad grab for anything and everything you can get because it's "free" (you do pay postage, or so I'm told...I can't know for sure since I've never seen any item available).

It's my guess that this is a clever means of spamming customers and that my husband and I were chosen not because I made a lot of reviews but rather because we've bought a lot of items. The newsletters encourage you to focus carefully and develop an interest in items because, in theory, you should read the description and choose only to receive items you personally want enough to inspect, read, or watch carefully and write a thoughtful review about. If you pay that much attention to an item and don't get it, there's probably an increased chance that you will buy it or something similar in the future.

I have no doubt that Amazon is giving away some free products and that there are a very small percentage of people on the Vine newsletter who receive items. However, I believe their mailing list is knowingly far, far greater than the number of items available for review. While the Vine program claims to be exclusive, I sincerely doubt that it's sampling a small pool or people who have written helpful or thoughtful reviews in the hopes of stimulating more of the same.

I'm going to see if the program gets any better but I have very low expectations. One of the reasons I feel this way besides a natural cynicism about any business failing to take advantage of an opportunity to advertise under the guise of "free stuff" is that the program currently allows people to get up to three items to review each. Those who get in are getting a lot and those of us who don't are getting squat for the time we waste with the newsletter. If the program really wanted to encourage reviews, it'd limit each person to one item that they'd spend more time with and write careful reviews of.

Personally, this is damaging my regard for Amazon and making it less likely that I'll choose to purchase from them in the future. I don't like being played for a sucker. Even if I give them the benefit of the doubt and chalk this up to poor organization of the program, it doesn't necessarily inspire confidence in them as a business. Either way, Amazon loses and they go down in my estimation. Since my husband and I live in Japan, Amazon has always been a good way to get access to books, DVDs, and CDs we can't get here and to get them more cheaply. Up until now, we've been content to buy from them but this experience is convincing me to take more of my business to Deep Discount DVD even when prices are roughly equivalent (in the past, when all things were equal, I chose Amazon).

At this point, I think that the tag-line for the Vine program ought to be, "It doesn't get more pointless than this."

Goodbye, Student #1

On February 2, 2006, approximately 3 months after I quit my office job, I taught my first private lesson in about 10 years with student #1 from my referral agency. I went on to teach her 63 more times after that. I'll have my last lesson with her this evening.

As my first student after 12 years of working in a Japanese office, I'm sure she endured some of the bumpier roads of my teaching technique though I doubt she could tell. I can say that she was the person for whom the vast majority of the custom material I wrote for the Home Sensei was designed for and used. Her level was just the right mixture of passive competence coupled with assertive incompetence to require such types of structured discussion.

When you teach in your own home, teaching isn't just a matter of exchanging words and guiding a student toward better speaking. It's also someone coming into your place as a guest and, at 64 visits, this particular student has probably been in my home a great deal more than any friend I've ever had in Japan. We've shared a cup of tea or coffee and discussed her current life events every single time.

By it's nature though, a lesson isn't the same as a social visit. It carries all the trappings of one but it's a decidedly one-sided affair. While I tidy and clean the place, serve drinks, and give my guest the most comfortable place to sit and we chat amiably, I mainly ask her about her life and ask questions while she mainly answers questions and asks few of me. This is, of course, generally how it should be since the whole point is for her to practice English, not for me to jabber on about myself. This does, however, tend to be the reason why it's hard to develop sincere friendships with people who you meet as students. The experience, even when you encourage students to question you freely, is often quite one-sided.

This particular student's departure was one that I knew would come some day and I knew it was going to be sooner rather than later as the clock was running out. She told me long ago that her husband, who works for a very old and famous Japanese confectionery company, is transferred every two years. Since I taught her for one year and ten months, I've been with her for most of the tenure she's had in her current location. Her husband is often transferred on very short notice (two weeks) and she has to scramble to sever the ties she has to work, friends, and English teacher as well as pack and get ready to go.

I always tell students they can feel free to e-mail me or stay in touch when they've stopped taking lessons after we have been together for awhile but, they rarely contact me. I'm not sure if that's because the ties that bind a teacher and student are relatively transitory and weak or if it's because they lack confidence in their English writing skills or if they simply feel it'll put me out if they write.

My fancy teacups. R.I.P.

The odd thing is that I recently broke the tea cups that I started using regularly at the time that I started teaching privately after my prolonged absence. Prior to that, they had been collecting dust for the most part as they were too fancy for general purpose use. At the time that I broke them, I felt it was a bit of an omen of some change in continuity to come. Of course, it could just be a harbinger of increased clumsiness on my part. ;-)

Update: It turns out my student not only is moving but she's also pregnant so, even if her husband hadn't been transferred out of Tokyo, she would have had to stop taking lessons.

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Image pinched from Amazon's page on Cabin Boy where you can pick it up for the bargain price of $9.99!

Today is "Talk Like a Pirate Day" and, once again, I recommend everyone avail themselves of this opportunity to act a bit stranger than usual. Last year, I made some celebratory recommendations. This year, I've got a few more.

Wanna buy a monkey?

First off, I'm going to watch "Cabin Boy" and I recommend you consider doing so as well. While it isn't actually about pirates, it does contain obnoxious salty dogs and is incredibly goofy. That's about 80% of what being a pirate is all about. Chris Elliot does his usual somewhat weird (and sad but not too sad to undermine the fun) man-child routine to very good effect here. It also contains a classic (and rare big screen) David Letterman moment. A snippet of Dave's short scene was parodied in his one-time-only hosting of the Oscars and I wish I could find a link to YouTube showing it or had already digitized it myself as it's probably the shining moment from that particular Oscars extravaganza.

A lot of people don't "get" Cabin Boy's humor. It helps if you've watched any of the old Dynamation movies from the 60's as it plays on a lot of the concepts in movies like Jason and the Argonauts or the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. It twists the characters like the cyclops and other giant monsters comedically. If you can't get into the spirit of this sort of parody, then probably you won't enjoy Cabin Boy. It also helps if you've ever played any of the Monkey Island games since it's about as close to a live action version of the games as we're likely to ever see. Chris Elliot is a lot like Guybrush Threepwood though quite a bit more arrogant.


(And finally) Arrr, if you can't talk like a pirate and need some remedial trainin', Me recommend you go har for a translation.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Trivial Chocolates

I haven't done any posts for awhile about souvenirs or gifts students have given my husband or me. One of the reasons is sheer laziness, particularly with going to the trouble of taking a picture but another is that most of the gifts have been nice but unremarkable. My husband brought home some chocolates the other day which we both found interesting.

This particular box of chocolates comes with 4 Trivial Pursuit cards and 24 miniature chocolate bars. The cards are in German so we can't read them but the concept is one I believe we'd never see back home in the U.S. There are a few reasons I think this and the primary one relates to the fact that I think, by and large, Trivial Pursuit is a game designed to attract adults and chocolate is mainly something targeted at children. The combination of these two things seems to be a way of encouraging people to see these as two great things that go great together, sort of like a game version of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.

The other reason I think it wouldn't be offered in the U.S. is that I believe Trivial Pursuit isn't something America finds all that attractive anymore. In fact, after the initial boom, I don't think many people were all that into it because they found the game too difficult for them. My husband and I used to play Trivial Pursuit and bought some of the later card sets and found that they seemed to be dumbing them down and specializing them in an attempt to make the game easier for people with a less than stellar general knowledge.

Of course, that's not to say I was incredibly great shakes at the game. While I did very well with science, art, literature, and entertainment, I was hopeless at sports and recent American history (though I was fine at earlier history and world history for the most part). For instance, while my husband knew everything Richard Nixon had done wrong and who had caught him, I was clueless about such details. Anyone with an interest in politics or baseball scores had a distinct advantage compared to someone who knew who painted "The Birth of Venus" or who had read "The Catcher in the Rye".

Back when we were playing this game though, the absolute worst category for me was sports. I didn't know anything about any sport (and still don't except for sumo) and it became a running joke that I would answer any sports question with "Pete Rose" even though I knew he was a baseball player and the question was about hockey or football. There were many occasions where I couldn't finish or win the game because I'd be trying repeatedly for that last sports and recreation piece of the plastic pie and never happen upon the type of question (recreation) which I had a shot at getting right. If it wasn't a question about playing jacks (or a non-sports game) or a scandalous and notorious sports personality in the last 5 years, I wasn't going to get the question right.

While, we did enjoy playing Trivial Pursuit together, my husband had too great an advantage and I too great a disadvantage and all the games ended the same way (with me chasing around that last orange wedge and never getting it). It was better when we teamed up with other people but our friends were often from other countries (the U.K., Australia, etc.) and our American version of the game carried a distinct bias for America-based information which was unfair to them. In the end though, computer games which took up less space to play and store usurped the role of board games in our lives. In fact, I'd pretty much say that Warcraft II was the first nail in the coffin of the more gentle days of sitting around a board, rolling a die and racking our brains to answer questions on cards.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

49 Days

This afternoon, I had a conversation with a student which digressed into a talk about how bodies are handled after a person dies in our respective cultures. I have had this sort of conversation with a few students before and they are generally surprised that few Americans, if any, display the body of their deceased loved ones in their homes during the funeral services since this is usually how things are done in Japan.

Most of my students aren't aware of the common use of funeral homes in the United States for the handling and display of remains. My student today told me that it's not uncommon for the family to put make-up on the deceased and prepare the body for presentation to fellow mourners. While I felt having to perform this task was a great burden emotionally on the family, she felt it was a way of expressing your love and tender feelings toward the person who had passed away. To be honest, I'm not even sure it's legal in the U.S. for people to handle or display dead bodies even if they should want to in accord with spiritual practices.

While students are unaware of funeral customs in the U.S., they are downright shocked that people do not give money to the family of someone who has died. In Japan, those who come to pay their respects give envelopes containing cash to the family. While I've never attended a funeral in Japan, I have been asked to contribute money to a cash pool to give to co-workers who had had close relatives pass away. I'm unclear on what the purpose of this money is or why exactly it is given but the students who I've discussed it with have said it's to help the family deal with any financial hardship related to the death. This could mean the cost of the funeral, burial plot, or the loss of income from the person who died.

From a different student, I also know there are certain customs regarding how the cremated remains of relatives are dealt with. One of my students complained rather bitterly about having to do some sort of ritual where she had to transfer the bone fragments and ashes of her mother-in-law, who she had detested when she was alive, from one container to another on the first anniversary of her death. I asked her why her direct family members, such as her son, didn't do this but she said it was her "duty".

One of the most interesting things for me when I find myself in one of these conversations is learning about some of the Japanese views of the afterlife. Since the Japanese aren't generally a religious bunch, their beliefs can be relatively eclectic and draw from various religions but largely from Buddhism and Shintoism. Few of them are Christians but I have met several who profess to be Christians and they are all relatively devout but not the least bit preachy. They tend to say they are Christians and have read the bible and that's the end of that.

In terms of views of the afterlife, I've gotten mixed opinions. One of my students told me that some Japanese people believe death is a metaphorical crossing of a river from one side to another. Another told me that she felt death was the end of the road and all that you are is gone with your last breath. Today, I was told that the first 49 days after death are very important and many Japanese people believe that the spirit remains on the earth during this time and prepares for its next incarnation. When I told my student that many Christians believe that your spirit pretty much directly goes to heaven (or hell) and that those in heaven can watch over or look down on the goings on on earth, she felt that was an odd way to look at things. The whole notion that you die and you shoot up to heaven or down to hell seemed rather simplistic and childish to her.

Of course, I'm sure that a lot of Christians might find the idea that your spirit needs to lounge around on earth for awhile getting its act together for the next life seems pretty wrong, too. I asked one of my friends in high school, who now has a Christian rock band but wasn't especially religious when we were growing up, what he thought of reincarnation. He said something along the lines of, 'recycled souls...I don't think so.' I guess he figures God didn't need to re-use old material like we re-used glass bottles or tin cans.

Most of my students assume I'm a Christian because I was born in the U.S. I'm guessing that this is because 80% of the people in the U.S. consider themselves one flavor of Christian or another even when they aren't practicing members of their faith so they are going with the odds. I don't tend to discuss my spiritual theories with them because they don't ask and it's all rather complicated. I have enough trouble explaining what I think to native speakers, let alone to non-native ones.

Suffice it to say, I don't know who is right but I'm generally inclined to believe we're all a little right and all of us mostly wrong. When it comes to the nature of our disposition after death, I often think we're like the parable of three blind men and the elephant. We grope around and reach conclusions but we lack whatever it takes to really understand what it is. I'm pretty sure though that that's the way it's supposed to be. If we knew what the game of life was all about, it wouldn't be worth playing.

Prepare for Blog Action Day

In comments on my previous post, tornados28 made me aware of Blog Action Day on October 15. The idea is to get as many bloggers as possible discussing the same topic on one day in order to raise awareness. This year, the topic is the environment. I felt I'd do my part in getting other bloggers to get on-board and take part by making a post about it.

While I often feel that bloggers overestimate their knowledge on the topics they discuss and feel they know far more and understand topics more deeply than they actually do, I feel they cannot underestimate their influence. Whether people agree or disagree with you, someone will almost always end up reading what you say and you can have an affect on their thinking.

To that end, I encourage everyone to take part but to do so in a personalized manner. We're all exposed constantly to factual data about the situation with the environment and regurgitating this information isn't going to do much more than bore everyone, particularly if everyone is talking about the same topic. Rather than preach, warn, or try to dryly educate people, I suggest you offer up something unique to your perspective or experience which can influence others in a positive manner.

I look forward to seeing what everyone comes up with.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Avid Conversationalists

Yesterday afternoon, I walked into a Sunkus (a convenience store affiliated with Circle K) to pay some bills. Yes, in Japan, we pay bills of all stripes in convenience stores when we're too suspicious to allow automatic withdrawals directly from our bank accounts. Anyway, when I walked in, a woman was standing next to the check-out area having a loud and animated conversation with the very nice older lady who runs the place. We have known this lady since the days when Sunkus was an L & W liquor shop in the same location quite some years ago.

As I approached, I noticed the jabbering woman wasn't engaged in any sort of transaction but just standing there talking a mile a minute. I figure that this is going to be very annoying because the kind and friendly older lady isn't going to want to brush off the chatty woman to deal with me. As it turned out, I got immediate and very focused attention and I guessed the woman, who was growing more animated and incorporated gestures into her conversation, was directing her talk at a man who was down the aisle from her, particularly since she was looking in that direction at that point in time.

I noticed that the check-out lady had her eyes locked in front at the task at hand. She didn't even make a nod in the direction of the woman who was having a conversation. I also noticed the man was locking his eyes in front of him, seemingly totally absorbed in the drinks in the case in front of him. It was then that I realized this woman was having a conversation with an invisible person and the other two people in the shop were pretending she didn't exist.

This sort of situation wasn't my first experience of this sort in Japan or even in the U.S. Since I worked at a halfway house for mentally ill people straight out of college, I've heard my fair share of one-way conversations with non-existent listeners. In my experience, it's usually not like what you see on television though where a nutty person talks loudly enough so that the sane person who is overhearing the talk can hear it through a door. Most of the people at the halfway house tended to talk in whispers when they carried on with hallucinated voices. I'm not certain why this was but since many of the hallucinations were grandiose in nature (conversations with god or government agencies), perhaps they felt it was best to be secretive. Since mentally ill people are often unaware that their hallucinations aren't real, I doubt they were concerned about tipping their hands to errant listeners.

That's not to say that all of them are like that. I did experience one mentally ill person who had loud conversations with imaginary people which many people overheard. The strange thing about this person was that he was also in Japan and working as an English teacher. During the latter part of my time with Nova in Ikebukuro, a large, middle-aged American man was hired to work at our branch. At first, he seemed to be generally okay but rapidly something appeared to be very wrong.

The first indication that there might be a problem was that his hygiene lapsed quite badly. One point about people who are seriously mentally ill, particularly schizophrenics (who, incidentally are not people with multiple personalities...I want that inaccuracy laid to rest), is that a good many of them will cease bathing and brushing their teeth when they are deteriorating to a psychotic state as well as when they are actively psychotic. This teacher was growing ripe and his poor students were trapped with him in a closet-size cubicle.

If that weren't unpleasant enough, he soon started to actively hallucinate in his classes. He told his students (and teachers in the next cubicle who overheard) that his dead father was standing in the room with them and talking to him. He would carry on conversations with his father in the presence of students.

There are two more parts to this story which are testimonials to a couple of omnipresent Japanese tendencies. It so happened that a fellow teacher and I had encountered this fellow on the street in Ikebukuro about 3-4 months before he turned up as a new co-worker. We were standing on a corner waiting for a light to change and he walked up to us and started making racist comments about the Japanese. He said things about how they thought they were superior to us and that you could tell this by "the way they walked". My friend said something to him about how it was their country so they were free to do and think as they pleased and we moved on.

When this man was hired, I knew immediately that he was the fellow on the street so I went to the manager and told her about this encounter. I told her that I felt there was something wrong with him and he may not necessarily treat the students well given his attitude toward Japanese people during this random encounter. The manager nodded at me as if she were carefully considering what I said and gave me a patronizing smile and proceeded to do nothing. This is a good example of the Japanese tendency not to be proactive even when any other businessperson in any other service-related industry would be taking steps to monitor this man as well as perhaps interview him again to turn up any evidence that he might be dangerous. This was a typical case of what I have said before is "we'll cross that bridge after it collapses" thinking.

The second point was that the students, despite being shut away in a small room with a smelly, crazy man, didn't complain much at all. In fact, it took nearly 3 weeks before they had had enough and said something to the managemen. They finally fired him. Sometimes the Japanese just do not complain, even when they have every reason to do so and I guess especially when they may not be understanding what is happening because it's a foreign language situation. Of course, I'm guessing their noses could have crossed the cultural barrier in this case. The teachers certainly found his odor unbearable and we were all in an open area with him.

When I remember this experience, I wonder if this man came to Japan mentally ill or if something about the stress of being here drove him that way. I also wonder what became of him after he left Nova. While I felt sorry for him, particularly since I'm guessing he wasn't going to easily find care or help in Japan, I also did feel he never should have been hired by Nova and to this day am shocked that their interviewers didn't catch that something was amiss with him. I guess it's possible that he was lucid when he was interviewed and went off his medication or had a psychotic episode later but the encounter my friend and I had with him on the street months before hinted that this was less likely than him having had issues all along. I guess it either goes to show that Nova either had an awful interview process at that time or that sanity isn't something the Japanese expect when they encounter foreigners.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tiny Things, Big Problems

Any time something goes wrong, people are apt to quote (or mis-quote) Murphy's Law. Murphy's Law is often said to be, "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" though Wikipedia states the original law was "things will go wrong in any given situation, if you give them a chance." The latter seems slightly more reasonable than the former given that it allows for some sort of intervention or error in the equation, but Murphy's Law, like so many other pessimistic and cynical "laws" concocted by wags who everyone likes to read and quote, is simply wrong.

The truth is that, in any given time frame, very little goes wrong. If Murphy's Law were true, very few of us would ever manage to successfully leave the house and go to work each day. The alarm clock wouldn't go off, we'd spill coffee in our laps, the buttons would fall off our shirts, zippers would get painfully caught on sensitive fleshy parts, we'd choke on breakfast, trip and fall on the way out the door, and our trains would all get derailed. Clearly, many things go right far more often than they go wrong.

Sometimes though, things do go wrong and they do so in the tiniest and most unexpected ways. Those things are hard to detect and make trouble-shooting the resulting big problems that much harder. Though I wouldn't say I had a recent experience with Murphy's Law, I would say I was ever so slightly careless in a fashion I did not notice with unexpectedly large and irritating consequences.

Yesterday, I experienced three random power outages when the fuse kept blowing in the apartment. This was particularly baffling because I wasn't using as much power as we have in the past. In fact, in the past, we've run two air conditioners, the television, the oven, 3 computers and their affiliated equipment, and had on several lights with no ill effects. Since the weather had been a bit cooler as of late, I wasn't using the air conditioning when the second of these outages occurred and nothing other than a few lights and two sleeping computers were on.

A few months ago, we had the power capacity of our apartment increased in order to accommodate a second air conditioner and I was starting to wonder if something from that operation was going amiss or if perhaps we'd inadvertently been swapped back to our old capacity. I was dreadingthe high probability that we'd have to go and bother our ever-so-helpful landlord again and ask him to contact the electric company to have them come for a look at the situation. It's not that he wouldn't smile and act as if there is nothing in the world he'd rather do than waste his time assisting us but just that I think he's already done more than his share of such things in the past year and I would prefer not to trouble him if it can be avoided.

I tried to think of what could be causing this problem if it wasn't related to the over-use of various appliances (which it clearly was not). The only other odd incident I'd had with the power and fuses blowing occurred a few weeks ago when I plugged in an extension cord that I'd accidentally knocked loose. At the moment I plugged it in, the fuse blew and I figured that somehow that cord had shorted something out. When I threw the switch back, all was well and I didn't experience any other problems until yesterday.

I figured the next course of action was to consider replacing that extension cord. I really don't know much about how electrical systems work but I figured a malfunctioning cord could be causing shorts. When I looked down at it, I noticed that their was a wire from a 3-prong adapter with a grounding wire very close to the extension cord. As far as I know, there are no grounded outlets in Japanese places (though this could be related to my particular apartment and not all domiciles) so I have to leave the wires hanging free when I have to use such adaptors.

Yes, I know it's all dusty but I bet your extension cords aren't much cleaner.

I reached down to move the grounding wire and it shorted out the system and the fuse blew again. I then realized that the problem was that this had gotten caught in the plug weeks ago when I plugged that cord in but I hadn't noticed. Yesterday, I vacuumed and I'm guessing I pushed the cord a bit while vacuuming the sides of the living room and that pushed it closer and caused the random shorting out.

It's amazing how one little errant wire and not noticing where it had gotten to could cause all sorts of trouble. I'm very, very glad now that I didn't bother the landlord as I'm sure it would have been incredibly embarrassing to bring an electrician in and have him find out I made such a careless mistake which may have ended up wasting the time of two other people.

Seasonal Food

Back in Pennsylvania, "seasonal" food generally meant having to find creative ways to use zucchini, canning tomatoes (which you wouldn't want to eat later but couldn't let go to waste), and apple butter. There's nothing I hated worse than seeing grocery bag-size sacks of zucchini abandoned on our table when friends and relatives found their garden's bounty exceeded their ability to process them.

In retrospect, I have to wonder if they were growing them just to find out exactly how many hundreds my mother would gratefully accept before eventually crying "uncle". Maybe they were taking bets on how many of those green nightmares she'd take before eventually refusing. Perhaps they believed we'd learn some sort of magical all zucchini menu and then they wouldn't have to try so hard to fob those things off on us anymore. At any rate, I hate zucchini now, thanks to the excessive quantities my mother tried to stuff down our gobs during our formative years.

When I was younger, "seasonal food" also meant the "Tasty-Freeze" (a run-down "Dairy Queen" type of place) was either opening for the summer or closing for the winter. As a kid, the opening as summer approached always filled me with excitement and the closing was lamentable both because it meant not more soft serve ice cream and school was starting again. In fact, this was the only seasonal food that really mattered to me as a child. The rest of it was just a burden of boring food and time spent trying to preserve it which made it even more unpalatable.

In Japan, students seem relatively obsessed with seasonal food. If a student says his or her favorite season is autumn and you ask why, the student will always say that it's because the food is so good. When you ask what food is best, they tend to be a bit lost for an answer though apples sometimes come up. Personally, I'm always happy to see the influx of food being sold using sweet potatoes and chestnuts. Though such items are available year-round, the variety and quantity tend to increase as the weather gets cooler.

One point that brought this to mind today was the presence of a variety of Japanese doughnuts that I'd never seen before in the bins at a local market. One of them is sweet potato and the other is chestnut. I haven't tried them out yet but I'm pretty sure they'll be good by my standards. I'm one of those people who doesn't like incredibly sweet pastries and am more enamored of getting the right texture than a lot of sugar. In fact, this is probably one of the reasons I'm drawn to food made with sweet potatoes and chestnuts. They always have a good density and high moisture content.

For the most part, I haven't noticed an over-abundance of certain foods being laid on people's doorsteps in Tokyo with a few exceptions. One of them is persimmons which seem to grow unbidden everywhere. Before our landlord tore down and re-built his house, he used to have a persimmon tree and gave us some. I believe that was actually the first time I'd eaten a persimmon and I rather like them though my husband doesn't care for them.

The other item which is often more plentiful than one grower can consume is mikan, though they're more of a winter thing than an autumn one. Mikan are a small Japanese orange which resemble mandarin oranges in appearance but are sweeter and juicier. Fortunately, no one has yet offered either of these items to us at the same rate or in the same volume as the zucchini we were plied with in Pennsylvania so I can still enjoy them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Blame It All on U.S.

Since Krispy Kreme opened in Japan late last year, the Japan blogs have been following along with the first shop's progress in Japan. Since many vocal members of the expat community predicted it would fail after an initial burst of enthusiasm, the unfailing interest of the Japanese for KK's donuts has remained a curiosity. Lines continue to snake around buildings and waits for a crack at those super-light, super-sweet donuts continue to be long.

Most of the news-based sites that carry updates about Krispy Kreme Japan and news regarding the offerings and progress of other fast food/junk food shops of American origin always include a section for comments. Invariably, a perusal of the comments section will include at least one, if not many, comments from expatriates booing the success of places like KK, McDonald's and Pizza Hut in Japan and telling them to get out and stop contaminating beautiful, thin Japanese people with their gustatory pollution. It's overtly stated that, if Japanese people over-indulge in these foods and become fat, it's America's fault.

One point I'd like to make before I go on to editorialize on this tendency is that Krispy Kreme Japan was licensed to Lotte (a Korean-Japanese partnership best known for their fast food franchise, "Lotteria") and Takeo Shigemitsu. The American corporation has no ownership of the Japanese operations. That means that the ultimate disposition as well as the implantation of this franchise in the first place was solely a Japanese choice. While KK U.S. will make money from the licensing, the Japanese themselves are the ones who decided to peddle these carb-loaded, blood sugar-spiking treats to the Japanese public. America may have invented them but Japan chose to sell them. Similarly, McDonald's franchises in Japan were started by an ambitious Japanese shoe salesman named Den Fujita. Mr. Fujita's ultimate goal was to open 10,000 McDonald's in Japan by 2010. Though Mr. Fujita has passed away, his family still holds 25% of the company.

I'm sure there are people out there who believe that this is a case of cultural contamination and would still hold the U.S. to blame for exporting unhealthy food culture. However, the Japanese not only chose to import that culture when they formed joint ventures with the American parents but they also spun off their own home-grown versions of the same types of junk food establishments. There are a great many Japanese fast food places and purveyors of high calorie, nutritionally-empty foods. So, even if all the U.S.-based businesses were to fold up their tents and go away, the consumers would still seek out and find the same menus from places like MOS burger and Pizza-La (which incidentally is the most successful pizza chain in Japan, not Pizza Hut, Dominos or some other U.S.-based pizza joint).

Even if you choose to ingore the fact that American corporations didn't barge into to Japan and force their shops onto the unsuspecting public, the fact that a lot of Japanese people have to make the choice to consume such foods has to be considered. While it may satisfy a need to vilify the U.S., the Japanese people are the ones keeping fast food and junk food places of American origin successful enough to remain open. Americans aren't cramming the food into their mouths, forcing them to chew and swallow and then taking the money from their wallets. It's ironic that the people who like to rave about Americans being "fat pigs" and the presence of places like Krispy Kreme plumping up trim Japanese physiques hold Americans responsible for the food choices which make them obese but not the Japanese. Either the Japanese are absolutely unable to think for themselves and do whatever America says or the Japanese are just as responsible for the choices they make that result in them gaining weight as Americans are. Clearly the former is not the case and it's insulting to even consider but nothing else can explain the irrational conclusion that America is responsible for Japanese eating habits.

All in all, it seems there are far too many people who want to blame America for every single social problem in the world. This sort of prejudice is no different than any of the other prejudices applied only to one ethnic group or nationality but somehow it's not offensive to hate Americans nor to assign blame to them arbitrarily as it is to do so for other nationalities. If you take all the negative comments about Americans and substitute any other nationality, the comments show themselves to be the ranting of racists but somehow people fail to see them for what they are simply because the ugly comments are made about Americans and that's okay with the rest of the world right now.