Monday, April 30, 2007

"Bermuda Triangle of Retail"

Click on any picture to see a larger version with easier to see details.

There's an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is obsessed with a restaurant that opens within eye-shot of his apartment. He feels bad for the Pakistani operator because he's opened an establishment in a spot where one business after another seems to fail. Jerry says, "it's like some sort of Bermuda Triangle of retail."

In my neighborhood, there seem to mainly be three types of businesses. First, there are the often-trafficked places which are clearly meeting local demand and continue to thrive. Second, there are small places which no one ever seems to patronize yet remain in business regardless. I'm pretty sure these places operate at a loss as a tax dodge for the people who reside in the same building as the business. Third, there are the places like the ones Jerry Seinfeld refers to.

An import goods shop (pictured above) opened recently about 2-3 minutes from Minami-Asagaya station and I'm almost certain it's firmly fixed in success-free zone. The problem is that any shop which is off the main shopping street has to rely on either people happening by and noticing the shop or on advertising drawing people in. The former seems unlikely since most people aren't looking to shop in that location. The area around Minami-Asagaya station has a bank, the main ward post office, a Mister Donut, a pachinko parlor, a bakery, and the ward office itself. The traffic that comes in and out of that station is about quick snacks or doing serious business. It just isn't a hot spot for shopping.


It's somewhat of a shame that the shop is likely doomed. It's actually very nicely-designed, clean, and well-laid out. Most shops in relatively smallish spaces tend to be very cramped as the proprietors try to shoehorn in more aisles than really belong there. Any aisle where two people can pass one another without cramming themselves up against the products on either side is lavish by small shop standards.

The shop is called "Base-1" American Import Store and has the tag line "U.S. Real Life". It has a less than subtle American motif with a couple of cacti on either side of the entrance and a modified U.S. flag hanging over the doorway though it is still relatively tasteful looking. It's well-lit and all the products are displayed very neatly.


I'm not sure how it represents "real life" though since the shop's selection is very limited. Most of one side is junk food and most of the other side is laundry and cleaning products. There's a smattering of condiments and novelty products as well. Kitchen implements with comical figurines like a happy plastic chef on top of a whisk, for instance. I guess the proprietor believes we Americans love our clean clothes, novelty items, and junk food. I guess one out of three isn't bad.

A lot of the items (but not all) carried by the shop appear to be purchased at Costco and then given a price boost. My husband reckons that they're giving the items an increase between 67%-100% over the Costco prices. If you are looking to just pick up one thing or another, that's not so terrible since a trip to Costco for a few items isn't worthwhile but, if you generally would buy a lot of things at Costco, this is highway robbery.

When my husband and I were there around 4:00 p.m., there were a few other women (likely housewives) milling about but we were the only ones who bought anything. I picked up a box of Celestial Seasonings maple vanilla tea for about ¥500. As far as I know, this is one of those things you can't get at places like Costco though you probably can pick it up at an import chain store like Sony Plaza in one of the more retail-dense areas in Tokyo.

When we checked out, they gave us a little sticker with the name of the shop on it and a free sample of something called a "Swiffer" cleaning cloth which will supposedly do a superior job of cleaning up dust. The sample packets were actually being sold next to the cashier and that seemed a little dicey as I don't think they were meant to be sold. It's a nice little gesture to give away freebies but I'm not sure that there's going to be much in such a shop for the locals in the long run. I'm guessing one of the reasons that they focus heavily on cleaning products is that housewives may be more attracted to picking up imports of such things on a regular basis.

I wish I could say I'll be patronizing it enough to help such a store survive but their prices are too high for anything besides an occasional indulgence. Even a western-lifestyle-living person like myself has to be conscious of the relative merits of an American product over a Japanese one when looking at much higher prices. Additionally, I just couldn't consume enough of the type of products they carry to buy them on a regular basis and I think places like this are doomed to fail without regular customers.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

White Castle Pie (low carb)

That's not cheese veined throughout the ground chicken. It's an egg mixture. That is cheese on top though.

For those who don't know about White Castle, it is a chain of fast food restaurants which is famous for relatively tiny burgers and for being America's oldest burger chain. Personally, I've never had a White Castle burger because there are no shops in Pennsylvania (where I was born), California (where I lived for a year), or Japan (where I am now). I'm not even sure why this recipe is called "White Castle Pie" but I'm guessing it has to do with the onions and fat content of the original incarnation of this recipe (which was for beef and used cream).

White Castle Pie is a low carb cooking mainstay the recipe for which appears on many web sites. I'm not sure who first created it but I will cite the original recipe that my modification was derived from the recipe on Linda's Low Carb Menus and Recipes site. Her picture turned out much better than mine but a big reason for that is that mine is made with (lower fat) chicken and real vegetables whereas hers is made with beef and spice/soup mix. My filling doesn't hold together as tightly as hers because of the veggies and is quite pale.

This is another cheap meal which you can make ahead of time and eat leftovers from for at least a few days (if not more). It freezes well so you can stash some of it away for a lazy day. I can't say that it's the healthiest main dish but I have done what I can to reduce the fat content and increase the nutritional content. It's quite filling and high in protein so you don't need a huge portion. It's great with a plain, steamed strong-tasting green vegetable like broccoli.

I usually make enough for two pies at once so I can freeze a fair bit for the future but this recipe is enough for one pie (which makes 6 servings for those with a relatively average appetite).

White Castle Pie recipe:
  • 500 grams (1 lb.) ground chicken or turkey
  • 2 garlic cloves (minced)
  • 1/2-3/4 medium onion (finely-diced)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup low-fat milk
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 cup shredded cheese (natural mixed cheese is o.k.)
  • olive oil (about 1 tbsp. for frying)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • yellow mustard (for serving)
  1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, add enough olive oil to just cover the bottom (a scant amount). Add the minced garlic and cook it for just a minute or two then add the diced onion and cook until it just starts to soften. Stir frequently for even cooking.
  2. Add the ground poultry and stir the onion and garlic into it. Cook until the meat is cooked through. Thoroughly drain any juice or oil from the pan. It helps to use a lid to drain once, shake the pan, then drain again. Shaking the pan between draining attempts tends to get more juice and oil to come out.
  3. Break the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk briefly. Add the milk and mayonnaise to the eggs and whisk until thoroughly mixed.
  4. Salt and pepper the meat mixture to taste. I usually use about a 1/2 tsp. of pepper and 3/4 tsp. of salt (though I don't actually measure it). Stir 1/2 of the cheese into the meat mixture then spoon the mixture into a pie tin. Press it down if necessary to make it no higher than the top of the tin.
  5. Pour the egg mixture over the meat mixture then sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese.
  6. Bake at 180 degrees C. or 350 degrees F. for 30 minutes.
  7. Serve topped with yellow mustard.
I'm pretty sure one could reduce the mayonnaise quantity from a 1/2 cup to 1/3 without any serious impact on the dish. It's possible it could be cut down to 1/4 but I've never tried that. While a 1/2 cup may seem like a lot, it's not so much when it is spread across 6 servings. It's 1.3 tbsp. per serving which probably isn't much more than people slather on sandwiches. Considering that mayonnaise is practically its own food group in Japan, it's a modest amount of mayo by the standards of Japanese cuisine. ;-)

Saturday, April 28, 2007

"House" in Japan

Note that the only screenshot (as opposed to a promotional photo) on the Fox Japan site for House is one with an Asian patient.

House has been airing in Fox Japan for awhile now and season two is about to start. I've been seeing brief ads for the next season and they have left me wondering if someone has intentionally or unintentionally designed an ad which may be considered racist.

These ads show a sequence of photos which move to the left across the screen and stop on a large photo of a cast member with a smaller picture of that cast member next to and slightly behind it. The entire strip is a bit like a montage but with white space separating each "slide". It's a little hard to explain and, unfortunately, I couldn't find a visual representation of it on Fox Japan's web site.

In this ad, a slide of Jesse Spencer (blond-haired doctor Chase) with a large and small image of him freezes then slides into a large and small picture of Jennifer Morrison (Cameron) where it again hesitates. Between them, there is a small image of Omar Epps (Foreman) which the screen does not pause on. The final large and small images are of Hugh Laurie and the screen stops on his picture and details of the show appear next to his large image.

The question I can't help but ask is why there is no large image of Foreman and why the screen doesn't pause on his image as it does for the other two members of House's medical team. Omar Epps is actually the top of the three cast members in this group as he had more name recognition than the other two prior to being cast in House (likely due to his recurring role on "ER"and some movie roles). This fact is not lost on the Fox Japan people if you look at their site for House. In the "Cast" section of their site, the actors listed in order from left to right are: Hugh Laurie, Lisa Edelstein, Robert Shawn Leornard, Omar Epps. The other two actors aren't even listed in the "Cast" section.

The only conclusion I can reach is that it's because he's not "pretty" enough or because he's black. Personally, I think he's no less attractive than the other two but I realize beauty is highly subjective. One thing I can assert for certain is that this promotional spot would never be aired in America in this fashion as someone would quite rightfully cry "foul".

Friday, April 27, 2007

General Contentment

Some of the things you learn from living in Japan come quickly and are like a culture shock slap to the face. Others take a long time to see and understand (and perhaps some things just never come). When you first arrive, there's novelty everywhere and you take note of all the quaint little customs that seem charmingly Japanese (e.g., bowing, the way business cards are dealt with). You also take note of how you are regarded as a foreigner in both favorable and unfavorable ways.

If you live here long enough (and are American) and are lucky enough to forget the rampant emphasis on materialism, success, and money that is a pervasive part of American culture, you might absorb some of the sense of contentment that a lot of Japanese people seem to feel with a life of moderate comfort. It's often said that the Japanese are a culture of middle class people with relatively few people who are seriously poor or very rich. While there has been an increase in the number of people who deviate in financial status from the median, it's still by and large the case that people are middle class.

After you associate with enough people, you see that most people aren't pining constantly for what they can't have. You don't see people struggling to keep up with the Joneses (or perhaps the Satos in this case) or attempting to define themselves by their possessions or their hobbies as much as you do in the States. Of course, there are otaku but they aren't a significant part of the population. They are simply the part which attracts a lot of media attention.

It seems to me after a lot of experience with Japanese people that the bar for contentment in this culture is set lower than the bar in the U.S. Of course, I could be completely wrong and it may be that modesty prevents people from talking about their more lavish possessions in which they take pride or that the people I associate with do not share their material desires or general dissatisfaction with their lifestyle to me. I believe this is rather unlikely though since students tend to reveal more to foreigners than they might to Japanese people because we aren't evaluating them by the same cultural standard as their peers.

Sometimes I think that the best thing that might have come from living in Japan is a sense of contentment with a more modest lifestyle and an almost complete loss of material longing. I guess this may simply be a function of age and not part of the culture rubbing off on me but there appear to be plenty of people my age back home who worry about being able to buy this or that or like nothing more than to talk about what they buy.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Near Termination

A comment by Androo (which I recommend everyone read as he tells an interesting story) on one of my old posts reminded me of an incident that happened a very long time ago in the early days of my employment at a Japanese office.

At my company, as is the case with many companies, the salespeople frequently sold services or products that didn't actually exist. They'd sell a course that we didn't have or they'd promise to do a job that we didn't have the staff available to do. More often than not, they'd press my boss into service and push him to do extra jobs on his days off and he'd always oblige because he was paid relatively well and felt he should agree to do the work. He was paid by the hour for any extra work he did or offered compensation time though so it wasn't as bad as it is for Japanese salaried workers who did those types of things and weren't paid.

At one point, one of the salesmen sold an in-company lesson to a place which requested an American teacher. Since I was the only full-time teacher at the time and my boss was Australian, I was asked to do this job. What's more, I was asked to do it on my day off. I would be paid my usual hourly wage but, as someone who was employed at an office, I was making a pretty low hourly wage compared to the going rate was for teachers who conducted in-company lessons. I was making perhaps 50% of what one was usually paid for such teaching.

The thing is that I was not keen on company lessons of this type as they were generally pointless "gaijin monkey" jobs. That is, you didn't actually teach but you went to the company and stood in front of between 30 and 70 students and entertained them with your foreignness for the duration. The classes generally consisted of games thinly-veiled as "activities" and the students usually spent the time staring like stunned fish or tittering and whispering to each other (or both). For the freshman company employees who experienced these lessons, this was a pleasant side road they got to take on the long, tedious, and boring highway of serious training for their jobs. They didn't take it the least bit seriously or expect to actually get anything out of it in terms of long-term English ability enhancement.

At this time, I'd also been back for only about 6 months after being bed-ridden with back problems for about 3 months and was not in the greatest condition for going out and standing in front of a bunch of people for long periods of time. Because of this and the aforementioned reason, I told my boss I didn't want to do this extra work that I was being asked to do.

My boss relayed this message to the then president. Before you get any ideas of a Bill Gates-ish fellow at the top of a huge mega-corp or an Akio Morita-type leader of a Japanese company, let me make it clear that this guy was essentially the head of a tiny business that thrived mainly because of the lavish and fool-hardy spending of companies during the height of Japan's bubble economy. Once companies began to spend more prudently, the company began to falter badly.

This president had no real talent beyond a few years as a decent salesman for a major publisher and knowing enough to exploit some tax write-off laws early on in the company's history to convince people that they could milk some of the money from the government if they bought our courses. Mainly, this fellow was lucky enough to marry a woman with a wealthy father who had lived abroad long enough to be considered untouchable by most Japanese men (back when such activity seriously tainted a woman) and to use the money he got to exploit the government's stupidity in allowing companies to augment the cost of basic English courses with tax dollars.

The company at that time probably had no more than 30 employees total and occupied a relatively smallish office above a convenience store in Nishi-Shinjuku. At this stage, business had been dropping off so I was the only full-time teacher and one of two full-time foreigners but we did contract out to other teachers to do in-company teaching work though they'd have to be paid a reasonable (¥3,500 - ¥5,000) hourly wage for it. Getting an outside person to do it instead of me might have cost the company $50-$75.

In terms of my work for the company, I'd already worked on several textbooks at this point and was solely in charge of doing a book based on the Voice of America news on an annual basis. I was also the only person in the office who knew how to use a scanner and Pagemaker around this time. I did all my work on textbooks on my own computer because the company was too cheap to pop for one for me. All in all, I was bringing a lot to them which they weren't going to get anywhere else, particularly in terms of my work speed, efficiency, and writing quality.

All things considered, you'd think that the president would see me as valuable enough not to dismiss over one refusal to do a job for several hours on my day off. I didn't realize it at the time but I'd come smack up against a cultural difference which nearly resulted in me losing my job. After my (Australian) boss asked me and I said I would prefer not to do it, the president wanted to ask me himself. This wasn't a big deal though because the president often asked the staff directly to do things. In fact, he often pointlessly called us into the office for dumb little requests, comments, and to discuss our pay statements each and every month. Getting called in by him wasn't even the emotional equivalent of getting called to the Principal's office in school so I wasn't all that worked up over it.

When the company asked me to do this job, I assumed that the request was a request. In Japan, this is not the way it is perceived. This was another one of those cases as I talked about in the post Androo commented on where the Japanese keep asking you until you agree. They expect you to realize that "no" is not an option and the "request" being made of you isn't a request. It's a demand phrased nicely. Should you fail to get that, they will repeat the request until you do.

At this time, I was unfamiliar with this style of communication and simply said "no" believing the type of employee I was was more meaningful than my refusal to do one little job on my day off. It turned out that my refusal was an indication of insurrection, flouting the president's authority, not being a team player, and generally making the president feel as though someone in his little fiefdom wasn't bowing down before him as she should. He suggested to my boss that they terminate me because of this but my boss, being a gaijin and knowing how good I was at the job and how hard it'd be to replace me (particularly in a small company that really needed someone with my skills), talked him out of it.

To be honest, I'm not sure I would have agreed even if I had believed that I'd have been fired because I wasn't sure that I was physically able to handle it at that point in time. Regardless, this illustrated pretty well how important it both is to understand the Japanese communication style and how loyalty is frequently valued more than ability and productive potential.

Not Burning My Bridges Paying Off

A lot of people fantasize about kissing off their company in a spectacular fashion when they finally have another job and can quit. I can't say that I'm any different or at least that, there weren't times when I was having a hard time at my job and fantasized about telling the president to take his job and cram it in a dark internal cavity. By the end though, the president had sold us off and I wasn't mad about anything or at anyone. I spent the last few years being relatively content except in regards to the air conditioning being set to solar levels in the summer and ended on a high note.

I quit a bit over a year ago and, in the first year, I was able to get freelance work from my former place of employment to the tune of about $4,000 last year. This was very helpful with all the expenses and lingering debts. Since I know this work well and can do it from home, it's always something I welcome though sometimes it's a lot of extra work. In the two upcoming months, I've got a lot more of this type of work coming my way so I'm not sure what my posting will be like when it all kicks in.

It started with a company that needed to do telephone call lessons on the weekend only. When I worked in the office, I worked Tuesday-Saturday but this company needs a lot more hours than can be done on one Saturday but there aren't enough hours to justify hiring and training a part-timer. So, my replacement can't do this company and they can't hire someone else so I get about 16 hours of work each week for 6 weeks. I'll need to work my tail off on weekends.

I got another call today and they want me to do about about 7 more hours worth of work every other week concurrently with taking care of this company. I'm very happy to get the work but I'm somewhat intimidated by juggling my private lessons amongst this other work. I know I can do it all and I actually won't be working nearly as much as a full-time person but fatigue may slow down my posting in May and June.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Panic

My husband hasn't been back home to visit his family in about 7 years and I haven't been back in about 15 years. Part of the reason for this is that we can't afford it and part of it is that we both are able to stay in contact with family now on a daily or weekly basis for "free" via the Internet. As I've mentioned before, I talk with my sister nearly every day via Skype now. My husband speaks with his family about once a week.

Some time ago, my husband started thinking about going back for another visit now that our situation is settled a bit financially and he'd like to see his parents face to face again so he set his plans in motion to go back. He researched fares and considered when to take the time off from work and proceeded to purchase a ticket and travel insurance. After chasing paperwork and a travel agent for a month, he paid for his ticket and was days away from having to request his time off from work.

This morning, he started to fill out some residence status paperwork for my Japanese income tax forms which the tax office people neglected to give him when he filled the other forms out at the tax office in March and dug out our passports to have a look. It was at this point that he discovered that his passport expired in mid March and his travel situation is now in jeopardy.

Both my husband and I were laboring under the misconception that his passport expired on his birthday this year. We were confusing it with gaijin cards (Japanese identification cards which we all must carry at all times) which expire on one's birthday. He's currently 26 days away from his planned departure date and has to get a new passport.

When you're in Japan and your passport is due to expire (or has expired or run out of pages due to too many used pages), you have to apply via mail or in person at your country's embassy. My husband called them to see how long it would take and they said 3 weeks. It's also going to cost $67. And just for reference, you have to pay for a new passport in your home country's currency.

There is expedited service for passports which costs double that of normal processing but such rapid service (3 days) is not possible outside of the United States. We would be deliriously happy to pay double to get this done in a shorter time if that option were open to us. We're not even sure if it's possible for a renewal in the U.S. It may only be possible for new passports.

This would seem like he'd be just scraping by on his departure deadline but it's not that simple. He both needs a new passport and to go to the Japanese immigration office and get a re-entry permit so his work visa isn't canceled when he leaves the country. He leaves on the 21st of May, a Monday, so we had a very stressful time today determining what to do. He had to determine whether or not he'd roll the dice on the new passport coming through or not. The main problem is that the later you cancel an air ticket, the more money you lose on the deal. If you cancel within 0-4 days, you lose 50%.

At this point, we're already set to lost 28,000 yen ($236) even if he cancels as early as now. If he waits until after May 4th, that goes up to 38,000 yen ($320). Fortunately, or unfortunately, the penalty for waiting until the end isn't much more than waiting past May 4th since 50% of the ticket price is 38,000 yen (we lose another 8,000 yen on insurance regardless of when he cancels). So, we're probably going to completely roll the dice and hope for the best.

My husband believes, perhaps quite rightly, that the embassy probably gives an outside time estimate in order to avoid complaints from people who are in tight situations such as ours and don't get their passports back in time. I'm hoping he's right.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Of Inside Jokes and Good Friends

As always, click on these screen shots to see a bigger version that makes things a bit clearer.

I'm not sure what it is about inside jokes that makes them such a delight but I encountered one yesterday which I really enjoyed. If you look at the above picture, you can see me getting hit with an "overbearing smash" (that's the big light totally obscuring my character) while I attack a character named "Grabthar". The name "Grabthar" should be familiar to most of the geekier types out there from the movie Galaxy Quest.

This screenshot of the ever-charismatic Grabthar was pinched from the Guild Wiki.

The thing about Grabthar (pictured above) which completes the joke is that he is a hammer-wielding warrior. In Galaxy Quest, one of the lines which Alan Rickman's Shakespearean-actor-trapped-in-a typecast-role-as-an-alien-in-a-cult-Sci-Fi-show issues with loathing is "by Grabthar's Hammer..."

The full screen shot of the epic battle. My sister plays Mesmerizing Carl.

In Guild Wars, one of the many things your characters can do is go around capturing the skills of certain special enemies. I was playing my warrior (Tankarific Carl) and capturing Grabthar's hammer skill in this battle. Sometimes I wish we could go around capturing skills in real life. For instance, I wouldn't mind gaining the "sleeping anywhere in Tokyo" skill or the "lightning fast elbowing everyone out of the way so I can get the one free seat on the train" skill I see frequently displayed on the public transportation systems here.

Of course, the bad thing about an inside joke is that it's not funny to anyone who doesn't get it, especially when you have to explain it so elaborately. Guild Wars isn't the first game to make inside jokes of this sort. When I was paying Diablo II, there were quite a few of them sprinkled throughout the game including an in-game item, a Dirk, called, the Diggler which gave us all a chuckle. Yes, we're all just big geeks but knowing that doesn't rain on our parade.


Besides capturing Grabthar's hammer skill, I wanted to record a gift that my friend Shawn gave me in my blog for posterity (and to let everyone out there in blog-land know what a good guy he is). The little fellow above is an Asora. It's a miniature pet which follows around whatever hero I choose to carry him with. Mainly, he wanders around looking cute and occasionally stops and raises his hands in an attack position and bares his teeth.


He's incredibly faithful. Here he is standing next to my monk (Smiting Carl's) dead body. Smiting Carl was smote by some very big spiders but my Asora was not afraid!

Getting my Asora cost Shawn $10 for the magazine that issued the code which allowed me to have one. My sister also ordered me one as well. I realize this is just a cute virtual pet but it was very thoughtful of both of them to go to the trouble and expense of getting such a thing for me. If I had got one for myself (which I couldn't since the magazine is not available in Japan), it would have just been a virtual pet. Now, it's a reminder of my friends and how good they are to me in addition to being a cute little rabbit-eared, alien-eyed viscous creature that follows me around.

Thanks, and we missed you over the weekend, Shawn!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"Normal"

When you study psychology, you are interested in what is "normal" and what is "abnormal". This is not to be confused with "average". "Average" is defined by statistics and can be quantified. "Normal", on the other hand, cannot be quantified and is relatively subjective.

Most people believe that they are good judges of what "normal" people behave like. They know this mainly because they define "normal" from their own experiences and upbringing. Part of the reason there are frequent problems when new members join a family through marriage is that each family defines "normal" using their own experiences as a template for what is reasonable and expected behavior and frequently fail to realize that every family is a culture unto itself, even if both families reside in the same small town and have the same ethnic history.

Considering how ubiquitous in-law problems are among people in the same culture because of different concepts of what is normal and expected, you can imagine how much more complicated the situation can be when people compare lifestyles and psychology between cultures that are separated by oceans rather than by miles. Recently, I had a discussion with a student which pointed out rather dramatically how what a Japanese person might consider "normal" behavior differs from what an American considers to be "normal".

My student and I were discussing the way in which Japanese men regard Japanese women (in general). I told her that I felt some Japanese men frequently objectified women and saw them as inferior to men in status. I told her I also felt that many Japanese men treated women as less important than men and didn't respect them. To support this assertion, I told her that the way in which Japanese men frequently grope women on the trains is some evidence of that. I believe the reason Japanese men do this is that they aren't considering the feelings of the women they do this to and are simply using them as objects to satisfy their own urges.

My student disagreed with me because she sees the behavior of men in this regard as "normal" and a part of the nature of all men. She told me that, when she was younger (she's now 44), she was groped every single day on the train when traveling back and forth to university and at one point was fondled simultaneously by three men. She also told me that, when she was 7, she was touched inappropriately by a man in a situation which was clearly not an accident but she didn't understand what was happening. After she was touched, she looked up at the man who did it and he smiled at her. Since she didn't know what was going on, she smiled back. When she went home and told her parents, they bought her a small alarm and told her to use it if it ever happened again. I must say, this incident really made me cringe as she innocently encouraged that creep because she was too naive to know what he was up to.

At the end of telling me about these experiences, she said that women endure this because it's just something that happens everywhere. I asked her to clarify what she meant by "everywhere" and she said "all over the world". In my student's view of "normal", men grope and fondle women regularly and the women put up with it. She was surprised to learn that this level of perversion does not occur in the United States. While I'm sure it does happen everywhere, the scale is nowhere near what it is in Japan and women do not passively put up with it in America.

My student did mention that women now are far more likely to protest compared to what it was like in the past. About a decade ago, the metropolitan government and public transportation agencies started putting up posters telling men not to molest women on the trains. This happens on the trains mainly because it's crowded and men can pretend it's an accident if they are confronted about it. Some of the train lines also have designated special cars for women only during the peak travel hours when groping is most common.

Japan isn't the only country where there are problems which are considered relatively "normal" because they occur so frequently. One thing I'd like to be clear about is that "normal" does not necessarily translate into socially-condoned, legal or acceptable. In the U.S., we consider petty theft a relatively normal experience, particularly mugging and pick-pocketing in large cities. In Japan, such theft would be considered an unusual experience.

One of the most difficult things to do when you learn about a foreign culture is to resist viewing its "normal" negative aspects as more omnipresent or despicable than the common negative experiences of your own culture. Our natural reaction is almost always going to be the most ethnocentric one when we encounter something which is outside of what we consider "normal".

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Derailments

Back in the early days of my employment at my former company, I actually had more than one foreign coworker. For the last 6 years of my 12 years there, it was pretty much just my boss and I and the Japanese staff. The loss of foreign coworkers was a direct reflection of how poorly the company was doing. We started off with my boss and 3 full-time "permanent" teachers then whittled down to 2 within a year then finally there was just me.

When there were 2 teachers, I had a series of long-term comrades in arms that began with a Canadian fellow who had Chinese parents. He spent a lot of his down time designing a kendo dojo which he was dreaming of opening up when he had saved enough money and returned home. He drew diagrams, made lists, and asked me endless questions about what I thought would be best which I was unqualified to answer. This was clearly a big deal to him though his parents wanted him to take over the family business back in Canada.

According to my coworker, his plans became derailed after a night of caution-free behavior related to the arrival of a Victoria's Secret package. His Japanese wife got pregnant and other priorities took over. He quit his job at the company we both worked at and returned home to take over the family business while attending graduate school for a Masters degree in education. I wondered what became of him after this derailment but a search on his name on the Internet allowed me to discover that he has achieved at least part of that dream. He is now the chief instructor at a martial arts academy.

My second long-term co-worker was a young woman (also from Canada) who mainly was in Japan because of her husband's business. He worked for a Japanese company that sold equipment related to ice sports. I remember her mainly for two things: curling and a great desire for a house. In fact, her long-term goal mainly seemed to be purchasing her own house. Any time she talked about buying something to enjoy her time in Japan and we encouraged her to just go ahead and buy it, she'd say that not buying that thing would allow her to buy curtains for her house or there was money for a lamp for her house squandered. Her whole lifestyle was so wrapped up in saving money for the house that I think she enjoyed her life in Japan far less than she might have.

She and her husband planned to stay a certain amount of time in order to save a fair bit of money for that planned purchase. He was also a bit locked into staying in Japan helping buy zambonis and whatnot for the local sports agencies. Their plans were somewhat derailed when the rhythm method failed them and she got pregnant. Her husband had to rush a transfer back home since she refused to have a baby in Japan. In the end, I think she was just as happy to have a reason to push ahead the deadline to leave, though I'm not sure she wanted to have a baby at that point in time. However, I'm not sure they saved as much as they'd hoped to save by the time they left.

My final long-term coworker was a rather goofy fellow who pulled some of the funniest stunts on the phone with students I've ever heard a teacher pull and get away with. For one thing, he constantly lied to students about himself in an attempt not to be bored. He told them he liked ska music and dancing but he didn't even know what ska music was nor did he dance. This caused a bit of trouble when he had to answer follow-up questions about his hobbies.

This fellow wanted to be a writer and told us he wrote a story called "The Man With the Golden Penis". He eventually returned home, got Lasik surgery so he wouldn't have to wear glasses and spent some time back there before returning to Japan again for a short time. I'm not sure what became of him but he did call us about 3 years after he left to see what we were up to. I always had the feeling that he was checking for any job openings with us as his writing career wasn't taking off as he may have hoped.

I'm also someone who has been derailed. My husband and I originally planned to be in Japan for 5 years and then to pop back over to the U.S. Five years has turned into 18 now mainly because I had a job I really liked after the first 4 years which allowed me to learn and grow a lot professionally in terms of editing, laying out, and writing books. I learned a great deal about graphics and desktop publishing but after the years went on, I stayed there because it was comfortable, I liked my boss and the pay was decent. Poor health also kept me there because it was easier to remain there than to undertake something new considering my problems. Fortunately, failed birth control has not been among my derailments. ;-)

I guess that almost everyone finds themselves derailed in life and very few of us ever chart a life plan which unfolds precisely as we'd expected in our youth. When you're young, you have no idea what obstacles will appear in front of you and force you to swerve and change your path.

Friday, April 20, 2007

My Food Is Safe Now


Our new refrigerator arrived today and looks pretty much the same as the old one on the outside (if you're not paying close attention). We purchased it from Yodobashi in Shinjuku because it was close to where my husband works and not significantly more expensive than going to Akihabara. This model cost about $500.

One thing we might have done to save money if we were inclined to go to the trouble was to go and search for a shop that was selling "last year's model" of the same refrigerator for between $100-$120 less than this year's model. If you're in the market for a major purchase and you can either wait until shortly after a new model comes out or search for older models on-line (at places like Rakuten, for instance), you can often score a discount. At least two of my students have mentioned saving money on large purchases by going for last years model. One student bought a car and the other a large, flat screen T.V. for tidy discounts.

In our case, we valued expediency (and our free time and energy) over a little money so we took the path of least resistance. As far as I can tell, the only difference between last year's model and our model is that ours has a lever to tip ice cube trays over while inside the refrigerator rather than having to take them out and crack them open. This feature works very well but it wasn't a factor in our decision to buy a new model.

One thing we did notice when the delivery was made though was that Yodobashi's delivery people seem to be less service-oriented than the shop we bought our old refrigerator from in Akihabara. When they arrived, they clucked their tongues about not being able to remove the old refrigerator from the tight space. Since I've moved that refrigerator in and out of that space and I'm a woman with a bad back, I thought they were being big babies.

When they finally tried it, they removed it rather easily. When they put the old one in, we asked them to put squares of wood under the feet so as not to dig ruts into the linoleum (because this is what the landlords want done) but they refused to do it claiming it wasn't possible. While I'll admit it would not have been easy, it could have been done but we let it go.

The delivery men were about to run off before the refrigerator was even plugged in but they thought better of it when they came back to get the blanket they used to move the refrigerator across the middle of the floor without scuffing it up and they saw me struggling to do it. After they left, I noticed they managed to scuff up the floor in front of the refrigerator regardless of the blanket. Since the floor is new, I wasn't too pleased about this but I guess it's more of the landlord's problem than ours.

Empty Coke bottles allow us to filter our own water and then chill it rather than fork over money for bottled water.

On the bright side, they did everything in about 10-15 minutes and were out of our hair so I could load up the fridge with our food. They were good enough to call 15 minutes before they arrived so I was able to remove it all shortly before they came. Since this is a 2-door refrigerator and our old one was 3 doors, I had to do some rearranging and it wasn't easy. I never liked the big drawer in the bottom of the old fridge so, I like this layout better. I especially like the crisper being smaller and making it easier to keep vegetables and fruit in a tidy space rather than chucking them into a cavernous drawer the size of the entire bottom of the refrigerator.

Every jar on the second shelf but one (sesame oil) contains a spice. You can tell I cook a lot...or am too lazy to throw out old spices. ;-) If you don't want your spices to cake up into a block in summer, you have to keep them refrigerated. The foil packet is yeast.

I also like having another shelf at the bottom and a wider shelf in the middle. The old one had relatively narrow shelves which accommodated milk cartons but were not wide enough for 1.5 liter bottles of soda. This one clearly has a shelf designed for larger soda bottles but they are too loose for milk. The cartons tend to shift around when the door is opened and closed.


One thing I don't understand about the design though is why the old refrigerator had 16 slots to hold eggs and this new one has 6 when these machines are designed specifically for the Japanese market where eggs are sold in 10-packs for the most part. That isn't even a proper egg tray though. It's just a little piece of plastic with 6 holes in it that you can remove if you like.

Those are Krispy Kreme donuts on the second shelf on the right. They're waiting for a moment of indiscretion followed by a quick trip to the microwave.

The freezer is actually somewhat better than the old one and seems no smaller (we lost size mainly in the refrigerator section). Our old freezer was essentially one shelf and one little boxed area next to the ice cube tray. Having only one shelf forced us to cram packages of plastic-covered food in there on top of each other in a relatively large area. Things were very slippery and one wrong pull often sent several (usually heavy) items plummeting onto the feet of the person routing around in there. This freezer has one more division so things are separated out a bit better. Hopefully, there will be fewer crushed toes in the future.

I'm hoping this new refrigerator will be less wasteful energy-wise than the old one since it was produced with energy saving in mind for environmental issues. I'd still have preferred a taller, bigger one but you have to go with what fits in the space you have.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Pear Pine Nut Cake

This excellent bit of food porn is brought to you by my white Konishiki tea towel which blocked the flash and allowed me to take a decent picture. Click on it for the large version and drool. ;-)

I've been posting recipes less frequently compared to my earliest posting habits. It's not because I've stopped cooking but rather because most of what I cook has already been written about or is too mundane to mention.

Sometimes you want to make something unusual. Sometimes you want to use up stuff you bought which has been in storage longer than it should. And, sometimes you can wed these two concepts and produce a happy marriage. The pear pine nut cake pictured above is one of those occasions.

I've had a can of pears under my cabinet for a few months and had my husband pick up pine nuts last time he went to Costco. For those who are not initiated into the delights of pine nuts, they are like plump sunflower seeds minus the shell with a buttery, light, almost creamy texture. Imagine a somewhat lighter version of a macadamia nut with a richer depth of flavor from the "pine" portion. They are wonderful plain as a snack or toasted as a garnish or part of a dish. They are commonly sprinkled on salads or used to make pesto. Pine nuts are somewhat expensive and, as far as I know, only available from Costco or import stores in Japan. However, they are worth the effort and expense.

This cake is reminiscent of pineapple upside-down cake without the sugary goo and with a nice crunch from the pine nuts. The cake is very delicate, has a great texture and a more sophisticated and complex flavor than most desserts while still being quite simple. It'd be a nice ending to a meal with coffee or possibly with the right type of wine.

Pear Pine Nut Cake recipe:

1/2 cup butter (softened)
1 cup sugar
2 small eggs
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
2 dashes almond essence
1 tsp. vanilla extract (or 3 dashes of essence)
6 tbsp. plain (unsweetened) yogurt
2 tbsp. milk
1 can pears in syrup (or water if you can get them)
1/2 cup pine nuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit or 180 degrees Celsius. Lightly grease a loaf pan or spray it with cooking spray.

Pour the pine nuts into a dry skillet and toast them under low to medium heat until delicately brown on both sides. Turn off the heat and allow them to cool.

Drain the pears and rinse them in cold water. Discard the syrup. Use a paper towel to blot the pears. They will be moist but shouldn't be overly wet. Dice the pears into smallish pieces. Set aside.

Put the softened butter into a large mixing bowl (or use a standing mixer) and mix until creamy. Add the sugar and mix until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and mix again. Add the yogurt, milk, vanilla, salt, baking powder, and almond essence and mix until incorporated. Finally, add the flour and mix until the batter is creamy and smooth.

Fold the pears and pine nuts into the batter. Pour into the greased loaf pan. Bake for 40-50 minutes until a skewer inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

My Other Blog

Click the picture to see a larger, easier to read version.

It's not unusual for people to have two blogs but the truth is that I honestly don't have enough content for two real blogs. Well, that's not precisely true. From a certain perspective, my Blogcritic's posts are sort of like a blog for even more long-winded posts than normal (and given how long it takes me to make a point in my regular posts, that's some wordy work).

My other blog isn't really a blog. It's a collection of content for teaching private lessons called "The Home Sensei". I started it for two reasons. The primary reason was that I wanted to share the content I'd been making for my students. Many of my private students don't want to use textbooks but they do want some sort of discussion. Since most of them fall along some continuum of being intermediate in level, they aren't capable of handling intricate discussions of deep topics and aren't able to come up with ideas for hour-long discussions on their own. Finding the topic and keeping it going is my job. Therefore, I've been constructing a variety of cultural discussion lessons which I print out and use to guide the student slowly through various topics. Almost all of them are specifically designed for Japanese students.

The students, by and large, seem to enjoy these types of lessons. Of course, depending on the student's personality, they enjoy certain topics more than others. In general though, I try to avoid "heavy" topics because few of my students are interested in politics or newsworthy issues. This is probably a reflection of their age and gender to some extent and the fact that they aren't coming to me to be brought down by depressing topics. Teachers who find themselves in a situation similar to mine may find my lesson material useful.

One thing you also learn about Japanese students is that the vast majority of those taking conversation lessons either at schools or from private teachers aren't really interested in grammar or practiced sentence patterns. Most of them have already studied plenty of structures and rules in school and what they're looking for is a chance to put it into practice. This is one of the reasons many of them don't like textbooks. It's usually very boring for them to do lessons which focus on a grammar point or key phrases though there are exceptions.

The other reason that I started the second blog was that the failure of my hard drive on my Mac Mini taught me that it'd be a good idea to have my lesson materials backed up elsewhere. Since I can't trust myself to actually back them up all the time, putting them on the web seemed like a good idea.

At the moment, I've got some back-logged content that I'm still working on putting up so there will be a lot of posting at once followed by lulls as I burn out or start to only put up new content. I have noticed that, the more I labor to put up onto that site, the harder it is to get back to this one even though they both serve very different purposes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The "Real" Japan

This image pinched from the BBC's Japanorama site.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately, sometimes those words are wrong. Pictures without context or which are not narrated by someone who can interpret them properly can lead you to reach incorrect conclusions. As someone who has lived in Japan for a long time, I often feel that westerners are looking at a lot of pictures and reaching wrong conclusions. One of the primary ones is that any single story or bit of culture is representative of "all" Japanese people or even a significant majority so long as the information being provided fits their preconceived notions of Japanese culture.

I'm sure that every person observing another culture reaches conclusions based on too little information. In the case of Japan though, the west seems to have a great affinity for seeing the people and culture as absurd, quirky, inventive, and unrelentingly capable of producing and demanding cute and odd products. The last thing people seem to want to do is believe that the Japanese are trudging off to work every day, working at a boring job, going home and watching T.V., and then going to bed day-in and day-out just like much of the rest of the world.

My husband and I have been watching the BBC's "Japanorama" series and have been having mixed reactions to it so far. I can't help but feel that the show is made, by and large, with an eye toward pandering to the western desire to see Japan in the way it wants to see it instead of how it really is. The first episode was about what is "kakkoi" or "cool" in and about Japan. The second one is about otaku (essentially anime and manga geeks who are equivalent to Star Wars or Star Trek geeks in the U.S.). The third about "zoku" or tribes and the fourth (which is the point to which we've watched) is about "owarai" (comedy).

Shows like this seem custom-designed for people who know Japan from the outside only and have an interest mainly in the quirky or weird parts. People who think Japan is all about its pop culture or most artistically-outstanding elements rather remind me of those who have the outdated notion that it's all about geisha, sumo, and Mt. Fujii.

In the first show, they talk about the avant garde architecture in Japan and treat the viewer to a brief tour of some of the outstanding buildings. It leaves the unknowing viewer believing that Japan is full of stunning and unusual architecture or beautiful traditional buildings. The truth is that what Japan is full of is some of the ugliest skylines and unimpressive buildings you'll ever see in a developed country. Amid seas of metal and glass boxes with smog-stained facades and apartment complexes with ugly metal balconies, you occasionally see something interesting but such highlights are relatively rare.

There's also a profile of clothing "designer" and Bathing Ape founder, Nigo, which talks about the Japanese 'love of collecting'. In my experience, outside of otaku, the Japanese collect less than Americans or are at least much more selective in their collecting and rarely assemble vast collections due to their limited living space. The clip that shows Nigo's vast collection of Star Wars collectibles and anime characters perfectly displayed in glass cases is so far away from the reality of collectors in Japan, who neither collect as much nor have them beautifully displayed, that it might as well be a work of fiction.

The "owarai" episode seemed to focus excessively on humor which was degrading and focussed on comedy that featured nudity or crude sexual humor which, apparently, all Japanese are eating right up if you believe the show's conclusions. While I'm very much willing to accept a good many people really enjoy that type of humor, I'm pretty sure it is over-represented in Japanorama relative to other types of interests or entertainment.

I realize that these more extraordinary parts of Japan are the most attractive to foreign viewers but a multi-part series focusing only on those aspects is a serious bit of reality distortion. In some ways, it does a disservice to average Japanese folks as it makes a lot of them look like a bunch of cosplaying, manga-reading, sexually-obsessed, quirky weirdos resting their heads on pillows shaped like women's laps or breasts and sighing "moe" or giggling moronic women catering to socially-awkward men's needs.

I think this bothers me to some extent because I try to focus on the psychological differences and similarities which have some utility in promoting cross-cultural understanding and depth of knowledge of the culture. Showcasing the oddities does nothing but offer up trivialities to people who are doing the television equivalent of rubber-necking. While I think there's value in showing these types of things, I think it should be offered in a broader context or at least with a proper perspective. At the very least, it should be made clear what portion of the population these pop cultural aspects represent rather than to simply say "the Japanese love ..." as if this is the way many of them live their lives.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Finding the Short Line

Click any of these pictures to see a bigger version.

If you've had it with news and pictures of Krispy Kreme in Japan, there's nothing to see here, move along. If your interest remains intact but you haven't stopped by because the long lines scare you off, read on. As you can see by the picture above, the line isn't too bad. This picture was taken around 9:15 a.m. on a Monday (today).


This sign in front of shop tells those approaching it approximately how long they will be waiting and, as you can see, the wait is only 20 minutes.


The key to waiting a shorter time is rain. As you can see by this bin full of cheap umbrellas that the shop put out for the convenience of those waiting in line who don't happen to have one, it was raining when these pictures were taken.

Nearly everything in Tokyo becomes easier to accomplish when it rains. If you hate lines and crowds more than you hate rain, waiting for a rainy day to go out and about is probably a good idea. I remember that I rarely could park my bicycle on the ground level of the paid parking area near the station unless it was raining. Rain saved me from having to trudge up the steps to the second floor and walk to the back of the cavernous parking building.

My husband decided to go off his healthy eating plan for a brief time and made a pilgrimage to Krispy Kreme this morning. He also had to order our new refrigerator so he had to be in Shinjuku anyway. He got some new shots of the KK experience in Tokyo.


Here's a happy KK employee handing out warm, fresh donuts to those standing in line. My husband told me that one of his students decided to try out KK and he was given a fresh one, ate it, and decided he was sated and just left. Note that the pylons are taped down to keep the throngs from moving them.


From outside, my husband caught some shots of the donut-making process. Here are racks of rings waiting to enter the fryer. Since only the basic glazed donuts are made on the premises, they're all the same.


The pale lovelies begin their journey from dough to your love handles by being fried on one side.


Here the donuts have been flipped over in the oil to fry the other side. One donut didn't make the trip and its tender underbelly is exposed.


The donuts are exiting the oil and draining off. Notice that the "caution" message about "pinch points" and watching your hands is in English.


At this point, the donuts go from fried bread to evil, sugary rings. The white under the glazing area is an accumulation of excess glaze that has built up. I'd hate to be in charge of cleaning that up.


Since this is spring in Japan, many shops offer cherry-flavored food as a short-term specialty. The sign says the Cherry Kiss donuts are filled with "cherry jelly" and sprinkled with "maple powdered sugar". My husband picked up a few of these, and while they aren't bad, the jelly in KK's donuts always seems pretty pedestrian. Fortunately, you can't really taste the maple aspect of the powdered sugar since cherry and maple aren't exactly a natural flavor combination in my opinion.


On the flip side of the laminated flyer which shows the Cherry Kiss donuts (which is attached to the menus they hand out to people waiting in line), there is a list of cherry drinks. If you click the picture, you can see the English written next to them but I'll type them here to save you the trouble - Pepsi Cola with Cherry, 7-Up with Cherry, and Krispy Kreme Coffee Smooth with Cherry. The last one seems incredibly odd. I'm not even sure what the "smooth" part is supposed to mean since the coffee looks like normal coffee (not a smoothie). The Japanese doesn't say "smuji" (which is what the Japanese call a smoothie) so I'm not sure what the "smooth" part is all about.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Lost and Found

This morning, I woke up at 7:00 am and couldn't go back to sleep so I decided to use the time effectively while my husband still slept on. I got dressed quietly and crept out of the apartment for a quick trip to QQ, the local 100 yen shop which also sells a reasonable amount of grocery-type items. After stocking up on cheap milk and not quite so cheap eggs, I headed back to the apartment.

Usually, I ride my bike but I've been trying to walk the bike as much as my decrepit back will allow for the muscle work. The walk is relatively short and I have the bike along as a back up should the pain get too bad. As I was nearing our apartment, I happened to glance at a small (only about 6 spaces) paid parking lot on the way and saw what looked like a wallet lying on top of the guards used to keep people from leaving until they pay up.

In the U.S., I wouldn't hesitate to pick it up, look for I.D. and call the owner if I could find him but this being Japan and me being a foreigner, I was hesitant to retrieve it even with the best of intentions in mind. Since the Japanese already believe foreigners are much more likely than themselves to engage in criminal activity, I didn't want to be seen as some sort of thieving scavenger.

My impulse to follow the golden rule and my faith in karma overwhelmed my trepidations and I picked it up. It was quite small so I wasn't even sure it was the kind of thing money or I.D. was stored in. It was small enough to be some sort of cigarette pack holder. I opened it up and a quick glance revealed that it was chock-a-block with business cards and had a train pass, and what appeared to be a little money. I didn't pull anything out or count the cash because my only interest was in seeing whether or not the wallet contained anything that would allow the owner to be tracked down. I figured the train pass was probably enough to identify the owner, who is very likely a businessman whose pocket it fell out of since there were so many business cards in there.

Before picking it up, I had decided that I would not turn it over to the police myself because I was concerned that it'd both take forever to go through questions and paperwork and they'd be suspicious of me for having it because I'm a foreigner. I know I sound paranoid but, as I mentioned before, I have been stopped for innocently riding my bicycle and been accused of having stolen it for no reason other than being a gaijin. I have reasons to be concerned that I'll be suspected of a crime without cause. I decided that I could act on my better impulses and not be punished for them by having my Japanese landlord deal with the police.

I tossed it in my bicycle basket and headed home to find my husband had awakened in my absence. I told him that I'd found a wallet and I was going to give it to the landlord to hand over to the police. After giving the groceries to my husband, I walked over to the landlord's house.

Since it was just before 9:00 am, I peaked through the window to be sure someone was up and around and could see my landlord in the hall. In retrospect, I wonder what it would have looked like to him if his back hadn't been turned and he'd seen me peering in through the sliver of glass on the front door like some curious peeping Tina. I explained the situation to him and then he asked me a question I should have anticipated but did not. He asked if he should tell the police that I had "released my claim" on the wallet.

In Japan, a person who finds a lost item with money and turns it over to the police can claim the money if the item goes unclaimed by the owner. When you turn the item in, you can choose to forfeit your right to the money you found or you can choose to retain it. I'm sure you'd have to do a lot of paperwork if you want to keep the right to claim the money once the waiting period has expired.

Since I had no interest in the contents of the wallet and I was asking him to handle it for me, I told him I released my claim and only cared about returning the wallet to its owner. While I'm sure the person who owned it wouldn't be uptight about the loss of the money (since it didn't appear to be much), I'm pretty sure that the pass and cards would be a pretty big loss. There may even have been other (credit or debit) cards or I.D. in there.

The Japanese policy of allowing found money to be claimed by the finder is an interesting one. To be honest, I don't know if the States have similar rules or not and I'm guessing that it would vary from state to state and one couldn't make a blanket statement about such things in regards to the U.S. I wonder if the Japanese policy is meant to encourage people to "do the right thing" because the potential to be lawful but still get to keep the money is there or if it's a matter of not making it appear that the police get to keep anything which is turned in.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

This Old Fridge


Our 14-year-old refrigerator has been sputtering for the last few years and, as of last night, we decided that it would be the height of imprudence not to retire it before it dies completely. In the summer, in particular, the motor tends to overheat in the un-airconditioned kitchen and it sometimes can't run long enough to keep the refrigerator cold enough. On occasion, the ice in the ice cube trays will start to melt when this sort of thing happens.

This morning, I noticed that the indentation in the handle to the mid-section of the fridge pictured above was full of water. The reason was that entire thing had stopped working overnight and water was dripping out from thawing food in the top. After a bout of complete panic at the notion of a large investment in frozen food dying a premature death, I got the refrigerator to start working again by a combination of shaking it up a bit and unplugging and re-plugging the power cord. Plugging and unplugging it caused it to start running each time the power was re-connected.

At the moment, it seems to be in good working order again without any intervention from me but the motor has made clunking noises on occasion and made some again today. Even if I was willing to try and string it out longer, I'm not sure it'll survive another summer in its current state. So, we're pretty much going to have to add the refrigerator to the list of aging appliances that we're going to have to replace.

While this may sound like a simple (albeit expensive) thing to do, like everything else in Japan, it's rather complicated. Our apartment is literally "full" of furniture and cannot accommodate anything else. The kitchen in particular is set up as efficiently as possible. There is absolutely no way to re-arrange any piece of furniture in order to fit in a larger one and there is nothing we can sacrifice to make space given that we have almost no built-in shelving.

The refrigerator we buy to replace the one we have must, therefore, be exactly the same size as the one we currently own. Unfortunately, my research has shown that the standard size for a relatively largish refrigerator in Japan is now around 60 cm. and our refrigerator is 54 cm. I think the actual usable space is up to 56 cm., but that'd be an incredibly tight squeeze. The main problem for us is that we need what might be considered a "big" refrigerator in Japan. Most of the 54 cm. models are the short type that are more often used in college dorm rooms in the U.S. or used for people who live alone in one-room apartments in Japan. For 2 people who buy a lot of fresh food, those short ones just won't suffice.

Of course, we also don't want to pay too much for a new fridge since our plans for remaining in Japan are fairly uncertain. We may leave relatively soon or may stay a bit longer but we are living each day with an eye toward departure, not an eye toward staying. However, we know from my brother-in-law's experience that a used refrigerator is not a good option. Also, I doubt very much that a used one would easily fit our size needs (narrow and tall).

This picture of our possible future fridge is stolen from Sharp's product page.

I did some research and think this model by Sharp may be the best option. It's 54 cm. wide but about 14 cm. (5.5 in.) shorter than our current model. Hopefully, the fact that it is 7 cm. (2.8 in.) deeper than our current one will make-up for a little of the capacity lost from the reduced height. It's also relatively cheap for a mid-size refrigerator at ¥54,800. I'm also attracted to the 2-section design more than our 3-segment design because the drawer at the bottom of ours has always been hard to dig into and unwieldy to clean.

My husband will look into this model and do some in-store research and hopefully we can get this resolved quickly in case the old one gives up for good this weekend. I can't say that I'm looking forward to the replacement in any way. It's bad enough that it's going to cost us but we also have to make special arrangments and pay to have the old model hauled away by the maker (Sanyo). In fact, I had hoped to buy another Sanyo so that this process would be done in one step (deliver the new one, remove the old one) but Sanyo does not make a model of the right size for us.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Katakana English

Yes, I can type in Japanese. This is the name of a former American sumo wrestler.

In Japan, there are four types of written expression which I want to offer a thumbnail (simplified) explanation of as a background for the story to follow since a lot of my readers live outside of Japan.

The primary and most complicated form is kanji. Kanji have their roots in China but the Japanese read them a different way and have multiple ways of reading the same characters. The second system is hiragana. This system is used to write words for which there are no kanji or simply to phonetically write words represented by kanji (furigana). The third system is katakana which is ostensibly used to write foreign words that have been adapted for Japanese use or understanding (such as western names) but it is not infrequently used to represent Japanese words as a way of getting attention in advertising or on signs. The final system is romaji which is the roman alphabet we use in English-speaking countries.

As an aside, I will mention that some people ask me why I don't learn to read Japanese. The truth is that I can read hiragana and katakana and the kanji that I frequently encounter such as the names of places in Tokyo. However, learning kanji is a very daunting experience and takes a tremendous commitment as my friend Joseph has been experiencing. Such a commitment is only worthwhile if you plan on living in Japan forever or making a career out of translation and neither of these are a part of my plans.

With that long-winded primer out of the way, I want to talk about an incident one of my students experienced as a result of the use of English adapted for Japanese use. My student purchases what is called "lip cream" (リップクリム) in Japan and wanted to get some in the U.S. when she was off on a ski trip. She was in a shop with her host family and told the mother that she needed some lip cream. The ever helpful mother ran off to get some and came back with lipstick. My student told her host mother that what she wanted was colorless so the ever obliging host mother came back with a tube of lip gloss. My student then explained that she wanted something which would stop her lips from getting dry. The host mother said, "so, you want Chapstick," to which my student replied, "no, I don't want chopstick." Finally, the miscommunication got cleared up and my student got her "lip cream" (Chapstick).

This incident illustrates one of the things you learn pretty quickly as a teacher in Japan. That is the fact that katakana English can often make understanding or pronouncing English as it is spoken in English-speaking countries harder for students as it's much more difficult for them to shake their grasp of "Japanese English". They assume the katakana words are relatively accurate representations of the words in English-speaking countries when they often are not in terms of either pronunciation or actual meaning (as was the case with "lip cream").

To give another example, the Japanese pronunciation of "T.V." is "terebi" (テレビ). One of my students always pronounces "T.V." in the Japanese way when he talks about it. Even though I correct him each time and he knows it is wrong, he cannot shake the katakana pronunciation. In almost all other cases, he does not suffer from this problem and he never speaks Japanese in his lessons except for words that are commonly written in katakana in Japan.

On the flip side, katakana English makes life easier for foreign residents. Once you understand how Japanese phonetics work and how they are applied to English words, you can read and understand almost everything written in katakana instantly since you know there's a high likelihood that the words are in English already. That's not to say all of them are English though.

Some katakana words are from other languages such as "arubaito" (アルバイト) which is derived from the German word "arbeit" (work). In Japan, it's used to refer to part-time jobs. Since many Japanese students of English assume all katakana words are English, those words derived from other languages introduce another problem because students assume they are English words.

All in all though, the adaptation of foreign words into Japanese makes communication between us easier. You'd be surprised how often one can be saying something in Japanese and use a katakana-ized version of an English word for which one does not know the correct Japanese and be understood from altered English alone.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

R.I.P. Kurt Vonnegut

This image was taken from Wikipedia's entry for Kurt Vonnegut. Go and read about his life then read one of his books and have your mind blown and your eyes opened.

I just learned from Elec's blog that Kurt Vonnegut has passed away and find the news quite overwhelmingly sad. Kurt Vonnegut was not only my favorite writer but also someone who I felt encouraged his readers to look at the world from a variety of angles, and the more obtuse those angles are, the better.

I first read one of Mr. Vonnegut's novels as part of a class on anti-Utopian novels. One of the books I was assigned to read was Player Piano. I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read pretty much everything he wrote. His books have a great deal of depth that many readers miss because they focus on the grotesqueness of some of the situations and/or characters and miss the bigger picture the story is painting and fail to see the sometimes subtle psychological fabric weaved into his characters.

The characters in his novels were often flawed and unappealing so readers who were looking for an attractive or admirable protagonist would be turned off. His characters were often just a lot of people who are reacting to situations they feel trapped in or manipulated by as Mr. Vonnegut himself must have felt in his life (particularly during World War II). In his early novels, it is clear that a lot of Kurt Vonnegut's characters are acting on some of his own psychological issues at the time that he wrote them. In his later short stories and novels, you can see that he's worked though a lot of his mental health issues but has lost none of his humor.

One of the most interesting things about Kurt Vonnegut was that he was a humanist and generally believed in socialist ideals yet he didn't believe in extreme notions of "total" equality. Though he felt all people deserved respect, dignity and a decent quality of life, he recognized that attempts to make all people "equal" would be destructive. In one of his short stories, he described a society where beautiful people were covered up, athletes were hobbled, and intelligent people had their thoughts disrupted by loud noises in a misguided attempt to make level the playing field in life. His ideals were tempered and reasonable rather than extreme.

Kurt Vonnegut was undoubtedly one of the most intelligent and compassionate human beings this world has ever seen and I doubt we'll see the likes of him again soon.