Saturday, June 30, 2007

Budget "Remodeling"

During the time we've been in our apartment, I've probably changed the furniture around in a wholesale fashion at least 6 times. Usually, it involves rotating around every piece in a room and sometimes totally swapping around furniture from one room to the other. I do this, in part, because women like to do this. I don't know why but it's often joked about in T.V. shows. For instance, in an episode of "The Simpsons", there's a bachelor auction and Apu proves how attractive he will be to single women by saying he likes to make furniture, place it in different parts of a room and then discuss how it looks.

The other reason I like to do this is that it usually completely changes the look of the place, even when the pieces being used are old ones we've had for years. It's a form of cheap remodeling. I also feel that each move makes the apartment look better. I think that finding a "perfect" layout is like the mathematical notion that the universe is growing colder and will approach absolute zero but can never reach it. I can keep moving the furniture around and it approaches a perfect state but it'll never reach it. That doesn't mean it isn't worth continuing to try.

Every time I've done this sort of work, it's gotten harder and harder for me to manage. I always do it alone because my husband tends to be pretty confused and also the dust that gets kicked up sends him into coughing fits which can rapidly turn into a bad asthma attack. It's simply unrealistic for him to do more than help move the heaviest items (which he kindly does and will do this time as well). Given that I have to do it alone and I get fatigued more rapidly than I used to (and I have a bad back), I've learned to break the work apart into stages which do not leave the place in a chaotic state as I progress.

Even if you don't have my physical limits, these steps are helpful in making the job go more smoothly and perhaps in refining your plans and getting a better result. They'll also almost certainly make the process cheaper, more thorough and less tiring.

Step 1:

Measure everything including the height of your pieces. Draw up a plan if you can using computer software. I usually use Illustrator and convert centimeter measurements to millimeters so everything is to scale. I then reduce the size of the entire graphic by one-half or one-third so I can print it. Try to visualize the "landscape" you're about to create in terms of how the tops of items will appear on the wall in addition to how it will fit on the floor. While considering the "landscape", consider how your wall space is going to look particularly in terms of the blank spots and how you can decorate them. Try to consider whether or not the line the tops of items make across the wall will look ragged or unbalanced. You can change the order of items to improve the "landscape" to make it appear the most attractive. Generally speaking, tall pieces are best on both ends and short pieces in the middle.

"Live" with your plan for a few days or so and let it roll around in your mind. You may find that better ideas occur if you sleep on it.

I was able to completely empty out this DVD shelf because I tossed out a ton of outdated computer equipment and my husband got rid of a bunch of books. I moved the DVDs into the space vacated by other items.

Step 2:

Go absolutely crazy de-cluttering. Toss out everything you haven't used for a year or two. Doing this will make the process of moving things much easier and possibly free up space/furnishings for other uses. Since most shelves have to be emptied, moved, then filled back up again, you have to manipulate less junk by de-cluttering before the swap. You'll probably also find you have some breathing room for decorative objects if you toss some junk that is choking your shelves.

Once you de-clutter, re-consider your plan and whether or not you can ditch any pieces of furniture entirely or you can re-purpose in some creative or more utilitarian fashion. In my case, the move I'm planning will force me to give up using part of my closet as a desk so I'll lose surface area behind the desk. I really want to keep my free desk space so I decided that I'd attempt to store things up and down rather than behind the desk.


Since I'm not looking to spend money, I re-purposed my now empty DVD shelf by removing the back piece (so wires can fall behind the shelf). In the picture above, it's set up above my desk with a cavernous closet behind it so it looks somewhat unstable. It's mainly held in place by the weight of the monitor. After the move, it'll not only be flat up against a wall but I'll be solidifying it's position with self-adhesive Velcro strips attached to the wall and shelf. I'll also be adding the router and DSL modem to the top shelf in the final move so that all the computer equipment will be close together (unlike now where it spans two different rooms).

Step 3:

Fine tune the placement of your shelves before the move. This may seem pointless because you will have to remove items, move shelves and put everything back in them. However, I have found that leaving this until the end of having moved everything leaves you with a great many niggling little tasks which you are too tired and over-stimulated (and possibly dirty) from the move to deal with. In the past, I've left these changes until the end and found that I have a bed covered in crap I need to put away and no energy to deal with sorting it out and messing with moving shelves.

This also has the additional benefit of allowing you to clean every shelf and dust items beforehand. If you're like me, you may be pretty good about dusting what is easy to reach but the back of your shelves and a lot of your items are covered in dust. If you clean everything up before hand, moving things will see less dust falling on you and the floor when you move each piece of furniture.

Step 4:

Clean walls, carpets, tops of tall pieces of furniture and windows systematically a bit at a time as much as possible so you won't have to do it all at once. Even if you don't get as fatigued as I, you'll find you clean more thoroughly if you do a bit at a time. Of course, there are some spots you won't be able to reach but you can do those when you do the move.

Step 5:

After you've done the cleaning, you can evaluate what you may want to pay for to improve the look of the room. In my case, I bought a new carpet though I'd probably paint the room as well if I thought I could handle it physically alone. I'll have to settle for washing the walls as best I can. You may also want to buy cleaning supplies or other incidental items that you'll use in setting up the new arrangement. I had to buy super-long Velcro strips, a rug cutter, and some cable ties which I hope to employ to control the snarled cable spaghetti I can't seem to avoid no matter how careful I am. I also bought a frame for a poster I want to put up.

When this is completed, the entire move will likely cost me ¥15,000 in supplies ($121) and occur across about two weeks of time. The bulk of that expense is in the carpet (which cost ¥9,500/$77). It'll likely be completed next Tuesday and I'll post a new guided tour of the apartment shortly thereafter and you can decide for yourself if it is an improved look or not.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Crud

This is the lighting fixture in the middle of the room which is too high for me to reach. I attempted to vacuum it a few times by standing on the sofa but can't reach more than one side and that attempt was relatively ineffective regardless. Before the new carpet goes in, I'm going to pursue cleaning this again though I probably won't have much success unless I grow taller or buy a step ladder (which I'm unwilling to do).

Note: Edited July 1, 2007 to add in a few pictures.

I've been working on cleaning my living room a little at a time in preparation for my big furniture swap next Monday. While I vacuum the open spaces two or three times a week and dust all the visible surfaces, there are plenty of spaces which I never see or can't reach. I'm sure this is the case for a lot of people though perhaps they are more meticulous about moving things and cleaning under or around them than I. However, they don't live in a shoe box apartment with no place to move anything.

Yesterday, I pulled out the sofa and vacuumed behind it and you'd expect your outdoor patio furniture to look if you had ignored it for 5 years and if you had it set up near a busy road. I'm guessing this is in large part because the glass doors behind the sofa are open almost all the time except in the coldest part of winter or the hottest part of summer. The back of the sofa is probably exposed to the outdoors 300 days of the year, possibly more. Tons of dust comes in through that window and it has been piling up back there for years now. Oddly though, the back of the sofa itself is clean and only the carpet and floor seem to be affected.

The dirt behind the sofa is pretty much my fault since I could probably have been making an effort to pull it out and vacuum back there regularly but I am just not that ambitious. It's often said that the Japanese only worry about the cleanliness of their immediate surroundings and will litter or dirty other areas without a second thought. With Americans, I sometimes think that we are more careful about other areas than we are sometimes about our own homes but I guess it'd be presumptuous for me to speak on behalf of anyone other than myself.


The area that is worse and not so much my fault is behind the tall cabinets pictured above. They are too heavy and difficult to move for the sake of cleaning. I haven't pulled them all out yet but I did remove the drawers on the far right and thick dust seems to be crawling up the wall starting from the bottom up. All the dust that falls down the crack between the wall and cabinet is merrily sliding down the wall and getting stuck at the bottom. I guess the dust doesn't realize there's no ladder to climb back up to the top once it's made the trip down.

The top of the shelves don't look pretty. You can see where I attempted to vacuum some of the accumulated dust (the random scraping marks in the dust) but the height of the shelves is too high for me to manipulate the handle of the vacuum in any way that is effective. You can also see just the top of where the dust slide down the wall starts.

Today, I vacuumed the walls in half the room then sponged them down. I'm not sure they look any cleaner but they actually are cleaner (theoretically) regardless of how they appear. I also cleaned all the visible wood trim including the ledge under the new air conditioner. When I was sponging it off, I noticed that a fine white powder was being picked up as I wiped along the ledge. There was so much that it cascaded from the ledge to the sofa at one point (the sponge couldn't catch it all, it seems). Upon closer inspection, I saw that there was actually a little mountain of this white stuff near the far right side of the air conditioner.

It seems that the guy who installed the air conditioner drilled the hole in the wall but didn't do anything to clean up the debris created while he drilled. He just left tons of it up there including a pile that, from his viewpoint doing the installation, he couldn't have missed given that it was about w inches high at its peak. I guess the Japanese reputation for service and thoroughness takes another hit on this one.

I'm pleased to say all the cleaning that can possibly be done before the move is now done. The hard part is ahead of me, of course, but some of the most unpleasant part is over.

Sumo Experiences - How and Why We Became Interested in It

This is a scan of one card from our collection of sumo postcards. This one is called "Five Giant Sumo Wrestlers" and the fellows pictured on the card are: top left - Mitoizumi, top right - Onokuni, center - Asashio, lower right - Konishiki, lower left - Kitao (later Yokozuna Futahaguro who was bounced from sumo after roughing up his stable leader a little). Konishiki is the only non-Japanese wrestler on the card.

Sumo is Japan's national sport but it seems to be so mainly because of inertia. The Japanese people, by and large, have little or no interest in sumo and know relatively little about it. They prefer baseball and soccer. Because of this, sumo is likely the one area of Japanese culture in which my husband and I can often run circles around Japanese people when it comes to our knowledge of it.

That knowledge is somewhat rusty in terms of who is hot and who's not in the current sumo scene but, in regards to the traditions, techniques, rituals, and rules of play, we still know it quite well. There was a time when we were absolutely potty for sumo. It was a love affair that began around 1990 and ended around 1996 and is marked by a collection of cherished sumo memorabilia that is in the closet right now but will be taken home and lovingly displayed when we get there.

In the earliest days of our time in Japan, we had a tiny little television which could offer bilingual broadcasts on the rare occasions when they were offered. This is done by essentially dividing the stereo up into a Japanese "channel" and an English "sub-channel". Bilingual T.V.s allowed you to turn off the Japanese part and only listen to the English. Cable T.V. was either in limited use or not available in our area at that time and English language programming was relatively hard to find. One of the things that you could watch in English was sumo. This was why and how we learned about sumo initially. With limited options, we chose the only English programming we could find.

Later, we just started to watch the "Sumo Digest" in Japanese since it was shorter and we were working during much of the original English language broadcast but we could only understand the all Japanese broadcast after listening to the English for some time. One of the good things about watching sumo so much is that the vocabulary is specialized and you heard the same words again and again. This helped one memorize them pretty rapidly. The only down side is that the vocabulary is so specialized that it's not very useful in everyday living in Japan.

Those who don't know sumo think it's a couple of fat guys pushing each other around until one of them falls down. This is a notion that is reinforced by the brevity of the matches. Like many things in life, the view of the outsider underestimates what is involved and only those who are on the inside or who carefully study the situation know that it's much harder and more complex than it looks. Winning at sumo is not all about weight, speed, and center of gravity. There's also a fair amount of technique involved as well as psychology and the use of the belt (mawashi) is very important in determining a win.

The psychological aspect comes during the part most people find boring where the wrestlers spend time before each bout pacing around the ring and occasionally crouching to stare at each other. There is no time limit on this "warm-up" period and no signal to say that the wrestlers are ready to start. They just work it out by the look in each others eyes which says "let's do it now". On rare occasions, one wrestler or another will misinterpret the subtle signal to begin and there will be a false start. This type of vagueness and communication that relies on reading between the lines rather than any sort of obvious signaling is incredibly Japanese.

If you watch this stare down, you can really see a lot of interesting things going on in the faces of the wrestlers. They don't grimace or pull faces. The look is mainly in the eyes and the slightest look around the mouth. Sometimes the looks really could wilt a fresh flower. Those who are a part of the sumo culture and business say sometimes a bout is won or lost at this point and I can believe it. You can also see a lack of confidence in a wrestler's eyes sometimes. When American grand champion (yokozuna) Akebono was on his game, his looks were extremely fierce. When he was off his game, you could see the doubt in his eyes. It was amazing how clear this was.

As for the belt, you could often tell once a wrestler got his hands on his opponent's belt in a certain way that he was going to win or lose. Getting the hands inside or outside and the point along the belt where one grabs goes a long way toward determining a win or loss. Sometimes this could result in extremely dramatic turns of play. There is a technique whereby someone who is up against the edge of the ring and looks like he's about to be pushed out (for a loss) will grab his opponent's belt and twist his body so he forces him down before he is pushed out. It's a dramatic come-back maneuver. This technique is called utchari and is extremely impressive to see. Unless a wrestler has the right grip of the belt though, he cannot get the leverage to perform this move.

So, sumo is definitely a lot more than a couple of almost naked beefy guys shoving and slapping at each other but a lot of the technique can only be seen if you pay attention to the subtle and small things that are going on. This is what really makes it so uniquely Japanese as it's a byproduct of distinctly Japanese cultural aspects.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Best Geek Poster Ever (and Framing It)

For many years now (possibly as many as 15), my husband has had a really nifty poster in a storage tube in our closet. This poster is too good (and likely valuable) to merely tack up on the wall with thumb tacks and we had never run across a poster-size frame while shopping in brick and mortar places in Tokyo so we never put it up. As time went by, the situation with our apartment was such that we didn't have a sufficiently large wall expanse to hang it on regardless so we forgot we had it until we started cleaning out the junk we had stashed in the closet a few years ago.

With the new air conditioner installed and functioning well and my plans for changing the furniture arrangement offering up some wall space, I decided it was time to take action and get this decorative beauty on a wall. The main problem with getting started is that I was uncertain where to find a frame for it. Fortunately, the Internet is there for us in these times of crisis so I did some searching starting with Amazon Japan. There was no joy there so I went to the Japanese branch of allposters.com. Unfortunately, with the cheapest frame starting at ¥17,000 ($137) all of their frames were too expensive. My plan is not to show a lovely frame but rather to protect the poster and display it neatly.

After a bit more searching around I finally found a place called "Poster Jam" which sells a wide variety of posters and frames including aluminum ones for around ¥1200-¥4000 ($10-$32). The price varies depending on the size of the frame. For this price, I didn't quite know what to expect but the drawing on the web site showed that there would be a backing, a frame, and a film to cover the poster. That was pretty much all I needed.

My husband was a bit wary of ordering in Japanese from a place like this because you can never be absolutely sure if you're filling in the forms correctly. While I think he has a point, there is one thing about ordering things from places like this in Japan that makes the situation far less risky. That is, it is very common for sellers to offer C.O.D. as an option when buying. Since you don't have to enter credit card information, even if you screw up the form, you won't be charged anything if they don't manage to deliver.

Fortunately, the form was pretty easy to fill out with a combination of my limited reading skills, my much better ability to type in Japanese, my husband's reading skills (which are far superior to mine), and the aid of my Mac's Japanese-English translation widget for confirmation of what we thought we were reading. The order went off without a hitch. The confirmation e-mail said that the delivery may take 5-7 days but it actually only took one and a half.


My friendly neighborhood Yamato delivery fellow brought this huge box today. You'll note that there are a fair number of "fragile" stickers attached to the box so that the frame isn't damaged in transit. Our bed is a queen-size one so you can get some idea of how large the parcel was. I can see why the postage on this is ¥600 ($4.80) given the size of the thing.

Incidentally, this Yamato delivery fellow knows me and I know him well because he handles delivery and pick-up of my freelance work with my former company. When he brought my package, he even asked me if I had anything to send out. The way the C.O.D. was handled (at least in my case) was that the delivery fellow called me first and told me he was on his way with a C.O.D. parcel that would cost me ¥4,080. This is rather a good idea both to make sure I'm home and that I'm ready with the money.


Inside the box, the frame is well-padded with a large sheet of bubble wrap. There's also a receipt in an envelope and a well-illustrated instruction sheet telling you how to take the frame apart for inserting a poster and how to install the hanger. You only need to remove two screws to remove the top of the frame to remove the film and prepare to insert the poster. Of course, given "Shari's Law of Small Screws", I dropped them twice and was on my hands and knees on the floor searching for where they'd bounced off to.


The clear film used to cover the front is flexible but adequately sturdy. It's protected on both sides by peel-off backing. The white backing faces the front of the frame when it's sent to you and is thicker in order to reduce the chances that the film will be damaged by a bump or nick. Given the size of the sheet, it's slightly unwieldy but quite manageable if you work with the entire frame on a large flat surface.

After you peel the backing off of the clear film, you can place the poster on the back board of the frame (which is pretty much just cardboard but does the job) and either place or slide the film over it. Our poster has been rolled up for so long that I had to slide it over to hold the edges down as I slowly uncurled it. If you have a poster which can lie flat, it's probably a lot easier to place.


The hanger pieces come in a little bag. Before you put the top of the frame back on, you need to slide them down along the sides. Of course, I didn't notice this until after I'd already put the top back on so I had to go another round with the screws and, being the lawful type, I obediently dropped one again.


The design for the hanger on the back is pretty ingenious. The weight of the frame when it hangs holds them in place. I'm pretty sure this is a very trustworthy hanging system but I'm less sure about my ability to tie a bow that holds so I'll probably re-tie this into one huge honking knot before actually hanging it up. The poster can't be hung until my furniture swap is done though and that won't happen until next Monday or Tuesday.


Finally, you may see the nifty poster we've kept hidden away all these years. At the top, the Japanese says something about "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" being a "super nonsense movie" and that's actually pretty accurate. Since this is a Monty Python item and it's Japanese, it's a slice of geek nirvana. The picture can't convey just how slick this looks in person because you lose the sense of the size and nice clean look of it. Also, the color is off because I had to cover the lens with a tissue so as not to get a huge glare spot on it. If you've got a great poster you want to display, you definitely want to frame it because it looks so much better this way.

My experience with Poster Jam leads me to give them a big thumbs up. The frame is very nice for the price and they were fast to process the order and deliver it to me. They were also easy to order from (even in Japanese). The only problem with the frame that I can see is that the frame doesn't hold the pieces together as tightly as would be nice. If you jostle the poster inside the frame around a bit while attaching the hanging pieces, it can be shaken out of where you've carefully placed it. To some extent, the static of the clear film on the front will hold the poster in place but perhaps not enough for a relatively thick and heavy poster like ours. When I tied the back on, the poster slipped down a bit but I was able to shake it back up without taking it apart. However, the odd size of our poster required me to order a frame somewhat larger than its true size. If you get a frame that just fits (or order a custom-made one), this isn't an issue.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Good Day Books vs. The Blue Parrot (Used Book Shops)

Tokyo residents who are shopping for used English books are likely familiar with "Good Day Books." The shop has been around for about 15 years and has a good selection and decent prices. They will order new books in addition to selling used books. Used books can be traded in for store credit which can then be used to pay (100%) for used books you purchase in the shop (except for the 5% consumption tax) as well as 20% of the price of new books. We've been trading and buying books there for quite some time now and we tend to get 30%-50% of the value of books (closer to 50%) in credit.

Recently, I came across a link to another used book shop called "The Blue Parrot". Since this shop is in Takadanobaba and Good Day Books is in Ebisu (both on the Yamanote line), my husband decided to take a bag of 18 books to both shops and see which gave him the better deal and offered the better shopping experience. Since he has a lot of experience with Good Day Books, he pretty much knows what he would get for the books and which books they were likely to accept and which they'd likely reject so he went to the Blue Parrot first.

The 18 books he took were a mixture of novels, humor books, and a few non-fiction books including one on baseball, a large book on MYST/Riven (the development of the video games) and a few New Age philosophy books. The Blue Parrot agreed to take all of the books and would either pay ¥960 or give ¥2,200 of credit which could be used to buy used books.

The shop itself was relatively small and narrow. There were audio books on CD. They carried Stephen Fry's audio versions of Harry Potter novels, for instance, but they were relatively pricey (¥12,000 each). The books were pretty well-organized and one could likely find a book one was looking for if it was in stock. They also carry DVDs of movies though my husband thought most of them were relatively low-priced unpopular titles (around ¥700 each). There were exceptions though. Babylon 5 season 1 on DVD was available used for ¥3,000. If you buy DVDs there, you have to take a good look at formats and region codes though since some of the discs are PAL. The web site for the shop mentions that they also carry CDs but my husband didn't see any.

My husband passed up on selling or trading in books at The Blue Parrot because he was sure he could do better at Good Day Books. Good Day Books refused 4 of the 18 books he took back (the MYST/Riven book, 2 humor books, and Dragonflight) but still gave him ¥5,200 in credit. So, he got more than twice as much credit for 4 fewer books at Good Day Books. The Good Day Books shop is at least twice as big as The Blue Parrot and more comfortable to walk around in and carries a larger selection.

In terms of the advantages for each particular shop, The Blue Parrot offers on-line shopping though the selection doesn't seem very good at this time. When I did a search on "humor" via the on-line shop, no results came up and other types had limited selections. I'm guessing the selection will improve with time. Also, The Blue Parrot carries DVDs and Good Day Books does not. Finally, if you are leaving Japan forever and have no use for store credit, it's better to get a small amount of cash for your books from The Blue Parrot if you are unwilling to go to the trouble of trying to sell them yourself via free ads in publications like Metropolis. Good Day Books doesn't offer cash for your books. If you are remaining in Japan, you're likely better off taking your books to Good Day Books because you get a great deal more credit to apply to future purchases and a larger store to use that credit in.

My husband said he wouldn't make a return trip to The Blue Parrot unless he was thinking of paying cash only for books because of how low the trade in credit he was offered was going to be.

Monday, June 25, 2007

New Air Conditioner


As I posted previously, our landlord arranged for a second air conditioner to be installed in our apartment and today was the magic day. While this may seem extravagant and wasteful given how small our place is, bear in mind that the point is to use one air conditioner at a time, not both at once, and that it will actually be more efficient using one in each room rather than running one longer to cover two rooms.

This is a relatively standard air conditioner designed to cover one 6-mat room and not dissimilar from the one we already have except to the extent that it seems to reflect some enhancements in technology. It seems much more powerful and can really push out the air on the high setting. I don't know if it just has a better fan behind it or if our old one has a weak fan but it's quite impressive. My husband tested it out and he discovered it easily covers both the living room and kitchen (though we don't plan on using it for both except on rare occasions).


The fellow who installed it, a younger guy with longish hair, seemed concerned that installing it above our window would be a problem because of the shallow ledge that would be below the A/C. He wanted to install it on the wall with the bookshelf (picture above) in the corner of the room. In fact, he moved the bookshelf on top, the speakers, and the statue you see in anticipation of putting it there. He picked up the bookshelf with all the books still on it and broke it because it's not supposed to be moved while at full extension with all that weight on it. Either he didn't notice what he did or moved it back without saying anything about it. Every time someone delivers or installs something in our apartment, they damage something and walk away without acknowledging it or trying to fix it.

This position he wanted in the corner of the room would push the air over the sofa for the most part (rather than into the center of the room and toward the kitchen), we really didn't want it there. My students sit on the sofa when they come for lessons and Japanese people tend to be more sensitive to cold. The last thing I need is having an air conditioner blow directly on my students and only hitting me peripherally. It turns out that only the heating function would be affected by the ledge and we have no intention of using it for heat so we convinced him to put it over the window.

Now that the air conditioner is installed and works very well, I can commence with the swapping of furniture. My husband and I decided this would be a good time to replace our worn carpet in the living room since I'll be moving almost all of the furniture out anyway. We went to a local shop and ordered a dark gun metal gray carpet which will be delivered on Thursday.

Being female, the idea of rearranging all the furniture is pretty exciting. Being sane, the notion of all the cleaning associated with this moving isn't something I'm looking forward to but I realize it's necessary and the end result is going to look better. I'll be starting this weekend after my last lesson on Sunday.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

New Eyes

This weekend marks the end of a 2-month stint of doing a very big freelance job for my former company. Every weekend in May and the last two weekends in June have been spent doing 8 hours of speaking on the telephone with 63 employees who work at a company that produces electronic components. Saturdays haven't been too difficult because it's only been two hours but Sundays, at six hours, have been relatively tiring and brutal.

While some people may feel that speaking on the phone makes teaching easier, it actually can be a lot harder depending on how you approach the work. For one thing, you have to project a great deal more energy and enthusiasm into your speaking because there is no other way to offer an encouraging atmosphere to the students. You can't smile or use body language to convey approval or foster the students' speaking. If you give it your all, it can be very draining. Since this group of people have been a very nice bunch, I've been giving it my best every weekend despite how tiring it is.

The last few days of this work have largely been made up of a final lesson which requires the students to ask me questions about myself. I already posted about the sort of questions I tend to get asked but the questions in this lesson tend not to all be entirely of that sort since they aren't random questions but part of a planned 5-minute question session. Good students will often pick a theme and ask a lot of questions about it and this company is full of good students.

However, I have been asked a lot of questions about Pennsylvania (where I was born and grew up) and it has made me realize how little I know about commerce and culture there. A good many students have asked me what the biggest food product is and I honestly didn't know what it was.

A look at Wikipedia revealed, much to my surprise, that Pennsylvania is the number one producer of mushrooms in the United States. I was much less surprised to learn that it was the third largest producer of Christmas trees, and fourth largest producer of sod, milk, horses, and nursery plants. Since Pennsylvania means "Penn's woods" and trees are present in great abundance, any product related to plants and trees could only come as a surprise the most ignorant of Pennsylvania residents.

Some of these "products" were a part of my upbringing. My grandmother often did seasonal work at a nursery when I was a child and the library my sister is working at is a beneficiary of funding from the namesake of that nursery. My sister and I were some of the lucky kids who had horses despite the fact that my family was relatively poor. Probably one of the reasons we could afford them was that abundant horses kept prices down a bit.

Researching the answer to this question altered my perspective and broadened my knowledge of my home area in a way that probably would not have occurred if I hadn't lived in Japan. Interacting with students pushes me to see my home area through the eyes of an outsider rather than someone who grew up there. Sometimes Japanese people ask me what the best part about being in Japan is and I often say that it's the ability to see your own country through new eyes.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Blah

The rainy season is underway in Japan right now and I've been feeling rather "blah" recently (perhaps) because of it or because of too much work this month and last. It's not that I mind rain. In fact, I think rain is rather a glorious thing when it's pouring down good and hard and thunder is rolling magnificently in the background. The problem is that the rainy season in Japan is relentlessly gray, muggy, and the rain seems to fall out of the sky listlessly with no symphonic sounds to accompany it. When compared to a really ripping thunder storm, the rainy season tends to have all the glamor of an old pair of sweat socks.

There are also certain logistical issues which arise as a result of the ongoing drizzle and humidity. The main problem is that you spend several weeks having serious problems with your laundry. Most people don't have clothes dryers in their apartments and those that do have smallish ones which are very anemic. They have a low capacity and aren't powerful enough to dry completely wet clothing.

In fact, when we had a dryer (it's since gone to dryer heaven), the instruction manual for it said we should hang the clothes up to dry first and then put them in the dryer only after they were already largely dry. In the U.S., the main point of a dryer was that it was a labor-saving device. In Japan, having a dryer increased the amount of work and was mainly about improving the quality of the laundry, particularly making it softer or smell better.

If you have to do laundry during the rainy season, you can appreciate the idea of making your laundry smell better. When you hang clothes inside your apartment to dry, they tend to smell somewhat like a washcloth that's been used a few times and left to dry to a crispy state over a spigot in the bathroom. One feature of air conditioners in Japan which is factored into purchase decisions is their ability to help dry clothes hung inside for drying and reduce the possibility of this unpleasant odor. In fact, one of my students does laundry every day and runs her A/C for two hours a day every day throughout the year just for the sake of the laundry.

This year, the rainy season is supposed to be more anemic than in past years. In fact, there is concern that there may be a water shortage as a result of it. I'd like to say that, on the bright side, it'll be easier to do laundry but it isn't quite working out like that. So far, it seems like it still rains or threatens to rain with the same frequency but there's just less of it when it finally comes down.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A Shop You Must Go Into

Back when I was still an Apple zealot, I bought a QuickTake 150 camera for a relatively princely sum (at the time). We took a fair number of pictures around Tokyo as well as of our apartment at that time and I recently ran across them while consolidating back-up CDs for transfer to a back-up DVD.

The camera was better than a lot of digital cameras at that time but not nearly as good as those that soon followed. One problem was that it didn't have a handy-dandy LCD display to preview the shot and its flash was very crude. Another was that the resolution was pretty low. Eventually, the camera's interface (Mac serial bus) was phased out and I then had years without a camera. In fact, I only got a new digital camera just prior to starting this blog and probably never would have started writing it without my new camera.

The pictures we took with the QuickTake were fine as long as they were smallish and outdoors. One of the places my husband took a shot of 11 years ago was a shop in Koenji which I'm certain is no longer there but has to have one of the greatest names ever.


This place has a name you couldn't possibly forget. It also had to be intentionally named in a crude manner. There's simply no way this is one of those "funny English" mistakes that people take so much delight in cataloging on their web sites.


I'm certain my husband and I probably went into this place and looked around though I can't remember anything about it now. It's likely that the goods within weren't nearly as interesting as the shop's name. There are tons of T-shirt shops around Tokyo and after awhile, even the funny English ones start to seem pretty boring. If nothing else, one can see the value in naming your shop right in attracting potential customers. It's too bad that the name probably didn't lure many Japanese customers inside.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rearranging

With the news of a second air conditioner being installed in our living room, I've been considering turning my living room into a living room again. Quite awhile back, I put the computer equipment, television, stereo, and telephone into the bedroom because it was the only room with an A/C. Given the long, brutally humid Japanese summer and the weakness of that air conditioner, this was the logical thing to do in order to avoid forcing an A/C designed for a 6-mat room to cover 10.5 mats.

My husband's "comfy chair."

While this set-up has been great from the viewpoint of staying cool in summer, it's been rather inconvenient in terms of my husband's and my sleeping and wakefulness schedules. As I mentioned in a post some time back, I have little to do if I wake up early and can't go back to sleep because I have to park in the living room so as not to disturb my husband while he keeps sleeping. There's also a problem with accommodating a second chair at a spare desk in the bedroom so he can't really use his computer anywhere but on the bed. At present, my husband's "comfortable" chair is a huge black, high-backed chair that reclines. It's rather large for this apartment and impossible to fit into our bedroom along with a king-size bed and my chair.

If the air conditioner installation goes off without a hitch this coming Monday, I'll be solidifying my plans for a huge swap of furniture between rooms. This is made incredibly difficult by the fact that there is so little space to temporarily hold items as you move them around. Ideally, I'd empty out the necessary space by using the kitchen as a holding pen for my cabinets but that would be like trying to squeeze a size 6 ass into a size 4 dress. It just isn't going to all fit so I'll have to do it a few pieces at a time.

At the moment, I'm doing some pre-moving preparation. Mainly, this involves going through the junk in storage in the living room and trying to force myself to toss the stuff I couldn't let go of before. That will be followed by the more difficult task of trying to get my husband to throw out the stuff he doesn't want to let go of. He's been a good sport over the last several years as my zeal for de-cluttering has been accelerating but there are still some things he finds hard to toss.

One of the things that is hardest for me to simply throw out is old computer equipment. At one point, I had a huge plastic storage drawer full of SCSI cables despite having only two devices that were using them at the time. I'd paid a fair amount for those cables and couldn't face just throwing them away, especially because I had a case of the "just in cases". This is a situation in which you hold onto something because you paid a lot for it and there's a snowball's chance in hell that you may need or want it again. I'm pretty sure that the "just in cases" disease is what keeps the storage container companies in business and closets full of old crap.

One of the items I'm having the greatest difficulty letting go of now is a USB Zip drive and about 25 Zip discs. If you weren't a part of the group of people that once used these items, they are 100 MB cartridges about 2.5x the thickness of a floppy and about 1/4 bigger in size. They're excellent for small back-ups but their capacity seems pretty paltry in this age of gigabyte-size SD cards. One of the things that makes it harder to let go of is that the cartridges used to cost quite a bit. If anyone out there who lives in Japan wants a perfectly healthy drive and a bunch of discs, leave me a comment with your e-mail address (which I won't publish) and I'll ship you the whole lot for free. You'll only need to pay for the postage C.O.D. (chaku-barai).

Despite the huge amount of effort, this new arrangement will allow us to have a bedroom that is just a bedroom again as well as be able to actually use our sofa for something besides parking my students butts on. It's my guess that not having to lie constantly on the bed while using his computer (because there's nowhere else comfortable to sit) will help my husband's sleep schedule quite a bit. Of course, if the air conditioner the landlord installs is anemic or inadequate, all my best-laid floor plans will go out the window.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Punished

The old saying goes, "no good deed goes unpunished." This phrase has been on my mind today because one of my students e-mailed me and asked to "reschedule" her lesson today. The contract the referral agency makes with students clearly stipulates that same-day cancellation is a loss for the student. The teacher is not obliged to reschedule or offer a make-up lesson and will be paid for the hour unless there is some sort of urgent mitigating circumstance (such as a natural disaster).

Since this student has had a variety of health issues, particular related to her "waterworks", and I'm guessing her cancellation may have something to do with that, I agreed to let her reschedule for tomorrow rather than do a straight cancel. She e-mailed me back and said she wanted to come Friday evening but I have other students and can't accommodate her at the time she wants to come. She then replied to that message demanding to know all of the free time on my schedule from morning to evening tomorrow.

Perhaps my student is poor at writing her messages and came across more bluntly than she intended to. Perhaps she is grateful and too busy to take the time to say it. Or, perhaps she's just taking advantage of my willingness to cut her some slack. The end result is that I'm wasting my time playing e-mail tag with her and what's more exhausting my patience since I'm trying to do her a favor and it's just causing me more aggravation.

As is the case with most people, this isn't the first time this has happened to me and it won't be the last. In my former job, I constantly went above and beyond the call of duty rather than simply did as I was told. If I wasn't busy, I asked if there was anyone I could help with their work rather than sit in my cubicle and do whatever I wanted (which I could have done without censure). I also used my own laptop computers for about 10 years to do my job because the company whined about being too poor to afford another Mac. They bought one for my boss. They bought one for the Japanese women who worked with us but they never bought one for me.

As time went by, I used my own Zip drive for back-ups, my own scanner for scanning work, and even my own registered versions of Adobe software because the company pleaded poverty and I wanted to be helpful as well as allow work to proceed more smoothly and quickly. Needless to say, this was never appreciated nor recognized in any fashion and none of the dedication or skill I applied to my job was recognized in my annual raises though, at least, my gaijin boss told me he appreciated what I did even though the Japanese didn't.

Being a philosophical sort of person, I wonder why it is that this type of situation is common enough to have a well-known saying attached to it. Is it that we have to get spanked for our good intentions in order to encourage us to build our characters such that we continue to perform such deeds in spite of how they are responded to? Is it that we should learn to stand up for ourselves and not be taken advantage of since going above and beyond with many people often offers us that dubious pay-off? Is it so we learn to roll with the punches and not let the lack of gratitude or recognition weigh on our overactive philosophical minds? Or, as I'm sure many less pensive or spiritually-minded people think, "things happen" and there's no meaning whatsoever to it.

I've actually grown sufficiently past my Christian upbringing not to expect any sort of reward for doing or being "good". I'm old enough to know that the best people in the world often get squat in the way of tangible rewards in life and I don't believe in heaven so I don't think there's a reward in death either. However, it'd be nice if doing good things didn't actually result in more hassle or stress. If a good deed can't be rewarded, at the very least, it shouldn't be punished.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Good News, Bad News, Good News

My brother-in-law (Luis) is moving to Ikebukuro soon and is liquidating some of the contents of his apartment. Among his belongings, he has more air conditioners than he needs and he generously offered us one of the spare ones rather than sell it for a nominal amount of money. This was our first bit of good news.

It's a powerful air conditioner that would likely be able to cool our entire apartment. The main reason we wanted it was that I currently have to run the air conditioner in the bedroom to cool the living room where I teach private lessons because it's the only one in the apartment. Running an A/C in one room to cool another is wasteful and inefficient. What's more is the fact that our A/C is not designed to cool more than the 6-mat room it's installed in so it's straining to do the job, particularly in the thick of the Japanese summer that is rapidly rushing up to smack us in the face as I type. So, it's easy to see the appeal of a second machine even in a relatively smallish place.

Since we rent though, we had to ask the landlord for permission and assistance in getting it installed. He and his wife contacted the electric company and we were told we'd have to get our amperage increased from 20-30 and pay another $3 a month on our base electric bill. They also told us that 30 is as high as this apartment can tolerate and that, once we received the upgrade, we would be able to use the air conditioner that Luis is giving us.

The electrician showed up today and performed the upgrade and told us that our apartment simply could not handle an A/C as powerful as the one Luis was giving us. So, the good news was negated by this bad news. Incidentally, this was a classic example of not getting a straight answer initially from the power company. Japanese companies are notorious for not giving straight answers and for different people from the same company to give different answers. Since we gave the spec sheet for the A/C to them when the landlord made the initial call and they were encouraging about us being able to use it initially but clearly someone dropped the ball. Fortunately, Luis is familiar with this tendency and he had held off on telling someone who wanted to buy it that it was taken so he could still sell it.

The final good news was that the landlord told us he would install another air conditioner for us entirely at his expense. He simply offered to do this without any prodding or requests from us. The new one will be similar to the one we have now in our bedroom so it won't be as powerful as the one we might have gotten but it will be brand new and more than sufficient for my needs in terms of cooling the living room during lessons.

Sometimes people who know we've lived in the same place for 18 years wonder why we don't move given that older places don't look as good as new ones and are missing amenities. Besides the fact that our rent is on the moderately low side for a place in this location and of its size, there's also the fact that we have the type of landlord of which you can only dream.

Bug Proofing


Back when our first cockroach of the year showed up, my husband said he wondered how it got inside. Since I've read roaches can squeeze in through very small spaces and live in tiny places, I never thought much about it but the truth is that there aren't any gaps in the floor boards, ceiling, or holes in the walls through which insects could pass if they were living in such places. All of our windows and sliding doors have screens so, unless the roaches are strong enough to slide one open and shut or small enough to squeeze through the most infinitesimal gap between screen and frame, there was no way I could think of that they could get in.

While considering when to take down and clean the kitchen exhaust fan, it suddenly occurred to me that it represented a prime orifice through which any sort of small creature or insect could enter the apartment. In fact, at some point a long time ago, a small lizard actually was crawling on the wall in our kitchen and that was a serious mystery until now. The fan has no screen of any sort behind it but rather a hood which is open to the outside. Anything that is 6 inches or smaller can easily crawl or fly up into the vent and enter through the fan blades when the fan is off.

Since the fan opens into the kitchen and is designed to suck out natural gas fumes as well as cooking odors, anything which is attracted to the smell of food will be drawn to the vent. You can't see behind the fan in the picture above but the hood leading to the outside is absolutely coated with thick, greasy crud resembling cakes of soot. It can't be cleaned by me, of course, as it's an external vent which is very high up on the wall outside and has 20 years of gunk on it. I imagine there is something in there to attract the discerning roach should he find his way up there (the males can fly). I also wonder now if mosquitoes and moths may have been getting in this way.

Since this is the biggest opening which is unscreened that leads outside, I decided it'd be a good idea to do something to screen it off in some fashion so I picked up a sheet of batting designed to filter oven exhaust fans and attached it to the fan's frame. I attached the sheet to the fan pulling it as tightly as possible but the fan is nearly flush with the frame and when it was turned on and started sucking air out, the blade caught on the batting and tore it up.

My husband suggested that it'd work if we found a way to raise the filter higher off the frame and while buying another sheet of batting, I noticed the type of extra long sponges (they're about 1 foot long and about 5 inches wide) that you cut to size. I figured that I could buy one of these, cut it up and use it to raise the filter from the frame.

If you look at the picture above, you can see where I attached the sponge pieces to the frame with double-sided tape (the sponges are white but can still be distinguished from the fan's frame). I then stretched the filter as tight as I could over the frame and taped it down on all sides. Since the filter material is flexible, it still gets sucked inward to a small extent but it's still far enough from the blades not to get hacked up.

The filter should keep the fan from getting filthy with dust but more than that I'm hoping that it keeps anything that is outside from crawling in. It'll be interesting to see if we see no more cockroaches this year after putting on this filter or if they're finding their way in via some other route.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What Does It Take

Since I started private teaching, I've been hearing stories about my students' workplaces and recently heard about a situation in my former workplace which have often left me wondering what it takes to get fired in Japan.

One of my students, in particular, seems to be in a place where even the most egregiously inappropriate behavior won't get you sacked. This student told me that one of her coworkers spends most of her nights (up until 4:00 am at times) involved in seminars for selling Amway-style products (though it's not actually Amway). This leaves her so tired that she spends a lot of her time on the job the next day sleeping at her desk. While she's been asked not to do this, she hasn't stopped and she hasn't been fired.

This same student told me that one of her coworkers is a complete and utter bitch with everyone in the office. If anyone asks her to do a job or for assistance in accomplishing a project, she feels free to bite their heads off. She is such a bear to get along with that everyone in the section feels obliged to bribe her daily with cookies, candy, and various other sweets. The bribes don't completely stop her moody outbursts but they do keep them at a close to tolerable level.

When I ask my student why her company tolerates these workers, she said that, in the case of the moody co-worker, she knows how to use a piece of proprietary accounting system software that no one else really knows how to use with any proficiency. Since this co-worker is so hard to get any cooperation from due to her nasty temperament, no one can learn it from her. The sleeping co-worker is simply tolerated despite having no special skills. She's unsure why.

Another of my students has told me that two of her coworkers have gone off on leave for psychological reasons and that they will receive 80% of their pay for 6 months to a year while they are at home recovering from the stress they feel. Meanwhile, the rest of the staff are busting their cans trying to cover for them. This situation didn't surprise me as much because the same sort of thing occurred with one of the employees at my former company. The explanation was that he was "nervous" and would work from home when he could but was mainly just resting. When we think of workers in Japan, we don't think of companies allowing workers to take months and months off due to stress but it seems to be a not uncommon situation.

Finally, I had a long conversation with my former boss about the situation at my company as of late and he told me that my replacement has been acting up rather fiercely. His job, as was mine, is to conduct lessons via telephone as well as correct homework reports that are returned to the students. When I was there, I helped write texts when I wasn't otherwise busy. He is helping make video DVDs for language learning when he isn't busy because his talents do not lie in writing textbooks or with using desktop publishing software.

My boss told me that my replacement always leaves work on Saturdays 2-3 hours early yet claims a full day on his time sheet yet he has recently been complaining because he doesn't get Monday national holidays because his work week is Tuesday to Saturday. What is worse is the fact that he recently was returning from a session of video shooting with a Japanese co-worker and he told her to "f*ck off" and that he couldn't face going back to the office and "talking to those monkeys" again. He not only went home rather than do his 2 hours of scheduled telephone work in the office that evening but he failed to show up at all the next day and would not answer his phone.

He did finally show up and apologize for what he did but he has since been complaining about the contract and salary he received upon signing up for his second year a few months ago. He feels he should be making as much, or more, than I did after 12 years there. He also spends at least an hour a day sitting in his cubicle reading novels instead of studying video software or enhancing his video editing skills or doing something job-related. When I was there, I spent most of my free time learning Photoshop, Pagemaker, InDesign, or Illustrator because I didn't feel free to goof off on the job day-in and day-out.

On top of all of this, my replacement got arrested a year-and-half ago and was in jail for nearly 3 weeks without any contact with the company. During that time, my boss covered for him and then allowed him back. He's also been absent numerous times for colds that seem to last a week or two and other people have had to cover for him. While I don't think that people should go to work when they are miserably sick, I do think that they can work during the later stages of a cold.

One thing I will point out about my former job is that my former boss (an Aussie) is not a hard-ass. In fact, he is very tolerant and understanding of how tiring things can be and is perfectly fine with someone leaving early if there's nothing to do provided they have cleared it with him and that they are good workers otherwise. He also let us play video games between telephone lessons on weekends when the office was empty as long as it didn't affect the quality of our work. In short, there's no reason for my replacement to feel put-upon or oppressed. I'm sure that, if he were a better worker, my boss wouldn't be-grudge him enjoying his book when things aren't busy.

The most shocking thing about this situation is not that my replacement is an ungrateful slacker but rather that, when my boss said my replacement may one day bug out and not come back to work, the Japanese manager of the office said, if that happened, he'd go to the fellow's apartment and "convince him to return." My boss was flabbergasted. Given this guy's work record, he should be fired, not begged to return.

So, I have to wonder what it takes to be fired in Japan. If you can sleep on the job, verbally abuse co-workers, disappear without notice for days and take copious amounts of time off due to stress or minor illness and still keep your job, it seems there's not much that actually will get you axed.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Most Popular Questions

After years of doing lessons by telephone and in person, I've experienced the same questions from Japanese people hundreds of times. For some questions, I may have been asked well over a thousand times. Here are the questions that I'm most often asked:

1. How old are you?

Every textbook my (former) company makes tells students, in preparation for lessons conducted via telephone, that they should not ask this question because it can be considered rude by some people, particularly women. Nonetheless, the vast majority of male students will ask the question anyway. Female students, who may be sensitive about their own ages, rarely ask this question.

I'm not one of those sensitive women who hates to admit my age but I don't like the fact that when I say I'm 42, the students are then embarrassed for asking now that it's clear I'm on the older side and they feel obliged to make some stupid comment to cover up their discomfort. The most frequent comment is "oh, you are so young." This seems patronizing because it's so absurd. I usually laugh and say, "I don't think so."

2. Can you eat sushi?

This is likely an incorrectly-worded question as students often confuse situations when they should use "do you ~" and "can you ~" but I'm not sure if the question is asking if I'm able to choke down raw fish or if I enjoy choking it down. The notion is that foreigners have a distaste for this Japanese delicacy and they want to test both how adventurous your are and the extent to which you've embraced Japanese culture through its cuisine.

In my case, I have had sushi before but I have an intense dislike for the texture of raw fish (as well as tofu). The taste doesn't bother me so much but it feels a bit like very tender rubber to me and I hate the way it feels on my teeth when I chew it. Eating prosciutto is a similarly unpleasant experience for me. I'm also not the least bit comfortable eating raw flesh of any kind. You'd never find me eating a rare steak or burger even if I were inclined to eat beef (which I'm not as I dislike it intensely).

3. Where are you from?

This question is rather understandable on the one hand but less understandable when you consider every single student I teach both face-to-face and via the telephone has been given a written profile about me which lists my marital status, birthplace, hobbies, and, in the case of face-to-face students, a work history.

I think that I get asked this question mainly as a way of introducing the topic and asking follow-up questions though sometimes it's simply the case that students pay no attention to the profile sheets they are sent. The most common follow-up questions are:

What is your home city famous for?
What festivals does your city have?
How many people live in your city?
What product is most famous in your city?

When answering these questions, I invariably encounter what might be called "incompatible data input" difficulty. When I explain to the students that I'm not from a city but a very small town which isn't famous for anything and produces no particular product, they invariably cannot understand. It's not that they can't understand my answers which I go out of my way to phrase simply but rather that they have a notion in mind of what sort of answers might be given and my answers are outside of that range so they mentally reject my answers.

This is actually a rather typical problem with communication between Japanese people and westerners. Since Japanese communication is indirect, people often operate from pre-conceived notions of what is to come in a conversation or what might be reasonably expected. On more than one occasion, a student has told me that he or she says something and expects that the party they are speaking to will conclude something else. This reading between the lines works fine in Japanese to Japanese communication but can be a problem in Japanese to western person communication.

4. Do you like natto?

Natto is a fermented soybean dish which has a relatively strong smell and is stringy and sticky. Even some Japanese people find it repulsive. It's supposed to be good for your health because it's rich in protein and low in fat. I've tried natto before and didn't find it particularly offensive except that it smelled very much like beer to me and I absolutely detest the smell of beer. I'm pretty sure I could eat it regularly if I put a clothespin on my nose since the taste was fine (though not mouth-wateringly enticing).

I think the Japanese ask this question because they expect a bad reaction. It's similar to asking someone if they've ever eaten a strange esoteric dish like snake in the U.S. or like asking about regional dishes which most people outside that region find disgusting (like blood pudding in the U.K.).

5. Do you like Japanese men?

This question is frequently asked by Japanese men and never asked by women. It's unclear why they ask this but one possibility is that they are hoping for some sort of affirmation that western women find Japanese men appealing. In my case, the honest truth is that I do not find Japanese men (in general) attractive for a variety of reasons so I tend to avoid this question by saying that I'm married and never think about Japanese men (which is actually true except on the occasions when I'm asked this question and am forced to think about this issue).

6. What Japanese food do you like?

You'll notice this is the 3rd food-related question. The Japanese are obsessed with food, as I believe I've mentioned before (as have numerous other Japan bloggers) so it's not so strange that they ask a lot of questions about food. It's likely that I wouldn't be asked this question if I said I loved sushi when I was asked about it.

I actually do like a decent amount of Japanese food but am not adept at preparing it nor am I sufficiently enamored of it to seek it out particularly. In the first decade or so here, my husband and I would frequent yakitori (grilled chicken, beef, or vegetables on wooden skewers) and, to a lesser extent, tonkatsu restaurants and sample a variety of non-seafood and fish dishes. I do like most chicken-based Japanese food as well as miso-based dishes and nearly all vegetables (though konyaku (gel) beats me on the texture front again - talk about rubbery!). I also have a very soft spot for Japanese curry. Since I'm not a noodle fan of any stripe though (not even pasta), I pass on the ramen and soba. I have had chanko-nabe (the sumo wrestler's stew) and thought it was quite good but it's not the sort of thing which can be ordered in local restaurants and I'm not making the trip to Ryogoku to have it.

I'm sure people will feel I'm missing out by not availing myself of the numerous amounts of seafood in Japan but I grew up in western Pennsylvania with minimal exposure to seafood and fish. Even when my parents, on rare occasions, prepared seafood or fish, I didn't care for it. I have sampled things but have not reacted well. My first bite of shrimp was so repulsive to me that I nearly regurgitated it on the spot.

Oddly enough, the things I've grown most enamored of among Japanese food is the bean cakes and sweet potatoes as well as nearly anything made with chestnuts. These are the things I expect to crave and miss the most when we finally leave Japan.

7. Why did you come to Japan/how long have you lived in Japan?

I'm not sure what kind of answers student expect (or hope for) in this regard but early on in my stay, which was when foreigners were still considered grotesquely overpaid for teaching English, I'm pretty sure they thought the answer was "to make money". To be honest, way back at the beginning, that was a factor in deciding to come here as the pay was relatively decent for the time. It's not nearly so lucrative as it once was though because salaries have gone down as hours have gone up. However, my husband and I couldn't really get ahead while living in the U.S. and do alright here so it's certainly not a bad place to make a living.

The main reason I came to Japan was that my husband and I met here for the first time and it seemed like life here was better for us than it was in the U.S. I tend to explain this to my students more simply by saying that my husband lived and worked here before we married and he enjoyed it so we thought it would be interesting if we both lived here for awhile.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Tourists

Despite the fact that this exact brand of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts are now commonly available in Japan, they are still the most popular souvenir to pass out to coworkers and friends when returning from a trip to Hawaii.

Amongst the plethora of oft-uttered anti-American statements people enjoy bandying about is the assertion that, when they travel abroad, they seek out American food and the most crass pursuits and sightseeing spots. Generally speaking, the idea is Americans seek to spend time abroad much in the same way that they spend time at home rather than immerse themselves in the local culture.

Few people pause to consider whether or not these behaviors are confined to Americans since hating and bashing the U.S. is so in vogue. There's not much incentive to consider whether such behaviors apply to all Americans or that they may actually be present in tourists from other countries as well.

One of my students who I affectionately (and anonymously) refer to as "Little Old Man" (LOM) spent the last 8 days or so in Hawaii. LOM is retired and spends his time in Japan doing a few part-time jobs but his main passion is, unsurprisingly, golf. What did he do in Hawaii? He played golf. What did he eat in Hawaii? He ate Japanese food. I asked him if the food in the Japanese restaurants in Hawaii was different from that in Japan and he said it was "very good" and was "the same". He added that it "wasn't American food". He stayed in a suite which he rents as part of a timeshare that caters to Japanese tourists. Other than that, he went shopping.

If what I'm saying comes across as critical of my student's behavior, then I'm not expressing myself well. I don't have a problem with how he chose to spend his time in Hawaii but I do have a problem with the hypocrisy of people who focus their attention like lasers on Americans and ascribe all sorts of uniquely awful behavior to them without reflecting on the behavior of people from all cultures.

It's human nature to both seek out similarity and novelty. We seek similarity because it represents safety and security. Novelty is sought out of curiosity but only in small doses. This makes sense from a survival perspective as those who were too adventurous were more likely to sample the poison fruit or blunder into the lion's den and be devoured. Those who never sampled anything new may have starved to death when they didn't brave tasting new sources of food or move when the environmental changes made life inhospitable.

Perhaps some people are better about fighting their natural impulses or have stronger curiosity or possibly they have enough a sufficiently varied life experience to have a broader base to draw upon when considering what they can safely sample or where they can securely venture. At any rate, it's important not to judge others by how they choose to enjoy themselves or live their lives just because you may make different choices in their shoes.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Projection

In psychology, projection is when one attributes one's own thoughts or feelings, generally anxious or uncomfortable ones, to another party. Projection is one of the few things that Freud got right about psychology and behavior. For instance, if your boss is insecure about the quality of his work, rather than recognize his own insecurity, he may project it on to you and accuse you of not respecting or recognizing the quality and/or quantity of his efforts.

Throughout my life, I've both been the target of and purveyor of a great deal of projection. It'd be surprising if there were many people who weren't on both sides of the equation in this regard at one point or another in their lives. Projection seems to be especially rampant in one's younger years when insecurity tends to loudly rage on a regular basis.

In Japan, I've had two remarkable and related experiences with projection both of which involved coworkers in cross-cultural relationships. In the first case, there was a female coworker who had worked at my company for about 2 years before I came to work there and she took a rapid dislike to me after I was brought on full-time (which occurred after 3 months as a temporary worker). She was married to a Japanese man but was intensely dissatisfied living in Japan. It wasn't much of a stretch to say that she hated life in Tokyo. It was clear that she felt trapped though because her husband couldn't possibly have supported her if they went back to the U.S. and she didn't have the skills to get a job to support them both back home.

While this co-worker never came right out and said why she disliked me, a number of things became clear by the type of hostile comments she made on occasion. One of the things I did which irritated her the most was speak in any fashion whatsoever about my husband or the time we spent together. While I may speak glowingly of my husband in my blog (and all that glow is sincere and well-deserved), I didn't behave in such a fashion in the workplace as it would have been inappropriate. All it tended to take to irritate this coworker was answering a question from another coworker about my plans for the weekend or for dinner or whatnot and for me to mention my husband would be meeting me or we'd be spending all weekend relaxing at home together. The hostile coworker would make some snotty remark about how everyone didn't have to spend all their time with their husbands or some such thing which made it clear she felt I was pointing out how inadequate her relationship with her husband was compared to mine.

The thing is that I had no idea what sort of relationship she had with her husband as she almost never spoke of him or anything they did together. I never said a word about her relationship, and, in fact, I tried hard to refrain from saying anything at all beyond what was required for peaceful co-existence at work. Eventually, this coworker decided she detested me so much that she simply stopped speaking to me altogether. I can't stress enough that I never implied anything about her relationship with her husband nor did I put her down in any way but she projected her insecurities about her relationship and her general dissatisfaction with her life in Japan onto me.

Ironically, the second remarkable instance occurred as a result of my boss and I discussing this hostile co-worker's situation in the presence of a male coworker who came along several years later. My boss got along better with the hostile woman than I and knew a bit more than I did about her life and we were discussing some of the things she had done and how unhappy she was in Japan. He and I both said that we felt it must be very difficult to be in a cross-cultural relationship, particularly when both parties weren't fluent in either language and both had limited experience with the cultural preconceptions and communication styles of the other. At one point, we both remarked that neither of us had what it would take to deal with all the challenges such a relationship would present, particularly in terms of the indirect communication and reliance on inference which is so common in Japan.

After we made a statement about how we felt cross-cultural relationships were immensely challenging, this male coworker, who was a goofy fellow but not the least bit prone to angry outbursts said loudly and with a great deal of concealed frustration bursting forth, "now that's enough!" This co-worker was in a relationship with a Chinese woman working in Tokyo and he thought we were staging this conversation as a onion-skin-thin reference to his relationship with his girlfriend. The absolute truth was that neither my boss nor I had the slightest thought about his relationship with his girlfriend but clearly there were difficulties he was having so he projected his anxiety about those problems onto us.

In the case of this co-worker, he did talk about his girlfriend but he never mentioned any problems. There was no reason for him to think we were talking about him other than his nagging unspoken concerns about their relationship.

Both of these cases really stick out in my memory because they were the most baseless experiences I've had with people projecting their anxieties onto me and they both involved cross-cultural relationships. To this day, these experiences serve as a reminder to me that, though it may seem crystal clear that someone is talking about you in a veiled attempt to criticize you or make you feel bad about your life, they actually may not be thinking of you at all and it's important to keep your psychological "projector" under control.

Double My "Fun"

Click on this smaller picture for a more readable large one. The gray areas are what we pay. The numbers on the left are income levels.

This morning, my husband and I scrutinized the documentation that came with my ward taxes and discovered that the rate has been doubled from 5% to 10%. That's a hike from 3% to 6% for the local ward taxes and an increase from 2% to 3% for the Tokyo-to taxes.

I may be reading the letter I received incorrectly but it appears that those who make less than 2,000,000 yen a year (a bar which I am very far below) have had their rates doubled and those who are above 7,000,000 yen have actually received a reduction from 13% to 10% total taxes. The charts I received indicate that a flat rate for both the ward and Tokyo-to is now applied to everyone regardless of income.

There is some other information at the bottom of the page which I can't understand well enough to make conclusions about so I've solicited Luis for help (hoping he can get his Japanese girlfriend to have a look on my behalf). I'm hoping this information explains what appears to be an attempt to expand the gap between the poorest and the richest by taxing those of us at the low end more and those at the higher end less.

I don't usually read gaijin.pot's boards but this has been a topic that has been discussed quite a bit recently. It seems that ward taxes are being boosted because income taxes have been lowered but you're still going to pay more in the end. The idea is that the federal tax money that used to go to the local government will be paid directly to them via city taxes rather than first paying it to the federal government and having them hand it over to the local governments.

I mentioned previously that I got all my tax money back. Well, if this system is at it appears, I'm about to pay every yen of it back in ward taxes anyway.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Slowest Calculations Ever

In previous posts, I've mentioned that city ("ku") taxes and health insurance rates are calculated based on the previous year's income and not on one's current income. That means that becoming unemployed doesn't reduce the amounts of these two expenses until at a year after you stop working. Conversely, you pay nothing the first year but you don't often figure that out when you first arrive in Japan until something happens to change your income.

I stopped working about one year and eight months ago and I didn't receive a bill for city taxes based on my now substantially-reduced income until today. Up until two months ago, I was still being asked to pay based on my old full-time salary. This was growing increasingly frustrating as the combined expense of city tax and insurance was more than half of my monthly part-time salary. I still haven't received any adjusted bill for health insurance though I'm guessing it won't be far behind.

There are several points about this situation which have been immensely annoying to me. One was the fact that it took closer to two years than one to re-calculate my bill based on an income which is about 1/12 what it once was. If I'm only a year behind, why does it take 1.6 years to do this calculation? I actually know part of the answer to that question. It's because taxes are filed in March and it seems the deciding year's wages are calculated from January to December of the previous year. That adds 3 months to the adjustment time right there.

Once the taxes are filed and accounted for, it seems it takes another 3 months for the various departments to get their act together and send out new bills. I guess my city taxes are spent on something other than paying enough people to figure out how much I should pay in city tax and insurance. I'm guessing it's being squandered on putting 3 bicycle cops on every corner so I can never park my bike anywhere except right in front of my apartment building.

The most irritating thing about this is that, past a certain point, I started to ignore these inflated bills because I knew they couldn't be correct for such a long period of time and that once someone somewhere got around to it, I'd be getting more appropriate bills. While it seems no one could spare a moment to adjust my taxes and insurance, there were plenty of staff on the job sending out inflated bills like clockwork every month with accompanying threatening notes with big red lettering and exclamation marks demanding I pay up or they'd contact my company, take possession of my possessions, garnish my wages, or sell my first born (should I have one) into indentured servitude.

The adjusted city tax bill that came today was for only 4,000 yen which is greatly more in line with what I should be paying on a meager part-time income. The last bill which I ignored was for 30,000 yen and there's no mention of it anywhere in the envelope with the new bill so it seems that my conclusion that I was being overcharged and it'd fix itself eventually was right. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that the health insurance will be similarly more wallet-friendly soon.

Monday, June 11, 2007

It Started With a Puzzle


For a great many years, I've had a puzzle in my closet called "The Ultimate Alphabet" (scan of the box cover pictured above). It's a huge puzzle and I obviously didn't look carefully at the size when I bought it or I wouldn't have made the purchase. I believe it is 730 x 1020 millimeters (28" x 40") and no single surface in my apartment is large enough to assemble it on. So, while I've had the impulse to put it together on occasion throughout the last decade and a half, I haven't had a place to do it short of the middle of my kitchen floor and it wouldn't do to have my husband and I stepping over it all day and night, not to mention my students.

When I recently mentioned to my husband that I'd like to give it a go, he reminded me that he bought a large plastic sheet last year which we'd cut up sections of to block his cubicle off at work and rope in his air conditioning for a cooler space. The sheet is both large enough and sturdy enough to hold the puzzle so it could be moved around to unoccupied spaces in the apartment as needed. With this new possibility in mind, I decided to give the puzzle a go but wasn't sure where I'd stored it. I believed it was in the storage space behind my desks (pictured below).


As you can see from the picture, getting to this space requires that the desks be pulled out. They're not all that heavy but it can be a bit tricky because of all the wiring. Computers sitting on my desk are connected to devices stored in the closet. Nonetheless, I successfully got to the storage area but didn't find the puzzle there. I did find something I'd been wanting to dig out for some time, a set of cute retro porcelain cats (pictured below) that my husband bought me as a gift some time ago but I hadn't really had a good space to set them up in until now.

These types of plastic display boxes are commonly available in Japan from 100 yen shops (though this one cost 210 yen) and do a great job both of keeping dust off of your knick-knacks and pulling them nicely together into a specific space for a spiffy presentation. The parts of this kitten orchestra were relatively expensive and the remaining ones, unfortunately, are no longer available but, if anyone ever sees the piano player or any other missing cats from this set, I want to purchase it and would appreciate being notified of where the pieces can be bought. The stickers on the bottom say they were made by "Seven Corporation."

The trouble started after I'd successfully pushed the desks back into place and wanted to use my computer. In the shoving to reposition the desks, the keyboard tray got pushed back too far on the left side and was stuck. It would no longer slide out on one side no matter how hard I pulled at it. I even tried bashing on the back of it with a hammer and it was stuck fast much to my great frustration. There was nothing for it but to pull the desk back out again and remove the screws and see if it could be fixed.

To get at the back screw on the tray, I had to pull the desk out quite far but I forgot the fact that my computers were tethered to devices in the closet. On the third pull forward to get the desk out far enough to reach the back screw, my 160 GB external hard disk came crashing to the ground. The front face plate broke off but I still had hopes that it'd be ok internally. These hopes were summarily dashed when I turned it on and it made a sound like a needle repeatedly skipping on a record .

My desire to put together a puzzle had now resulted not only in a broken desk but also a broken hard drive and I was immensely frustrated and upset, particularly because I was having trouble getting the keyboard tray fixed and every time I tried to manipulate the disconnected left side, it would slip out of my hand and the still-connected right side of the tray would groan with stress on its screws and I was afraid the whole thing would snap off. The slipping resulted in my dropping the heavy left end on my arm twice and bruised my arm and caused a couple of pinhole punctures in my skin. With the aid of the hammer, I bruised up the front left end of the tray and finally knocked the tray into or out of the track in such a way that the tray slid smoothly in and out again.

After all of this, I had an insanely hard time getting the desks pushed back into place for a second time. My husband came home from a swim at the health club to find me crying on the floor in frustration. Being the most wonderful husband in the universe, he tried to help me get the desks back in with some success (he did about 80% of it and I finished the last 20% because he was stymied as to how I got them in so far before) and promptly went to Amazon Japan's web site and calmed me down about the hard drive by finding a very reasonably-priced replacement (320 GB for ¥15,000/$123) and ordered it.

In the end, I found the puzzle in a storage area above the computer which required no furniture moving or fuss and started to put it together only to find the sheet was so big that it couldn't be moved through the bedroom door for storage in another room so I had to give it up regardless. I'm pretty sure at this point that the puzzle is cursed. The attempted utilization of any one object should not result in the level of chaos and destruction that that puzzle has.