Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween 2007


Halloween isn't officially celebrated in Japan but there are pockets of celebrations. One of the most famous is the controversial Yamanote line "party" (covered here on Japan Probe) in which members of the foreign community along with their Japanese friends party on trains on the most heavily traveled train line in Tokyo. They dress up, drink, and are generally noisy and get in the way of regular travelers when they try to use the train. Some people find it highly interesting and some find it annoying.

In the past, language schools have also been known to make a lot of hay at this time of year. Nova used to hold parties in which teachers could freely associate with students in their off hours for the sake of free food and drink. When I worked at Nova, students had to pay a fee to go to the party but attendance was not mandatory for teachers so I didn't go. The dressing up part of such parties was very attractive even if the begging door-to-door for treats hasn't caught on.

My friend Shawn, transformed into a giant conglomeration of candy corn, stands in front of a trick-or-treat goodie bag.

For me, I found my celebration in the same place I always do for holidays that aren't observed in Japan, in the online game Guild Wars. It's virtual but that doesn't make it much less fun and it certainly makes it far less troublesome. I don't have to put up with nasty little children ringing my doorbell incessantly and demanding candy under threat of eggs on my door or toilet paper around my trees (not that I have any trees where I live now).

My friend Shawn looking strangely sanguine in the mouth of a Charr as it chomps him down in its cardboard jaws.

My bestest buddy Tankarific Carl chats with a real Charr. He's offering the Charr some catnip and a ball of yarn if he promises not to use him as a scratching post.

The Guild Wars experience allows us to travel around to areas decorated with pumpkins, ghosts, and a cut-out of an enemy which we can stand behind and put our faces in as a way of looking like it's eating us. People are everywhere wearing pumpkin heads and various masks as well as changing into candy corn (thanks to transmogrifier potions). We also get to drink absinthe and get virtually bombed and spring ghosts out of boxes.

Mad King Thorn bosses us around amongst the ghost posies. A candy corn guard stands by in case the crowd develops a taste for pumpkin pie and splits open his head to feast on the goo inside.

The real treat of the Halloween festivities though is being present for the arrival of Mad King Thorn. This is where you play games within the game for bags of treats. The King asks you to play rock, paper, scissors with select players, a version of "Simon Says", and orders you to deduce a required action from statements he makes. If you fail at any time, he kills you. It's a lot like childhood party games in more ways than one, well, except for the dying part if you fail. The funny thing is that you're just as likely to mess up on something like "Simon Says" at your keyboard as you are in real life and everyone around you laughs at you when you screw up just like they would in real life.

Tankarific sports the scarecrow mask he got at the end of the King's first visit. He also has a mummy mask from a subsequent visit.

In the end, you get a Halloween mask as a gift when the King leaves no matter how many times you fail at his games and commands. Since I'm worse at his simple games than I am at the far more complex real game, it's good for me that he's generous even to the most incompetent players.

Cheesecake

A "stick" cheesecake from a convenience store. It looks better than it tastes though it certainly is a testimonial to controlled portion sizes.

Almost all foreign people living in Japan will eventually become homesick for their favorite indigenous foods. While some people see having a taste for non-Japanese food as wasting the opportunity to become immersed in Japanese food culture and thoroughly exploring it and appreciating it, I believe that it allows you to learn about other aspects of Japanese food culture. That is the side which has embraced foreign food but modified it to suit Japanese tastes.

Unless you have a very regimented view of food culture, Japanese food isn't limited to dishes that originated in Japan. "Curry rice" as it is commonly prepared by schools, housewives, restaurants, and fast food places is just as Japanese as sushi even if the name sounds vaguely Indian. You're not likely to find it prepared in the same fashion in other countries and the way in which curry has been modified to appeal to the average Japanese person is just as much a reflection Japanese preferences as other more traditional foods. In fact, since people already know how such dishes are prepared in their own culture, the differences are more striking as a reflection of differing tastes and desires.

For me, the exploration of western food has included finding good cheesecake since it's my favorite dessert. On the plus side, there is cheesecake of all types all over the place in Japan. It's sufficiently popular that it's carried in almost all convenience stores as well as markets and cake shops. It would be nearly impossible to sample all the variations. On the minus side, cheesecake in Japan is generally sparse on the "cheese" portion with a few exceptions.

Cheesecake is divided into two general types in Japan. One is "baked" (ベイクト・チーズケーキ) and the other is "rare" (レア・チーズケーキ) though cakes of one type or the other aren't always prepared in the same way. Among "rare "cheesecakes in particular, there is a lot of variation. Some of them are a little like New York-style cheesecake though most are like a pale imitation because of a less concentrated amount of cream and cream cheese. Others are like French-style cheesecake and are light and mixed with gelatin. Others seem incredibly "eggy" for a "rare". The "stick" of cheesecake pictured at the top of this post was a rare one and fit into that category. The crust was soggy and had little cream cheese flavor.

The "baked" cakes are generally pretty rubbery or spongy (again, probably because of not enough cream cheese to make it creamy) and covered with a slick film of some sort of sweet glaze. Since I'm not a big fan of baked cheesecakes, I haven't tried that many but Cozy Corner makes a pretty decent one which has a better texture than most.


The "rare" kind is the variety I favor and I'm constantly disappointed with the lack of tangy flavor in them which I associate with cheesecake. I believe this is due to the fact that cream cheese is rather expensive in Japan. In most markets, the average 200 gram (7 oz.) box is about 370 yen. If you compare this to the price of monster-size Costco boxes imported from New Zealand which are 738 yen for 1 kg. (2.2 lbs.), you can see where avoiding using too much cream cheese in your cakes would be a great cost saver.

Of course, it could also be that cheesecake has been modified to suit Japanese preferences for less dense cakes and that the sort that is commonly sold in the U.S. is too heavy for them. It's possible that the variations in cheesecake which tend to result in my being generally displeased with most of them stems from my limited tastes rather than any short-comings on the part of preparers in Japan, though obviously you have to consider the source. The cheesecake that you get at 7-11 isn't going to measure up to what you get at a confectioner.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Common Sense

When my sister and I were growing up, we were both quite academically gifted. My sister eventually ended up going to a school ran by the local college for people who were often too clever to be satisfied in a normal school and I graduated with honors from both high school and college. Because my sister and I were seen as being "book smart", my mother liked nothing more than to frequently tell us that, though we were intelligent, we lacked "common sense" any time we failed to do what she would do in any given situation. Mainly, this applied to daily tasks which we were forced to do and didn't want to think much about or care about the outcome of such as doing laundry, cleaning, or cooking.

The truth was that my sister and I didn't lack "common sense" but we lacked experience. Most of my mother's assertions about how we didn't exercise common logic came when we were younger than age 16 (and a good amount of it when we were younger than 12). It was always my feeling that she savored offering up this particular put-down because it allowed her to feel superior to us in this regard and as a means of keeping our egos in check should our self-esteem become inflated as a result of the academic success we had. It's not that we were ever at risk of such a thing though. Neither my sister nor I grew up with any amount of big-headedness about our intellects because, while teachers reward you for intelligence, society on the whole and your peers do not.

In the U.S., "common sense" is usually used to mean doing what is logical in a given situation. For instance, the fact that you shouldn't wash a red shirt with your white laundry because it'll bleed color onto your whites could be considered an exercise in common sense or that you shouldn't wear muddy shoes and walk across several rooms of your home. By and large, the notion of "common sense" is something which is not specific to your culture. People in Japan have the same ability to exercise logic that people in the west do in similar situations.

In Japan, the word for what is frequently translated as "common sense" is "joshiki" and it's one of many examples where translation fails to convey the essence of a word in a particular culture. While I'm sure that "joshiki" encompasses the same notions as western common sense, it also includes concepts that we would not, concepts that are specific to Japanese culture.

This notion has been brought home to me many times in conversations with Japanese people but never so clearly as in a recent conversation with a student of mine who is studying Criminal Justice at an American junior college. We were discussing how she needs to participate more in classes and I recommended she prepare to describe the Japanese justice system to her American classmates and teacher. Her response to this suggestion was that she didn't know anything about the Japanese system. This was something I knew to be untrue and I said, "you know that trials are conducted with 3 judges, don't you?" She said, "yes, but that's just common sense."

To me, her response perfectly illustrated that, in Japan, "joshiki" encompasses common knowledge as well as common sense. She seemed surprised when I told her that the Americans she studies with would not feel that this was obvious or that it was information that everyone probably already knew because they believed that a jury trial system (which Japan is supposed to adopt next year, incidentally) would be "common sense". In America, we have a similar notion that people in our culture pretty much know certain things (like that there is a president, vice president, Senate, etc. in our government) but we wouldn't call these things "common sense" nor would we expect that people who grew up in other countries would naturally have knowledge of such things.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Opinions

Early on in my time in Japan, I spent a few hours a day (for about two years) in the conversation lounge area of the school I worked at (Nova's "Voice" room). In this area, the teachers had free conversation with students. For those who don't know about the English language school situation in Japan, there are roughly two types of lessons. One is following a textbook to study specific phrases or grammatical structures and the other is just chatting with students so they have a chance to practice their English. The worst part of spending time in the conversation lounge was that the students were often completely passive so the teachers were constantly under the gun to come up with topics. Generally speaking, this resulted in the teacher choosing a topic which he or she had concrete opinions about because, when queried, students tended to react with indifference or be mute.

I can't recall any specific conversations I had at that time since it was so long ago but I do remember feeling at times as if I had to "educate" the Japanese with my perspective and contrary opinions on important topics. I remember that they rarely argued back or offered their own perspectives or opinions except for maybe on statement of support or opposition and this made me feel as if I'd somehow "won" any discussion in which they disagreed initially.

My behavior back then pretty much sums up why the Japanese people feel Americans are strident, pushy, and unable to control their feelings. To them, we are little better than children in this regard because we feel it necessary to disgorge our opinions at the slightest provocation. What's more, we often do so at great length and with increasing volume if our passions are aroused. In most cases, if a student expresses an opposing opinion, a newbie teacher will verbally stomp all over the student until he or she mumbles something in surrender.

The truth is that those of us who engage in verbal tangles with Japanese people over weighty issues aren't winning with our superior points. In many cases, the Japanese people are simply withdrawing from the discussion because they value getting along more than asserting their opinions and they've grown up in a culture which values restraint over expression, particularly in a situation where someone might be perceived as an authority figure (such as a teacher).

One notion you learn after some time in Japan which appears to be absent in American culture is the idea of restraint when expressing opinions and ideas. In the U.S., arguing is almost a sport and we all want to win. Unless we're dealing with someone who is in a position of power over us (like a boss at work), we rarely tend to back down or keep our notions to ourselves, even when there is the potential for a relationship to be damaged or lost as a result of the strident expression of one's views. The right and habit of being vocal is an integral part of American culture which is likely rooted in the rebellious beginnings of the country and certainly incorporated into the constitution.

In a country like Japan where restraint and a focus on group harmony are the cultural norm, this can cause some pretty big clashes. In fact, one of the greatest problems for cross-cultural relationships (both romantic and friendship-based) can be that one party is showering the other with input while the other is staying mum. On more than one occasion, I've had students tell me, "Japanese people don't like giving opinions," as they struggle to deal with a question I've asked. It's not that they lack the English but rather that they don't have a practice of thinking deeply about such topics or of expressing ideas about them. That's not to say all Japanese people are like this but most are to varying degrees.

I've come a long way since my smug days of offering my opinions in the Nova Voice room. That doesn't mean I don't offer them when they are solicited but rather that I offer them more briefly and with a far more open-minded attitude rather than thinking I'm right and have to prove it.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Delivery

The local Yamato distribution center.

A lot of things have changed since I quit my job nearly two years ago. Some of those changes like feeling more relaxed and having more free time were to be expected but others are things I never would have imagined. One of those changes was that I actually had the time and experience to get to know people who work around the neighborhood on sight. It may surprise people to know that, aside from the landlord and our immediate neighbors, I didn't really recognize most of the people who live and work here.

There are a variety of reasons for this and none of them are that I wasn't paying attention or was too busy to notice. When you work full-time, you tend to encounter businesses and people at more varied hours. You also tend to shop less at one particular place and, when you do shop, you're often in a mob with all the other folks headed for home at the same time. Being a "housewife" means I'm at the same shops again and again and during times when they're not so busy and fewer people are around and therefore fewer clerks on duty. Being a housewife who also works freelance part-time has brought me into contact with the local delivery folks with such frequency that I recognize the two deliverymen who work at the local Yamato distribution area when I see them running about the neighborhood.

The fact of the latter was brought home today when I returned from a shopping trip and one of "my" two common delivery contacts was running to his truck as he did some business with a neighboring tenant. Normally, you don't say "konnichiwa" (good day) to everyone you see but you do to the people you "know" and we exchanged a greeting. Two things occurred to me after this encounter. This was the first time I ever said "hello" to a deliveryman I randomly encountered on the street. Also, I realized that this was a person who had seen me dazed, in my nightgown, and completely unkempt on occasions when delivery was earlier than expected and I stumbled out of bed to hand him over a C.O.D. parcel full of corrected reports for my former company. It was a bit of a bizarre feeling to know he'd seen me in a semi-private (but not the least bit revealing) state and I was running into him on the street.


The delivery center closest to us is a branch of one of the big animal-themed places. Yamato is also known as "kuro neko" or black cat (as their logo shows a black cat delivering a kitten). The other service is Nippon Express (aka Nittsu) which is known by its pelican logo. Oddly enough, I used to talk to employees of both of these companies as part of my former job. For all I know, I've done telephone training with the fellows schlepping my parcels around though somehow I doubt it.

Most companies go with whichever service suits them based on location rather than on price. Amazon Japan delivers to us via the kitty service. The Foreign Buyer's Club delivers via the pelican. While I've never priced the services side-by-side, I'd be surprised if there was a big difference in service costs. For us, Yamato is better because they're close by and, on the off chance that we miss a delivery, they can easily bring a parcel to us with just a phone call. It's a little more complicated with Nittsu and sometimes we have to wait until the next day to get packages from them.

Yamato and Nippon Express are mainly concerned with domestic parcel delivery as is the Japanese postal service. They are used more frequently by businesses than the postal service because they have more pick up points (including convenience stores), go door to door for pick up and delivery and can guarantee delivery times based on the service you choose. This includes same day delivery within certain areas.

If you stay in Japan for any length of time, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with how these takkyubin services work because they can be very helpful in a society that relies heavily on public transportation. Besides sending and receiving paperwork for my freelance work, we have used these services to have large boxes of Costco purchases delivered, computers relayed to repair outlets, large boxes of books shipped to used book shops and luggage sent to or from the airport. Even if you can't read the Japanese forms, you can get some help filling them out from convenience store clerks whose shops act as pick up points for such services. It's often far better to pay the reasonable fees of these services than break your back or struggle to haul things around Tokyo.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Catering to the Minority Customer

As a relatively frequently shopper at Amazon Japan, I get plenty of ads from them via e-mail. This doesn't trouble me because I don't regard it as spam when I've surrendered my e-mail information willingly to a vendor. In the past, all of the messages have been in Japanese and tended to focus on just a few products such as a new book or CD release. I can honestly say that I paid as much attention to the Japanese ones as I do the English ones. That is to say that I give them a quick once over and see if there's anything of interest without reading any details besides the price.

Click this small version to see a version large enough to read.

Today, I received a message which struck me as strangely different than the usual announcements from Amazon Japan. I couldn't put my finger on it at first but then I realized that it was different because it was entirely in English. There's an odd feeling associated with seeing an interface (the tabbed bar across the top) you've only seen in a foreign language suddenly perfectly rendered in your own language.

This is an interesting move on the part of Amazon Japan and I can't say it's unwelcome. Though we don't have too much trouble navigating their Japanese site, this does make the chances that we'll browse certain products casually more likely as opposed to hunting down only specific products of interest. It's also a bit curious because they are making an effort to accommodate customers who are in the minority in a fashion that you don't often see in Japan.

Stocks

For many years, one of the lessons I conducted for my former company included the topic of "gambling". Over the years that I taught this lesson, I'd guess that I heard and read opinions from about 500 different people on this topic. The fact that the Japanese don't recognize how much gambling occurs in their culture wasn't the surprise as they can be myopic when it comes to acknowledging vice in their culture. The thing that was surprising was how many of them wrote long essays on the fact that they considered investment in stocks a form of "gambling."

In some ways, they did have a point. Like gambling, the stock market is something you put money into and hope will yield positive results. The students who equated stocks with gambling mentioned that it was akin to horse racing (which is a very popular form of gambling in Japan). They said that people who are relatively successful betting on the horses research them and know the smartest ways to bet to win overall. Additionally, certain horses with high odds of winning yield low winnings and the long shots yield high ones just as "safe" stocks offer low dividends and risky ones yield high ones. Finally, like playing the stock market, there is an element of dumb luck involved. There are people who invest smart, of course, but there are also those who just get lucky because the way the wind will blow in a particular market is hard to predict. And favorable winds that boost your investment's value could turn ill at any time just as that "sure thing" horse could have a slow day or stumble and lose.

Because of this attitude, most Japanese have generally been pretty skittish about investment in stocks. It's certainly not that they aren't willing to do the work involved in learning about it but rather that the lack of predictability makes them uncomfortable. One of my students did invest a small amount in the her husband's company's stock but she only did it as a small form of "insider trading". That is, she invested when her husband knew something was going to happen that had a nearly 100% chance of increasing the stock's value. She and her husband made about 100,000 yen ($880) then promptly divested before what went up had a chance to go back down. Their hasty retreat once a profit had been made lead me to wonder if one reason stocks aren't something Japanese people like to invest in is because you have to sell your assets at the right time or risk losing all you've "earned" should your stocks' value depreciate. I guess this offers another parallel to gambling. If you "let it ride", you might get more money, but if you're conservative and take your winnings and leave now, you may miss a valuable opportunity and regret it.

Lately though, there has been a market that some of the Japanese have grown comfortable playing in and that's the currency market. There's a growing number of housewives who have been chasing currency values in an attempt to boost their family's nest eggs. I can't say for sure why this is the type of investment that has drawn them in but I suspect it's because money is something they feel comfortable speculating on as it's easy to identify with. Even though the forces which shape the relative values of various currencies are complex and deep, I imagine that it feels more "real" and concrete than a company's business performance and market forces which affect their success.

It could also be that the Japanese have witnessed a lot of scandal and have been through a bubble which shows them so very clearly that what goes up, can come crashing down. After you've seen Japan move from a country associated with cheap junk to a point where it is perceived as having the greatest companies producing the best products in the world only to see it come floating down again as it was left behind in the tech boom of the 90's, you have to think that investing in the future of various companies is a gamble you don't want to take.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Maintenance Fees

"Wet paint" signs near the newly-painted step up to our entryway.

If you sign a rent contract in Japan, there's a good chance that a small amount of money will be added to your monthly rent as a "maintenance" fee. Often this fee is around 2000 yen ($17.43) per month. That means that you're forking over a little over $200 a year for this added service.

This fee is supposed to represent shared costs of maintaining the property by all tenants. It doesn't have anything to do with what happens inside your apartment as that is covered by your cleaning deposit. If anything needs to be repaired inside, it'll be deducted from your deposit when you leave.

The entryway to our apartment. The "ceiling" above was freshly painted as was the pipe you see slightly further back than the fire extinguisher. The closest door is our single female neighbor's. The furthest is our single male neighbor's. Our door is obscured by the pipe.

Since our apartment building is small (only 6 units - 3 on the first floor and 3 on the second), there isn't much in the way of maintenance on a regular basis. Mainly, the landlady sweeps up in front of and behind the building about once every 2-4 weeks. Since these are very narrow spaces, it takes her about 10 minutes tops to do both. Other than that, there are two fluorescent lights in the entryway which our maintenance fees are supposed to cover the electricity for and the cost of replacement bulbs. I should note, however, that the one just outside our door flickered for over a year before it was replaced.

Our landlords are nice and helpful people and I couldn't ask for any better but this fee is a complete crock for the most part. There is no way that it costs anywhere near the 12,000 yen a month our landlord's collect from the entire building for them to care for the exterior of the building. The only time when you can see a serious investment in the exterior is on the type of occasion we experienced recently.

The entryway of both the first and second floors as well as the stair railing to the second floor were painted over the last few days. I believe that this is the second full-scale repainting of these areas in the 18 years we've been in this apartment. While I'm sure it takes a bit of money for this sort of remodeling, I'm also sure it doesn't cost as much as 9 years worth of maintenance fees for 6 apartments. I guess the money may also cover certain other types of major repairs such as fixing the roof or replacing the crappy plastic floors on the verandas (they're very thin and not safe to stand on) but I've not noticed anyone making such repairs since we moved in.

The paint in the "ceiling" above the entryway had been peeling horribly over the last 5 years or so. I'm talking about huge flaking curls, not some tiny little cracks so it definitely could have used a freshening up. I'm guessing that one of the apartments above us must be due for a vacating though because I can't see why they'd choose to spiff up the place now after letting it go for so long unless another potential tenant was going to look the place over.

To be honest, I didn't really care much about the peeling paint and I don't think most people looked up and saw it. In fact, the two days of painting were by far more annoying than the peeling paint. The entrance to our place is incredibly narrow and painting the "roof" over the walkway required it to be entirely blocked off as a man had to prop up and stand on a scaffold to reach it. There were also paint fumes wafting in our front window for about 48 hours and they still haven't dissipated entirely. I'm pretty sure I'm a little dumber from brain cell death due to inhalation of these fumes so excuse any typos that get through from this point forward.


Not everything that could have used a touch up got the once over though. The glass and fence pictured above separate our apartments from the landlord's garden and the glass is cracked and the frame disintegrating but it hasn't been repaired. It gives the place a little bit of an "abandoned building" look on that side.

Despite how it may sound, I'm not really complaining about my rent or even having to pay a shared up-keep expense. I just find it slightly annoying that this "fee" is actually just a way to increase your rent by tacking on a few extra thousand yen each month but calling it something other than what it is. I guess it's a little bit like those "postage and handling" fees you pay for items you order through the mail which are a great deal more expensive than the shipping price you see on the label and would only be justified if the person doing the packing was making $50 an hour and the box cost about $2. You know you're getting overcharged for something just so that the person you're paying carries zero risk of ever spending more than you're being asked to pay.

More for Me

I usually do my best to avoid commenting on news topics, particularly those that are relevant only in Japan. One of the reasons I do this is that any given bit is talked to death about on other Japan blogs and I'm not certain that there is much I can add to what is being said. However, there's been a situation with Nova conversation school that has been going on for quite some time which I feel compelled to talk about though not necessarily in regards to the news itself. What I want to talk about is the reactions to this news that I'm reading and what it says about a lot of foreigners living in Japan.

For those who don't follow such things, Nova is a business which has ran a chain of conversation schools for quite some time. I believe they may have had as many as 900 schools at one point but business problems have been forcing them to close many of their less profitable branches. The Nova business model has always been to carry out daily operations based on future sales revenue. At any given time, they can't settle their debts with assets on hand and loss of their steady revenue stream over the last several months has been crippling them.

The loss of their revenue was due to a governmental order that they cease selling long-term lesson packages until after December of this year. This order was issued because Nova was using unethical and illegal practices to sell such services. That means they could no longer use high pressure sales tactics to get students to pony up large sums of money for more lessons than they would likely ever take. Without the constant influx of cash from future lesson-takers, the company has been delaying paydays for all staff, closing branches, and failing to pay rent on their schools and the apartments they provide for teachers.

Nova has been greatly hated (for both legitimate and imagined reasons) by the foreign population for quite some time and the reactions to the company's apparent circling of the drain has been, by and large, full of schadenfreude. There are people who just can't wait to see Nova die what they feel is a much-deserved death because they've formed a strong prejudice against the company based either on first-hand experience, oft-related tales of bad head teacher types and management, or apocryphal tales.

These sorts of reactions are rather understandable. Everyone wants to see a bad company stumble and die. While this type of response isn't pretty and it certainly isn't showing any compassion for the thousands of innocent employees both foreign and Japanese who will lose their livelihood should the company tank, it is a reasonable emotional reaction. The types of reactions that I'm seeing which are by far uglier and more disturbing though are from people who are hoping that there's something in this for them.

There's a part of the foreign community living in Japan which resents the fact that there are other foreigners living in Japan. This is something I haven't much encountered first-hand but an attitude oft-reflected in the responses to news of the Nova situation. There are a good many folks out there who want one thing from this situation and that's for all the Nova teachers to pack up and leave Japan. Their hope is that this will reduce the number of foreigners seeking jobs and thereby improve the perceived value of those of us remaining, possibly resulting in higher wages and cushier working conditions.

What I've discovered is that, to advance this agenda, people are peppering discussion boards with worst case scenarios and discouraging messages in the hopes of tipping the scales of the on-the-fence (possibly soon to be former) Nova employee. Tidbits about work visa cancellations for anyone sponsored by Nova, the rapidly-dying English language school market and how it will be outsourced to India, and horror stories of wages plummeting down to convenience store worker levels for teachers should the number of them continue to increase abound. There are also people who just come out and encourage people repeatedly to pack their bags and go home and to go now.

None of this information is well-intentioned. It's all about trying to shoo away the competition so there's "more for me". Most, if not all, of the information is speculation based on the worst possible assumptions and not on facts. For instance, wages for foreigners who get sponsored work visas can't drop below 250,000 yen a month for full-time (up to 40 hours a week) work. By law, we cannot receive sponsorship for less money than that. Given that that is the case, how is it that we're suddenly going to be making 1000 yen an hour? The immigration laws would have to change or the companies could only hire those who already have some other type of visa (spouse, working holiday). However, the pool of potential foreign employees is too small to rely only on those types of visa-holding workers. The notion that wages could drop horribly is absurd.

Chances are that, because of laws regarding benefits for full-time employees, teachers would not be asked to work more than 34 hours for 250,000 yen. If an employee works 35 hours or more, the company must offer health insurance funding and the chance to pay into pension funds. This is the reason why Nova manipulated their teacher's contracts so that they never worked more than 34 hours. They were passing under the bar legally and avoiding offering these benefits. That doesn't mean you can't work more than 34 hours a week but rather you will be paid for "overtime" if you go above that and your wages will go up above the base of 250,000 yen.

The possibility that the Japanese immigration authorities would bother to cancel all existing holders of work visas from Nova should the company tank isn't quite as far-fetched as the idea that wages would fall to very low levels, but it's relatively unlikely. Despite the fact that Nova employs a lot of foreigners, it doesn't employ enough to create a social problem should they all suddenly become unemployed. The only reason the visas would be canceled would be as means of pushing out a ton of unemployed people because they'd commit anti-social acts as a result of their new (potentially impoverished) states. This is a minimal risk and is unlikely to happen unless there's some incident related to former Nova employees in the future. Japanese authorities are not known for behaving proactivly but reactively. Visas almost certainly won't be canceled if Nova tanks.

The notion that the Japanese people will suddenly opt for low-cost lessons with non-native speakers or do dirt cheap Internet lessons with people in India is probably the most plausible of all the implausible possibilities. However, if you know anything about the Japanese people, you know that they are not interested in English only for skill enhancement but also for the safe, paid politeness of contact with western people. Frankly put, they have reduced interest in learning English from people who weren't born in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, or New Zealand. This was such an issue at my former company that teachers of Asian descent were sometimes asked not to use their last names but rather their western-sounding first and middle names so students wouldn't think they were getting someone of Asian ancestry. Also, I've had students try these super cheap internet services with teachers from Pakistan and India and they hated the experience. They couldn't understand the accents of the teachers and felt there was almost no chance their skill would improve from such "lessons". After all, the Japanese are not exactly known for embracing "cheap" over "status" in terms of anything they buy and contact with people from the five aforementioned countries is seen as holding more status than contact with other Asian folks.

While the main concern is that teachers who are left unemployed by Nova will flood the market and push working conditions into a worse place for everyone else, there are also some petty psychological issues in play. Some foreigners simply resent the presence of other foreigners in Japan period. They don't like seeing them on the streets when they're walking around and they become extremely competitive with them in regards to how well they've adapted to Japanese culture. Some foreigners feel smug and superior because they speak Japanese better or are under the illusion that they know the "real" Japan better than others. They'd just as soon all the foreigners who don't make an effort to adapt and turn into "Japanese" get out and leave more for them. There are people who are interested in preserving their "specialness" in Japan by being part of the tiniest, most exclusive minority. The presence of the rest of us is diluting how precious a commodity they appear to be to the Japanese.

All of these selfish and self-serving notions have been percolating in the minds of the most opportunistic and insecure foreigners in Japan for quite some time and only bubbling over on occasion. The Nova news has simply caused a flurry of communication in the forums visited by the expatriot communities that has put it more visibly out there for everyone to see and it's not a pretty sight at all.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bonus Points

A recent order we made through Amazon Japan.

If you've done much shopping in Japan, you'll soon learn that the Japanese are wild about the concept of bonus points. I'm not sure where this started but the first bonus point system of any great utility that I encountered was through electronics seller Yodobashi camera. When you make a purchase, you can sign up for a gold plastic card and they will add points each time you buy something. At some time of your choosing, you can use those points to buy something else.

The Yodobashi system translates directly back to store credit and is relatively straightforward. You get 10% of your purchase back in points and each point is worth 1 yen in store credit. If you buy one big ticket item at Yodobashi, say a refrigerator for 50,000 yen, you'll get 5,000 yen worth of store credit to spend on something else. You can use the points at any time to pay in part for any item if you don't have enough to cover the cost of the entire item. The only thing you can't do is get cash back.

While most of the time such point systems tend to come along with higher overall price tags at the merchant, that isn't necessarily the case in Tokyo. While Yodobashi isn't always the cheapest place for everything, it is cheaper for some things so you can often get those points for purchases you'd make at their shop anyway.

In what I'm pretty sure is a move to compete with shops like Yodobashi which offer such points, Amazon Japan started offering them with purchases about a year ago. The screen shot above shows an order my husband and I made today for a USB headset which we're getting nearly for free because of points we accumulated via Amazon Japan. Since we were buying these items from them anyway, this is a rather nice little bonus. Amazon America does not offer a similar system nor do they offer the free shipping for all Amazon store items that Amazon Japan does. This makes the level of service via Amazon Japan rather significantly better than that in the U.S.

I'm not sure if any place in the U.S. consistently offers a point system which accumulates store credit in this way. When I lived there, most of my experiences with point systems were at fast food places like Subway or frozen yogurt places which stamped a card and gave you a free serving when you filled it up. I must say that I like the system Amazon Japan and Yodobashi use quite a bit better than the "buy 10, get 1 free" bonus system.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gamers

Gaming circles are like little closed societies. They have rules that you may not understand, make jokes that you don't get, and may interact in ways that make you feel left out. The oft-used scene in movies and television where you see 3 or 5 geeks sitting around a board playing "Dungeons and Dragons" and engaging in dialog which makes absolutely no sense is meant to bring this home. It's also used to make you think gamers are strange in their insularity.

The level of weirdness you perceive is largely a function of how familiar you are with the "culture" of a particular game. If you were a part of it in any way, you are less likely to see the gamers who are actively embracing it as strange. One of my friends (Shawn, hello loony!) told me that on-line gaming has become mainstream enough for commercials to include references to World of Warcraft. There's a commercial for the Toyota Tacoma.



There's also one for Coke.




(There are more but I'm not going to embed them all since this post will be long enough without them.)

This is an indication of one of several possible things. One is that the target demographic for these (and other products) is squarely in the same demographic for playing World of Warcraft. It could also mean that there are enough people out there playing this game that the references may make sense to most people either because they play or they have someone in their families who does.

If you watch these videos, you'll notice that the joke is in the insertion of game elements into real life or vice versa. Despite the fact that gaming society is often seen as weird and idiosyncratic by those who have never been a part of it, the truth is that people pretty much behave the same as they do in real life. Here are a few examples based on my personal experience:

The Aggressive Salesman:

In games, there is an economy just like there is in real life. Just as gold and jewels have greater value in the real world, items which are scarce and highly-valued have greater value in the game world. The only difference is that game gold isn't always the most precious commodity depending on the game's mechanics.

My husband and I have experienced opportunistic players who will try to undercut your "prices" for game goods in Diablo II. The way we trade in this particular game is to make a new game (which anyone can see the name of and join) which is named in such a fashion as to state clearly what we have and what we want in exchange for it. Invariably, people will pop in who have the same item to offer at a somewhat lower price. Considering that all they have to do is make their own game and name it with their lower price, this is akin to someone jumping in and trying to steal your customer away by offering the item you have on sale for $25 for only $20.

Since it takes no effort at all to make games, this is rather rude and selfish but I'm sure it's the sort of thing that people would happily do in real life if they wouldn't get kicked off the store premises for trying to undercut the competition. As it is, stores do have their variation on this by offering to beat the price on an item their competitor offers if you offer proof of a lower price.

The Bully:

In gaming, bullies are often called "griefers." This is a concept that was rather famously played out in one of the best episodes of South Park of all time. Like real life bullies, they attack only those who are vastly weaker than themselves so that their "victory" is assured. In role-playing games, you play characters who "age" by gaining levels. Higher level characters have greater strength and life and are nearly impossible for vastly lower level characters to defeat. It's akin to an 18-year-old beating up a 5-year-old. What is worse than that is that characters that have played a lot and racked up a lot of levels tend to have superior equipment so it's like that 18-year-old wearing steel-plated armor and wielding a gun while the 5-year-old is equipped with his bare hands and donning a wet paper sack.

The reason such in-game bullies are called "griefers" is that their purpose isn't to prove their superiority but to spoil the game for other players. When they enter a game full of lower level players, their intent is to spoil the experience. Weaker players who were enjoying playing together and accomplishing a mutually-desired goal often scatter to the winds when a griefer comes in and smashes them.

The Bosses, Their Followers, Their Challengers:

If you've worked in an office, you know that there are people who gain positions of authority either through nepotism, force of their characters, charm, or superior skills. There are also the subordinates who will either blindly follow the leader or undermine his or her credentials to be in such a position and seek to unseat their superiors. In gaming, the same situation often plays out among those who choose to play with regular groups.

The interesting thing is that the very same factors that tend to play into gaining a position of authority in real life play into getting one in a gaming society. Players who have game "wealth" frequently attract groups of hangers-on who benefit from their largess. The rich players shed their "lesser" and duplicated game gear and shower their devoted followers with such gifts. The wealthy players often form a following of another type of player, the beggar, who is constantly asking for better equipment either overtly or obliquely when amongst other more experienced players.

Additionally, having familial or real life connections to someone who is in a position of power may allow you to ascend to their level when they grow bored and give up the game. Of course, there are also those who become leaders through superior skills. If there is a difficult goal to attain and someone persistently is capable of accomplishing it where others fail, that person may gain followers and be a default leader, at least intermittently. In my experience, however, such players tend to play alone most of the time (which is how they hone their skills in the first place) and tend not to seek leadership roles. I suspect this is because the liability associated with being a leader is you have to drag along a lot of incompetents when playing and the dubious value of their allegiance to you is not worth the hassle of failing repeatedly due to their feckless playing.

The Attention Seekers:

There's always some kid in your class who is doing something to attract attention to himself or some guy at work who meanders around to their coworkers' desks making stupid jokes or who laughs too loud so everyone notices him. Games have their versions of these folks as well.

There are actually several sub-divisions of such attention seekers in games. One of the most common seems to be the sexually-obsessed types who take every opportunity to make a risque joke, sexual innuendo, or flirtatious comment. The worst of these is incredibly persistent and I'm guessing looking to fulfill an inner need to be sexually-desired through in-game banter. Another flavor of such types offers up a lot of witless scatological humor. Just like the dumb classmates you had in elementary school who liked to make farting noises in their armpits, such game players think they're absolutely hilarious when they talk about passing gas or mentioning their breasts, posteriors, or genitalia.

The "Mommies":

Don't mistake the idea of a "mommy" for someone who will look after you all the time. Mothers are just as likely to tell you what to do all the time and scold you when you fail as they are to bandage your wounded knee and offer soothing words. In games, there are those who try to protect the weaker and less-experienced players and help them accomplish the game goals. The pushier "mommies" though will also insist that you do everything exactly as they say or they will withdraw their care.

The Altruists:

A similar type of player to the "mommy" is "the altruist". This is a person who sometimes helps out people just for the sake of offering up an act of kindness. This is the same sort of person in real life who will give a homeless person money or food. Just like in real life though, your attempts to help sometimes bite you in the ass later. Just as beggars who you give money to may try all the harder to extract cash from you next time they see you walking down the street, generous gamers may find themselves being constantly nagged for assistance.

In games, altruism can sometimes be misconstrued as an attempt to find an opportunity to be a griefer, particularly in regards to assisting with quests and whatnot. I'll admit that I'm, on occasion, an altruist player and have been known to take a much higher level character into games to assist lower level players with especially difficult quests only to be told to "get the hell out" and called a great many profanities because the assumption is that the only reason I could be there is to turn on people and attack them at the worst possible moment.

Functioning effectively in various gaming worlds has a lot in common with how the real world works. It's not a bunch of anti-social weirdos engaging in strange activities but a bunch of normal folks playing out the same sort of roles that people do in real life. The only difference is that the basic rules for success are different and people who might never have a chance to assume such roles in real life may find they have the skills to play them out in the gaming world.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Pork Roast


With the weather changing, my cooking inclinations also change. Instead of trying to cook light meals that take the shortest time and won't heat up the house, thoughts turn to warming foods like soup and baking seems like a far more attractive proposition than it did even two weeks ago. This change of feeling is what lead to my (first ever) pork roast yesterday.

My husband and I actually don't eat that much pork. We mainly have it as a way to break the monotony of consuming (greatly cheaper) chicken so frequently. When I headed off to the market, I knew I was going to buy what I needed for potato and onion soup but I wasn't sure what to make with it. I figured I'd let the selections in the meat racks "inspire" me with whatever was unique to us and relatively reasonably priced.

I found a largish hunk of pork for about 100 yen per 100 grams and decided to give it a try. As points of comparison, chicken breast is generally 39 yen per 100 grams, thighs about 59 yen per 100 grams and pork chops are about 89 yen per 100 grams. So, while this was a little expensive, it wasn't outrageous.

When I got home, I decided to mix several methods and recipes I'd searched on the Internet to prepare it. Here is what I ended up doing:

Pork Roast recipe:

2.4 lbs (1096 grams) pork roast (loin cut, I believe)
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 crushed cloves fresh garlic
1/2 tsp. dried sage
1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper
~1/2 pound thinly-sliced bacon (4-6 strips)

cotton twine for tying
plastic wrap

Preparing the work surface:

Stretch a sheet of plastic wrap large enough to wrap your roast on the table. Cut 6 lengths of cotton twine to size for tying your roast then place 3 lengths horizontally and 3 lengths vertically across the plastic in a criss-cross fashion. The strings need to intersect close enough to tie up your roast. Place strips of bacon horizontally over the 3 horizontal lengths of twine.

Preparing the roast:

Put the olive oil, garlic, sage, rosemary, salt and pepper into a small bowl and whisk together to mix well. Rub this mixture evenly over all sides of your roast.

Place the roast on top of the pre-prepared work surface. The bacon should cover all (or almost all) of the bottom of the roast and wrap somewhat up the sides when you tie everything in place. Place three strips of bacon vertically on the top and wrap them around the sides. Depending on the size of your roast, you may need more or less bacon. When the bacon is in place, tie the roast up (not too tightly, just tight enough to hold the bacon securely). Wrap the plastic wrap around the prepared roast and put it in the refrigerator for 2-6 hours.

Place a rack on a tray. Remove the plastic wrap from the roast and position it on the rack. I also put foil under the rack to make cleaning up easier but it's not necessary. The bacon fat will drip off into the tray and it will be very oily when the roast is finished.

Cook at 160 degrees C. or 325 degrees F. for 25-30 minutes per pound.

My roast was 2.4 pounds and cooked for an hour and a half. I also flipped it over at the 45 minute point when I noticed the bacon on the top was browning and crisping up faster than that on the bottom but this may not be necessary in a larger oven. You will want to cook a bit longer if you want a more well-done roast. My level of cooking was medium and safe but a lot of people are more comfortable cooking pork longer.

My husband was very, very pleased with the roast because it was exceptionally tender. For me, the center was a bit too juicy so I will eat only from the ends (which were still tender but drier) while he will stick to the rarer center.


Earlier, I had already cooked up about 6 servings of soup which we reheated and ate with the pork. Since the soup is a bit of a production, I wanted to get it out of the way before it grew too late in the evening. This soup doesn't suffer at all from being cooled and reheated and pairs very well with this roast.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Models


When you first start working in Japan, you tend to spend a lot of time on trains. Since you can't read anything, you tend to focus more on the pictures than the messages they're trying to convey. One thing I couldn't help but notice during my first year was that all the ads seemed to almost always feature foreign models despite the fact that the intended customer base was entirely Japanese and the companies selling the products were Japanese.

I asked my students at that time why there were so few Japanese models featured in advertising and they gave a variety of answers. Some of them said that foreign models were more expensive and it was prestigious to feature them. Others said that foreign models caught the attention of the Japanese more than Japanese models. Still others said that they were considered more attractive than Japanese models.

The latter sentiment was actually one that one of my private students expressed recently. While I can't say her viewpoint is the same as all Japanese people's (and in fact, I'm nearly certain it's not), it does fit in with what I was told 17 years ago by students at Nova. My student felt that Japanese faces were too "flat" and broad and that foreign faces had more definition and that made them more appealing. Of course, she also felt she looked "plain" and I'm pretty sure most foreign men would find her fairly attractive. I think her perceptions may have reflected a bit of the grass being greener thinking.

Getting back to the foreign models though, I arrived around the time of the end of the economic bubble so companies were still burning excess monetary fat on ridiculous luxuries and paying more rather than paying less for everything. Fast forward about 10 years and the bubble had truly burst. The ads on the trains then started featuring far more Japanese models. I'm pretty sure this was linked to saving money but I've often wondered if there is a psychological link as well.


I hadn't thought much about how the ads used to overwhelmingly feature foreign models until a few days ago when I received a catalog with my credit card statement. I generally don't look much at these but the cover being dominated by a smiling blond woman piqued my curiosity. When I looked through the catalog, I noticed there was not one Japanese model in its pages. In fact, nearly every page is dominated by smiling, blue-eyed blond foreign women with the odd shot of a brunette here and there (and a couple of pages of square-jawed pretty boys). Seeing this catalog made me wonder if advertising was going full circle or if this all foreigner approach is specific to the underwear business. ;-)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Surprises

When some unexpected misfortune befalls me, I often lament to my husband that life is full of surprises and almost all of them are bad. If there is to be karmic balance in our lives, it should seem that good and bad luck should be served up in equal measures.

Psychologists probably would say that we only take note of the extraordinary and the negative. The idea is that we take the good things in life for granted and only notice the bad. That's the psychologists' way of saying we're all a bunch of big whiners who fail to recognize how good we have it. Nonetheless, I do believe that, if we documented all the things which we don't expect which are bad and all the unexpected things which are good, the bad is going to win by a country mile.

All that being said, I do have things pretty good and I'm not going to complain about something. In fact, the whole point of this post is to place a note in my personal history about something someone did for us which was a very kind and generous surprise. Yesterday, the doorbell rang and, after we grilled the delivery man to see who he was (we don't answer or open the door blithely around these parts). The postman had a package from Amazon with the two sets of DVDs pictured below.

Yes, I like old movies, even bad ones.

These two boxes of movies were on my wish list and, at first, I thought that I'd somehow managed to accidentally order them and I was all geared up for a big bout of annoyance when I looked at the invoice and saw these were a gift from someone we hadn't been in contact with for years. Back when we were posting daily sumo results and descriptions of bouts on GEnie, we met a really nice fellow who we set up an exchange of video tapes with. He would send us U.S. television and we'd send him sumo footage. Eventually, our interest in sumo diminished and he got access to sumo coverage via cable or satellite and we lost touch.

The notes on the invoice we got said that he ran across our wish list and decided to send us these. It was a genuine shock to just get a gift from someone out of the blue, particularly someone who we hadn't been in touch with for so long. It just goes to show that spontaneous good things do happen when you least expect them.

Dust Comet

There's an episode of the Simpsons in which Marge insists everyone help clean up the house before going about their daily business. In responses to this request to clean, Homer says, "are we so vain?" While I don't believe cleaning is vanity, I'm just starting to come around to Homer's point of view.

It's not that I believe cleanliness if an indication of vanity. However, I am beginning to think that keeping things clean may not be worth the effort. Those of you who were around for my posts about swapping furniture in the apartment may recall a post in which I showed some awesomely embarrassing pictures of my light fixture in the living room covered in crud. I removed it and thoroughly cleaned it and have since then been endeavoring to maintain it so I won't have to go through the same efforts of removing it and damn near killing myself again.

To keep it relatively clean, I bought a static duster and have been standing on the sofa and brushing it over thoroughly (inside and out) once a week before doing one of my twice weekly treks over the carpet with the vacuum. Since I also put up a number of framed pictures since my little "remodel", I've made a routine of just going around and dusting all of them along with the light fixture and the clocks as part of a regular routine so I won't forget anything. It doesn't actually take that long to do and I felt that I'd be avoiding a build-up of crud in the future.


Today, I was standing on the sofa giving the light fixture its weekly grooming session and a dust comet flew out of it. The ball of dust leaving a trail blazing behind it in the picture above is about an inch and a half long! If I weren't so averse to anthropomorphizing things, I'd swear that stupid light fixture is saving these things up and spitting them out at me just to spite me.

A Few Blog Changes

There are some changes I've been meaning to get to in this blog for quite some time and one of them has been adding a list of links for all the folks who are kind enough to take the time to comment. If anyone comments regularly and there is a link to their profile, I will click on that link and read their blogs as often as I can (if they are bloggers).

This morning I woke up at 7:30 and decided it was time to stop thinking that I should do this update and actually get it done so there's a new list of links. If you've commented several times and I didn't put you in there, please be patient as this will take time to thoroughly complete.

I apologize for taking so long to do this as I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to add their thoughts and ideas. Sometimes, those thoughts are like an extension of my posts which add a unique perspective or an interesting story and they deserve to be posts of their own. The comments I receive add qualitatively to the value of my blog for everyone and the least I can do is add a pointer back to the sites of the folks who are kind enough to do that. After all, if they've got something interesting to say here, imagine the excellent content they're offering in their own blogs.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A New Age

Today is "Blog Action Day" and the theme is the environment. Don't worry, I'm not planning to preach at you and I'm hoping not to bore you.

In the mid-70's, during Jimmy Carter's woeful term as president, there was an energy crisis. At that time, cars lined up at gas stations and gas prices started to shoot up. People started to think about the mileage their vehicles got and traded in their old gas guzzlers for small, fuel-efficient Japanese-made cars. Awareness was fueled not by concern for the environment or the knowledge that fossil fuels were a finite resource that was going to run out someday relatively soon but by feeling a pinch in ones pocketbook.

Fast forward to the present where fossil fuels haven't become any more infinite than they were in the mid-70's and people still continue to consume up to their financial capacity to do so. Before the war in Iraq and spiking gas prices, more and more people were driving around SUVs they didn't really need and offering up flimsy rationales for doing so. When the bottom started to drop out of the tech boom and flash in the pan companies closed their doors, people started to scale back a bit and think about smaller vehicles and gas costs. Once more, awareness came from the wallet rather than from the conscience.

The summers keep getting hotter and records for the "hottest day ever" are being regularly broken, but people really don't care because they can afford air conditioning. Once more, they continue to consume energy, fuel, and materials up to their capacity to pay rather than their capacity to endure discomfort. And why shouldn't they? Most folks live better than medieval kings and feel they deserve a comfortable castle to live in since they work so hard and paid so much for their surroundings.

There are many problems with getting people to act based on their conscience rather than their bank accounts. One is people cannot resist the psychological impulse to live in denial. Mainly, this pertains to the need to believe our actions have nothing to do with global warming. I knew in my 9th grade chemistry class in 1979 that our actions were tossing heat back into the environment at an alarming rate. It's chemically impossible for most human activities not to do so. Knowledge, however, cannot compete with the awesome power of the ego and how it can manipulate any situation to suit it's desires. We can justify any action if it increases our creature comfort level with a smug sense of entitlement or by adjusting or rejecting the facts as we see fit. If all other rationalizations or attempts at denial fail, there is always misplaced confidence in technology. A lot of people feel we need not worry now because science will save us later.

Beyond denial though, there is the fact that even if we want to act more in accord with what we feel is right, we can't get a sense that our sacrifices matter. The impact of sitting in the heat all summer and being so uncomfortable you think you might faint to save energy and heat generation is infinitessimal compared to the impact of all human activity. It also doesn't help that you can see hazes of heat in front of your neighbors' external air conditioner vents as they cool their homes at maximum power while you suffer.

What this all really boils down to is a test of character. It has nothing to do with politics or scientific beliefs but about your ability to endure inconvenience and discomfort for the good of the environment and future generations (or your own comfort in your old age). I've known staunch liberals who preach the gospel of Gore who have turned on their heaters rather than wear a sweater. Acting in ways that are bad for the environment in many cases is a failure of character, not a failure to understand the problem or what needs to be done. It's the sort of failure that is far more common in this age than it was even 50 years ago because we're all terribly spoiled yet convince ourselves that we aren't very well off.

It's a test our grandparents (and other ancestors), who valued re-use of old, beat up things over status-based consumption of shiny, stylish new things and who didn't have the money to mitigate every discomfort, would have easily passed, but we, with our superior access to information and expanding scientific knowledge, fail miserably at. What this shows is that we live in a very different age than our grandparents. Ours is the age where we attach more value to a person based on material possessions and money than that person's character. The measure of man is not in his will but in his wallet.

When was the last time anyone walked into another person's home and said something like 'I see you're using that same refrigerator that you've had for 15 years, it's good to see you making the most of the material that went into it.' You're far more likely to hear, 'wow, you bought a new Cold Blaster Ice-O-Matic Wired Freezinator that tells you when you need milk!' I actually had a student say essentially this sort of thing to me when she noticed I'd bought a new oven. She said she wished hers would break down so she'd have an excuse to buy a new one because she didn't like the way the door on her oven opened from a hinge on the side rather than a hinge on the bottom. The value for her was in how the oven looked, not in how it worked. This is pretty common thinking in the age we currently live in where people scoff at others who still use old models of various devices as if doing so indicated a lack of taste or style. This is another indication of a lack of good character as the psychological roots of the need to deride people for their use of old possessions is a need to feel superior based on one's superior financial capability to consume.

In the near future, regardless of the reasons for global warming, we will be forced to live in a new age. Just as our grandparents had to get by on less sugar, nylon, rubber, etc. during World War II because of a scarcity of materials, we'll be forced to live differently because of diminishing fossil fuels, overwhelming amounts of trash, increased average temperatures, higher energy prices, reduced food sources and more disease and pestilence from the overheated earth. The only question is how soon and how bad it is. Those are questions that will be answered by the strength (or weakness) of our characters.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Chestnut" KitKat


Living in Japan means that you will see new variations on two types of items on a continuous basis. One of those items is Pocky. For the two or three people who don't know what those are, it's an unsalted pretzel stick which has been dipped in various sweet coatings. The "core" version is chocolate but there is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of varieties of these items. Some of them are rather absurdly similar to one another such as the "Men's Pocky" which looks like a slightly darker version of regular Pocky (or maybe it's bigger, I never bought one but it's chocolate).

The other item with a constant stream of variation is the venerable KitKat. At the moment, the newest versions are caramel and chestnut. Since I'm not a fan of caramel, I avoided it but my husband tried it and thought it was pretty good. I did rejoice at the appearance of the chestnut one since I am a great fan of all things related to either hazelnuts or chestnuts. Though I can't be sure, I believe that this particular flavor is seasonal and probably was released in previous years but I wasn't looking at candy at the right time and missed out before. I do know there was a chestnut "KitKat" which was essentially a sugar wafer (no chocolate coating and more and bigger wafers).


The bar is very pale with a hint of beige. The inside seems to be layered with what one would hope is chestnut cream. With some inappropriately high expectations, I gave it a try. The first taste seemed sweet without much flavor and with a hint of what seemed to be coconut oil (though I believe it is some other sort of oil). The next bite had only the tiniest hint of something vaguely resembling chestnut. When we read the ingredients on the back, we saw that chestnut is the 8th ingredient after "yeast" so there's not much in it. The over-riding taste is, unfortunately, an overly sweet white chocolate with the tiniest whiff of something else behind it but not necessarily chestnut.

This is actually not an uncommon experience when trying the various flavored Kit-Kats in Japan (such as the green tea one). Most of the non-chocolate varieties seem to be very sweet white chocolate with coloring and artificial flavoring of various degrees of intensity. I guess part of the problem with making so many different types is that they are probably not equipped to do any sort of special combinations because they're working with the same machinery all the time and can't do much to enhance the flavor beyond pour new essences or chemicals into their vats of white chocolate. While this bar wasn't bad, it was far from the bee's knees and even a chestnut aficionado like myself wouldn't partake of it again.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Close Call

One of many of this type of signs posted in Japanese subways and train stations. Click this smaller version to see one large enough to read (it's in both English and Japanese).

March 20, 1995 was a Monday and I had a doctor's appointment in the early morning. Being a teacher, I was on a schedule that was skewed toward a late start and finish so I wasn't happy about this but I needed to go to a clinic in the Hiro-o area for follow-up on a case of Bell's Palsy I was recovering from. I had neither the option to change the time nor skip the appointment since I'd been on steroids for over a month and they had been driving me (literally) crazy. Since my face was no longer partially paralyzed, I desperately wanted the doctor to tell me I could stop taking the medication.

On most Mondays, both my husband and I had a day off, slept in, and rarely went out on trips around Tokyo. It was extremely rare for us to be out at all, let alone early enough to be catching a train during rush hour because we preferred to rest on the second day of our "weekend" (Sunday and Monday were our days off). The combination of mood-altering steroids, getting up abnormally early, and having to see a doctor (which I passionately hate) had me more than normally irritated, but my husband was dawdling and we weren't getting out the door as early as I wanted. We left about 10 or 15 minutes later than I wanted but finally made it to the subway and had to change our travel plans and switch to the JR line rather than switch over to the Hibiya line. When we reached the transfer point at Ebisu, the trains were stopped and the station was packed with people.

My husband and I waited awhile to see if the trains were going to get up and running again. Announcements for stopped trains are notoriously vague for various types of accidents but we assumed that there may have been a jumper who committed suicide on the tracks. Since I was antsy about missing my appointment because I believe you have to pay if you miss one (and the clinic is very expensive and not covered by insurance), we decided to leave the station and try and catch a cab. It turned out that there were so many stranded people that there wasn't a cab to be found. In the end, we walked from Ebisu station to the clinic in Hiro-o. We called the clinic to let them know we were unavoidably stuck.

When we reached the clinic, the people there were very understanding because they'd already heard that something big was going on and several subway lines were stopped. While the doctor checked me out, my husband walked to a bank machine to get money to pay what we were sure was a big bill. He saw a television monitor along the way and noticed there was some serious problem going on with the subway. People were lying around on the ground and it had all the appearance of a major accident.

It wasn't until later that we learned that there had been a domestic terrorist attack in Tokyo. A religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, had distributed sarin liquid gas in subway carriages on three lines bound for the direction we were headed. Based on the general times we were told the gas attacks were initiated, we were about 10-15 minutes behind the affected trains and planning to board two of the three lines (Marunouchi and Hibiya). If my husband hadn't caused us to run late and if we had acted on my anal-retentive need to be early all the time, there's a pretty good chance we would have been right in the thick of it. Since that time, I've not gotten seriously upset at my husband for not wanting to leave extra early to accommodate me.

Prior to this attack, Aum Shinrikyo was mainly known for stationing recruiters, some of whom were dressed in cute animal costumes, at stations. My husband and I used to see them fairly regularly at our local JR station and laughed at how silly the big blue animal costumes were and how odd it was as a means of trying to snag people for a religion. No one really gave them much thought outside of those who were a part of the cult until the attack. After the attack, posters of the perpetrators who got away appeared all over Japan and the cult's leader, Shoko Asahara, was arrested and is currently awaiting execution. Everyone knows who they are now though the group has changed its name to Aleph to try and distance themselves from the cult's violent episode in history.

While the wanted posters were up, the attack was fresh in everyone's minds but few people think much about it this days except as a footnote in history. Terrorism is still something that foreigners do, mainly to each other in the minds of the Japanese. They don't seem to think much about the fact that the only terrorist act committed against Japan was an internal affair.

The main lingering legacy of the gas attack is the posting of the sorts of signs at the top of this post. The line that says "if you spot a suspicious object, please notify the staff" was added after the attacks to encourage people to be wary of they type of devices used to distribute gas amongst the subways in the attack. Since the attacks were carried out by people who left plastic bags full of liquid sarin which were wrapped in newspaper then punctured with an umbrella tip, even mundane items are to be viewed with suspicion. Prior to this incident, people left newspapers and magazines on the trains and other people would read them. Since the attack, special bins have been placed in major stations to leave only magazines or papers in so that they can be read by others. Such items are no longer viewed mainly as an innocent act of anonymous sharing when left on trains and signs discourage people from leaving anything behind though careless people do it anyway and those who don't remember the details of the attack.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Continuity

Continuity tends to make people feel secure and comfortable. In fact, most people feel the greatest level of overall content when they have a routine punctuated by enjoyably novel experiences. If you have too much routine, you get bored. If there's too much novelty in your life, you'll feel stressed and like your life is out of control. One of the (many) reasons moving to another country can be so stressful is that there is far too much novelty all at once and very little familiar daily routine.

There are larger types of continuity beyond our daily experiences. When you operate mainly on the level of a teacher in Japan, you don't tend to witness them because you're removed from a lot of what happens on other levels in Japanese life. You mainly witness the evolution (or devolution) of your students and your growing rapport and comfort with them. In my private lessons, this is certainly the case and it can be very gratifying because the way in which I have contributed to my students' achievement of their goals is crystal clear.

In my former job, I rarely taught the same student twice so I almost never saw any real growth in skills. Additionally, the nature of my contact with students was more of a short-duration testing via phone rather than an attempt to "teach" them. However, there was a type of continuity which I witnessed which has been rather interesting. That type of continuity change was in the corporate patterns for the various companies my students worked for.

The way my former company worked was to sell various lesson and testing packages to companies to allow them to either educate or level test their employees. It wasn't unusual for my company to repeatedly sell the same content to the same company for over a decade as companies tended to buy our services for new employees. That means I would get a yearly update on the state of the various companies my students were working at. Since I asked the same questions over and over of different people, it was a bit like polling thousands of employees at the same company over a long period of time.

This type of interviewing could be very educational because one could learn a lot about the working conditions and popular products among various companies. I know for a fact that not all Japanese people work overtime and that some of those that do are actually paid for their overtime hours. This flies in the face of the commonly-held notion that all Japanese work tons of overtime and it's all unpaid. It also became clear which industries had a high concentration of female employees and which mainly recruited men as well as demonstrated which places gave women lower-paying work with little responsibility.

While I don't want to give any company names out, I can say that companies that produced personal care items recruited the most women and gave them better positions. They also seemed to have better English speakers. The heavy industries and companies that mainly produced components that were sold and used to assemble more sophisticated products elsewhere (car parts, computer components) unsurprisingly focused more on men and demonstrated poorer English skills though they weren't as poor as those who worked at companies that mainly provided services domestically. In fact, sometimes I couldn't understand why companies that mainly served domestic needs even bothered to train their employees in English. I concluded that the absolute best place to work for Japanese people when it came to overall working conditions (limited overtime, paid overtime, equal treatment of men and women) was their major phone company.

There were several predictable overall changes in various companies as the years wore on. The most obvious was that companies were doing more poorly on the whole and downsizing. Up until recently though, I hadn't experienced any company that had done any large scale or obvious outsourcing though my husband did teach classes at a company at one point that was having a lot of its business siphoned off by workers in India.

At any rate, a company that I had dealt with for quite a few years ago recently seems to have changed its hiring situation such that the workforce is mixed with employees from the Philippines and Japan. This situation is rather different than the usual outsourcing which involves breaking off a chunk of ones business and sending it to another country. In this case, Japanese employees will be working side-by-side with people from another country. This is an interesting development mainly because it's exactly the sort of thing which is going to continue fueling the English language study industry. These people are employed by a Japanese company but because of cost-cutting methods are going to have to accommodate foreigners by speaking English. In the past, most of the mixed work environments I've heard of were the opposite situation; a foreigner has to learn Japanese in order to accommodate Japanese employees and employers.

It's interesting to consider that outsourcing may actually motivate the Japanese to learn to understand and communicate more with foreigners. With the diminishing base of young Japanese people to fill out the work force as the older generation retires in droves, working side by side with more foreign people, particularly those who will work at lower wages than the average Japanese person, makes a lot of sense for businesses. To be honest though, I never thought this sort of thing would actually happen in Japan and was surprised that a major company has made this move. It's an encouraging sign of increased Japanese openness and flexibility though the positive side is tempered somewhat by the fact that the foreigners in this situation will all be subordinate to the Japanese bosses.