Thursday, November 29, 2007

Brown Hair

Yesterday one of my students showed up for her lesson sporting newly-dyed medium brown hair. Her hair was black before but she thought that brown hair looked "cooler". The brown looked quite flattering and suited her skin tone well and I complimented her on the change.

While it may not seem like a big deal for someone to go from having black hair to brown, it is a sizable transition for a Japanese person and it isn't something that is wholeheartedly approved of by everyone. My student works part-time at a well-known Japanese casual wear retailer and she told me that they don't allow employees to have "light" hair. Her employer believes that customers are uncomfortable with those with brown hair because they'll perceive them as "rude" or believe they have bad attitudes.

On the one hand, the conservative posture that her employer is taking is somewhat surprising considering how many women in Japan have brown hair these days. It's not exactly rare or shocking. On the other hand, it does fit in with some of the stories I've been told about how small variations in appearance can get kids bullied in school because of the expectation that everyone should be very similar in appearance. One of my other students told me that she had slightly wavy hair as a kid and was teased mercilessly for it. To this day, she always has her hair regularly straightened because of what she went through as a kid.

Since the student who works part-time at a casual wear retailer has a head full of long brown hair now and she doesn't want to quit her job (or get fired from it), I asked her what she was going to do. She pulled a white tube of something out of her purse and showed me her "instant retouch". Unscrewing the cap revealed what looked like the top of a shoe polish applicator. She told me she rubs this goop on the top of her head to darken her hair before work and it washes out when she takes a shower. It seems like a lot of trouble to me, but I guess it's the price she's willing to pay in her working life as a retail drone so that she can be more of an individual in her private life.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Happy 49th

One of my husband's coworkers is a single male who, when the topic of marriage comes up, likes to say, "marriage is subjugation." While I'm not sure what he means by this exactly, it doesn't demonstrate a positive attitude toward the idea of being married. At the very least, it implies both parties are being enslaved. At worst, it's trotting out the old saw about how men are painfully shackled to their wives when they finally succumb to their women's wishes to marry.

The idea that men are unwilling and lacking in desire to marry is one which is commonly played out in television, movies, song, and, no doubt, in bars where single men congregate to lament the woe associated with being "tied down" with the "old woman". The irony of this attitude is that studies show that men usually benefit from marriage and women usually are harmed. Studies comparing single men and women to married men and women show men are healthier and live longer when they have wives and women are less healthy and live a shorter time when they have husbands. The old myth though, that men are held on a short leash by their wives when they marry, is nonetheless fairly pervasive.

I think men who grow up to think marriage is a trap that will limit their freedoms and make their lives miserable spent some time as little boys who witnessed their father's talking or acting like marriage was making them feel trapped and unhappy. My husband has never uttered a negative statement about marriage. In fact, from the moment I had contact with him, he has been nothing but positive about being married and had always viewed finding a (suitable) life partner as his most important goal.

I've often bored people with praise for how wonderful my husband is and how well he treats me. I think he couldn't be the person he is or find marriage such a positive thing if he hadn't grown up around two people who were clearly happy together and showed him that marriage is a wonderful thing that enriches their lives. I have my in-laws to thank in part for how happy my marriage is. I have no doubt that they role-modeled a very loving and fulfilling relationship for him.

Happy Anniversary, Mary and Tito! (thanks to my brother-in-law Luis for providing me with a very illustrative picture)

Today is their 49th wedding anniversary and I want to wish them all the very best. I also want to wish them many more years together as a happy couple.

Christmas Decorating

In my family, Christmas decorations usually went up the weekend after Thanksgiving. It wasn't an attempt to rush into the season but rather a practical issue. Thanksgiving usually affords people back home a 4-day weekend so it provides ample time to dig out boxes of decorations, untangle them, and arrange them as artfully as possible around the house.

In retrospect, I'm sure that my decorating wasn't all that great, but I was the one who usually applied myself to such tasks with great enthusiasm since I love the atmosphere of the Christmas season. My mother, father, and sister may have been happy with the fruits of my labors, but they couldn't really view doing it themselves it as anything more than a chore. Over the last few years, I pretty much felt the way that they did and ended up depressed and giving the holiday a miss. Part of the reason for that was that I didn't exactly feel showered with spirit by anyone around me (given that this is Japan and the holiday is not celebrated the same as in the U.S.) and part of it was plain old winter depression. After awhile, even the peppiest Christmas spirit can be dampened by all the negative talk and blah responses from those around her. I must admit that part of what did it was cynical talk of how commercialized the holiday has become (it's true, but we don't have to buy into it) and how lazy the internet and computers have made people about traditions like sending cards.

This year, I decided I wasn't going to let myself get bogged down in low spirits and I pushed myself to drag out my box of dwindling decorations. A few years ago, the box was bursting at the seams with a 3.5 foot artificial tree purchased many years ago in a little rundown shop in Tokyo, several strings of lights, a large tin full of ornaments suitable for a small tree and more candles than our dinky apartment could accommodate. The candles got used up. The lights died. The tree got tossed out about 4 years ago when years of hot lights melted too many of it's plastic "pine needles" and quite a few of the little snap on faux pine bits were lost. The state of that tree gave me too much of a sad Charlie Brown feeling and it depressed me to look at it so I had to let it go.

Christmas plates my husband gave me.

Since then, I unfortunately, have not seen an artificial tree like it anywhere so we've been treeless. That left me with all the tiny ornaments and the remaining bits and pieces that I still had on hand. I made the best of what I had and felt quite a bit better for having done so. About half of the items I've kept were gifts, most of them from my husband and putting them out where I can see them reminds me of how much he cares and wants me to be happy. It also reminds me that he has always loved the way I regarded Christmas and enjoys how I set up the apartment at this time of year.

A big vanilla candle I bought this year from the FBC surrounded by little pine candles my brother-in-law gave me some time back.

One thing I realized is that the decorating is a way of slowly wading into the cold waters of the holiday season. It's not really about the stuff I'm draping around the apartment so much as how it makes me think and feel as I go through the process. Also, a lot of the items hold certain memories and connections which are greater than the quality or appearance of the items themselves


Some of the most unimportant thing have stories behind them which I'd forgotten. The picture above is of a bunch of Coca-Cola polar bear ornaments that were distributed on 1.5 liter bottles of Diet Coke about 12 years ago. While the ornaments themselves aren't any great shakes, they are souvenirs of my recovery from severe back pain at that time. When I first started having unbearable pain, the doctor I went to told me I had to stay in bed for 2 months in order to get better. I did as he suggested but didn't seem to improve. At some point, I decided that he was wrong and initiated a plan for my own recovery which included increasing amounts of exercise and walking in particular. After about a week, part of the routine I established was walking to a store once a day and picking up one bottle of Diet Coke at a time. These ornaments were on the necks of those bottles at that time.


After that experience, I realized that doctors sometimes don't always know what they're doing when recommending treatment. I don't know what would have happened if I'd have continued to just lie in bed but clearly the time had come for me to work on the muscles a bit and move on from rest. Doctors may know more about bodies and how they work than we do but, in the end, they're just making educated guesses and sometimes those guesses are wrong. I hadn't really thought much about that memory until I dragged out my box of Christmas ornaments.

At the end of my decorating, I felt as if the process had done me a lot of good and I feel much better going into the Christmas season than I have in quite awhile. I'm hoping to do more of the things I used to do before I got into a rut a few years ago.

Be a Restauranteur, Just For One Day

Japan has an interesting system of "live houses" and other small venues which allow non-professionals to perform in front of an audience by taking on the financial burden of the event. The way this usually works is that the performer(s) "buy" as many tickets as the owner of the venue (usually a small club or bar) thinks need to be sold to make it worthwhile (for the owner). The performer is responsible for selling the tickets if he wants to get his money back. If he can't sell enough, he'll be out of pocket some money. If can sell a lot, he can make some money.

This system allows amateurs to get up there and perform in front of people. My former boss used to do this as a "crooner". He usually did it in conjunction with other folks including another singer and a piano player. He usually made a little money (about $50-$100) or broke even though not when the cost of renting a tuxedo or time were factored into the equation. Of course, he didn't do it for the money. He did it because he enjoyed performing.

I never lived in a big city in the United States so I don't know if a similar system exists but I have my doubts that it does. My husband recently told me about a similar situation which I'm pretty sure wouldn't be permitted in the U.S. One of his students told him that she was allowed to rent a space in which she could open her own "restaurant" for one day. The space included meal preparation space and a dining area and was presumably in an area trafficked enough by pedestrians to bring in business. The only requirement she had to have to do this (besides enough money to rent the space) was preparing a palatable meal for the man who was going to rent the space. Once she proved she could cook well enough to sell meals, the place was hers for a day to prepare and sell the Czech food and beer she was interested in. For her toil, she ended up making about $50 so it wasn't worth it from a financial point of view but it was satisfying for her from an experience point of view.

On the surface, this is a pretty cool idea as it gives someone a chance to share their cooking with, what would hopefully be, an appreciative diner. Under the surface though, it's just a little scary and I think that part would probably keep this sort of business from being permitted in the States. The main problem would be with hygiene and the fact that the people who did this had no special training or supervision in how they handled food. Also, it very much opens to the door to criminal behavior such as hit and run poisoning.

There are roughly similar situations in the U.S., but they are only permitted as part of fund-raising or collective social events. The bake sales and potlucks conducted by churches and various fraternal organizations are also situations where food is sold and the sanitary and safety conditions are not monitored. The main difference between this situation and the "rent a restaurant" is Japan is that the conditions under which the food is prepared in such sales is generally understood by those patronizing them. If you walk into a restaurant someplace, the expectation is that the folks running it are subject to and conversant in health codes and food safety procedures.

While I'm pretty sure my husband's student handled the food safely and carefully, I'm not so sure I'd be comfortable eating at one of these sorts of places. However, it's possible I already unknowingly have done so.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Two Thanksgivings

Two days ago was America's Thanksgiving holiday and yesterday was Japan's "Labor Thanksgiving Day". These holidays have very little to do with each other in their modern incarnations though a little research seems to indicate they used to have a bit more in common. The Japanese holiday is the modern equivalent of an ancient rice festival according to Wikipedia and the American holiday is similarly a celebration of a bountiful harvest. This is pretty much where the similarities end.

The biggest difference is that the Japanese holiday is no longer celebrated in any serious way by the majority of people. In fact, most Japanese people don't quite know what the holiday is for and are just pleased to get a day off from work. When I ask what the meaning of the holiday is, my students usually say something along the lines of it being a way to thank people for working hard. They don't prepare any special food and few people attend the handful of festivals held on November 23rd.

In the U.S., this is a time for great excess and general food-based bacchanalia. I sometimes think that the significance of showing thanks at this time a year is often lost because of the affluence most people enjoy in America. It's a lot easier to appreciate bounty when you have a dearth at other times. It also seems that the excessive focus on food tends to distract one from being thankful for other things in life.

My husband and I cannot really celebrate Thanksgiving in Japan, at least not in the way people do in the U.S. might. There are problems with doing so mainly because my husband works from 11:00 am - 10:00 pm on Thursdays and there is hardly time for merry-making or feasting. I also private teach in our apartment from Wednesday to Sunday though I could probably change my schedule if he had the day off. It's also hard to obtain special dishes, particularly turkey (or even whole chicken), American pumpkin, cranberries, yams and pecans. Some food items can be found easily but are very expensive (celery is oddly pricey, for instance). While we can order these items from the Foreign Buyer's Club, we'd need to order everything at least a week beforehand, it'd be very expensive, and the time situation makes it rather pointless to bother.

That doesn't mean we can't reflect on the things we're grateful for. I know that a lot of people write about all the things they are thankful for and I could just as easily make a similar list here and now but I'm not sure that anyone else cares and I already know and won't forget so there's no point in recording it for my own reference. The main problem with such lists is that other people are going to be judging your life based on what you write. They might not even mean to but they will be. Those who share your priorities will feel you're thankful for the right things. Those who don't may feel that you are shallow, spoiled, or oblivious to what really matters.

How people perceive what you are thankful for is largely influenced by where they (roughly) fall on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, it's a theory which talks about what needs take priority and need to be met before you can consider more "advanced" needs. At the bottom are basic needs like food, water, sleep, sex, etc. The next levels are safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. While not all needs on a lower level have to be fulfilled 100% to start focusing on the needs at the next level, the extent to which a person tends to concentrate on needs at any particular level is influenced by how fulfilled the ones below it are. This makes sense since, for instance, a starving man isn't focusing on whether or not he's got a girlfriend.

In regards to Thanksgiving gratitude and the lists people make, those who fall below you on Maslow's hierarchy will tend to view you as spoiled when judging your list. Those who are above you may think you're oblivious of the more important things in life, declasse, or childish. I think it's really hard to appreciate needs that are below your current needs state on the pyramid and there really isn't necessarily anything wrong with that. When you can have any food you want, it's easy to take being well-nourished for granted, for example.

In fact, I think that humanity will never be able to fulfill all the basic survival needs of all people until a good portion of us have reached the top of the pyramid and are at the self-actualization stage. As long as we're all near the bottom, we're too concerned with our own selfish needs to consider viewing the lives of others with empathy and charity. Personally, I will say that one of the things I'm most grateful for is being far enough along in my need fulfillment to have the perspective that I have on life. It's not a perfect or an all-encompassing perspective, but it's not mired in concerns for getting enough food or having shelter, safety, and most importantly, love and belonging. It's my hope that everyone is able to similarly reflect on their lives with gratitude for having these things this year.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

French Goodies


One of the most common questions students ask me is, "have you ever been to a foreign country?" After informing them that I am already in a foreign country from my point of view, they usually ask me if I've been to other countries. The only country I've been to besides Japan (and the U.S.) is Canada, so I tend to get asked what other place I'm interested in visiting. Usually, I say Spain because Spanish is the only other language I have any experience with and some of my husband's family roots trace back there.

One of the places I have little interest in visiting is France. I know it's a very beautiful country and has a lot to offer culturally, but I also know they have no patience for Americans who can't speak French, and I can't speak it at all. I don't want to go somewhere and pay people to be rude to me and treat me like a second-class human being because I'm from a particular country and can't speak their language. Of course, these days, being American is pretty much enough to get you treated like the plague pretty much anywhere in the world. Hating Americans isn't considered a prejudice amongst most folks who are inclined to do so. However, the Japanese aren't quite as inclined to tar and feather us all because our current president is doing his best to completely destroy America on both the domestic and international fronts. I guess they feel as disconnected from the politicians who control their country as we do.

Some of my students have gone to France and told me that they were surprised that the French people were so polite and helpful (in most cases) even though they (my students) can't speak French. I always tell them that French people don't appear to have the same issues with non-native English speakers who can't speak their language as they do with people from other countries. Of course, I have no idea how valid these thoughts are as I have no first-hand experience. I can only say that the French reputation for rudeness is quite pervasive as reflected by both my conclusions and the preconceived notions of my traveling students, though it is certainly likely a lot of it is unfair as most negative generalizations about groups of people are.

One of my husband's students recently went to France and brought him back some incredibly nice goodies. One was a bag of cookies from La Cure Gourmande and the other was a canister of chocolate truffles from Jeff de Bruges. The cookies are a collection of very dense, crunchy, buttery biscuits in various flavors. They have a unique texture heavily influenced by what I'm guessing is the use of a grainy sugar. They have a unique smell which I can't quite pin down but is vaguely reminiscent of dill (of all things). Though there are various flavors, (e.g., coconut, orange with lemon) they all seem to smell the same. Because they are dense and hard, one approaches them with low expectations, but they are incredibly good in a way you don't often experience in cookies in either Japan or the U.S. I'd love to know the techniques and recipes for them.

The truffles have crispy, delicate chocolate shells with light, incredibly creamy fillings. They are clearly high quality and have rich, chocolate flavor without being overbearing. The student either bought very high quality souvenirs for my husband or French sweets live up to their high reputation (or both). They're so good it's almost worth considering going to France. ;-)

The World According to Gene

(Warning: Portions of this post are not "family-friendly" and discuss "indelicate" topics that those with sensitive dispositions may find offensive. If you're squeamish about anything related to sex, I suggest you turn back now.)

The other day, I was listening to an NPR interview with Gene Simmons conducted by Terry Gross. As a lapsed KISS fan, I sometimes take an interest in what the band members are up to. I am also very familiar with Gene's pontificating on the nature of men and women and didn't really want to hear it again, but the site that had brought this interview to my attention (Confessions of a College Call-girl), had mentioned that, unlike most boot-licking interviewers, Ms. Gross wasn't going to chuckle amiably at his half-baked notions and egotistical statements. Ms. Gross did indeed point out how obnoxious Gene was being and the interview was good for a chuckle even though little new ground was covered on the Simmons front. About the only thing he added to his usual repertoire of philosophizing on (what I refer to tongue firmly in cheek as) gender issues is a vague mockery of intellectualism, NPR, reading books and the serious pursuit of education rather than going out and rocking and rolling all night and partying every day.

Part of the mantra that often comes out when Gene's mouth opens and he spews his philosophy of life is the notion that men are genetically-engineered not to monogamous. As one who has boasted of bedding over 4,000 different women with accompanying Polaroids to prove it, he uses this to validate his promiscuity as well as his absolute conviction that any man who professes he can love one woman forever or wants to be with her for anything besides the contents of her trousers is an absolute liar. I'm going to set aside the possibility that Gene is playing a character who says these things in order to present a specific public persona since I've heard him deliver his speeches on this topic about a hundred times with a straight face and an air of absolute conviction. Since I've seen him act, I know he's not that good an actor so I'm guessing this is all his (alarmingly) genuine belief.

One of the interesting points about listening to him talk is that his view of humanity (or at least the male half of it) is incredibly narrow. He is absolutely convinced that all men operate with the limited emotional maturity and lack of sexual control that he does. Anyone who does not share his perspective is simply a liar in his opinion. All men are dogs governed by the raging needs of their genitalia. He doesn't even entertain the idea that his mental machinery operates differently from other folks out there who also possess a penis. His myopia is remarkable because he is clearly a person who has had at least somewhat of an education (though he does seem intent on suppressing any expression of it) and has traveled the world. Of course, I'm guessing that his experiences while abroad were not exactly ones of cross-cultural enlightenment and may have been measured in how many photos he added to his collection of sexual conquests.

I often write of ethnocentrism and how it colors ones view of other cultures. People often are stuck in their own view of what is "right and wrong" or "good and bad" based on the environment they were raised it. It takes not only experience but mental effort to break free of this tendency. Such tendencies are not limited to perceptions of other cultures. A fair number of people are so incredibly ego-centric that they can't conceptualize that other people may not perceive the world just as they do. Enter Gene Simmons who apparently perceives the world through his penis and cannot believe there is any other truth than the one he espouses. His notions aren't actually offensive to women but are offensive to men as it reduces them to nothing more than slaves to their libidos and minimizes their ability to form deep and meaningful relationships with women. I guess that if you are incredibly egocentric and you can't form meaningful relationships, make lasting commitments, or relate to women as anything other than mothers or whores, then no man is capable of more than you.

Several posts back, I mentioned something about thinking which is one-level deep and I'm not surprised to have heard that Mr. Simmons applies such thinking to his theories of why all men are promiscuous. The notion is that, when we were cave folks, men who successfully sowed their seeds among the most fertile females would win the genetic lottery whereas monogamous men would find their material passed on at too low a frequency to produce a genetic legacy. As surface thinking, this works. However, it doesn't quite work when you start thinking a bit more deeply about the implications. First of all, impregnating any woman you can find doesn't help if your off-spring don't survive long enough to produce their own off-spring. Considering the vulnerability of pregnant women or those attempting to feed and protect a child, the chances of one successfully rearing a child to puberty without the support of a stronger partner who could provide food, security and support for survival seems pretty low. Serial monogamy suits the idea of ensuring your genes get passed on better than rampant promiscuity.

Gene also offered that "we'd all be retarded" if men weren't humping anything that moved but that also doesn't wash. Primitive people were nomadic and tended to travel in groups (as it was better for survival) with relatively limited exchanges of members between other groups. If a man produced too many off-spring within his limited group, there would be an increased chance of half-siblings mating with other half-siblings and then there's be a higher incidence of genetic defects. I guess Gene doesn't know that the average "caveman" didn't get around as much as the 20th century rock star and probably didn't encounter so many leg-spreading babes. However, thinking through a few of the other possible ramifications of the genetic theory of male infidelity would muddy up his limited world-view so there's no point in his going through the trouble.

There are many people like Gene out there in the world though they don't tend to confine their convictions to the way men perceive women. It's only Gene's incredible preoccupation with sex which makes him focus mainly on this particular aspect. These are other people who also are trapped in the notion that their own world-view is the correct one and that there is one and only one truth to be applied to various situations in life. They reject other perspectives as dishonest, ill-informed, uneducated, or simply "wrong". These are the types of people who enjoy the innocence and simplicity of a world divided neatly into black and white and reject all the unnecessarily complicated greys.

My readers might ponder why I even consider Gene's rantings or bother to refute them. Part of the reason for this is that I used to respect and admire him. Before he made his transformation from make-up-wearing, goth rock God to sleazy, pathetic shill intent on squeezing every penny out of his band's image with singing toothbrushes, customized coffins, and cheesy concept coffee houses, he used to be a relatively decent role model for teenagers, particularly in regards to avoiding alcohol and drugs and advocating people work hard, be smart (education didn't used to be something he regarded disdainfully) and pursue their dreams.

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Two related asides...
  • People probably rarely lived in caves. The whole caveman thing is pretty much a modern myth. Ancient people were hunter-gatherers who traveled to places where the food was until agricultural practices were understood well enough to feed people. At that point, they built structures. Caves were likely temporary shelters at best during times of extreme hardship or prolonged weather upheavals.
  • Gene is writing a book about prostitution. When he visited Japan around 1989, there was a quote from his bandmate (and the one KISS member who still has dignity, creativity and class) Paul Stanley where he said all the band members got coupons for a Japanese soapland. The coupons entitled the bearer to a professional monkey spanking. Paul said that the experience was extremely intense and immensely pleasurable and encouraged Gene to avail himself of the services. Gene said that he would never, ever engage in any sexual behavior for money. Paul countered that they didn't have to pay as the Japanese promoters provided the tickets, but Gene still refused as he would never have sex for money no matter who was footing the bill. This also jives with the fact that Gene is Jewish and, despite the fact that he downplays his connection to his faith, he's fairly observant of its traditions. Judaism forbids the patronizing of prostitutes. This leaves me wondering what qualifies him to write such a book on either side of the issue. The only tenuous connection he has to sex workers is that his long-time girlfriend (and now plastic surgery victim) Shannon Tweed is a professional masturbatory aid.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Washing Machines

This morning while I was washing dishes, I heard my washing machine start to spin an imbalanced load of wet clothes and then stop because it detected the problem. It waited for the clothes to fall into a different weight balance then proceeded to spin out the water. When I heard it stop, I had the feeling it was "pondering" what to do then initiated a different course of action. Note that I usually do not anthropomorphize my appliances and was fully cognizant of how silly it was to do so in this case.

Our washing machine is about 14 years old and was one of the earlier "fuzzy logic" models. I'm not sure exactly how the fuzzy logic is applied in this case though I do know modern models guess the amount of water, detergent, etc. which are necessary based on the weight of the load. I also know it has a lot of buttons which allow you to choose the amount of water, wash time, etc. but it doesn't have any seriously fancy capabilities. That being said, it's still head and shoulders above our first washing machine in Japan in terms of its sophistication.

A modern semi-automatic washing machine. Note the two lids over the two chambers - one for washing and one for spinning out. If you want to know what our old machine looked like, think about this model's smaller, dirtier, clunkier grandpa.


When we first arrived, most folks in apartments were using what are called "semi-automatic washing machines". These are the types of machines with two chambers, one for washing and a separate one for spinning out clothes, and had to have water added manually. Doing a load of laundry in "the old days" of our life in Tokyo meant going through this multi-step process:
  • tossing in a small bunch of clothes (about 1/3 what you'd fit in a standard U.S. machine) into the first chamber
  • turning on the spigot and watching to see that it filled to the right point (if you walked away, you could bet on a flood)
  • twisting a timer knob which set how long it anemically swished the clothes around,
  • pushing a button to drain the water from the washing chamber and waiting a half hour for it to actually drain out
  • using the spigot again to add in rinse water
  • twisting the timer again so it could listlessly swish around the rinse water
  • draining again with a button push and another long wait
  • transferring a sopping wet wad of freezing cold clothes to the spin chamber (note: almost no washing machines use hot water in Japan)
  • twisting a timer knob to get the clothes to spin out
  • rebalancing the imbalanced wad
  • spinning again (and possibly rebalancing again and trying to spin again)
  • pulling the wad of intricately-tangled clothes from the spinner
  • detangling the wad
  • hanging them outside to dry
The main problem with this machine was that you had to keep an eye on it and be a part of every process. The secondary problem was that the spinning chamber was so small even a leprechaun wouldn't be able to fit his weekly laundry in it (and his tights would never, ever come untangled after a spin). The size of the machine seemed to assume one did a small load of laundry every day to keep on top of it. The other bad points included the fact that the washer didn't wash clothes especially well (nor rinse out detergent well) and the spinner really didn't get enough water out.

While this contraption may sound old-fashioned, the truth is that these things are still sold today. I'm not even talking about third-world countries or just in Japan where women still do many chores the labor-intensive way, but in many countries. To be fair, I've read that newer models include a drying function as part of the spinning portion of the current crop of semi-automatic washing machines. I'm also guessing they don't require all of the fiddling to add water and have sensors to add to the right water level without the user having to turn on a spigot or watch the levels. They also carry with them some green benefits like reducing water and power consumption.

The ecological issues regarding use of a semi-automatic washing machine are pretty compelling and, when our current machine goes off for its eternal rest, I'd have to at least consider the possibility of a semi-automatic for this reason alone. However, it's going to be really hard to shake the memory of that old machine and the vastly increased effort and attention it required to simply get something done which no one really enjoys doing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Breathing Freely Again

The world computers live in is a different one from you and I. They speak a smaller language (though that doesn't keep it from being hard to master) and they're not nearly as lazy or stubborn as we are (at least not most of the time). They also abhor moisture (while we need it) and dust. While dust is a nuisance for us, computers can start to run poorly or even be damaged by excess dust. Even relatively small amounts of it can cause problems, particularly with laptops.

If your computer has ever just shut down only to miraculously recover and work just fine later, it may be overheating due to too much dust hindering the fan or blocking the vents. If you're lucky, the fan will start making noises before it reaches a sufficient state of inefficiency that your computer shuts off due to overheating. The sound of a fan struggling to cool a CPU despite a clog of fine dust is one I've grown to recognize pretty well and I'd been hearing it a lot lately from my husband's laptop over the past month. I told him I'd have to go in for some minor surgery and clean it up or he'd start experiencing shut-downs (or could damage the computers delicate parts).

You can pick up canned air in any electronics shop or order it from Amazon Japan for about 500 yen a can.

Unfortunately, we didn't have the requisite surgical equipment on hand as I'd used up all our canned air last time I cleaned out a computer. In Japan, cans of air are often called "air duster" (エアダスター). The one we got was called "dust blower" but they're really all the same thing. If you've never used one of these, the can gets very cold when you shake it and the air sometimes comes out with frost if you get too close to the target with the nozzle.

This is where we remove part of the patient to access its guts.

The first step in dealing with my husband's laptop when its fan starts to cough and wheeze in the dust bowl it's currently residing in is to remove the back. This is not all that hard if the screws aren't too tight and, thankfully, last time I put the backing plate on I didn't over-tighten them. Sometimes you have to use special small screwdrivers. Fortunately, a set of them can be purchased at 100 yen shops in Japan. Unfortunately, most of the sets have really bad handles that are hard to get a grip on. If your screws are really tight, you'll need to invest in better tools.

Click to see the larger version for a better view of the crud inside.

Once the back is off, you should touch something metal to make sure you don't have any static charge (or you should be wearing an anti-static wristband, but I personally don't have one). This should stop you from accidentally frying any neighboring components with static. I also have to remove a covering plate from the fan. The cover has Lilliputian screws which I tend to drop into the the cavity next to it, especially when I'm trying to put the cover back on. This is about the time that I wish my cheap 100-yen-shop-tool set had magnetized heads.


Once I get the fan revealed, I blow the dust out into the sink using the canned air and some fairly good balancing skills (lest I drop the machine into the sink). Unfortunately, the canned air was so cold that it left frost around the edges and I had to wait for it to thaw and dry out before doing more. I guess I must have blasted too close to the machine. Once the air had done all it could, I took a Q-tip to the fan. Careful and gentle swabbing showed it was pretty dirty between the blades.


Even more unfortunately, so much dust had caked up in the vents that the air alone could not dislodge it. I had to go in with a toothpick and try to loosen it up and dig it out then re-blast with the air again to clear it again. That might seem like a little dust to us but it's quite a big glob for a laptop computer which has tiny little vents.


Once I was satisfied with the fan, I removed the plate over the RAM modules and CPU (which have a ventilation grill over them). I blew out the dust around them and inside the heat sink though those were not nearly as dusty. I also decided to give the rest of my husband's laptop a good clean as he's not very interested in how it looks and often lets it get pretty cruddy.

Sparkling clean but marks on the display can't be cleaned off. Fortunately, the marks can't be seen when the computer is in use.

The hard part about cleaning laptops is dealing with the screen because you can do a lot to screw it up if you use the wrong fluid or even leave water on it. Usually, I use a special lint-free cloth designed for computer screens. I dampen it with warm water and wipe off the dust. I then dry it off and buff out any dried water marks using the sort of non-abrasive, ultra-soft cloth designed for camera lenses. In the case of my husband's dusty machine, I also cleaned the entire case. I can't exactly say it looks like new because he's scratched up the case pretty well from tossing it into his backpack and the screen has picked up some imprinting from the keyboard but it certainly looks better and the fan is breathing freely again.

It's Not All Japan

Naming your blog when you first start it is a difficult task. You do not yet know what you're going to write about or what shape your posts are going to take. Mine started as a vague wish to document my thoughts and experiences so I could share them with family and friends as well as track my own perceptions and thought processes. It wasn't really my wish to educate or enlighten anyone about Japan though it's a bit difficult not to sound that way when you're noticing a lot of differences between you and the people around you. Ultimately, such things are going to be foremost in your thoughts and part of any log of your ideas and musings.

This is my roundabout way of saying that I don't present any of my ideas or anecdotal experiences as gospel on Japan, its people or living here. This is just what I think, feel, and believe at this point in time. Part of the point of writing it all down now is knowing that my thoughts will change as time goes by and I'll have the chance to look back and compare how I've changed.

That being said, not everything in my life relates to being in Japan. In fact, a lot of things don't relate to it and sometimes I think this blog, because I tend to favor writing about developed notions rather than random thoughts, misrepresents the extent to which my life is entangled in the cross-cultural experience. Most of the time, life is just a sequence of normal tasks and events which consume time but are unremarkable.

My daily routine, aside from the fact that it involves living in an environment which is rather different from the one I grew up in, is relatively similar to that which others might live back home. I get up, make breakfast, help my husband prepare for work, clean dishes and house, work a bit, use my computer a bit, shop a bit, do laundry, attend to my personal needs, and sleep. Occasionally, a cross-cultural point will snag my attention and I'll roll it over in my mind but the truth is that this happens no less with issues which aren't related to life in Japan in particular. Often similar ideas or notions which set me to pondering occur in relation to life back home or elsewhere. I just don't tend to write so much about those things, but perhaps I should to show more clearly that it's not all about Japan. Part of the reason I don't cover these points is that it seems like there's so little time to write each day (particularly these days) and those other random thoughts seem less important to recollect and are less likely to significantly change as time goes by.

The truth is that I'm extremely unhappy at how I named my blog because I feel a bit confined by it at times (and I think it's painfully trite). That being said, it's not exactly inaccurate and I'm pretty sure being labeled as a "Japan blog" probably drives a certain amount of traffic my way and attracts people who can offer me their insights about living in Japan so, on balance, it's probably a good thing.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I've Reached the Point

Lately, I've been having to search my own blog more and more to make sure that I haven't told a story or presented a certain perspective already. Often, a thought occurs to me and I think a particular topic would make a good post but I don't always have the time to sit down and write when the thought is in mind. At this point in time, I can't always easily recall if I've just thought of writing about the topic or actually written about it.

It seems I've reached the point where I'm in serious danger of repeating myself so I'm searching for keywords and trying to track down previous posts on similar themes. While I don't mind writing something new on a topic I've discussed before, I am annoyed at the idea of actually repeating myself like some doddering old grandma who tells the same story again and again to an audience doing its best to politely stifle a yawn.

In fact, in real life, this is something that I seem to find myself doing more than in the past. While the first (and perhaps obvious) conclusion to reach would be that my bulb is growing dimmer as I journey over the age of 40, I think the real reason for this is that I'm talking to more people about varied topics than ever before. It's easy to forget who you've told what stories or bits of information to when you're talking to 10-15 people a week. I've noticed that my husband, who talks to vastly greater numbers of people than I, suffers from this problem as well and has taken to prefacing his news with things like, 'have I told you before...'.

While I'm doing my best to always offer a different perspective, idea, or tale in each post, I'm sure there will be times when I fail to track down a previous post because I've used the wrong keyword or missed a paragraph as I scan back through old entries. I hope my kind-hearted readers will be patient with this old grandma when she tells the same story again as it will inevitably happen.

Apartment Priorities

Yesterday I had a lesson with a student who is looking to move soon. I saw this as a good opportunity to interview her on what aspects she was going to prioritize when choosing an apartment. While some of her answers were in line with things I'd heard before were priorities, others were not. The things she was hoping for were:
  • a place within a 5-minute walk of the station.
  • a well-lit path between her apartment and the station.
  • a path that included good shopping opportunities for daily necessities
  • a 2nd or 3rd floor place
  • a place that cost 100,000 yen or less and was a 2DK (2 rooms plus a larger combined dining room/kitchen room)
  • a place that the sunshine reached and wasn't blocked by other buildings
  • a balcony
When you seek out a place in Japan, you often hear about how access to sunshine and closeness to the nearest station are big issues. Being on the 2nd or 3rd floor tends to relate to getting more sunlight but this wasn't the reason my student wanted to not be on the first floor. She said she felt there'd be less of a chance of a break-in while she was at work if she wasn't on the first floor.

In regards to a well-lit path, this is something my other female students have mentioned as well. They feel that it's more secure. None of those other students had any experience to back up their concerns but last night's student told me that she has been followed and groped by men at least once a year (on average) over the past decade.

I also asked her about a point regarding layout that came up in comments in a previous post of mine regarding my apartment's layout. I asked her if she preferred a layout which opened directly into the kitchen (or whatever the front room was) or if she preferred a tunnel-like hallway leading up to the first room. She said she preferred the latter set-up and believed most Japanese people did as well. Her reason for this was related to privacy. She said that she didn't like opening the door to deliverymen or mail carriers and having them see directly into her apartment.

This particular student said she wanted a balcony mainly for hanging out laundry to dry (though she has a dryer) and airing out her futon (though she hopes to buy a bed for her new place), but she has told me in the past that she keeps no trash cans whatsoever in her place and just seals up her trash with shopping bags each and every time she creates any and tosses it on her balcony until the collection day rolls around. I'm guessing that this will thrill her future neighbors.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Politics

For those of you who are already stifling a yawn, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not actually going to be talking about politics. I'm going to talk about talking about politics. While that may not sound a great deal more promising, I'm hoping you'll bear with me.

When we first got married, my husband was a ravenously politically-interested sort while I was fairly indifferent. Since we live in the same domicile and we're both very talkative sorts of people, his political knowledge naturally trickled down to me (or, it may have been a process of osmosis since we sleep in the same bed and no one can really say what goes on while you sleep). While I am interested in larger issues, politics has been something which I cannot bear because it's one of those things which should be extremely important but is so full of manipulation, maneuvering and power playing that it's reduced to a game. Seeing so many rich people playing transparent verbal games in order to maintain or acquire positions of power leaves me rather heartsick.

This morning, nothing demonstrated how pointless political discourse can be better than the Democratic candidates debating on CNN. We were treated to the same usual parade of non-answers, attacks, empty promises, and posturing. In the back of your mind, you know that even the most genuine-sounding candidate isn't going to act on his or her convictions once the election is won. To be fair, this isn't entirely the candidates' fault. Issues that politicians have to deal with are actually very complex and the attention span and scope of interest of the average person are quite limited. Truth be told, people prefer simple answers to complex questions that fit in with their particular world-view. If you haven't decided I'm a big liar who has tricked you into listening to a talk about politics and turned away, I'm getting to the part where I'm talking about talking about politics and the aforementioned, while perhaps a bit boring, actually applies to what is to come.

Several months ago, I got a new student. He's my second retired gentleman who studies English and the first student I've had privately who has expressed an interest in discussing political and social issues. Since I'm not particularly politically minded, it's been a bit of challenge for me to keep digging up fresh material about which I can converse in a reasonable fashion given my limited knowledge of such things. Fortunately, the spillover from my husband's interest, which has actually waned quite a bit over the years as he's also grown a bit dispirited with the whole matter, keeps me at a level whereby, if I read an article, I can discuss the content adequately.

One thing that has happened on more than one occasion is that this student, who is a very nice fellow, has been emphatically critical of other Japanese folks for their relatively passive approach to politics. He has often lamented the fact that Japanese people forgive and forget (or at least forget) rapidly and keep the same corrupt people and parties in power. He's also disappointed that he cannot discuss serious topics with his friends and peers when they get together and that most people seem to be mainly interested in trivial matters.

On these occasions, he also says how much he admires foreign folks because they tend to discuss serious issues when groups of them congregate. I actually tried to mildly disabuse him of this notion as I'm not so sure this is true of all or most foreign people. I've known a lot of people who are equally obsessed with dumb little things as Japanese people. I think one of the main differences is that western folks are able to take a trivial matter and blow it up into a (supposedly) huge societally relevant one. For instance, in a recent Consumerist post, it was noted that Starbucks was rolling out Christmas-themed cups, music, and decorations very early. The average Japanese person probably wouldn't notice or care but the average American can take this tiny little bit of information and turn it into a rant about how the commercialization of Christmas is getting worse and worse and we're all being manipulated by corporations to extend our enhanced consumption around the holidays. It's amazing what sort of havoc a few cups, a few yuletide tunes and some tinsel can create if your mind is working overtime to justify your ire about such things making a premature entrance in your anything but humble opinion.

My student is not to be dissuaded from notions that Americans are all political animals, but that's really not the topic at hand. I merely lacked the focus to keep this topical car on the proper track. The issue is how we talk about politics and, when I say "we", I mean my student and I. While discussing the current relationship between Iran and the United States and remarks made by George Bush and Tony Blair, my student suggested that the U.S. should not have removed Saddam Hussein from power but sought to gradually limit his powers through sanctions. He and I have discussed before that sanctions tend mainly to harm the innocent and he's essentially indicated that war does much the same. However, when I mentioned that the other problem with sanctions is that no matter who imposes them, there will always be some other power that would be more than happy to undermine such sanctions in an act of opportunism thinly-veiled as political opposition. For example, if the U.S. placed sanctions on Iran, inevitably, some powers (I'm looking at you, France) would be sneaking up to the back door, knocking quietly, and offering to trade whatever it is that the U.S. was attempting to prevent entry of into the country in exchange for some nice, tasty oil.

This sort of point always stymies my student. All of his answers to political and social problems are relatively simplistic and show a limited understanding of the complexity of these sorts of problems. There's one problem. There's one solution. He's very much a reflection of the audience politicians tend to pander to. It's very gratifying to think that there's a workable, clear solution to world and national problems. Any candidate who muddies the picture with a series of hypothetical pitfalls to any potential solution isn't going to hold the listeners' attention for long and may be seen as avoiding making a decision.

The problem isn't that my student lacks the knowledge to discuss such topics as world issues as I'm sure he has far more than I. If we were to take part in a pop quiz on current events, he'd likely run circles around me in a head-to-head factual competition. The problem is that most Japanese folks are not schooled to ask all the "what if" questions that western folks are educated to consider. The limits my student has and his resulting frustration that he cannot answer my questions or respond to my points is a direct result of growing up in an educational system which emphasizes rote learning and answering every question with one and only one correct reply rather than applying critical thinking and debating a variety of points.

Having discussions with students that show that they have thinking which often goes only one level deep is something both my husband and I have experienced time and again in our interactions with them. It makes discussing topics of any depth very hard when teaching because the students reach dead ends rather rapidly when offering their ideas and are at a loss for words when you bring up alternative issues. It's also one of the most important points that the Japanese educational system needs to address if they want to continue to compete with the rest of the world as they've long passed the point where working overtime and getting high test scores is going to be enough to keep up with other countries. Unfortunately, change is very slow in Japan and I don't see a generation of people with excellent critical and analytical thinking coming along any time soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Affirmation

Last week, there was an interview between a foreign writer and a Japanese fellow who spoke passable English on "The Mystery Channel". The interviewer was doing something that used to drive me absolutely crazy when I first came to Japan and started teaching English. As the writer was offering his answer, the Japanese fellow kept grunting in affirmation or saying "yes" at the same time that the writer was speaking.

This is something that happened me a lot when I used to conduct telephone lessons. It would go something like this:

Teacher asks a question:

Teacher: Where...
Student: Yes.

Teacher: are you...

Student: Yes.

Teacher: from?

Student: What?

(Note: Students who do this the most persistently are paying so much attention to affirming that they are listening that they don't actually bother to listen.)

Teacher answers a question:

Student: Where are you from?
Teacher: I'm...

Student: uh..

Teacher: from...

Student: uh...

Teacher: Pennslvania, in the...
Student: yes...

Teacher: United States.
Student: Ah. (clearly not understanding)

In the U.S., if someone constantly talks over you or makes noises of affirmation while you are attempting to speak, it gives the you the impression that he or she really isn't really listening to your statement or is being impatient. When I was on the phone with students, this was such a pervasive problem that we eventually had to address this in the textbooks that we wrote so the students would understand the cross-cultural implications if they did this while speaking English.

When I later learned that Japanese is what I would ethnocentrically call an "insecure language" where constant affirmation is not only acceptable but a sign that one understands what is being said and is paying attention, it added some perspective to my experiences. If you listen to two Japanese people having a conversation, you'll hear the same constant stream of "yes" ("hai") and grunting along with a lot of "so desu ne" (essentially, "I think so, too"). From our perspective, there is a far greater frequency of such affirmation than really seems necessary and it can be very distracting to the western ear.

I should note that this situation seems to occur far more over the phone than in face-to-face conversations (in English). It also seems to happen a lot more with men than with women. I think part of the reason for this is that students are more nervous on the phone, but also that they are more focused on the experience of being with a foreigner when face-to-face than they are when on the phone. In other words, they respond on the phone in English in a manner which isn't so dissimilar from the way they'd react when on the phone in Japanese. Also, when I teach, I tend to ask questions that the student doesn't expect whereas in the phone lessons the students had prep sheets which told them exactly what questions were coming. That means they probably felt less obliged to pay very close attention to each and every word.

While I'm much more patient and understanding of this tendency than I initially was, I have to admit that it still gets on my nerves in the most extreme cases and I tell the students that they should wait until a sentence has completed and the speaker pauses to offer verbal affirmation that they understand.

Deep Discount DVD Supersale

A display for rental of Season 6 episodes of "24". If you wanted to buy Season 6 of "24" in Japan, it'd cost $167 (¥18,648) for the Japanese box set. If you wanted to buy it in the U.S., it'd cost $38.99. (Both are Amazon prices for Amazon Japan and Amazon U.S. respectively.)


In the past, I've recommended Americans and others who are from Region 1 countries who want to buy DVDs consider buying a cheap (about ¥8,000) region-free multi-system DVD player from the Foreign Buyer's Club and purchasing DVDs from the U.S. This idea not only seems to suit foreign people but also Japanese studying English. My husband has a student who has chosen to buy his discs from Amazon U.S. because the prices are so much lower compared to Japan. (See the caption on the picture above for an example price comparison.)

While you can get some cheap DVDs in Japan, they're usually older movies stripped of any of the sort of extras that you find on official releases. Most of the newer ones, and the T.V. show sets in particular, can be very, very expensive. It gives you a good idea of why region codes were set up in the first place. Japan very much would prefer to protect its (Region 2) market of overpriced DVDs by making those from far cheaper Region 1 distributors incompatible with the basic players most Japanese people own.

Last year around this time, Deep Discount DVD held a 20% off sale on all DVDs. This year, they're holding a sale at pretty much the exact same time. It's a very good time to pick up some of the bigger box sets at an appreciable discount or even just a bunch of cheaper movies for a few bucks off. It's also a good time to consider buying some books along with them if you're in the market for cheaper books than you can get via various outlets in Japan. While there is no discount on books, the shipping rate policies at Deep Discount DVD make it far more worthwhile to order from them than Amazon. At Amazon, you are charged postage by the book. At Deep Discount, you are charged according to the total amount of money you spend. Adding in heavier books to an order rapidly shoots up the shipping costs at Amazon but has no effect at Deep Discount as long as you stay under the spending caps. For example, an order totaling up to $249 carries a shipping cost of $17 regardless of whether it is composed of books, DVDs, or CDs. The shipping rates for various size orders can be accessed on the help page under "shipping and delivery" for "International orders".

My husband and I usually allow ourselves a big order of DVDs and books as a Christmas gift to ourselves around this time of year so we put in a huge order the day before yesterday. One thing we noticed was that, if you plan on spending more than $249, it's better to make two separate orders than one to save on shipping as it costs $17 for up to $249 and $40 for over $249.

The sale ends in about a week so you have to get an order going soon. If you want to get the discount, you have to type in the code SUPERSALE in the code box when you view your shopping cart. If you take too long to shop, you'll have to re-apply the code if it vanishes from your total. Bear in mind that shipping costs are applied before the discounted price is applied.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Talent

Sammy and Sam. Sam is my second hand-made Christmas ornament from Lanin at N'Toonz based on one of my favorite Internet comic strips, Melonpool. Lanin can turn 2D pictures into wonderful 3D polymer clay sculptures. This year, try to buy some hand-crafted items rather than mass-produced dreck for Christmas. You'll make two people happy - yourself and the artist.

One thing the Internet allows us to do is see exactly what people around the world are capable of. Talented folks place their photography, art, and writing on the Internet where it can be freely accessed and enjoyed. Most of the time, I find myself impressed by just how good so many people are. The sheer volume of talented people out there boggles the mind.

Unfortunately, most of those talented individuals are competing for attention with a great many others and it's difficult to attract people to your web site. There's so much content to consume that you are lucky if people contribute a few seconds or minutes of their day to your site, let alone offer any of their cash as a contribution to you, make an effort to visit your advertisers, or buy products related to your site's content.

I read a good many sites which offer up the fruits of various folks creative labor and, occasionally, they post about how disheartened they are because they toil long and hard but seem neither to get more readers nor make any appreciable money from their endeavors. In part, this is a reflection of too many entertainers competing for an audience with too little time to attend to them all. It's also a sad fact that the avenue by which thousands of creative people can make their work known is one that is popular in large part because content is "free" and people rarely go out of their way to financially support the sites that they enjoy. They do this either because they can't afford to or they feel entitled to have content without paying for it.

For my part, I try very hard to empathize with these folks and put myself in their shoes. I like to be paid for my work so I do what I can to pay for theirs. I send donations and buy items (usually books) related to their content. My husband also does his part to support content of value by paying for premium subscriptions to various sites. I want to live in a world where creativity and talent are rewarded so I have to be act in a way that contributes to that kind of world.

There are some creative people who would be very happy if you contributed the amount of one cup of coffee or tall latte to them once a year as a way of thanking them for the entertainment they offer you on a daily basis. Even if you love a dozen sites, you can afford to give them each a little money just one month of the year as a way of thanking them and voicing your conviction that creative content deserves to be rewarded and confirming that you value the work they do. Doing so also allows you to offer an affirmation that you want to live in a world where people whose labor makes your life a little brighter should and can (hopefully) make a living doing so.

Gift-Giving

Much is made of Japanese gift-giving and how it occurs at the drop of a hat. I think that the ritualized and formal manner in which gifts are given tends to make it seem more frequent and obvious compared to western cultures than it actually is. If you examined the frequency of "gifts" in both cultures, I'm betting they'd actually come out pretty even.

When I say "ritualized and formal manner", I mean that nothing seems to be handed over casually in Japan. If you receive even a small item like a chocolate bar or a cupcake, it's usually wrapped in paper or at the very least given in a bag. In the States, we might give someone a souvenir or box of candy but we just say something like, "I picked up this (whatever) for you when I was in (wherever)." Such gifts don't feel like they're part of a gift-giving occasion because they aren't wrapped or hidden in any fashion.

A very sweet thank you note from our landlord.

The formal nature of gift-giving was brought home several days ago when my husband went to Krispy Kreme for some birthday-related donuts and decided to pick up a half dozen to give to the landlord and his family. Back home, this sort of "gift" is often casually handed over and the other party is thanked and that's it. In Japan, such acts often elicit either a return gift or a formal thank you note. This is rather a nice thing except that you can find yourself sometimes hesitating to give a gift out of fear of placing the other person in a position of feeling obliged to reciprocate. This isn't something we tend to worry about so much back home (except at Christmas).

The other thing which tends to make gift-giving in Japan appear more remarkable is that gifts are often given in the opposite situation as they are back home and they are offered more consistently because of social obligation. For instance, if a new person moves into one of the six units in our building, that person often (but not always) goes door-to-door to the other 5 tenants and gives a small gift like a tea towel or small food item (e.g., bean cakes, soba). In the U.S., a new neighbor is sometimes greeted by the the people in his new neighborhood with gifts. The concept of the "Welcome Wagon" is based on the idea that the new party is made to feel a part of the community through experiencing the warmth of neighboring people and businesses through gifts. In Japan, the responsibility is on the newcomer. In the U.S., the responsibility is on the existing social network.

With Christmas on the horizon, thoughts of western gift-giving habits aren't far from my mind. At this time of year, there's an explosion of consumerism, obligation and generosity back home (a time which starts earlier and earlier). Japan has no equivalent of the sort of excess the U.S. has in this regard, at least not on a personal level. The closest they come is winter and summer gift-giving but that isn't quite the same as it's largely confined to business giving and usually isn't personalized as it mainly involves giving gift packs of food, soap, or other utilitarian items.

The other big personal gift-giving situation back home, birthdays, tends not to be an occasion for giving gifts here either. When I ask my students whether or not they got many birthday gifts, most of them say they got one or none but just went out to a bar or restaurant with their friends. I sometimes feel a little bad for them when they say they don't get anything but then I realize they don't expect anything anyway so it's not a big deal to them.

Generally speaking, I think people in the U.S. give gifts in similar quantity but they tend to give them so casually that they're not seen as gifts and those gifts which are given as formal, wrapped presents tend to be tightly attached to two specific occasions whereas in Japan gifts are almost always formal and not necessarily closely attached to occasions.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

One Man's Disorder

Notions of mental illness are, by and large, cultural in nature. One country's disorder is another country's socially acceptable behavior. In no case is this clearer than in the way in which alcohol is regarded in Japan as compared to western cultures. Outside of missionaries or Christian-related treatment programs, alcoholism as a disease does not exist in Japan for all practical purposes.

That is not to say that there are no Japanese people who are dependent on alcohol to cope with the difficulties of life nor those who would have a great deal of difficulty stopping their drinking. It is, by and large, the case that people who use alcohol to cope are not seen as having a problem. Drinking is such an important part of Japanese social culture that it'd be very hard to separate getting loaded and blowing off steam after work as a socially-sanctioned therapeutic choice from being a dangerous addiction to alcohol.

This is a fact that is constantly brought home to me any time the topic of drugs is discussed with Japanese people. Every person I have ever spoken with seems to fully believe that all drugs, from marijuana to heroin, are equally destructive and addictive. In fact, it's shocking how little factual information they have about cannabis smoking. It seems as if they've been shown "Reefer Madness" about a hundred times and embraced every word of it as scientific proof of the horrors of weed usage. Most seem to have no idea about the true effects of illegal, recreational drugs. Of course, many don't have any idea of the true effects of legal, prescription drugs either. This is one of the reasons birth control pill usage is so low. Doctors tell horror stories about their side effects to dissuade people from using them.

It isn't necessarily a shock that the Japanese are misinformed about drugs since all cultures are (at times) exposed to propaganda which they swallow whole depending on the zeitgeist it is presented in. The U.S. has been exposed to some pretty shaky proclamations in regards to security and people have been believing it since 9/11. You can get people to believe a lot of wild notions if they are fearful enough.

What is more shocking is the ignorance and lack of concern the Japanese have for alcohol and its effects. A student I spoke with this morning proclaimed that drugs were very bad for your health but alcohol had no ill effect on one's body. Given this, she felt it was fine that she drinks to relax. To be honest, I'm certain this student has had a drink on occasion before her lessons with me as I've smelled it on her breath on a few occasions. If this doesn't sound like such a big deal, keep in mind her scheduled lesson time is noon on a weekend day. When I told her that drinking alcohol kills brain cells and damages the liver, she had no idea that alcohol had such effects.

The situation in Japan regarding drugs and alcohol demonstrates something one doesn't often see when one does not stray outside one's native culture. That is the fact that all the information you get from your country's native scientific and media sources is skewed to suit the particular biases and prejudices of your culture. If your culture wishes to convince you one thing is bad and another is innocuous, it will tend to showcase evidence that supports this notion. If you look hard enough, you may find both are equally bad or innocuous but tend to reject that information because you agree with the bias and have a vested interest in believing what you want to believe is true rather than accepting objectively-obtained facts.

In the case of the U.S., this situation is best illustrated by the way marijuana tends to be regarded by non-users. European countries which have legalized pot would lend support to the idea that it isn't a horrific drug which will lead you down a path to harder drugs and a life of fuzzy-headed preoccupation with finding munchies and slacking off, but Americans tend to reject information that comes from outside their own country. On some level, I do wonder if all countries are aware of the bias applied to their conclusions but fail to discuss topics more objectively because they are comfortable with their bias and how it supports the rightness of their world-view.

••••••••••••••••

For the record, I'm not endorsing marijuana consumption (or alcohol or anything). Personally, I've never consumed an alcoholic beverage nor used any sort of recreational drug and have no basis from which to draw conclusions other than experiences related to me by others and information I've read.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Birthday (2)


When my friend Shawn and my sister Sharon and I play multi-player games together, I like to talk. In fact, I like a conversation or at least some witless banter to be going on at all times. This tendency is not something my partners in time wasting share so I end up initiating or holding up more than my end of the conversation. In a long gaming session, I'll eventually run out of things to say. Sometimes, I'm just out of steam and stop talking so much (much to the relief of my cohorts, I'm sure). At other times though, I'm bored and I want my less verbose companions to initiate some conversation.

Since both Sharon ad Shawn are relatively content to sit back and play the game in peace, it takes a bit of a prodding to get them to make the effort. At these times, I have an emotional weapon in my psychological arsenal that I take out and fire to get their mouths moving. I threaten to fill the silence by raving about how wonderful and perfect my husband is. Since they've heard more than enough of that sort of thing already, they're strongly motivated by this threat to start talking. On this date, each year, my faithful readers can expect to share their pain as it's my husband's birthday.

If you're wondering what makes him deserving of all my exultation, you're in luck as I'm more than happy to go on about his positive character traits. My husband tells me he loves me everyday, several times a day. He has the sort of patience a saint would envy. He's very intelligent but not arrogant about it. He's affectionate in the way women crave, offering hugs and kisses but not as bribes to achieve a lecherous goal. He's funny, sweet-tempered and optimistic about life. He also works hard so I can stay home and relax because he's concerned about my health. My husband is everything most women say they want in a man before they end up marrying some jerk who fits none of their professed criteria. I'm immensely grateful that he's my partner.

Last year
, my husband didn't want a cake for his birthday but this year I stumbled across a recipe for an "Elvis Cake" which sounded like it might suit him so I gave it a try. Since my husband loves banana, peanut butter and chocolate separately and he had tried the Elvis Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and found it pretty good, he opted for a cake this year rather than the celebratory pie he chose last year. I made the cake above and 6 cupcakes (for him to take to work and offer to students if he chose to). I haven't actually tasted the cake myself but I tasted the frosting it is incredible (though I cut the frosting recipe volume in half as it was far more frosting than we needed and added a teaspoon of vanilla to it). My husband pronounced the cake "different" but "very good". I'm thinking the same frosting on a white, vanilla or chocolate cake might be nice for the less adventurous.

As was the case last year on my husband's 44th birthday, he has to work so we won't be able to properly celebrate until Monday when he has a day off. Of course, given how wonderful he is, I do my best to celebrate his presence on this planet each and every day.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Buffalo

One of the things I learned a long time ago was that optical drives, CD, DVD, and MO, go wonky much more quickly than any other component of your computer or audio/video system. On every Mac I've owned the CD-ROM drive has developed difficulty reading discs within two years. This usually starts with the disc whirring and repeatedly rotating until it either mounts the disc, stops attempting to try to read it, or spits it out.

At my former office, we used magnetic-optical discs for back-up and one of our MO drives was crapping out. A programmer who temporarily worked at our office and who claimed to know a bit about the mechanisms in optical drives told us that this sort of failure is inevitable and that most of them weren't going to go the distance because the optical mechanism wore out rather quickly. He said that it was almost certainly going to start experiencing problems after 4 years and often has issues sooner than that.

I don't know if this fellow knew what he was on about but the information he gave me certainly fits in with my experiences. Knowing this, I've made it a habit to replace failed internal DVD and CD drives on computers with the cheapest possible solution. The same goes for the DVD player we connect to the television. Getting a high-end solution seems pretty pointless when there's a decent chance it'll crap out in 3 years or so. Of course, there are people who are dead certain that the DVD media is dead and have already concluded that CDs are ancient technology. Nonetheless, I still continue to need mine and to find that software is distributed on them.

My husband uses his notebook PC (an Acer) in his English lessons with his students for a variety of purposes. One of the things he does sometimes is watch DVDs that his students want to discuss the contents of in class. This actually allows him to teach the types of classes that other teachers envy, but it also means he needs a PC with a functioning DVD drive as PCs are not part of the standard classroom equipment. When his DVD drive started having difficulty reading one of his student's DVDs, we knew it'd have to be replaced.

While I was researching replacements, I discovered that the model used in his Acer was troublesome for many users of that particular drive. I also discovered that it cost around $200 to buy a new one and the known issues with it meant that a replacement wouldn't necessarily work any better than his currently faulty one. Given these problems, we decided to go for a portable external DVD drive to replace my husband's ailing internal mechanism. As always, I check Amazon in the U.S. first for a baseline price for various models then check Amazon Japan for the same models if they are available to see how much more expensive they are here. If the price difference is too great, we have family ship a U.S. model to us. If it's a reasonable gap, we just buy one here.

The baseline model for me was a nice portable Sony dual layer DVD burner/player for about $96. It was compact, had a USB2 connection, and could burn and read almost any type of disc. The price was also quite reasonable. Unfortunately, Amazon Japan didn't carry it and most comparable models were about $180.


Fortunately, continued poking around in the electronics section at Amazon Japan turned up a Buffalo model which had everything the Sony had for only about $20 more. Buffalo in Japan seems to be the low cost model for almost anything you want as a peripheral for a computer. I'm guessing it might be regarded as a relatively undesirable brand but I've had pretty good luck with all the Buffalo items I've purchased among which there have been two high capacity hard drives, a Firewire PCI card, and a PC slot LAN card. None of these items have ever failed though I did drop and destroy one of the hard drives though I can hardly blame Buffalo for my clumsiness.


The drive is only slightly larger than a CD jewel case and brings to mind the old IBM external floppy drive mechanisms I used to see people using at work as companions to their ThinkPads ages ago. It has an AC adapter but also runs off of USB bus power. I tested it out on my Mac Mini (which cannot power anything which runs off the bus except thumb drives and required the AC adapter) and on my PC (which did run it off the bus only) and it was instantly recognized and worked fine on both without any driver installation.


Since my husband is very hard on his hardware and he'll be tossing this drive into his backpack when he goes to work, I decided to track down a case for it. I've found that the Daiso 100 yen shop has a wide variety of such things and sifting through the copious number of cases yielded one which was not only a perfect fit but also has a zippered pocket on the outside for the USB cable.

Word is that the next super small models of Macs will come without a DVD drive and I'm thinking that something like this should be very handy to have around should that time come and should I take the plunge on a new Mac. In fact, given my problems with internal drives, I find this a preferable option.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Presidential Prerogative

Last week, there was quite a fuss made over what was seen as the indulgent and lavish offices of a failed English language school chain's (Nova's) former president's office. News programs showed us how large it was and the amenities that it included such as a big screen T.V., bed, bath with a closet-size sauna, a large tea area, and a big desk. I supposed the outrage was over the fact that he squandered lots of money on such a huge office while failing to pay staff and building a huge debt for his company. While it was a large space for Japan, it didn't strike me as incredibly opulent. In fact, mainly, it struck me as having a really tacky bad Vegas room decor.

In my opinion, it's not unusual for presidents of all companies to indulge their egos to the extent possible. In the U.S., the big cheeses of large companies tend to get private jets, chauffeured transportation, and put up at lavish hotels when they travel. I'd also guess most of them have roomy offices with amenities that the average grunt might envy. However, it's been my experience that even little cheeses will waste money to feed their vanity proportional to their company's size.

My former company, a small business with about 30 employees occupied two floors of a building in Nishi-Shinjuku when I first started working there. The office moved twice while it was still under the control of the president who started the company and he was certain to exercise complete control over how space was portioned out and where everyone was situated during each move. In each case, his office had to be right in front of the largest available window and an air conditioner vent of which he personally could control the temperature.

The president's office also occupied more space than the combined area of no less than 4 cubicles designed for the foreign teachers to occupy. His office had a large, high-backed chair and a desk big enough to use as a single bed. In addition to the desk, he always had to have a private meeting table in his office where he could sit and work should his spacious desk prove insufficient and conduct business with staff members in private meetings. Of course, his spacious desk was always completely cleared off since he didn't do much in the way of actual work so there was little risk of his needing more. There was also a side board which was about 7 feet long which he used to display various "awards", pictures of staff at anniversary parties, and one copy of each of the textbooks made by the company (which were rarely used and mainly for display). He also had a personal wardrobe closet for hanging his coat, stashing his umbrella, or hiding his ashtray. All of the furniture was huge, heavy and made of wood. His desk was so huge that it had to be abandoned during a later move to a more modest office space after his retirement and sale of the company to a larger corporation. The desk wouldn't fit in the elevator to get it to the new office.

Considering the relative size of my former company, his office was just as ostentatious and as wasteful a display of ego as the old Nova president's. We all crammed our desks into spaces between the support pillars in the office and shared lockers (two people each to one high school gymnasium-style metal locker) in the back of the office which doubled as a storage room for inventory and stacks and stacks of junk. Sometimes crap was piled so high due to lack of space that we couldn't get into our lockers but the president could have fit two king-size beds in his office with room to spare.

His wastefulness didn't stop with sucking up more space than he needed in the juiciest spot in the floor plan. Even when the company started to fall on hard times, he'd find ways to use company money for his own interests but peddle it as being a company-wide benefit. When he became infatuated with golf (no, not all Japanese men start out that way), he arranged for company golf tournaments and forked over money for a custom trophy for the winner. When one of the salesmen won, he kept the trophy for himself in his office rather than allow the winner to keep it and proclaimed it a "company trophy". He also maintained "company" vacation houses which he quietly discouraged others from using though he liked to keep brochures of them around and pretend anyone could use them.

There were also a variety of "anniversary" parties and indulgences on which great quantities of cash were squandered. The biggest was a party at a major hotel which we were all commanded to attend and schmooze with the guests without pay and with orders not to eat the food or consume the beverages except to nurse one glass of something for the duration. This allowed the president to stand up in front of his clients and nervously offer a speech to his own success while his employees stood around tired, hungry, bored to death, and aching to get the hell out of there.

There was actually a constant parade of high profile toys of the moment which he'd buy and set up in his office only to grow bored with them. The worst of these was a then state of the art PC which he never learned how to use but kept as a prop in his office while those of us doing actual work toiled on old, painfully outdated and sluggish equipment. After this PC passed into obsolescence, he unloaded it on his daughter who was hired in an act of bald-faced nepotism. Eventually, these expensive, useless, and underused items would migrate into the general work space where no one wanted them taking up their limited working area but all were obliged to keep them around as monuments to the president's ego.

While none of these things compare to an office with automatic curtains, a private bath, bedroom, etc. such as the former Nova president had, you have to keep in mind that our company was dying by yards each year and was very tiny. None of us were getting raises because the company was doing so poorly and salesmen were being forced to quit if their quotas weren't fulfilled even when they had new babies to feed. Office girls with university degrees were getting gross salaries of around 170,000 yen a month and working unpaid overtime while the president easily wasted money on his own vanity.

The old president used to get a magazine simply titled "President" which I never actually looked at as it went straight to his hot little hands. Since the teachers cubicles were directly across from his office (so he could keep an eye on us and put us in the spot with the fewest number of windows), I often witnessed him spend a few hours reading it just after it arrived. The cover usually showed some big corporate cheese like the president of Sony or Toyota. I think that a lot of presidents of pathetic little companies fancied themselves a part of a community of presidents heading businesses all over Japan and consequently afforded themselves all the perks that they believed went along with their titles.