Monday, December 31, 2007

Sweet Potato Scones


As the New Year's holidays approach, shops start putting food on sale to clear their stock before they close up for a day or two. Usually, shops are closed at least on the January 1 and some for as long as 3 days from the 1st to the 3rd. Sales are also held from January 2nd at some department stores located near or on the way to the most famous or heavily trafficked shrines. Nothing stands in the way of a consumerist opportunity!

In preparation for their closure, one of our local markets was offering some moderate bargains on various foodstuffs, particularly fruit and vegetables that they didn't want rotting away during the holiday. Of paramount attraction to me was a bag of 5 small sweet potatoes on sale for ¥100 (89 cents). I didn't quite know what I was going to do with them, but I'm too big a fan of Japanese sweet potatoes to let an opportunity pass.

While perusing various baking sites, I came across a recipe for sweet potato scones and the idea seemed quite appealing. However, it needed adapting for Japanese sweet potatoes in my opinion. To me, a scone has to have at least a reasonable amount of fat in it to add texture and the recipe I found only had 1 tablespoon of butter. I also felt it was important to account for the difference in moisture of Japanese sweet potatoes as compared to American ones. To be honest, I was almost certain the result was going to be dense and tough the first time around, but they turned out beautifully. I credit what I learned from making traditional Japanese sweet potato cakes with helping me make the right sort of modifications for the scones to turn out so well.

I'm pretty sure that these can be made with American sweet potatoes, but you'll have to keep an eye on the moisture. Japanese potatoes are exceptionally dry and may make a different sort of dough. Using American potatoes may require you to use more flour.

Sweet Potato Scones:
  • 3 tbsp. butter (room temperature)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 4 packets Splenda or heat stable artificial sweetener (optional)
  • 1 egg + 1 egg yolk
  • *1 cup mashed sweet potatoes (specially prepared-see below)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder

*To prepare the sweet potatoes, steam them until they are soft. Err on the side of overcooked rather than undercooked. Do not boil them as it will introduce more moisture. Peel them and press them through a fine sieve to mash them. This will remove any lumps or heavily fibrous portions and help make the dough lighter.


Cream the butter and sugar with a hand mixer. Add the salt and Splenda (if desired) and eggs. Beat again until well incorporated. Add the mashed potato and beat again. Sift the flour and baking powder into the potatoes and mix. Knead it a little to make sure the flour is incorporated but make sure not to over-mix it as it will make the scones tough. Pat the dough into a rectangle about 3/4 of an inch thick and cut into triangular shapes. Pre-heat the oven to 220 degrees C./425 degrees F. and bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 20 minutes (until the edges are golden brown).


Splenda adds more sweetness to the scones without upsetting the balance of the moisture absorption of the sugar. Using Splenda allows you to enjoy the scones without jam, honey, or other sweet spreads and makes it possible to mainly taste the sweet potato without any sort of spread masking the flavor. If you'd like a more traditional-looking flat, crispy-topped scone, you can brush the tops of the dough with an egg wash to keep them from rising. I just didn't want to waste an egg for such a trivial difference in the final result.

Having one of these scones plain with tea or coffee for breakfast really hits the spot. :-)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

New Cars

If you live in Tokyo, there is one sight which is strangely rare compared to back home. I don't believe I have seen an old or beat-up car once since coming here. While it is clear that people tend to be relatively obsessive about keeping their cars clean and well-kept, there's more to it than that.

Though many of my students have driver's licenses, few of them have cars so it's not a topic which I often discuss with folks, but one of my students told me something which fills in part of the picture of why there are so few (or no?) old cars driving around. We were discussing vans and large vehicles in general and she mentioned that she had a BMW van. I found this rather surprising since she has no children and her husband works a lot so they rarely travel. She told me that the van was really too much for her in terms of her needs and it was actually hard for her to handle when navigating the narrow roads in Japan.

Given her discomfort with handling a large vehicle, I asked her why she didn't just buy a regular car. This is when she enlightened me about the financial side of owning a BMW in Japan (aside from it being an expensive luxury car). Her current BMW is actually her fourth one. She said that her three previous models were sedans and she'd grown tired of having the same sort of car so she'd chosen a van as a change of pace, but now regretted it. When queried as to why she'd changed cars so often, she told me that she didn't want to but the financing structure made it desirable to do so.

She couldn't speak to the situation with all car makers in Japan, but she said that BMW set up a loan situation where one paid 1% interest on the loan for the first 2-3 years. After that length of time, the interest on the original vehicle would jump up to 3% or the buyer could trade in the old model for a new one and renew the 1% rate. This is an interesting policy not only because it encouraging one to keep buying a new car, but it also encourages one to remain with the same maker's models indefinitely. In fact, my student said that she wanted to get a different model car but the financial side discouraged her from doing so. It's an interesting system which encourages customer loyalty and a steady stream of new purchases, though it does seem a little like putting them in an economic straight jacket to get them to do so.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Lull

Last Friday, I had a rare "day off". While I don't work full-time, I usually spend some time teaching most days and a lot of time doing housework, cooking, and shopping. On many days, I feel as busy as I used to when I was working full-time, sometimes more so. If you do housework well, it's the death of a thousand cuts. There are so many little things to do that the tasks can pile up and take hours, even if you're on top of things on a daily basis.

Last Friday, due to a lot of reschedules, I didn't have any lessons and the house was relatively clean so a potential lazy day stretched before me. The rescheduling had resulted in a Saturday that was packed with private lessons so this was my lull before the storm.

A normal person would probably rest and enjoy that free time, but I'm extremely inept at relaxation. I'm not sure what the problem is but, unless I'm sick, I can't lie around the house and do nothing. I can't even lie around and watch T.V. or play a game for hours. So, rather than relax, I decided to make some homemade bread by hand (as opposed to the bread machine which is my normal method).

My Qurban was a bit on the flat side and my rolling skills are clearly not refined. Rather than nice, round bread, I made some amoeba-shaped ones. The two in front actually appear to be dividing from one another.

Awhile back, I saw a recipe for Qurban on the Desert Candy web site which looked interesting. The main problem was that it required orange flower water (and mahlep) and I don't have access to any. I figured that I'd try it substituting orange essence knowing full well it wasn't going to be anywhere near the same. Mainly, I was hoping for the same texture if nothing else and to enjoy the experience of making bread with my hands.

If you've never made bread before, it can be very therapeutic if you have the free time. It smells great when the yeast is doing its thing. It's somehow very relaxing to knead it (and punching dough is good for getting out some aggression and negative energy). There's also something to be said for reconnecting with how food is created closer to its origins rather than simply consuming it as something sold in bags at stores.


The finished bread was soft and relatively nice but not really like the buns shown on Desert Candy. It didn't have the wonderful orange smell that Mercedes mentioned in her blog. Mine were also flatter than hers and very pale on the bottom. In fact, while hers were nicely brown, mine were white. They tasted fine out of the oven in their normal state, but they really shined when I toasted them. When toasted, the outside takes on a delicate and satisfying crispiness, almost like a paper thing shell, on both sides. I had them with honey for breakfast and sliced one in half, put some ham and cheese in it, and toasted it for a really splendid lunch.

If you have a little lull in your life and have the time, you might want to give these a try. However, I'd recommend not rolling them out to six inches in diameter as they seem a bit too flat that way. I'd go for 4 inches. Of course, it just could be that my yeast wasn't the most robust. I believe that the yeast you buy in Japan in little foil packets isn't as active as some of the varieties you can get back home. Since there appears to be only one brand of yeast carried at most markets, it's not like there's any competition for an improved product and, since bread making isn't a part of Japanese food culture, it's not as if there's a great demand for higher quality yeast.

Friday, December 28, 2007

About RSS

A commenter asked me about RSS and I didn't realize it, but the ability to subscribe is built into blogspot blogs. This was kindly brought to my attention by Roy (who didn't even take the opportunity to make fun of my not knowing this fact about my own blog's front page - he's always a gentleman).


If you scroll all the way to the bottom of my front page, you'll see that you can subscribe via the link pictured above. I don't blame my readers for not finding this because I think this is easy to miss given how long my posts are and the fact that there are 5 articles on the front page at any given time. It's a long way down there and there's no reason to get to the bottom if you're regularly reading from the top. It's also pretty subtle.

As for me, I have no excuse. I just wasn't paying attention. :-) Thanks again, Roy!

Space Efficient DVD Storage

As the end of the year approaches, ones thoughts turn to the annual cleaning binge that comes just prior to the start of the year. While I'm not sure I'll be diving in and doing the old spit and polish on everything in my apartment since I already did it several months ago when I rearranged my furniture, there are bits of tidying that need to be taken care of.

The main case in point is our burgeoning DVD collection which had a bit of a burst of fertility over the holiday and outgrew our current storage space. I knew this day would soon be upon me (living in such a small Japanese apartment makes it inevitable) and I wanted to find a way to store some of our nearly 300 disc collection more efficiently. Mainly, I wanted to do somethin about the full-size cases with a single-disc in them. I don't know who decided it'd be a good idea to store one disc in a space large enough for 4 discs, but a bit of a reduction diet was in order if I didn't want my limited shelf space to overflow.

I considered buying slim cases for all the discs but the cost would end up being 100 yen per 3 cases and it'd only save me about half the space. Neither the expense nor the space savings of this solution were particularly attractive. I researched some methods on the web and they mainly involved carefully cutting up the inserts and putting the discs into slim CD cases. While this would be quite space efficient, I didn't want to destroy the inserts in this way because they often have chapter listings on them. Also, slim cases stored on their sides are almost impossible to label such that you can read their contents from a side view and I didn't want to have to riffle through stacks of discs to find the one I wanted.

Clear pockets, CD pockets, and a 36-ring binder (100 yen each at the Daiso).

The search was on for a method that'd preserve the full contents, store in an easy to peruse fashion, and cost as little as possible. After searching the local 100 yen shop for ideas and supplies, I came up with an album method which would cost 300 yen for every 36 discs and would preserve everything. This will give me future flexibility should someone leave about a hundred or so slim cases on my doorstep for free as I'll still have all the paperwork to restore the discs to their original appearance.


I chose a 36-ring binder so there would be uniform and constant support of the weight of the pockets holding 6 DVDs each. Though I think this was the best choice, lining up pockets with the rings was a huge pain in the ass. I interspersed clear document-holding pockets between the discs with the inserts and labeled the spines by genre. I debated alphabetically arranging them, but then I might have to rearrange the entire book every time a new disc arrived. I also think that it'll reduce the amount of searching necessary to find what we want as well as making it more convenient to thumb through and album based on mood.

The garbage bags show the discarded cases from the DVDs I put in albums. You can see how the small stack of albums would be vastly preferable to the huge number of cases if one were moving or paying shipping fees!

I didn't repackage all my DVDs, mind you. Some of them are in packaging which is already space-efficient and others are in special packaging that I wouldn't want to throw away. However, this worked extremely well and cleared up all our storage problems (at least for the time being). If you're cramped for shelf space, this is definitely the way to go if you've got a lot of DVDs.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

It's an Honor Just to Have Won

The What Japan Thinks blog of the year contest has concluded and the winners have been announced, and, I won the category of "best personal blog". I'd like to thank all the nice folks who took the time to vote for me and who read my (almost) daily prattle. I'd especially like to thank the mystery person who nominated me in the first place! I'd give each of you a peanut butter cookie if I could.

I've recommended it before, but, if you aren't a regular reader of "What Japan Thinks", I suggest you become one. It's one of the few resources with objective data about Japanese people, their opinions, and behaviors which you can find in English. It's a good resource from which to learn more about Japan and help temper our subjective conclusions and from which to understand the context of our (anecdotal) experiences in Japan.

And, yes, I'd be making this endorsement even if I hadn't won!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Cleanliness Illusion

Yesterday, I read a post by John Milito where he mentioned (quite correctly), that people back home can just drag their Christmas tress out to the curb when done with them and the garbage man will come and carry it away. This makes disposal easy and, as he said, once it's outside, it's someone else's problem whereas you'd have to chop the tree up or arrange for special removal in Japan. Of course, in my neck of the woods (rural Pennsylvania), you more than likely had to deal with the whole process yourself because there was no trash pick-up in the boonies, but that's beside the point.

His post sparked the thought that the mentality that someone else will clean up your mess once you drop it off somewhere isn't one that is unique to America and the perception that Japanese people are scrupulously clean is true in some respects and false in others. This was a fact that was brought home to me not an hour after reading John's post as I was riding my bike to a local market and saw a man on his bike in the opposite direction as me blithely pitch his used tissue onto the ground as he rolled along. Because of this, as I rode along, I decided to take heed of all the other garbage on the roadside and sidewalk on the 4 minute bike ride to the store. While there weren't great piles of debris, there were noticeable scattered bits of garbage including discarded tissues, empty shopping bags, flyers, cigarette butts, food wrappers, and receipts.

The quantity of these items was relatively low (particularly for a city like Tokyo) though the frequency suggested that people regularly dropped their trash. This is a habit which is encouraged by the lack of any waste cans aside from those in front of convenience stores though I do wonder how much more trash receptacles would help. I say this because, despite the fact that there are 3 trash bins in front of one of the convenience stores I passed, there were discarded receipts and bags just opposite the bins. It was as if someone exited the store, tried to get their bike key out in front of the space opposite the store where they'd parked iand just dropped anything they were holding (such as the receipt they were handed upon completing their transaction) on the ground rather than walk 4 feet back to the opposite side of the sidewalk to toss their trash in the cans.

The reason the omnipresent littering doesn't see Tokyo knee-deep in garbage is that the people who work in the shops and live in the houses near such areas routinely clean everything up several times a day. Sweeping the sidewalk every morning, afternoon, and night on a daily basis provides the illusion that Japanese people, unlike those in other countries, are a bunch of incredibly tidy and responsible people. On the one hand, they are tidy and responsible about what is on their doorstep because others judge them by the look of their area. They aren't so tidy and responsible when it comes to leaving it on someone else's doorstep.

If you happen to run across an area of Tokyo which is lying fallow for any length of time (like a vacant lot), you can see what happens when someone doesn't attend to an area for a long time. Before it was turned into a parking area, a lot next to my office in Nishi-Shinjuku frequently filled up with butts, drink cans, and fast food discards. Every once in awhile, the lots owner cleared it out, but the process invariably started anew every Friday evening until construction started and the builders took over regular tidying. Also, if you leave your bicycle parked anywhere along a busy street for several hours, there's a good chance someone will drop their empty drink can into your basket.

While I don't feel that the Japanese are any worse about littering than any other country, I do believe they have an undeserved reputation for being better about it than others. They are certainly capable of just as much irresponsibility as anyone else. They just don't tend to do it in front of their own homes.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas in Tokyo (2007)

The Christmas sign hanging in a shopping street in our neighborhood.

Last year, I wrote that it's all pretty much over in Japan by the time Christmas day hits. I figured that I'd go out and walk around to see if there was much of a difference on Christmas Eve. Also, this year we didn't really have anything special on hand for dinner and I wanted to see if there was anything for sale locally which might fit the bill.

Coincidentally, December 24 this year was a national holiday (Labor Thanksgiving Day The Emperor's Birthday) in Japan so many people had the day off though most of them probably didn't even know what the name of the holiday was. In close proximity to each Japanese national holiday, I ask every one of my students what holiday is coming up or has passed and they rarely know. When I asked one of my students what Japanese holiday was on the 24th, she thought a bit and said, "Christmas eve". When I told her that that wasn't a Japanese national holiday, she frowned in concentration and came up with "Christmas?" As is the case with most of these one-day national holidays, they do nothing to celebrate. It's just a (paid) day off for which they are grateful.

The weather yesterday was a little cold and very windy, but quite sunny. It wasn't a bad day at all, but most of the faces I saw while out shopping looked pretty glum. I guess the wind, which was strong enough to shake parked bicycles into new positions, may have been a factor in that as it whipped across exposed hands and faces. Since it was a holiday, I also saw more people out and about in casual clothes. The polished and business-suited masses have a more rundown look when they walk about in jeans and casual jackets. The general atmosphere was not very festive or encouraging.

A forlorn-looking Christmas cake stand outside the local "99" shop. While 990 yen cakes weigh down the left side, cheap Christmas-themed treats occupy the right.

There were fewer tables sitting outside of businesses selling Christmas cakes than I would have expected and none of them were actually manned. In business districts (rather than more residential areas like where we live), I'm sure they were outside their establishments in their Santa hats enduring the cold and watching the dead ginkgo leaves blow around, but they didn't bother in my neck of the woods. Given the reluctant food traffic, they probably wouldn't have done enough business to justify their facial wind burns.

I checked out some local supermarkets and was surprised to find that they had whole chickens on sale with labels noting that they were for Christmas meals. Since it is uncommon to find whole chickens in most places, that was a good sign in and of itself. Unfortunately, there were only two varieties on hand. One was a very small whole chicken, conveniently packed with two frilly aluminum leg cuffs, that looked about the size of a pigeon with a glandular problem. It was ¥1000 ($8.75) for about 1 kg. (2.2lbs.) The other was larger (2 kg.) but the price seemed to have ballooned with its size. It was ¥2800 ($24.50) and I couldn't justify that much money for that amount of food and gave it a pass (though I did pick it up a few times and think long and hard about it).

Despite the expensive chickens, Christmas cakes, and some artificial tress here and there in front of businesses, there was the omnipresent Christmas muzak. Though the surroundings weren't as lush or opulent as you'd find back home, it wasn't the absence of overly done decorations which undermined my Christmas spirit, it was the lack of the energy you feel around this time of year back home. There's excitement in the air back home. There's casual interest in Japan with people idly picking over the goods on hand trying to approximate what they think is the way to celebrate. Given that Christmas isn't even a real holiday in Japan, that's no surprise, but it can leave one feeling a little homesick at this time of year.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Inadvertent

This is a full-size cheesecake and cost ¥1,890 ($16.57). Though you can't tell from the picture, it is quite small. It's about 2 inches (5 cm.) high and 7 inches (17.7 cm.) long.

It doesn't matter how long you live somewhere or how much you know about something, you can reach the wrong conclusions about something totally obvious. In fact, I invite any and all ex-pats who know a bit about Japan to observe the lovely cheesecake pictured above. This is the best cheesecake that you can buy in Japan (from Topps cake shops). My husband picked up the one above yesterday evening on his way home from work as a little surprise for me.


Now, I invite you to look at the items which were at the side of the cheesecake which were tossed into the bag with it. Do you reach any immediate conclusions?

I reached a few quick conclusions.
  1. They threw in a little Christmas chocolate as a little "gift" for the season.
  2. They included candles in case the cake was purchased as a birthday gift since many Topps cakes are used in such celebrations.
The quicker-witted out there probably are snickering at how wrong I was. Those who don't know what on earth I'm on about can look below for a hint...

Image pinched from kashi-kashi.com.

The idea is to press that little chocolate medallion into the cheesecake and push in some candles to convert it into a Christmas cake. My husband inadvertently bought our first "Christmas cake" ever in Japan. ;-)

Sometimes it's good to have dumb little experiences like this as a reminder of how easy it is to make quick, surface observations and reach absolutely the wrong conclusions. It not only keeps one humble but serves as a reminder not to do the same thing in other areas of ones life.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Mind of a Student (My Speculation)

It's Sunday morning and I've slept in until 9:20 when I scheduled an English lesson for 10:00 am with my English teacher. I rescheduled this lesson from my usual Saturday at 11:00 pm lesson time and insisted on this earlier time because I told my teacher I just had to finish the lesson and be back home by noon. My teacher may have had to get up earlier than usual and prepare for my early arrival, but she said it was OK.

Now that I can't make the scheduled time, I think I'll call within minutes of rolling out of bed, still in a daze and with a cracked voice, and see if I can subtly pressure my teacher into changing my lesson to a later time, so I don't lose any money. Oh, sure, I could cancel the lesson because I can't make it in time or I could come late and take part of the hour, but if I call and state that I just woke up and then remain silent, the teacher might feel obliged to say it'll be alright if I start late. As long as I don't make any suggestions or overtly state what I want to do, the ball is in her court. As long as I don't take responsibility, perhaps I'll get everything I want and my teacher won't mind the fact that I asked her to rearrange her schedule around my needs once and am now asking her to do it again on extremely short notice. Though I know she has another student after me, I don't care about her need to prepare for that student or plans to do anything else in between my lesson and the other student's.

••••••••••••••••

I honestly don't mind if my students reschedule, cancel or are late. This troubles me not at all. I also don't mind occasionally rearranging my morning schedule to accommodate their needs and then having them be late or cancel. The only thing that drives me crazy is when they call me and when I ask, "would you like to cancel or just have a shorter lesson," they respond with absolute silence. The very act of just saying, "I woke up late" and then not stating any course of action (or answering any questions when given options) is a form of passive coercion in Japan which I don't think I'll ever be able to pry my mind open wide enough to accept with good grace.

And this wasn't the first time this has happened, but I'm sure it won't be the last.

Christians and Christmas

Bart Simpson once said that "“Christmas is the one time of year when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ.” Some people would say that he is half right. Many people celebrate Christmas (96% of Americans do), but some of them don't do so in order to worship Jesus Christ. As of late, there has been a lot of arguing over who "owns" Christmas and whether it has been changed into a secular holiday rather than a religious one. The most recent White House Christmas card is only a small part of the ongoing debate about Christianity and Christmas and how intermingled the two should be in public spaces. (Note: The White House Christmas card is not funded by American tax dollars, but by private contributions to the Republican National Committee so it is not an example of communication with an obvious religious message being spread via public funds. It is, however, communication with a presidential seal on it that carries a religious message clearly and intentionally marking it as a governmental communication with religious content.)

As is often the case, how people perceive the issue (of the Christian or secular nature of Christmas in this case) is a matter of perspective. People tend to view Christmas through the prism of their own beliefs (or lack thereof). Christians feel Christmas is a very Christian holiday. They see nativity scenes, hear songs which praise God or the birth of Jesus, and talk about church attendance numbers and the percentage of Christians in the U.S. Non-Christians feel it is a secular one. They see Santa Claus, cite the pagan roots of many Christmas traditions, and hear songs which are festive (e.g., Jingle Bells), but in no way reflect religion. The truth can't be found in subjective perceptions, anecdotal bits of information supporting one side or another, or in wishful thinking that reality will bend itself to suit one side's will. "Truth" is in objectively-obtained statistical information which reflects the whole rather than its parts, particularly when the parts are so heavily influenced by their own agendas and biases.

Finding objective data regarding this issue is actually quite difficult. Most polls tend to be conducted by groups with a vested interest in one outcome or the other. Such groups usually poll small and highly-biased samples. Christians tend to poll church goers. Atheists tend to poll from organizations or via web sites which attract like-minded people (e.g., scientific web sites). Fortunately, there are some organizations which conduct such polls without bias and that use scientific sampling methods.

Gallup has been doing such polls for decades and, despite some rather ignominious failures ("Dewey defeats Truman"), has been quite reliable, particularly in terms of predicting the outcomes of presidential elections. Fortunately, their techniques have been refined since their most famous failure and their results are reliable within a predictable margin of error. The margin of error, for those who aren't familiar with statistical information, means that the results can be wrong either either way by a certain percentage. In the case of most Gallup polls, the margin of error is plus or minus 3%. That means that a poll showing an opinion is held by 45% of people can be believed to be held by as few as 42% or as many as 48% of people, and that is quite unlikely that it is held by less than the lowest or more than the highest of those percentages.

In order to address the question of how "Christian" Christmas currently is, I decided to turn to the Gallup poll results from a 2005 survey. It's not only a reasonably reliable polling agency but also one of the few (non-biased) organizations that asked the questions I was interested in having answers to. A Gallup poll that asked the question, "thinking of the way you personally celebrate Christmas, is it a strongly religious holiday, somewhat religious, or not too religious," showed that Christmas is considered a "strongly religious" holiday by 47% of people in the United States overall. As a good example of how perspective introduces bias, Christmas is seen as "strongly religious" by 80% of regular churchgoers. If they were to believe everyone views the holiday as they do, they'd believe nearly everyone celebrated Christmas as a "strongly religious holiday."

Before anyone concludes that this is evidence that religion is being removed from Christmas, keep in mind that 30% of those polled said that their Christmas celebrations are "somewhat religious". That means religion is part of 77% of celebrations of the holiday. That means 23% of those who celebrate Christmas do so with no or very little religious component. Clearly, there is little danger (for the time being) of Christmas being celebrated as an entirely secular holiday by the majority of Americans.

The interesting thing to me is that people find it necessary to argue over the validity of the Christian aspect of a Christian holiday in the United States. Only in America would people argue for the secular hijacking of one of a religious group's most sacred holidays (the only one which is held in greater esteem is Easter). It's not that people don't want to celebrate Christmas because they are not Christians or are arguing to reserve their right to observe the holiday as a secular one, but rather that they don't want anyone to associate the holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ with religion.

Mind you, I have no problem with people choosing to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. After all, I'm not a Christian and I celebrate Christmas, but I'd never feel that the holiday should be or has been divorced from it's religious connotations because I have personally abandoned those aspects. I see the debate to strip Christmas of it's religious elements as the absurd extension of political correctness in the U.S. where nothing can be referred to in any way which may make any group feel the slightest bit uncomfortable (no matter how far-fetched their concerns are) and a backlash against the (undeniably) inappropriate influence of the religious right on conservative politicians. However, I think that trying to pretend Christmas is no longer a Christian holiday isn't going to accomplish anything.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Gifts For Students


For many people who work as teachers, gift-giving in Japan is largely a one-way street. The students give and the teacher receives. The biggest reason for this is that the Japanese are in the habit of giving gifts as a means of building relationships and they particularly have the habit of giving gifts to people who offer services.

Further, it is also the case that each student has one teacher and each teacher has many students so it’s very impractical for the teacher to be giving gifts to students on a regular basis, at least if the teacher wants to be relatively egalitarian about it. Nonetheless, when my husband visited home last May, he spent a large amount of money on souvenir See’s Candy for the students who he saw repeatedly and who he felt a good emotional connection with. He wanted to indicate to them that he enjoyed the time he spent with them in lessons.

Since this is the season where people traditionally show their appreciation and affection, he wanted to work out a way to offer up a Christmas “gift” that would express this sentiment again to those people who he’d be encountering in mid to late December. For this, we decided to go back to doing something I used to do for my coworkers when I worked in a Japanese office. We assembled “goodie bags”.

In the past, my goodie bags were mainly a boatload of homemade baking goods including pumpkin cake, brownies, sugar cookies, and peanut butter cookies with a candy cane or maybe some peanut butter cup miniatures thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, I don’t have the energy or time to do all that baking. Also, while I delivered my goodies on one day and distributed them to the entire office at once, he needs to string out is gifts over 2 weeks as he sometimes sees students once every few weeks. This made timing everything rather complex and made it imperative that we mainly use items that would keep without freezing or loss of freshness.

My husband bought a vast quantity of imported chocolates and I made peanut butter cookies which we packaged up in craft bags. I drew a Calvin & Hobbes Christmas scene in Adobe Illustrator and we sealed them with a commercial Christmas sticker. As individual packs, they may not really be much of a big deal but assembling so many of them has taken a lot of time, effort, and expense. Fortunately, the students’ responses have been worth it. They have been unfailingly gracious and happy with the bags of treats.

One thing which isn’t necessarily unique to Japanese culture, but is definitely more common is that people are happier with the effort you make more so than the content of the gift you give. Back home, most gifts seem to be received with higher expectations about the value of the contents than about the gesture itself. Sometimes I wonder if this relates to the fact that we have more occasions where people “expect” big gifts or gifts in larger quantities (Christmas and birthdays) and this anticipation has an effect on how gifts are viewed overall. The focus seems to be on what it is rather than why it’s given. While I’m certainly not concluding that the Japanese have no focus on what it is or that people back home never think about why it’s given, I think the heavier focus tends to be on why in Japan and what in the U.S.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Simpsons Christmas Mugs

The box that the mugs come in says "The Simpsons Christmas pair mug" on top of it.

This morning my husband went out for donuts at Mister Donut (for breakfast) and came back with the items pictured above. The Simpsons movie promotion has expanded to offering a special Christmas deal. The box on the bottom (with the tree) has 4 mont blanc cakes (strawberry, chocolate, chestnut, and green tea).


You can buy the box of 4 cakes and 2 Simpsons Christmas mugs for 1000 yen ($8.83). Each cake sells for 189 yen ($1.67). That means you get the mugs along with your fattening treats for 244 yen ($2.15) for the pair of them which is quite reasonable.


If you have any friends or family back home who are Simpsons fans, you might want to pick up the cups. I can't say for certain as I haven't conducted any extensive searches, but I don't believe these are available in the U.S, and they're very cute.

Food Phases

There are various food-related phases one has when living in a foreign country. Most people don't end up hanging around long enough to get past the first phase and assume there's something wrong with you if you aren't mired in it. This is very much so the case in Japan where the food appears to be one of the biggest draws for tourists.

The first phase is the adventurous one where you're excited to sample local cuisine and see what you like and hate. Inevitably, there are also foods you viscerally reject and aren't even willing to try because of their source. Anything in the slithery, snake-like family is in the last category for me. I can't even look at a snake or snake-like creature without being creeped out. The last thing I want is to see one skewered, grilled and served in pieces on my plate. That means that eel has always been out of the question for me. Mind you, it doesn't help that I used to see a huge clear plastic bag of live, squirming eels in front of a local restaurant on my way to the station everyday when I was working in Shinjuku. The connection between the real deal and what ended up on the plate couldn't help but be firmly crystallized for me after seeing that sack-o-snake day-in and day-out for years.

The adventurous food sampling phase is followed by the regular consumption of the favorites from your new repertoire of food options. This is where you start patronizing all the restaurants which carry the dishes you've concluded that you really like and want more of. For my husband and I, the biggest favorite was yakitori. While the general definition is "grilled chicken" on skewers, the yakitori bars and restaurants carry a wide variety of grilled foods including vegetables, beef, and (ahem) chicken skin and intestines. During the first 8 years or so of our stay in Japan, there were many nights when we'd look forward to starting off the evening with a little lacquered box with rice (or a ball of yaki-onigiri, a grilled rice ball), a handful of chicken or beef skewers, and a few slices of pickled daikon on the side. We'd then add in some grilled shishito (a mildly spicy green pepper), an onion salad with Japanese dressing, and incredibly hot and fresh miso soup along with even more sticks of meat, chicken and green onion. It was an experience to be savored. Unfortunately, savoring it again and again eventually mitigated the excitement of the experience and it wasn't the most economical option for an evening meal.

After awhile, the novelty starts to wear off of your formerly "new" food favorites and what was once interesting and a fresh taste experience turns into the "same old thing" and you find yourself heading into the next phase. You aren't really compelled to prepare the Japanese foods you love yourself because there is no earthly way you're going to do a better job than the restaurants you frequented. In fact, in the case of many dishes, you can't even come close. At this point, you start to be adventurous outside of the indigenous cuisine and, at least in the case of Tokyo, find that there is a whole world of other restaurants like Indian, French, and Spanish which allow you to re-visit your adventurous eating phase though only for a short time as the range of non-native cuisine is far less than the range of native dishes.

Concurrent with all of the phases after the initial one is the slowly increasing wish to find some of your foods from back home. It starts with your delight at encountering one or two items which you hadn't seen in a year or more. As time goes by and the mundane (and expensive) nature of local restaurants settles into your consciousness, you start to think about cooking more for yourself and that, at least in my case, brings me back to western dishes. A lot of people are critical of people who live in Japan and eat like they do back home, but Japanese people living in other countries do the same thing. In fact, when a former student of my husband's visited us in the U.S. for as little as a week, he was pining for miso soup and rice for breakfast within days of his arrival.

It's not simply a matter of being mired in your own country's food culture which draws you to the dishes you grew up with. It's a matter of what you are good at preparing and what is satisfying physically and comforting emotionally. In the case of the visiting former student, I think he felt utterly inundated by the newness of his surroundings and that was more than enough change to digest mentally. The comfort of his usual breakfast and the way it both psychologically and physically prepared him to go out and face a world where he struggled to communicate and navigate was not a rejection of American food, but a concession to one small need to stay bound to his own culture as a means of coping with the stress of the culture shock and his feelings of relative isolation. It would be the height of ego-centrism to view his choices (or anyone else's) in this regard through the lenses of "cultural rejection." Not every choice says something about how the foreign culture is love or not. Sometimes choices only say something about the need of the person making them.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Consultants"

There have been many times during my business English telephone testing with students when the man on the other end has told me that he has been transferred to his current company from another company as a "consultant". Usually, it has been the case that the man's former company was a big name company like Toyota or NTT and he was working for a company of lesser fame and prestige. (Note: these companies are examples, not the ones my students have actually worked for.)

The curious thing about this situation has been that, when I ask these gentlemen when their stint as consultants will end and they'll return to their former company, they say that they will never return and that their assignment is permanent. After this, I usually ask something like, 'you no longer work for (big name company) then,' they say that, they do indeed still work for that company in addition to their current one.

My confusion results from the fact that, back home, consultants generally don't take up permanent posts at any one company. They either work freelance or they are contracted out on a temporary basis from an agency to spend some time at a succession of companies. For years, I just figured that this was a different way of doing business in Japan and that perhaps the two companies had some sort of joint business or that one company was a subsidiary of the other. In fact, with more advanced students, I've asked if one company was a child of a bigger parent and sometimes the students said that was the case and sometimes not.

Recently, I was enlightened about one aspect of this type of so-called "consultation" by a student who is an accountant. She told me that it's common practice for big corporations to fob off their dead wood to smaller companies as a way of getting rid of them to clear the way for younger, more driven, or more talented employees. The smaller companies accept these employees despite knowing they are being intentionally farmed out for lack of ability because they feel that even less capable employees of big name corporations can bring some "know how" with them and they desire the prestige that comes along with having a worker on staff from a blue chip company. The bigger companies do it (rather than firing such employees) as part of fulfilling their promise of "lifetime employment" in order to keep staff loyalty high.

The most fascinating aspect of all of this isn't that these choices are made but that there is a financial component which one might not anticipate. In order to encourage small and medium-size companies to take on these "consultants", the larger, more well-known company subsidizes the consultant's salary. My student said that it is often the case that about 1/3 of the employee's salary is paid by his former employer and 2/3 is covered by the new, smaller place. This allows both companies (from a certain perspective) to cut their costs while the employee gets the same salary. The big name company avoids keeping the dead wood in their offices as demoralizing "window tribe" (madogiwa-zoku) at full salary. The smaller company gets (what they hope is) an employee who has capabilities they can use at a reduced salary.

Unfortunately, at least in my student's company's case, these employees aren't always worth even 2/3 their salary. She says she feels that the people in her company who have been taking up such positions aren't worthwhile for her company. Nonetheless, I have to admire the ingenuity involved in such a system meant to fulfill the company's promise of lifetime job security to employees who give over their lives to their employers (often just after university graduation). It may not be perfect or productive, but it does seem fair.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It's the Thought That Counts

The phrase "it's the thought that counts" is often used when people open a gift that was probably inexpensive or homemade. Sometimes it's even used when a gift is not really reflective of the interests of the recipient when, ironically, there was probably little thought or thoughts that indicate the giver didn't know the recipient very well at all.

It's rarely the case that someone utters the aforementioned phrase in a positive way which shows that they recognize a gift was very thoughtful. This is a tendency I'd like to change starting with one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received in my life from my friend, Shawn. I received a large surprise box from him for Christmas and was shocked and delighted by the contents.

Click to see a larger, more detailed picture.

To give you some idea of how Shawn did such an excellent job of making such a thoughtful gift, I'll tell you that we play an on-line game 2-3 times a week and chat via Skype while we play. On more than one occasion, I've lamented about my inability to cook something because of a lack of proper spices or ingredients in Japan. Shawn appears to have taken note of everything I mentioned and sent along whatever it is I didn't have and added a few lovely surprises. It's a care package that really shows care.


He also managed to provide me with a Christmas tree (after I blogged that my old one had gone to plastic tree heaven). And he sent me a monkey that yells when you launch it. There is very little cooler than a flying monkey!

I'm simply overwhelmed by how closely he listened to me and provided everything I talked about in our conversations. (I'm also impressed that he sent this huge heavy box by airmail at great expense.) It shows a great deal of thought and I can't express in words how much I appreciate that. Thank you, Shawn! I'll never forget this. :-)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Advice For Newcomers to Tokyo

I'm sure there are dozens of sites out there with tips for newcomers to Japan (or Tokyo) and I'm not going to duplicate the advice about trying to speak Japanese as much as possible, making friends, or sampling the cuisine. I'm hoping to offer some advice which is a little more specific to smoothing the bumpier aspects of getting along here. If I duplicate the advice of others, well, please forgive me. It's rather hard to avoid replication of ideas when you're living the same sort of life as others and experiencing the same problems.

Short term (~1 year) stay advice:
  • If you want to sample various types of Japanese food, eat out at lunch time rather than at dinner time. The set menus are cheaper, usually include an entree, side dishes and a drink for one reasonable price and are varied from day to day. If you eat out in the evening, you'll usually have to order a la carte which will cost more and you'll also tend to waste a lot of money on overpriced alcohol or beverages.
  • Friends (especially Japanese ones) will probably want to go out for karaoke and drinks after work. If this is your thing, by all means do it, but try very hard not to stay out past the point when the last train heads for your home. Cabs are expensive and drunken foreigners can find they're being literally taken for a ride or they may find they can't get a cab at all late at night. Keep in mind also that some Japanese people often expect the last person on the cab's route to cover the entire tab so you may have to fork over a substantial sum if you "share" a cab.
  • Buy liquid laundry soap rather than laundry powder. Japan is very humid in summer and in the rainy seasons and you'll find that small, expensive box of laundry detergent forming a big cake in no time. You'll have to buy another or chisel yours apart. The main problem with the chiseling is that the caked up bits won't want to dissolve in the cold water your washing machine is going to use to wash your clothes. Also, use fabric softener. It helps mitigate the dried-out, crispy feel of line-dried clothing.
  • Keep your salt shaker and spices in the refrigerator (same reason as above). The only exception is spices which come with silica gel packets to absorb moisture.
  • Vacuum your domicile once a week whether it looks like it needs it or not. A lot of people spend their short-term stay in Japan living like they're in college dorms. A person who has never had any allergies can develop them or other health problems from breathing in layers of dust mite dung from the multitude of microscopic critters living in carpets and (especially) tatami. Even if you're so on the go you only use your place to wash and sleep, you're still stirring up and inhaling allergens enough to feel the effects (literally with every step you take on your apartment floor). It only takes 10 minutes at most for a vacuuming of most places.
  • Don't assume Japan is safe and act in ways you wouldn't back home like leaving your front door unlocked, your bicycle parked unlocked, or leaving your bag unattended for a few minutes because you think things won't be stolen. There's every chance you can be careless once in awhile and nothing will happen, but there's also a good chance you'll lose something if you are careless on multiple occasions. Japan is safer than some places in other developed countries, but it's not free of petty crime (or even serious crime).
  • Buy a Brita pitcher or a snap-on filter for your water tap. Tokyo water is safe, but tastes pretty bad. The water is perfectly fine when filtered and it's a lot less ecologically damaging and greatly less expensive to filter tap water than to buy bottled water all the time. It'll also save you the hassle of having to recycle tons of PET bottles.
  • Be casually friendly with your neighbors. Say "konnichiwa" and "konbonwa" when you see them and smile even if you can't have a conversation with them. If they approach you and assume you're capable of more Japanese than you are, just smile, pretend to be embarrassed and say you only speak a little Japanese. If you're friendly with them, they're less likely to complain to your landlord about things you do which inadvertently irritate them and they're more likely to be helpful rather than critical when you unknowingly make mistakes.
  • Learn how to sort your trash and which days to put out various kinds of trash from whoever arranged for your domicile whether it be your company or a real estate agent. If they don't know, press your company to find out for you. Get a calendar with non-pick-up holidays or at least be attentive when notices about such days are posted at trash pick-up sites (this is mainly around the New Year's holidays). Yes, it's a pain, but be a good citizen both by adhering to your city's rules and by doing what you can to facilitate recycling. Too many foreigners decide they're just going to do what is easy and screw the regulations. It's one of the reasons landlords don't like renting to them (and it's one of the few valid ones).
  • Never step outside your domicile without your gaijin card or passport. There's only the smallest of chances that you'll ever get asked to present your identification to the police, but if they ask (and by law they can ask for no reason) and you don't have it, they have every right to take you to the police station and hold you. It's just going to be a huge, stressful hassle if you are unlucky enough to be asked for it and don't have it so don't even check your mail or take out the trash without it.
  • Try to resist the urge to accumulate a lot of cute little souvenirs from all your sightseeing or excursions. There's a very high likelihood that you'll end up tossing 80% of them in the trash before you leave because you'll find there's no way to pack them and they aren't quite as nifty as you originally thought. Bits of junk are also less representative of your stay and unlikely to offer better memories than photographs. Bring a digital camera and go nuts. Put your pictures on an on-line album or back them up, but don't print them or you'll likely end up tossing the hard copies later (and printing is expensive in Japan). You'll also find that Japanese people will often end up giving you little souvenirs as gifts anyway and they'll soon overwhelm your capacity to keep them.
  • If your Japanese ability is limited and you feel uncomfortable traveling around alone, look into the plethora of package tours (especially by bus and for day trips), and see if you can use one to see places of interest. You may not understand everything, but the ability of the tour guides to herd their flock will keep you safe while you get the opportunity to see places you're too timid to explore on your own.
  • Keep enough cash on hand for a return ticket or come here with a round trip one. If the worst happens, you want to be sure you can afford to get home. Try to keep at least 50,000 yen in the bank at all times to make sure you have enough money on hand for food and basic expenses if things go south.
  • Take some time to walk around and really explore various neighborhoods (starting with your own) rather than focus on only sightseeing spots. You'll find that the real story of life in Japan is not at the shrines, clubs, and department stores, but in the back streets and hidden nooks. You'll also discover a lot of great little shops (which are interesting and can save you money) and restaurants with kind and welcoming people in them.
Long-term stay advice (2+ years):
  • Even if you are tolerant of heat, buy an air conditioner or move into a place with one. You'll need it for humidity removal as much as the coolness. To save energy, learn what the controls do and use them wisely. Most air conditioners have low power settings, temperature maintenance settings, de-humidify and fan settings. A well-placed air conditioner can allow you to sleep more comfortably in hot and muggy weather, and help dry your laundry inside during the rainy seasons.
  • Don't vilify Japanese culture because it has bad points or glorify it because it has good points. Don't do the same to your own culture as a coping mechanism for adapting to the difficulties in Japan. Try to consciously counter-balance effusively positive or darkly negative thoughts with a dose of reality about the flip-side of the situation. If you don't keep balance, you risk becoming one of those tediously pro-Japanese foreigners who looks like he wants nothing more than to turn Japanese or one of those perpetually angry and unpleasant foreigners who oozes hatred and loathing for the people and the country. Either extreme opinion is boring and has nothing of value to contribute to discussions about Japan.
  • Do expect that there's a possibility that you'll spend time as one or the other above. If you don't stay long enough to outgrow either of these states, don't go home thinking your perspective is the "right" one and you really know Japan and spread your skewed perspective around as though it were original wisdom. If you do stay long enough to outgrow the angry gaijin/Japanophile-hakujin phase, be patient and empathetic with those who haven't gotten as far as you yet and forgive yourself for your past behavior.
  • Invest in a bigger than dorm-size refrigerator. It'll encourage you to eat more healthily because you'll have space to store fruit and vegetables. It'll also encourage you to cook for yourself and help you save money. You can sell the refrigerator when you leave and get a little of your investment back.
  • Consider doing a language exchange as an economical and socially appropriate way to practice Japanese. You can practice with Japanese coworkers, but they're unlikely to correct you or assist in expanding your ability as it's really not their responsibility. Listings for such exchanges are all over the place in English language resources but you can reliably find them in the freebie magazine Metropolis. Don't be afraid to shop around for a good exchange partner. A lot of foreigners get the raw end of the deal with such exchanges because so many of them start off as teachers in Japan and are used to correcting and practicing, but the Japanese tend not to be as instructional when they are helping you with your Japanese.
  • Remember that your taxes and national health insurance are always a year behind in payments. When you leave, you will have to settle up for the remaining year. Make sure you have enough money set aside to pay these off. While you can leave while still owing this money, it may complicate your situation should you choose to return some day. Also, if your employer has been handling the payments for you, your company may require you to pay these off before you go and take it out of your final salary or bonus if you refuse to cooperate.
  • If you're staying for more than a year and have a choice about it, seriously consider whether or not national health insurance is going to serve you better than private insurance of some kind. While you are required to be insured in Japan, you don't have to use the national health plan if you can prove you are otherwise covered. Private insurance is accepted at some of the more gaijin-friendly health care providers, but national health insurance is not. These sorts of gaijin-friendly places not only speak English (and that can be important when you're talking about your health) but they also accept appointments and don't make you sit forever in a cattle-call waiting area. Additionally, national health insurance rates can be very high if your company doesn't subsidize your payments and you fall into certain income brackets.
  • If you have special dietary needs (particularly no sugar/diabetic diets) or find yourself getting homesick for food or personal items from home, look into the FBC or Tengu Natural Foods. Some people consider regular consumption of western food while living in Japan a failure to adapt to the culture, but there's a difference between sampling the local cuisine and not finding it to your taste and turning to what you're more comfortable with and never trying Japanese food at all. There's no reason to do without over an imagined principle. You can bet Japanese people living abroad aren't being looked down on for eating Japanese cuisine on a regular basis (and there's no reason why they should be). If you'll be happier during an extended stay here eating Shredded Wheat or Weetabix for breakfast then there's no reason you shouldn't have it.
  • Remember that bad things are happening sometimes because you're a gaijin and people are treating you with prejudice, but there's also a good chance that bad things are happening because things work differently here than they do back home. Before you get angry and cry foul, try to discuss the situation with a Japanese friend and see if what you're up against is a Japanese norm which is rubbing you the wrong way or if you're really being discriminated against. This will help you gain perspective and understanding of the culture as well as help you curb the tendency to see yourself as a victim all the time because you're a foreigner.
  • Make sure you always have enough money in the bank to get by for at least two months should the worst happen job-wise. While this is sound advice for any person in any country, it is more so for living here where you don't have easy access to a support network of family and friends.
  • Learn about the local community sports facilities near where you live. Usually, there are some places which are subsidized by the local government at which you can swim, play tennis, or exercise more cheaply than private fitness clubs. If they are too crowded, keep an eye open for cheap membership deals at private clubs in your area. If you're serious about fitness, go for a morning membership rather than an evening one since you're more likely to use a morning one.
This post has been nearly 4 months in the making but I'm sure that there are many things I'm missing. Anyone who feels they have other advice to offer should feel free to add them in comments.

It's An Honor Just to Have Been Nominated

What Japan Thinks is holding a contest for "best Japan" blogs in a variety of categories and one of my kind readers nominated me in the category of "personal blogs". If any of my other kind readers would like to pop over and vote for me, I'd be grateful. :-) You can vote at this link.

Even if I don't win, I'm pleased that What Japan Thinks is holding this contest because it will encourage folks to check out a variety of blogs they may have been unaware of previously.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Sixth Sense

One of the best books I use for teaching private lessons is called "Impact Issues". Each lesson contains a story meant to open up discussion on a particular topic and a page of opinions that students can agree or disagree with. The topics cover a broad range of issues, but one of the most interesting lessons is called "Flight 77". In this particular lesson, a man talks about how he was about to board an airplane and decides not to after a voice tells him that he should not get on the plane. The teacher and student then discuss the potential origin of the voice.

This topic is good because it opens up the floor for spiritual discussions, but tends to avoid the overall topic of religion. While Japanese people aren't especially religious (on the whole) and it's unlikely that an uncomfortable discussion would develop on the topic, they also don't have much knowledge about religion and tend not to be overly interested in it. Spirituality, on the other hand, is something they do have their own notions about and can discuss with varying levels of enthusiasm.

As part of the discussion of this lesson, it's usual to ask the student if he or she has ever had any sort of metaphysical experience. While most of the students I've spoken with believe that the "voice" in the story in the "Flight 77" lesson is not a product of the author's imagination (and was a genuine spiritual warning), only one of them has said she has had a similar experience. This particular student told me a story from her childhood which was remarkably similar to the one in the textbook.

When she was a child of about 7, my student was playing a game where she and some friends pretended to be "invisible". As part of this game, one person kept her eyes open and the others kept their eyes closed. In this instance, my student and another friend were walking around with eyes closed while one other friend directed them. The friend who could see would tell the other two what to do as they walked "blindly". The "seeing" friend was preoccupied with the other person as the three of them approached a street. My student was just walking along with her eyes closed when she heard a voice (in her mind) clearly tell her to stop walking. She stopped and opened her eyes to find she would have walked in front of a car if she had continued on.

Oddly enough, my husband had a relatively similar experience when he was 15 years old. He was standing at a light waiting for it to turn green so he could cross a street. No cars were coming and the light turned green. Just as he was lowering his foot to the curb, he had a very strong feeling that he should not step into the street. He didn't hear anything and couldn't work out why he should feel that way so he looked up the street and soon saw a car speeding down the street which ran the light. If he had completed that step, the car would have hit him and possibly killed him given that it was going about 50 mph in a 35 mph zone. In my husband's case, he didn't hear a voice but received a strong "message" from his body nonetheless. He was being told to freeze and not step out.

When I asked my student why she thought she received such a message and many other people die in accidents, she said that she felt that it wasn't her time. She felt that she was meant to hang around on the planet and learn and experience life for awhile longer so she was stopped from prematurely making her exit. I feel that the same was the case with my husband. I think he and I were meant to journey through at least part of our lives together and it was very important for both of us that it be this way.

I know many people don't believe in this sort of thing and will concoct some sort of "logical" explanation (e.g., they both heard the cars and reacted to the sound on an unconscious level) and that's okay. If someone is so frightened of the idea that the world and our experiences may not be defined entirely by sensory stimuli and neurological processing of that stimuli, they can make up any explanation they want to sooth themselves. However, making up experiences that didn't happen in order to more comfortably explain what actually did happen is just as fanciful as speculating on the metaphysical. It's just a matter of being open-minded about the possibility of "sixth senses" or not.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Simpsons Movie in Japan


As western (well, mainly American) cartoon characters go, they're not as well-loved or known as Peanuts or Disney characters, but they have appeared in their fair share of product endorsements. In the past, they've appeared in endorsements for C.C. Lemon drink among other things.

The T.V. series has been running on Japanese T.V. for quite some time though I've never actually spoken with any Japanese person who actually watches the show regularly. One of my more television-loving students told me she doesn't like the show because the humor is too mean-spirited. However, given that Fox runs the show a few times a day (seemingly every day), someone must like it.


The Simpsons movie opened in Japan yesterday and, among other promotions, Mister Donut has been using boxes with images from the movie.


There are also some confections which get a little Simpsons wrapping around them such as the mont blanc pictured above. This particular item was unusually good in a bad way. The cake used in it was amazingly similar to the sponge in an American Twinkie.

Personally, I wouldn't go to see the Simpsons movie in a Japanese theater because the tickets cost about the same as purchasing the DVD from Amazon and I'd rather spend the money on a permanent copy than a one-time experience. I've also found in my limited experience seeing movies in Japan that theaters aren't all that great. The acoustics sucked at the last place I went and they tend to be pretty overheated. Mind you, the last movie I saw in a theater was Star Trek VI. ;-)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Contracts

One of my students works for a major computer company and discussed a bidding war for a contract with a chain of convenience stores (no, it's not the one you're thinking of). During our talk about her situation at work, we talked about the differences between the way Japanese business deals with and regards contracts and American business.

On a layman's level, I've been aware of these differences for quite some time. In general, it has been my understanding that the Japanese do not view contracts as absolutes, but rather as a starting point for business. Customers may ask for services outside of what is stipulated in a contract, for instance, and the company providing the service will comply without feeling put upon in many cases. In the U.S., companies use contracts as a way of limiting demands outside of what is stipulated in writing.

This differing view of contracts and how closely one can be expected to adhere to the terms of one can cause a lot of problems in international business deals, joint ventures, and the Japanese offices of western-based businesses. In the case of the latter, the expectations of the home office abroad can be very different than those of the branch office in Japan. The home office in a western country may have very rigid notions of how a deal should be carried out in terms of goods, services, and payment while the Japanese take a more flexible approach in accord with the expectations of Japanese customers.

For those who come over from western countries and work in Japan under contract, this flexibility can be a big headache because we expect only to do as we are asked under the terms of our contracts. The Japanese will often freely ask all employees (not only the foreign ones) to do tasks which are far outside of any reasonable description of the job you are coming over to do. Helen has mentioned in comments that she was asked to answer the phone like a receptionist while she was a teacher. Turner said he was asked to clean white boards at the end of the day (more in line with a janitor's tasks) when he was a teacher. At my old workplace, office girls had to vacuum the floors and clean the kitchen once a week. Most of the time employees are asked to regularly do things which are outside their job description as a way of saving the cost of hiring someone with the proper job title to do it. Though foreigners often feel they are being asked to work outside their stipulated contractual duties because they're foreigners, the truth is that it's because they are employees and contracts are not seen as iron-clad or limiting in the same way they are in the U.S.

That being said, my discussion with my student this morning showed that the times are changing. More and more businesses are getting serious about following U.S. business practices and laws like SOX. Part of the reason for this is that following these practices clarifies expectations and simplifies transactions, but another reason is that companies can be removed from the stock exchange in the U.S. if they don't follow these guidelines and regulations. Of course, this sort of thing only affects the really big guns. The little guys can still be as wishy-washy as they want.

•••••••••••

Anyone who is interested in learning more about the business practices of various countries can check out Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands. It provides a good overview of the thought process and general ways of doing business in a good many countries.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Happy Semi-belated Birthday, Sharon

Living in Japan sometimes wrecks havoc with your conception of time in regards to special days for family back home. In the event that you remember some one's birthday on the right date, you have to wait a day to offer your good wishes because they haven't gotten there yet. This need to delay increases the chances that you'll forget by the time the day arrives for your family member.

This year, I remembered to wish my sister a happy birthday both yesterday (the 13th for me) and today (the 13th for her). Unfortunately, I didn't remember to blog on the right day and offer my good wishes on the right date. Sure, I can cheat and put up a fake day and time on the post to cover up my mistake, but I'm not quite that lame. I'll admit my mistake and take my lumps.

Unfortunately, Sharon's birthday hasn't been the greatest day. There was icy rain in western Pennsylvania and she spent the day cooped up with my mother, an unnecessary early wake-up call from our Mom telling her they couldn't go shopping because of the weather and further maternal demands to clean the refrigerator. I guess our mother feels that our birthdays aren't really all that special anymore.

I wanted to say, belatedly, that this day is special for me because I appreciate my sister and the friendship I have with her. I wish I could be there to do something special but the best I can do is say something which is (hopefully) special.

The birthday dragon picture above was pinched from Jame's Rhinehelder's Science Fiction and Fantasy Art page. If you like his art, please visit his page and have a look. His art is whimsical and evocative.

Girl Bullying

While reading "Odd Girl Out", a book about how girls act aggressively toward one another, I recalled a lot of memories about my experiences in elementary and high school. As I'm sure is the case with most kids, I experienced a lot of teasing, much of it quite cruel. However, I'm pretty sure that I got teased more than other kids for various reasons.

My family was poor so my sister and I didn't get the best clothes, shoes, or accessories. We were also relatively unsophisticated compared to other kids because we lived relatively far from anyone else. Most of my peers were either "townies" who lived close to one another and in walking distance of the schools or at least in proximity to a few neighbors. They could communicate about what was popular in music, television, or in teen magazines. Most of the time, I didn't know what other kids were talking about. Keep in mind that this was about 30 years ago before the Internet leveled access to media.

Kids living in relative isolation from other kids like us tended to hear the music their parents listened to and wear the clothes their mother chose up until around their early teens. Townie kids listened to modern rock and pop and modeled their dress on whatever was in fashion magazines. My parents were relatively conservative about such things and wouldn't allow make-up or anything resembling fashionable clothes before age 16, and, in fact, frowned on things like shaving one's legs. All in all, I think my parents were both uncomfortable with anything that indicated we were making a transition from children to adults because of the hints of sexual maturity that came along with it. My sister and I were tailor-made to be the dorky kids everyone at school could delight in tormenting.

As far back as I can recall, I was the victim of malicious teasing. The worst of the bullies was a triumvirate of popular girls. One of them was the prettiest in our class. Another was very athletic and the last was a bit of a hanger-on who was a cheerleader in her later years, but probably represented the least talented and attractive of this little clique. The last girl was the one who seemed to spearhead most of the nastiest attacks and attempts to humiliate me. After reading "Odd Girl Out", I realize that this was her means of solidifying her position in this trio since the other girls had beauty and sports success on their sides. It's not unusual for less desirable (from a friendship perspective) girls to ingratiate themselves to more popular girls by amusing their girlfriends with acts of cruelty against other girls.

In "Odd Girl Out", the author talks about how unpopular girls will often do whatever it takes to get popular girls to like them in the hopes of advancing socially. She never talks about the victims of their torment who decide after being bullied that they have no interest in currying favor with the members of the elite cliques. One of my experiences shows how not everyone will sell their soul to make the popular girls like her. At the very least, I wouldn't.

When I was in 5th grade, I was in the girls' bathroom with the prettiest girl in our grade. She was spending her time primping in front of the mirror after spending her time in the toilet stall combing her hair. I know she was in there styling herself because, in the process, she managed to drop her comb in the toilet. When I came out of my stall to wash my hands, she told me to fish her comb out of the commode. She didn't ask me to do it. She told me to. I refused and she took up an exasperated posture and said, "it's only water!" To this, I retorted something along the lines of, 'if it's only water, why don't you get it,' and walked out.

At the time, being a kid and all, I didn't think about the psychology behind this. I just knew I wasn't sticking my hand in a toilet for anyone, and, if I were inclined to do so, it sure wouldn't be for some extremely vain girl who was a source of almost daily suffering for me. Thinking back on it, I'm impressed (unfavorably) by the ego that must have been behind her request. She sincerely expected a person she treated like crap to do an extremely unsavory task at her request because of her beauty and popularity because she was so accustomed to everyone doing anything they could to please her. In retrospect, I'm sure that, had I done as she'd "asked", she would have used it as a jumping point for making fun of me even more. No doubt many jokes about my willingness to play in toilet water or possibly bathe in it would have been my reward for complying.

Around our sophomore year (when we were 15), the prettiest girl in the class got pregnant. This was at the beginning of what would be a snowballing trend of high school girls getting knocked up and at a time when it was still a major embarrassment to be so young, unmarried, and pregnant. Being in this situation was bad enough considering the time period but it was worse in a heavily Christian rural town. In fact, I'm pretty sure this girl was the only one who had ever managed to put herself in this position and not decide to either drop out of school or get an abortion during the six years I was in our high school. The circumstances leading up to her predicament made up some pretty major gossip among students and much was made about whether or not she'd marry and quit school. She ended up doing neither.

This girl's situation completely broke her group apart. Her friends distanced themselves from her and she had to endure the daily embarrassment of a swelling belly and having to wear maternity clothes. People were nice to her face, but it was all really forced. I'm sure that if a less popular girl had gotten pregnant at 15, she would have been treated far worse. At that time, I can recall nothing but relief that her situation had smashed apart a group which caused me a lot of distress for so long. I didn't really experience any schaudenfreude, but I also felt zero compassion or empathy for her situation. I simply didn't care about the difficulty she faced.

I'd like to think that karma settled a score for me, but I know karma doesn't work this way and the consequences of being sexually irresponsible as a teenager had nothing to do with me or the suffering said teenager and her cronies put me through.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wikipedia and Sheldon


I wish the Sheldon comic (pinched from the Sheldon site, which everyone should read everyday because it's momentous uberness should not be denied) I've pasted above had been available when I wrote my "Know It All" post. Of course, if it had been, I wouldn't have had to be so verbose.

Now, I have no choice but to bring it to your attention after the fact in what will appear to be a very cheap attempt to boost my post account for this month. Rest assured, I don't give a toss about post counts. However, I do care about directing readers to a really good web comic which makes points I want to make.