Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cultural Contributions - part 2

(Part 1 is here)

A good indication of how mainstream some elements of Japanese culture are in the U.S. is reflected in sales like the one pictured above.

In terms of what I see as Japan's long-lasting impact on other cultures up to this, I tend to see much of the obvious. Since I currently reside in Japan, it's a bit difficult for me to pick up on things which have had a subtle impact as I'm seeing through the eyes of the media rather than as someone residing in a country other than Japan.

The strongest influences that I believe Japan has had are those on popular culture. Mainly, I think they've shared their culture in these areas:
  • Anime-style artwork and action. I've noticed that traditional comic book-style has been altered or supplanted in many ways by huge-eyed, tiny-chinned looks. Even when some looks aren't direct copies, many are distorted to fit a similar look. I don't think this is going away any time soon as it dovetails very nicely with the move in the West to infantilize everyone and everything popular. If you look around at trends, you'll notice that everything seems to be moving toward removing all signs of maturity from pop icons including body hair and hints of wrinkles. Also, most actors are considered physically most desirable if they fit the "Q-tip" ideal - big head, tiny body which is also a part of anime. While I realize big heads are a part of all cartoons, it wasn't the norm that long, skinny bodies sat were the norm before. It was usually big heads on stubby, funny bodies or huge grotesquely muscled ones. Anime-style suits this trend very well though I don't believe Japan is in any way responsible for the trend toward infantilizing people and promoting it as attractive or an ideal.
  • Food culture. I think Japanese cuisine has only partially penetrated most cultures but it will continue to do so, though most likely in a modified format for each culture that adopts it. The main impediment right now to Japanese cuisine going completely mainstream around the world is a lack of a fast food equivalents with high name recognition and low prices. One of these days, someone is going to work out a formula for dumbing down the core cuisine and serving it up cheap and fast and it'll find even broader acceptance than it has already. I think the push to move away from meat and foods high on the food chain may aid this as soy-based foods will hold more and more appeal as long as they are modified to suit Western tastes.
  • Karaoke. I think this is going to be around for awhile and, like sushi, will be something that is always going to be a part of the Western cultures though clearly it'll be more or less popular in certain areas.
Ironically, I think there are some aspects of Japanese culture which I believe would be good if they rubbed off on Western culture but I don't believe they will be conveyed. In fact, I think that individualism and the resulting effects will continue to infiltrate Japanese culture. A few of the things I've noticed about Japan which I think would be good would be:
  • A greater sense of responsibility at a younger age. I've noticed that Japanese young people, while they tend to remain more dependent into adulthood, face their lives with a greater sense of personal and interpersonal responsibility. Their attitude is not as self-centered as you tend to see in the West. They don't address every experience with a "what's in it for me" attitude.
  • Fiscal conservatism. The Japanese are world-class savers and expert at deferring purchases in cases where making them would require them to go into debt. They have extremely low credit card debt on a per capita basis. While you do have people blowing money on expensive name brand goods, you don't have them racking up debt to do it.
  • Food portions and menu diversity. This is a point of culture which the West, and America in particular needs rather badly, but it's unlikely to make in-roads for a variety of reasons. First of all, diversity requires more time and effort and people in the States have seen food as something that should be gotten out of the way rather than labored over. However, I think that the tendency among most people to eat a mix of items in small portions is part of what contributes to longevity in Japan.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Cultural Contributions - part 1

In the comments section of one of my other posts, Michael asked me what I felt was Japan's cultural direction and/or contribution to the rest of the world and whether or not I believed that Japan was headed in one direction or another or just wandering aimlessly. I wrote a long and involved answer thinking all the while that maybe a post would be a better way to answer it and, as I was reviewing my answer in a preview, Blogger disconnected me and trashed the entire reply. So, I concluded that fate had intervened and maybe a post (which will auto-save as I work on it) would be a better way to answer this interesting question.

Before I get to the answer(s), I'd like to make it clear that I'm only offering a perspective and an opinion and I'm not presenting myself as any sort of definitive expert on this topic. To be honest, I think no one, even a researcher on culture, is really qualified to answer it because it's too vast a question covering much of the world. Even if you could be well-versed in the movement of a culture, you couldn't be well-versed on the impact that culture has had world-wide without the perspective of a lot more history. Life is simply too short. So, before undies become tightly-wadded and keyboards grow hot with venomous rebuttals, keep in mind that these are just a few ideas from someone who has lived here awhile doing her best to answer a question a nice fellow asked her. Feel free to offer your ideas as well in the comments, but remember that none of us are any more qualified than the rest of us in this regard, no matter how confident we may be in our status as armchair experts on Japan and that any jerks will be bounced in comment moderation. Without further adieu, I will finally get to the point.

I arrived in Japan during the last few years of its economic bubble. For those who are not well-versed in what this is, I will tell you that Japan enjoyed a brief time when their economy expanded rapidly and it seemed they had a Midas touch when it came to making successful products. Those who are outside of Japan may remember it as the time when Japan went around buying up real estate and pricey artwork around the world and people in the U.S. started smashing Japanese-made goods in protest of how bad their success was making us look. Money was so plentiful in Japan at that time that local governments were thinking of ways to waste the money they were raking in, possibly on gold-plated statues and what-not. The perception was that the Japanese were a force to be reckoned with that could eventually unseat the U.S. as the biggest economic power in the world.

Being here when the bubble started was a good time for expatriates. Wages for teachers were high and conditions relatively cushy, both because the Japanese had money to burn. It was before everyone and his brother came here to work for a year or so and the market wasn't as saturated. The Japanese you taught were generally pretty arrogant about Japan's superior work ethic, education system, and product quality. This attitude was famously parodied in various comedy programs as Western actors pretended to be Japanese and denounced Americans as lazy, stupid, and incapable of making high quality products. While this attitude wasn't necessarily shoved in our faces all the time, it wasn't hidden or subdued when the topic happened to come up. If you have lived in Japan for any length of time, you know that humbleness and subtlety are the order of the day and, for anyone to express superiority in an overt fashion is not the norm.

The bubble eventually burst as the personal computer and Internet boom were peaking over the horizon. Japan still lead the world in cars, televisions, personal stereo equipment and VCRs, but it didn't have a toehold in the burgeoning computer business. As Japanese electronics companies struggled to make their mark in the computer industry, and only Sony really got a decent footing internationally and NEC domestically, the smug started to wear off of the Japanese sense of superiority. Instead of leading the world, they were starting to follow, and feeling a bit like they couldn't keep up.

It's not like Japan wasn't still owning or doing well in certain markets like console gaming systems and cell phones, but rather that the money was no longer being dumped at their feet in huge piles and they were being edged out of new markets and seeing demand for their old market goods wither. As time went by, the superior attitudes I experienced when I first arrived vanished and were replaced by expressions of concern about a certain level of inferiority when it came to adjusting to the demands of the marketplace and their ability to innovate. In particular, a lot of the old Japanese businesses who made a strong mark domestically started to have stronger concerns about brand awareness and being able to meaningfully break into world markets.

I wasn't here before the bubble, but based on what I know about what Japanese culture values in terms of personality, I wonder if this was a full circle for Japan. That is, from post-war defeat and feelings of inferiority to smug and superior and back to feelings of inferiority. The puff up didn't last all that long from a historical view. However, in terms of lasting impressions, I believe Japan has left its mark. For one thing, people used to associate Japan with the sort of cheap, low quality goods which are currently associated with China. I would be surprised if the image of Japan as a producer of efficient, high technology, small, and well-designed goods changed any time in the near future.

In terms of the question I was asked about the direction Japan is headed, I think that there are a lot of possibilities, but my best guesses are:
  • Japan will continue to be associated with high technology and particularly with robotics. I think it will make this move because of the diminishing population and a desire to compensate for a lack of labor with mechanical assistance. I don't think it will make it's mark in homes worldwide with its technology as I don't believe that the Japanese developers can accurately market domestic products abroad as the needs of those living in Japan are different from those in other countries and most developers lack cross-cultural experience. I do believe they will license their core technologies and have a heavy influence on industry worldwide.
  • Japan will gradually (and reluctantly) start to attempt to integrate more foreigners into the population. This change will occur at a glacial pace in terms of actual rights and acceptance of foreigners, but a faster pace in allowing more (legal) manual labor from Asian countries. I think it will continue to be seen around the world as insular. The population will continue to consider being Japanese as a matter of blood rather than of breeding.
  • Japan will continue to be seen as America's lackey though it will very, very slowly inch away from that position as the U.S.'s status world-wide diminishes. However, until the North Korean political situation looks a bit less intimidating, Japan will continue to allow the U.S.'s foreign policy to heavily influence it and it will not be seen as any sort of world leader politically.
Generally speaking, I think Japan will continue in the same direction as it has for years now. That is, it will remain irrelevant in shaping policies or playing a part in world leadership and tend to follow wherever the stronger powers go. I think Japan will continue for a long time to come to be relatively insular and more interested in isolating themselves while still availing themselves of the advantages of being a part of the world market.

(to be continued)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Dominant and Recessive

My family by blood consists of 4 people, my mother, father, and older sister. All of them have black or dark brown hair and brown eyes, but me. I am the lone redhead with blue eyes in the family. That means there were plenty of jokes about my real father being the milkman from people who either didn't study or remember junior high-level human biology, or who simply thought that the joke was just too funny to let knowledge interfere with the potential guffaws as they displayed their sparkling wit via cliché humor.

For those who have blocked out the knowledge of rudimentary genetics which explains my family's physical disposition (or who just slept through it all to begin with), I'll mention that there are dominant and recessive genes. How these things work is rather complicated, but the way in which the concept is introduced to us in school is by talking about things like hair and eye color and explaining why there are more brown-haired and brown-eyed people in the world and fewer blonds, redheads, and green and blue-eyed people. Light hair and eyes are recessive traits (or so I was told) and if the genes for both light and dark hair and/or eyes genes are present, the dark characteristics will manifest.

In order to have a progeny with blue eyes or red hair, each parent must have a recessive trait's gene (such as red hair) and only pass on the recessive ones. So, my parents had the genes for both types of characteristics and passed the dominant ones on to my sister, but the recessive ones on to me. If the child has brown hair and blond hair genes, the child will have brown hair. So, the formula works out such that there's a greater probability of any person having dark hair and dark eyes, though the entire situation is probably about a thousand times more complex in the real world, but, trust me that the milkman did not have to be my father in order for me to be the lone person with light hair and eyes.

Lest you think this post has to do with educating you with my crude understanding of genotypes and phenotypes (and yes, I remembered those words from decades ago when I originally learned them and didn't pick them up from current research - hooray for the American education system), let me reassure you that my intention is to raise what I felt was an interesting cross-cultural difference.

This morning I was discussing blood type and personality with a student and asking her if she felt things like hair and eye color influence personality. For those who don't know, the Japanese believe blood type has a role in shaping character. It's always been my opinion that Japanese people hang personality traits on blood type because they are physically so much more similar than western folks. We can say a blond is dumb or a redhead temperamental, but they've all got dark hair. They have to go deeper than the surface to form their theories.

During the course of our discussion, my student asked me if there were more blond-haired, blue-eyed people than dark-haired people back home. I told her there were not and explained to her the whole dominant-recessive lesson we were taught in biology as the reason for this. At first, she was a little puzzled but then she had a moment of total understanding. She told me that Japanese kids learn the exact same lesson about dominant and recessive characteristics, but that they are taught that information using a different example as the basis for that information...can you guess what that might be?

To me, this is a fascinating reflection of each culture's residents' physical composition and the effect it has on their personality theories and educational methods. To you, well, perhaps it's just an interesting bit of trivia.


If you couldn't guess, the answer was: Blood type.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Kernel Thunders

The picture that launched many entertaining descriptions.

Back when I was working in a Japanese office and correcting student (correspondence-based) homework as part of my daily duties, there was a lesson in which students were presented with a drawing of an older gentleman and asked to describe him (shown above). It was not the least bit rare for students when describing this man to say variations on several rather entertaining things:
  1. "He is the Uncle of Kentucky."
  2. "He is a dandy."
  3. "He is kernel thunders."
As a further clue, I can tell you that it is often noted that "he has been on a diet" and "he has lost weight."

People who have lived in Japan and especially those who have been English teachers, probably have a clue what these statements are about. For those who don't know, the answer is in the picture below.

Click this picture to see a larger, more detailed picture. Note the poster of a Japan-only KFC food monstrosity to the right of the statue. It's a "mince nan sandwich" (a breaded, deep-fried cutlet full of fatty minced meat served on Indian-style bread). Note the proud display on the burger of the 4th Japanese food group, mayonnaise.

In front of most KFCs in Japan, there is a statue of the Colonel so nearly every Japanese person is familiar with his likeness, though they aren't necessarily all that clear on his name if the reports I corrected are any reflection of reality. It's my guess that Colonel Saunders's visage is so well-known that any older-looking foreign man with glasses, a suit, white hair and a mustache may bring him to mind.

Yes, there is vandalism in Japan.

The statues of the Colonel that I've seen are always clean and very well-kept. The one in the previous picture is so clean that it's super shiny. I imagine that these same sorts of statues would be vandalized rather badly if they were in the U.S. and left out in front of shops overnight. Mind you, it's not that there's no vandalism in Japan, but either the Colonel is not a big target for it or he is quickly cleaned up if it occurs (or they block access to him through gates that they pull down after closing).

I'm not sure why the Japanese franchise owners decided to put statues of the Colonel in front of nearly every shop, but, if I had to guess, I'd think it had something to do with the fact that Ronald McDonald statues used to be in front of a lot of McDonald's. It could be that they felt KFC needed a similar, easily recognizable icon associated with its food.

This papier mache "Hello Kitty" stays in front of this tea shop year round. The owners just change her wardrobe to reflect the changing seasons and holidays. In summer, she wears a bikini and it's frankly a little creepy.

It could also be that the Japanese, in general, have a habit of putting out statues of their corporate mascots in front of shops to attract attention or raise brand awareness. There used to be a Fujiya sweets shop near one of our local stations and a statue of the Fujiya girl ("Peko-chan") licking her upper lip in anticipation of a tasty Fujiya-made treat was placed in front of it. I've also seen statues of various lesser-known mascots in front of other miscellaneous establishments such as a cutesy elephant in front of a drug store and, of course, the omnipresent "Hello Kitty" often shows up in an unofficial capacity.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Colonel, in all his overly-stylized glory, is rather rare as a mascot in Japan that is based on a real (or even fake) person. In fact, I had a discussion with a student last week about Betty Crocker and how a fair number of American mascots resemble real people (or are based on real people) whereas almost all Japanese ones are based on cartoons or cartoon-like images. It's a difference that we don't tend to notice because corporate mascots are part of the background noise of marketing to which we're exposed, though we are all quite aware of and familiar with them in our respective cultures.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Coping With the Cold

At this time of year, every kind-hearted Japanese person who I speak with (which is pretty much every one that I actually speak with), tells me to be careful now that it's colder outside so I don't catch cold. While I always appreciate the concern, I have to suppress the urge to say that cold weather isn't what makes you catch a cold. It's actually rapid changes in temperature, stress, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition that tend to cause people to get sick coupled with, of course, exposure to viruses. The onset of cold weather makes people believe cold weather makes them catch colds because so many problems develop at the changing point, but it's the extreme fluctuations between over-heated interiors and frigid exteriors which increase the frequency of adjustments our bodies have to make that are the main culprit.

When I was studying physiological psychology, I was taught the term "homeostasis". This term has several applications, both human and otherwise, but in my studies it was used to indicate that our bodies and minds like things to stay the same and the introduction of change, particularly a rapid and extreme one, stresses a person. When your body is stressed, your immune system has more difficulty coping with the bombardment of nasty things it encounters and is more likely to fail in its mission of keeping you healthy.

A very good way to avoid catching a cold is to minimize powerful fluctuations in temperature. Given that there is no central heating in most Japanese domiciles, this would seem to be pretty easy, but the truth is that the use of space heaters and kotatsu tend to increase the chances a person will overheat himself or herself by sitting close to the source of heat in a cold room rather than sit in a spot distant from the heating source in a lightly heated room which is being warmed by central heating.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea and believes that I'm suggesting that central heating is somehow superior in any way (because there are some people who love nothing more than inferring something so they can take me to task for what I didn't say), that's not what I'm saying. What I am saying is that most people who live in cold weather set the thermostat low (65-68 degrees F./19-20 degrees C) and wear a sweater so the rooms they are sitting in aren't really hot. When your room is really cold, there's nothing more satisfying than practically sitting on top of the only heat source (space heater/kotatsu) and getting nice and toasty. Unfortunately, this is usually followed by getting up and walking into a much cooler area of the apartment or going outside into the frigid air. This is forcing your body to adjust pretty frequently to rapid changes and increases the chances you'll get sick.

Keeping the aforementioned and other points in mind, I've got some tips for keeping well at this time of year for those of us in Tokyo (though these can apply to other folks as well):
  • Use your space heater (or kotatsu) at a lower temperature setting if you tend to sit close to the source and try not to warm up too quickly. Wear several layers of clothing to keep your body heat in rather than rely so heavily on being externally warmed. Maintaining your body temperature with clothes will minimize the frequency and intensity of temperature fluctuations.
  • Avail yourself of the cheap and plentiful Japanese oranges (mikan) at this time of year and eat one or two every day and try to incorporate more vegetables into your diet, especially tomatoes and leafy green vegetables.
  • Sleep with a knitted cap and socks on. Most of the heat leaves your body through your head and feet. Wearing a cap in particular is something people don't tend to do, but it will seriously help you stay warm in bed, especially if you tend not to use your space heater at all through the night for safety reasons.
  • Invest in a good comforter or blanket. A down comforter is light and warm (though some people are allergic) and can serve your very well. A lot of the blankets in Japan are pretty thin or not well insulated.
  • Make it a priority to exercise regularly. You will find that you're less likely to get sick if you are stronger overall and that your circulation will be better if you are getting some aerobic exercise.
  • Drink as much water as you can to help cope with the dry winter air (and dry air from heating). This is something you have to make a priority, not just wait until you feel thirsty or dry. If you suffer from sore throats in the morning, it may also be a good idea to invest in a humidifier for your bedroom though be careful if you buy the kind which puts out hot steam. I still have a scar on my wrist from getting it too close to a hot humidifier positioned on my nightstand.
  • Get yourself a pair of fleece-lined slippers for winter which are warmer than the average Japanese house slippers.
  • Wash your hands every time you come inside after being outdoors and be mindful of touching your eyes, nose, or mouth while you are out so you don't transfer any germs you get on your hands to your mucous membranes. If you can't wash your hands easily, carry the sort of hand wipes which are treated with alcohol to clean your hands.
  • While drinking hot beverages would seem to logically make you feel warmer, it actually causes your body to try and adjust to the internal heat by making your body colder. It's better not to drink very hot beverages and try for something that is warm or room temperature.
  • If you can get your hands on them, wear high quality long underwear as part of your layers of clothing. Land's End has mail order that ships to Japan and is reasonably priced, has western sizes, and is good quality. They carry silk weave long underwear which should keep you from being too hot in heated rooms and warmer in cold weather.
Of course, there are some things which are nearly impossible to avoid in Tokyo in winter which make staying well hard. Mainly, there is the tendency of Japanese folks to cough with mouths wide open and spray everyone and everything with germs. There are face masks (much like those you see surgeons wearing) which are commonly sold in Japan that some people wear to protect themselves (or others) during this time of year, but they are uncomfortable and are almost impossible to use with glasses because they tend to make them fog up. I'm also not sure how useful they are compared to just breathing through your nose and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with hands that have touched surfaces in public spaces. Keep in mind that you are most vulnerable on trains and subways. They're like traveling in a germ capsule. Be most diligent about washing your hands after traveling on one of them.

Another problem is the fact that most offices are kept at inferno-level temperatures during the winter so there is the inevitable shock to the system when going from indoors to outside. The former president of my former company used to justify roasting us to death in summer by saying it was unhealthy to be too cold then go out into the summer heat, but didn't believe there was anything wrong with setting the heat such that it was 85 degrees F. (29 degrees C.) inside in the winter when it was 40 degrees F. (4 degrees C.) outside. If at all possible, do the best you can to spare your body these types of extreme transitions.

For many foreigners, not getting sick is more important than it is for a Japanese person. Part of the reason for this is that some of us work under conditions where we are not paid for sick leave (this is the case for both my husband and I). Also, the truth is that a lot of the time a foreign person is "blamed" for being sick or disbelieved. Every time my boss or I became ill (which wasn't all that often), the president would say that it was our responsibility to take care of ourselves and that we were failing in our jobs if we allowed ourselves to take ill. While the Japanese staff took days off for sniffles and low fevers, we soldiered on with raging colds and the flu (which is when we inevitably were lectured about how getting sick was our own fault). Of course, this was the same president who used to take a half day off whenever he got a headache. :-p

While I'm not offering myself up as an authority on maintaining health, I can say that I haven't caught a cold in about a year and a half, and, at the very least, I doubt my advice will make you less healthy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Room Without a View

One of the few trees outside our apartment on one of the few days that it snows.

It's snowing today in Tokyo. I know what you're thinking... 'snow, big deal.' Actually, I agree. Having grown up in the northeast, where it wasn't uncommon for us to experience copious amounts of snow, the few centimeters Tokyo sees every few years doesn't fill me with delight.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that, after living here for nearly 18 years, some of the shine of seeing snow falling has been revived. In fact, I might even be compelled to go out and walk around for a few minutes in it, take a few pictures, and attempt to wax poetic about the clean, quiet beauty of snow. Actually, that last part is a lie. I don't think I ever do anything poetic.

As some of my more astute readers may have noticed, my posting has become more erratic over the last several days after having been fairly steady for well over a month. This isn't because I have nothing to say but rather because I have no time or energy to say anything. This week, I'm working the equivalent of a full-time schedule (about 36 hours) between telephone testing and teaching privately. This requires me to remain tethered to the phone and remain in the apartment from about 10:00-8:00 for the better part of the work week to either answer the incessantly ringing phone or speak with the students who show up at the door. I spend the time between calls dashing around trying to clean and tidy up the apartment in preparation for the private lessons. It's pretty hectic.

There's no going "over the wall".

Working from home is largely a blessing because I save about an hour and a half a day in commuting time compared to when I worked in an office (though I make a fraction of my former income), but, on days like today, where something atypical is happening and I'm shackled to my living room, it can feel a bit confining. It doesn't help that the view from my living room is relatively bleak and uninteresting. In fact, the wall that separates our apartment building from the house next door gives one a bit of a felling of being incarcerated. I'm sure though that it's a pretty typical view for anyone living in Tokyo on the first or second floor of buildings.

Getting back to the snow though, if you ask Japanese folks who were born and raised in Tokyo if it snows in winter, they always say that it does. Technically, this is correct, but only in that every few years, there appear to be a few days in which a bit of snow falls.

Memories of how often and how much falls appear to be embellished at times. One of my students is 20 years old. That means that I have lived here for all but the first 2 or 3 years of her life and she has lived in an area not too far from me. She told me that it used to snow in Tokyo more when she was a child and she remembers being able to make snowmen. I was here "when (she) was a child" and I can't recall more than one year in which the conditions she mentions occurred and I'm pretty sure that she couldn't have been more than 5 years old at that time. I figure one of us has an altered memory of the way things have been, though I can't say with any certainty that it isn't me. ;-)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Holding Hands

Quite some time ago, my husband did a language exchange with a Japanese woman in her mid 20s. This is a "classic" arrangement that most Japanese people dream of where both parties speak English for a designated time and then they both speak Japanese for an equal amount of time. I say it's a "dream" because it's a rare situation where a Japanese person can practice English without paying for it.

The arrangement was never really all that satisfactory for my husband because the Japanese woman did little to correct his speaking whereas she had all the benefits of an experienced English teacher. She also tended to ramble on at a level of Japanese which was too difficult for him to benefit from because the vocabulary was too high level and she spoke too quickly. Essentially, she just chatted away without making any adjustments or efforts that might help him gradually build his level.

Before he this arrangement ended, she told us a story that gave us pause. She had been corresponding with a foreign man who was in his early 50's and married. When I say "corresponding", I mean real letters, not e-mail. This exchange happened before the internet. I can't recall exactly how she got to know him, but I believe it was not through an initial face-to-face contact, but rather through some sort of pen pal organization. I do remember though that he received her letters at an address other than the one he and his wife resided at. It was also unclear whether or not the wife was aware of her husband's correspondence with a much younger Japanese woman.

During the course of the English portion of the exchange, the woman told us that he was visiting her in person in Japan and that, when they walked around Tokyo, they held hands. We asked her if he did anything more intimate than that like kissed her or hugged her and I believe she said he did hug her hello, but not much more than that. Both my husband and I told her that we felt the circumstances of their arrangement and the fact that most adult Western folks don't hold hands unless they are romantically involved or trying to keep a hold of a child suggested that he was after more than just a friendship.

The woman rejected the scenario we suggested was being played out and said he was simply a nice man and the hand-holding meant nothing. To this day, I'm not sure what became of her relationship with him or, for that much, what became of her. She moved to Yokohama after awhile and referred us to a different language exchange partner (who was actually more unsatisfactory and eventually my husband terminated the exchange with her). We never talked to her again.

In Japan, one thing you can't help but notice is that adults hold hands noticeably more often than they do in the U.S. Adult women in particular will hold each others hands on occasion in casual (non-romantic) situations that you wouldn't see adult women doing so back home. I can't say though that adult hand-holding between males and females is common. Usually, you only see it between those who appear romantically-interested in one another or have what looks to be a parent-child relationship. Given this, I do wonder why my husband's former language exchange partner was so sure the older fellow's intentions were free of romantic interest.

I've never discussed this topic with students or any other Japanese person, but I do wonder if Japanese women in particular are more comfortable with certain forms of physical contact between women. Somehow, I think two women holding hands back home would make people instantly think they were lesbians whereas it doesn't hold that connotation in Japan.

Another reason I believe they may be more comfortable with women touching other women is that, on more than one occasion, I've witnessed or been told about one woman playfully grab another woman's breast. In fact, there was once a Japanese T.V. commercial where a woman lost weight and her friend was shown visiting her for the first time since she'd slimmed down. The formerly chubby woman had retained her larger than average breasts and lost all her weight in her stomach, hips and thighs. The first thing the friend did was remark on how shapely she was and poke her finger right into the other woman's breast. Foreign women (including some of my former coworkers) teaching in Japan also have had their breasts grabbed by women they were teaching, though, fortunately, I have not been one of them.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Not So Much Cake, But Very Much Cheese

Image lifted from the seller's site here.

In a former post, I wrote about the quest for cheesecake in Tokyo and how there are many varieties. At that time, I lamented that most cheesecake wasn't very tangy or strongly cream cheese-flavored. One of my husband's students graciously gave him a cheesecake which showed that you can indeed get cheesecake which is very satisfyingly tangy if you seek out the right kind at the right place though it is different in other ways.

For one thing, the presentation of the cheesecake is quite elegant and sophisticated (as you can see from the picture at the top, not my picture where it's been opened). The "cake" is wrapped in paper to absorb some of the moisture (and it gets moister the second and third day) then wrapped in plastic and put in a little basket. For reference, it's about 5 inches (12.7 cm) in diameter.

When you open it up, there is not so much a cake as a dollop of whipped cheesecake filling. I've heard that this is French-style cheesecake though I'm guessing this particular presentation is very Japanese. It just has a real feel of a Japanese aesthetic to it. It's more of a cream cheese and whipped cream mousse than an actual cheesecake so it lacks the dense, decadent texture Americans are accustomed to but it has all of the delicious bite and flavor you expect. Though it's incredibly light, it's not necessarily low calorie. The web site says that it has 865 calories. The caloric density probably comes from the copious use of full fat cream, though it's not too bad when you consider it should be divided up into 4 or 5 servings.

One thing I really liked about this besides the yummy cream cheese flavor was that the packaging was so unique and attractive that I'm unlikely to forget this gift or the experience of eating it for quite some time. I'm well aware that the Japanese emphasis on wrapping and elaborate packaging is a bad thing for the environment, but I don't know how much was really wasted above and beyond what was absolutely necessary in this case. Given the free-form, super soft "cake", it had to be put in a very supportive container and better that it be a reusable basket made of bamboo than a plastic shell that gets chucked into the bin.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mistakes We Make

One of my students attends a U.S. college on a military base. The people she meets in her classes are mostly from poor areas of the southern part of the United States or urban centers. The class is made up of (by an overwhelming majority) African American men as is the teacher who conducts most of her core courses. Though it may seem irrelevant, this fact is actually an important one in mulling over the point I'm about to make.

No one would deny that the experiences of black folks in America differs from that of white folks, Hispanics, or Asians and it would seem that a lot of the fellows who end up in her class come from areas with a lot of crime and poverty. Their world is one where plenty of people grow up surrounded by violence, gang activity, and prejudice which shuts them out of opportunities to improve their lot in life. They paint this picture of a "usual life in America" for her on a regular basis. To her, America is a place riddled by violence where everyone has a gun, many people have done time in jail, and minorities are routinely and overtly mistreated.

The mistake my student makes is that she believes that the experiences and perceptions of a handful of people who she shares classes with on a regular basis are accurate representations of life in the U.S. While I would not argue at all that the world her classmates describe is a real part of life in America, it's certainly not the entire experience or even necessarily a representative, generalized picture. Somewhere between bucolic, crime-free rural life where there is little or no racial strife and urban lives of squalor and violence is a more average picture of life. I'm not saying I can even paint that picture, but rather that it's a mistake to believe everything an individual or small group of individuals tell you about their culture is an accurate picture of that culture.

One of the main reasons you can't believe everything you're told about cultures which you don't grow up in is that people color their observations with their emotional reactions. Their bitterness or anger can skew their views just as an affluent person who grew up with a silver spoon can be skewed into thinking life is a pie-in-the-sky lark where life is a choice of amusements on a playground. Another reason you can't believe what you're told about other cultures is that people simply do not know everything about their own culture and are generally inclined not to admit it, particularly if they think they know the answer and figure you won't know if they fudge it.

The latter was a fact I was reminded of when I re-read "Dave Barry Does Japan." While the book is a humor book, and does not represent itself in any way as an authoritative guide to Japan, it is a good example of a foreign person coming to Japan and accepting answers given by individual Japanese people at face value. When Dave doesn't understand, it's a joke, but he earnestly quotes the Japanese about what things are really like and sometimes, the information he's given is misleading, incomplete, or incorrect for people living in urban (or rural areas). Additionally, some of the information you get from Japanese people has to be considered in light of the fact that they wish to present Japanese culture in the most positive light. Conversely, some of the information you get from Americans reflects the fact that, in an effort not to look like flag-waving zealots or to illustrate how bad their life there was, they often portray American in a more negative light.

A lot of foreign people make the same type of mistake that Dave Barry did. That is, they feel that whatever Japanese people tell them is factually accurate. After all, who knows Japan better than a Japanese person? The problem is that, just as the Americans who tell my student America is a modern Wild West full of prejudice, any particular person's perceptions are the reflection of selective experiences and subjective editing. It's not enough to believe one person or even 10 people who tell you something, particularly if those 10 people grew up in the same sort of circumstances and similar locales.

The main problem is that after they've asked a question and gotten an answer, most people tend to move on and ask different questions rather than proffering the same one again and again to test the overall validity of the information they've been given. This is understandable considering the wealth of new information to be gathered when faced with a wide, fresh world of culture to learn and understand, but it also leads to a lot of "authorities" on a culture which propagate skewed views.

The gaijin living in Japan tend to be one of the most combative and territorial groups when it comes to accepting any sort of perspective which doesn't mesh with the one they currently hold. Often, there is no "right" or "wrong" but a variety of situations, experiences and facts which vary based on geography, economic level, and social status, but the authoritative foreigner will challenge you to a verbal dual to the death to prove he knows better than you.While none of us can be totally versed in any culture (including our own), the important thing is to keep an open mind and egos in check when presented with opposing experiences and information.

The "truth" about a given culture is a bit like infinity. You can approach it, but you're incapable of actually reaching it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Run, Forrest(san), Run!

Yesterday evening while I was doing some late evening shopping at a local 99 yen shop, I saw a fellow do something which I've always felt was an "only in Japan" experience. First, it's important to set the scene. The shop is essentially a shoebox. It's probably no more than 15 feet wide (~4.5 m.) and 20 feet long (~6 m.) in terms of the longest stretch of space in each direction one can actually tread upon. Traveling from end to end of the store on the longest side at a normal stride would take less than 7 seconds.

As I was approaching the check-out, another customer walked up and stood in front of the unmanned cash register. An employee who was "at the back" of the store (that's about 4 seconds, to you and me) upon seeing the customer approach sprinted into action and attempted to "run" to the register to assist the customer. In mid-sprint, he knocked over a bunch of sundry goods piled on the end of the aisle. For those who haven't had the pleasure, many small Japanese stores have aisles capped and semi-blocked by half open boxes serving as ad hoc displays. They also serve as a challenging obstacle course for customers who grow rapidly bored spending time looking at products they might like to purchase. It gives the experience a festive "rat in a maze" feel and you can really feel like you've accomplished something if you manage to traverse the entire place without knocking something over. They also provide social interaction opportunities for employees and customers when items are invariably pushed over. Within seconds, helpful assistants usually rush over to pick them up and embarrassed customers apologize. It's all part of the colorful fabric of Japanese society which encourages all to be friendly and get to know one another through collisions with random objects.

The extraordinarily diligent employee in the 99 yen shop likely saved a total of half a second by running rather than walking, though he lost that gain because he had to pick up the items that toppled. Before anyone gets the idea that this is a stellar example of an attempt to provide the best service to the customer, let me say that I've gone to the same shop with different staff there and stood in the empty store and waited for a cashier for a minute before one decided to surface. This isn't about this superior service in this shop as 99 yen shops are hardly making the sort of cash that allows them to pay the sorts of salaries that allow them to train people in all the corporate niceties. There was, however, an older fellow in the shop at the same time who may have been a supervisor and it could be the young man was new and wanted to impress. I don't blame him. We all would likely do the same thing in his shoes.

When this fellow pointlessly and clumsily ran from one end of the shop to the other, it reminded me that the office ladies (often called "O.L.s") at my former office used to do the same thing. Well, it wasn't quite the same thing. The man in the 99 yen shop tried to actually run and the office ladies rarely knocked things over. He literally leaped from where he was to rush to the register. The office ladies did what can be called "the office girl trot". The trot seemed designed to provide the illusion of running by pumping legs and arms in an animated fashion while not actually increasing one's velocity more than what a quick stride would accomplish. Nonetheless, this sort of trotting and running across short distances in the office occurred daily, even when there was absolutely no reason to hurry.

I asked different office ladies on several occasions why they bothered to do this and they always said that it was to get there faster. When I pointed out that the office was sufficiently small that they were likely shaving no more than seconds off their time by trotting, they tended to shrug and smile. I'm not sure even they knew why they did it, though I had my guesses.

I figured the main reason was that they saw other people do it and they felt they should as well. It wasn't that they believed that it had much practical value. In fact, I'd wager that, if they sprinted from point to point every time they traversed the office in this fashion, they might save the company a whole half minute a day at the very most. In the end, I concluded that this running was more about the illusion of looking like one was extremely diligent or applying as much energy as possible to doing their work rather than actually saving time.

There may be people who sprint around the office back home, but I never worked in one where people did so. I think that a lot of folks in the U.S. would perceive such behavior as inappropriate, like running in the halls at school. The main problem with it is that running can be much nosier and more distracting as feet pound on the floor and footsteps while walking are more muted. I always knew when an office lady was "rushing" to give me a reschedule or some paperwork because it was clearly preceded by the pitter-patter of little feet trotting my way. At any rate, if anyone else has experience with this and has a better explanation for why employees run, I'd be very curious to hear it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Headed North

A sign from the Communist party expressing the notion that the consumption tax (sales tax) should not be increased.

Last year, I kept reading news about how prices would be going up in Japan "next year", and just 16 days into the new year, they are indeed showing serious signs of doing so. Today when I was at the local drug store buying the same cheapest possible brand of toilet paper that I've been purchasing for two years now, I saw a pretty sizable boost. The price was 198 yen ($1.85) per 12 rolls for the two years I had been purchasing it, but then rose to ¥228 ($2.14) in the last few months of 2007. Now, it is at ¥248 ($2.32). Given the long-term price stability of this particular product, I think it's a good example of the boosts we're going to see and I don't think this was a one-time increase. I think this is where it'll stay (unless it goes up further).

Of course, this isn't the only thing I've noticed which has gone up in price. Butter used to be occasionally on sale for 248 yen ($2.32) per 200 grams (that's about 2 sticks in the U.S. or one cup) and it has not dropped lower than ¥288 ($2.70) for the last 4 months or so and is more frequently over ¥300 ($2.80). Additionally, milk has gone up an average of 10 yen per liter.

If these weren't basic items (and in some cases necessities), price increases wouldn't be a big deal, but the prices of daily goods is clearly headed north while salaries aren't rising much (if at all) for most folks. They certainly aren't going up for my husband or I. I'm guessing that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of various food and sundry necessities going up in price, but that isn't all that we have to consider in regards to increases in the cost of living in the near future.

A wall with political posters (including the one pictured at the top).

There has been much talk as of late about raising the consumption tax in Japan from 5% to between 8-15% in order to collect more money for the Japanese pension system. Since the number of young, tax-paying folks is constantly (though slowly) falling and the percentage of people collecting pensions is ballooning, there aren't enough people paying into the system to keep it alive from taxes alone.

Back home in Pennsylvania, sales tax didn't apply to food so that less of a burden was placed on people when it came to buying what they absolutely needed (though it did apply to paper goods like toilet paper so, go figure). In Japan, consumption tax applies to all purchases so it looks like we're headed into 2008 not only paying more for goods we can't avoid buying and facing the prospect of paying a higher tax on those higher prices.

Personally, I think that this is going to reduce purchasing overall and cause the Japanese to re-think or avoid "luxury" goods like new cell phones, televisions, cars, etc. and have an overall negative impact on the economy. I'm guessing the government is hoping people will choose to freeze up less of their yen in savings accounts and maintain their current standard of living, but given that most Japanese people are fiscally conservative, I'd wager on them scaling back and maintaining their level of savings at the cost of their lifestyle.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Two young women chat in the station in their kimono on adulthood day.

Each culture has its ages where milestones are reached. In the U.S., the major milestones are generally considered to be at 16, 18, and 21. These ages are important because they are significant legal milestones. At 16, you can drive. At 18, you can be drafted, vote, marry without parental consent, and be legally tried as an adult. At 21, you can drink alcohol. These ages do vary from state to state and have probably changed a bit since when I hit these ages, but they are largely the same in most places in the U.S.

These ages are also milestones from the viewpoint of how others perceive you. In my family, my mother loved to repeatedly say that there was absolutely no "dating" until age 16, and it still continues to be the age at which more conservative parents feel it's appropriate for their kids to start actively engaging in more formalized relationships with a significant other, though this is less and less the case as the age of the onset of puberty goes parenting notions become more liberal. Eighteen is the age at which you are expected to start taking financial responsibility for yourself and at 21, you should be comporting yourself as an adult to a great extent.

Age-based milestones are probably more diverse across cultures than many other artificially-assigned aspects. That is, while things like food and dress are directly related to the environment that a group of people live in, age-based notions are much more related to subjective concepts of maturity (though certainly not in all respects as the onset of puberty factors into all perceptions of adulthood). In Japan, there are milestone ages but there are fewer of them at younger ages and more of them at older ages compared to the U.S. The age at which one is considered an adult in Japan is 20 and all people who turned 20 in the previous year celebrated their coming of age on January 14 this year.

A young woman and man, both attired for adulthood day activities, chat on the train.

If you read any Japan blogs or news sites, you will have seen pictures relating to this and little snippets about what it all means. This particular holiday holds a good deal of interest for foreigners because it's the one day of the year when you see a large number of young, well-made-up women walking around in their finest kimono. It's a day when the "old" view of Japan as having a plethora of refined, fresh beauties in traditional dress mingles most vividly with the newer, more mundane version which tends only to appeal to the fetishistic appetites of gaijin when schoolgirl uniforms or cosplaying women come into view.

Young women walk the streets of Ikebukuro in their kimono, freezing their buns off on a chilly winter day with only a fur stole to comfort them.

For some Japanese women, this day is a rather complex one with a relatively unglamorous, but warm-hearted goal in mind. One of my students turned 20 in the previous year and she filled me in on the "behind the scenes" situation for a young woman approaching this day. Several months before the actual holiday, her parents took her to a hotel where her hair and make up were professionally done and a series of photographs of her in her adulthood day kimono were taken by a professional photographer.

The whole experience was tiring and unpleasant for her as it took a long time to prepare her and wrap her up in her kimono. The make-up was also quite itchy and the woman who prepped was a bit terse and pushy. In the end, she wasn't very happy with the pictures and believed that she never quite managed to pose as the photographer asked. She felt her chin looked bulgy when her head was tilted down and the photographer kept asking her to hold it differently, but she never quite managed. I can't say that I agreed with her regarding the photographs. I thought she looked beautiful.

A group of young men huddle in the station before heading off to their adulthood day destination.

The strange thing about this holiday is that women go through a lot to dress in traditional clothes and do their hair and make-up just right, but men just put on a suit. I'm not sure why men aren't running off to a professional and getting an artificial topknot glued to heir heads and forced to wear traditional men's formal kimono, but there appears to be no such expectation for them. Men get a much more comfortable and inexpensive day when they turn 20.

For the young adults celebrating this day, the biggest draw, and for some the only draw, is that it allows them to have a reunion with all of their friends from elementary school to high school. It's the one time when there's a good chance that people they haven't seen for a decade will come together and they can all catch up on each others lives. The more grandiose aspects like being allowed to vote and being considered a "member of society" aren't looming in the front of their minds. However, I'm guessing that having a day of reunion probably runs neck and neck in importance with being allowed to being legally allowed to drink in the minds of a good many 20-year-olds.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Shin Koenji Charity Mochi Event

Men gamely pound rice into mochi inside a wooden barrel. Pounding rice into mochi takes an immense amount of strength, stamina and patience. At least it probably kept those fellows warm!

Mochi is most often associated with New Year's holidays though Japanese people eat it as part of other dishes (and as is) throughout the year. It's also famous for being easy to choke on because it's hard to chew when served in relatively big pieces. There is a sort of "mochi death watch" as we start each new year and the news reports on the number of old folks who met an untimely demise during their holiday celebration. Mochi can't be reliably dislodged with the Heimlich maneuver so it's recommended that one use a vacuum cleaner to suck it out of the afflicted person's windpipe in the unlikely event of a choking. For western folks, you might want to keep this in mind if you spoon peanut butter directly from a jar (as opposed to on a cracker or whatever) into your mouth as it is another substance that can't be forced out with a Heimlich attempt.

A tent set up in Koenji as part of the charity mochi gathering. It says something to the effect of "spring charity mochi meeting", even though it's January. We may be reading the characters wrong as there are multiple readings of the same characters.

Despite the danger involved in consuming mochi, it is a favorite food among the Japanese. It's not like the Japanese are strangers to eating food that can kill you with fugu being an infrequently consumed delicacy. They're willing to risk their lives while enjoying their cuisine so you've got to give them credit for that.

Kids watch from behind a pylon. The set-up didn't look incredibly sanitary despite the distance between the kids (and all kids are prone to uncovered open mouth coughing in my experience) and the barrel.

The gathering in Koenji was held on the a national holiday, adulthood day. I'm guessing they chose this day intentionally to increase the chances that families could come around and enjoy some freshly made mochi.

Some older ladies prepare topping for the mochi and serve it.

The mochi was served with sweetened red bean paste. Mochi doesn't have much of a taste and is eaten as much for texture as anything else. There are actually several popular dishes in Japan which are served for texture rather than taste in addition to mochi. Tofu, konyaku, and a kind of gelatin noodle (which I've forgotten the name of) are other dishes which fall into this category that get most of their flavor from sauces, condiments, or the foods they are served with.

Rice is cooked in restaurant-size pots to keep the mochi ingredients flowing.

Fresh mochi is supposed to be tastier than the sort you buy pre-made in stores though my husband didn't sample the food on offer at this charity event. One of my students told me that the mochi used as decorations during New Years (kagami mochi) and sold in plastic molds is specially prepared to keep it from spoiling. Another of my students told me that her family buys a display made of fresh mochi but within 3 days, the mochi disks start to crack and then mold forms in them. She told me her family has to cut out the moldy parts before eating it.

Friendly, happy gentlemen ladle out cups of hot sake to warm visitors on a day which was around 40 degrees F./4 degrees C.

The charity event appeared to be to raise money for victims of the Niigata earthquake in July 2007 and it was sponsored by the Koenji merchants who are situated along the area's major shopping street which is called "Pal". Donations were being put into a clear box next to a barrel that sake was served from. At the time this picture was taken, the amount of donations looked relatively anemic.

A boy collects cash for the mochi as well as gives out chopsticks for eating it.

However, looking only at one of the crystal donation box by the sake barrel was a bit misleading as people were paying kids for the mochi at a separate box. It's rather nice to see kids being involved in the event and impressive that such young people were trusted to handle the money.

Musicians take a break from their vigorous taiko drumming performance.

Though it was quite cold, the event was attended by a lot of people and included music from folks playing traditional Japanese instruments and taiko drumming. The area was quite noisy and had a festive atmosphere.

These sorts of smallish community festivals go on all over Japan at various times of year and seem a quaint way to bring folks together and bond over their shared culture. While I don't always take an interest in them or attend them (because I've been here so long), I think they're the sorts of things which are good to keep an eye out for when you're visiting as a tourist or are a relative newbie to Japan.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cultural Limits

One of my students works creating subtitles for whatever television shows and movies come her way. Sometimes she works with bad B-movies (or worse) which go straight to DVD and are of extremely dubious quality. At others, she works with American television shows or documentaries. In her most recent lesson, she was working on subtitles for an episode of a BBC series for the first time.

My job when working with her is to take the parts of the script which she can't understand due to the obscurity of the reference or the cultural connotations. In most cases, this isn't much of a problem for me. However, dealing with a British-made show brings more challenges to the experience as there ultimately are references to things I'm not familiar with like the names of specific establishments that have not been popularized in America (or Japan). As one example, I can say that before this lesson, I'd never heard of "The Baron of Beef."

I'm actually quite a great fan of British television and these days spend more hours watching British drama than American thanks in large part to the Mystery Channel (for which, not so coincidentally, my student was subtitling the show we discussed) and the fact that I'm not keen on much current American drama aside from House and Lost. I'm particularly keen on A Touch of Frost (which I recommend strongly to anyone who can find it in their T.V. listings) and Poirot, though both of these are rather old now. It does take awhile for things to make their way to Japan from any country.

Despite a fair amount of viewing experience with both drama and comedy made in England, I can't say that I'm very well-versed in some of the jokes and their references. At times, the only thing I can do is guess then turn to Google during the lesson to confirm my suspicion. I'd say I'm correct about 90% of the time. For instance, I'm still not sure why someone would say "hello, sailor" when encountering a drowned dead body in the water except that being in the water is connected with sailing. My only exposure to the phrase "hello, sailor" has been through Monty Python and the context for the joke was quite different.

I think my students figure that we all speak English so we all understand anything said in English, but there are clear cultural differences. Actually, I'm pretty sure my British friends wouldn't even agree that "we all speak English" in regards to Americans. If you watch enough of another country's popular media, you can start to see some of the threads which commonly run through their collective consciousness to which they can relate and to which you may not. One of the biggest examples of this that I've noticed is that Oscar Wilde's life or quotes make an appearance far more often in British shows than an American might expect. He was mentioned in the crime drama I just saw a bit of in my students's lesson and also in The Thin Blue Line which I saw last week (and, of course, is in a Monty Python sketch and mentioned in Black Adder). I'm not sure that I've ever heard him mentioned or quoted in an American show except obliquely as a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray. I imagine similar references to politicians and presidential peccadilloes which run through many U.S. shows in particular may be a little obtuse for some.

In Japanese job advertisements for teachers, some schools will request a "North American native English speaker" or a "British native English speaker" and this can get feathers ruffled amongst those who want to apply for the job and don't fit this seemingly arbitrary criteria. While I'll grant that some of these preferences are a bit frivolous, I can also see where sometimes a particular person or group of people may be better served by someone who grew up in one particular cultural environment or another. In the case of my student and for this one lesson, she may have been served a little better by a British teacher, but only this one time. ;-)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mystery Food

Note: Updated below the dotted line on, January 12, to add the answer.

Click on this picture to get a good close look at this bit of sustenance.

One of my students is married to a doctor and he often receives gifts from his patients. Sometimes, she passes these gifts on to me because her husband tends to receive far more than can be consumed by her family, and she's a nice person and wants to give me nice things despite suffering some financial hardships as of late.

Most recently, she gave me the bag you see pictured on the right in the photo above. I had no idea what it was and if I had to guess just by looking at it, I'm not sure I would have been able to discern the nature of its contents. The plate on the left is one of the items after being placed in the toaster oven for a few minutes which is something she recommended I do.

I thought I'd give my readers a shot at guessing at what this is by making comments with their guesses. I'll update this post with the answer some time within the next 24 hours. Happy guessing, friends.

(Please note that any comments posted through the night Tokyo time won't be moderated for about 8 hours so there will be a delay in posting them, but they will be posted in the order they are received!)


Those living in Japan who took a guess had a distinct advantage over those who live abroad since they may have encountered this item before. That being said, though I live in Japan (as does my husband), I hadn't seen this delicacy before. My husband guessed it was some sort of dried beef and remarked that "it looks even worse in person" (than in the picture). I thought it was flayed eel.

Yes, this can be turned into what you see at the top of the page.

The picture is of dried sweet potato. Despite how bad it looks, it actually pretty much tastes just like a sweet potato, though the texture is somewhat different.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Truth In "Advertising"

Boy howdy, is this shop named appropriately.

There are some types of shops which are omnipresent in Japan and that you encounter with such frequency that they soon fail to be of particular interest. Among the sorts which you see very often are tea and sushi shops as well as a plethora of convenience stores, coffee shops, and noodle counter places. One type of shop which is common yet still tends to hold one's interest are the increasingly ubiquitous 100 yen shops. They consistently hold the interest for those seeking cheap goods made in almost any Asian country besides Japan.

Click the picture to see a very large version to make the shop's contents easier to see.

One of the things you don't tend to see are shops selling kitschy American pop culture junk the likes of which would very likely not fit in the average Japanese person's home with ease and style. While biking around on New Year's Eve, my husband ran across the closed shop pictured above with a very curious collection of items including a Hostess snack cakes display, an American Krispy Kreme sign, and a large plastic soft serve cone.

This sort of junk is the very type of thing one tends to see at flea markets and perhaps even antique shops for bottom feeding collectors back home, but it's rather a rare sight in Japan. I find myself wondering how someone assembles this sort of inventory, considering much of it is promotional and didn't originate in Japan. I figure this person must go on some pretty interesting shopping excursions, comb eBay regularly, or have some good connections.

What I find more curious though, is the thinking of the folks who might want to possess such items. Sure, there's a certain campy appeal if you look at these items in a certain way, but it takes a special sort of person to want to put a Jolly Green Giant in their domicile. Of course, if anyone ever demands the still smiling head of Ronald McDonald on pain of death, you know exactly where to go for your needs without resorting to decapitation.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Fiction Is Harder Than Fact

This is a verbal hazard light to warn those that some unadulterated navel-gazing is ahead and reader discretion is advised.

I've always fancied myself a good writer. Now, before anyone feels obliged to step up and testify on my behalf or scoff at the absurdity of my statement, keep in mind that I'm not asking for a virtual pat on the back (or spit in the face), but simply prefacing what I'm about to say with an assertion about my mindset. That means I'd be most grateful if both those inclined to offer applause and jeers could hold themselves in check. I'm pretty sure this won't place any undue strain on anyone.

At any rate, despite my confidence in my ability to write about life, my opinions, or develop a theory, I've never had any confidence whatsoever in my ability to craft fiction. Perhaps this stems from the fact that I'm one of the worst liars in the world and am too self-conscious to spin a good tale. Perhaps it's just something I'm really crap at because, after all, no one is good at every aspect of something. There are people who are great bakers but can't cook, so perhaps I'm good at non-fiction and poor at fiction. The only thing I'm sure of is that it's not related to a lack of imagination or a dearth of creativity.

To be honest, it's always been my opinion that a lot of fiction authors aren't actually all that good at fiction either. In fact, I think a good many fiction authors write as if they were living out their personal fantasies and acting on deep-seated psychological needs in a relatively predictable and pedestrian fashion. On the occasions when my husband and I have read the same novel, I can almost always tell him how it will end or what lays ahead long before the conclusion.

You've reached the next sequence of hazard lights warning you that (potentially pretentious and irritating) references to novels you may never have read or heard of are about to come. You can detour to the paragraph after next if you'd like to continue on and avoid this particular bumpy portion of the road.

For instance, in the Dark Tower series, I knew what was going to happen to Roland when he entered the top level of the tower and I knew what was going on with Ender in Ender's Game pretty much from the start of his recruitment. The main difference is that Stephen King took me down a long and unpredictable path before I guessed the end and Orson Scott Card seems to be playing out the same battle with his repressed/suppressed homosexual impulses in every series he writes. Card is the ultimate example of someone playing out his stale needs and wishes again and again in his fiction. It's a rare author who can surprise me, and an even rarer one who can hold my interest through multiple novels. I think part of the reason Kurt Vonnegut has always held appeal for me was that he was so screwed up that it'd probably take another schizophrenic to divine his story's conclusions.

Because I believe writing good fiction is so challenging, I have great respect for anyone who can do it well and am pessimistic when folks talk about how they believe everyone (mainly themselves) has a "good novel in (them)." I think most people have pretty crappy novels in them. The only difference between myself and those types is I've never had a desire to weave a tapestry of my needs in the cloak of a fictional story and proudly offer it to others for their entertainment. I think we should be focusing on using our fantasies mainly to entertain ourselves internally and that really great fiction comes from having a great story or idea at its core, not the author's need or wish fulfillment.

At any rate, that's not to say I hate all fiction or fiction writers but just that I think it's a far greater challenge than nearly any other sort of writing. This is a fact that has been brought home to me as of late because I started a site for fun devoted to some fanciful "in" jokes that my gaming friends and I have had for years. While I tend to find writing for this very site that you're reading now (provided you weren't diverted by the hazard lights) very easy and posts pretty much roll easily from brain to fingertips, writing for this new site has been a serious challenge as the content is fictional. Fortunately, it's fiction which serves a select audience of 4 (me, my husband, my sister, and my friend Shawn) and is always written around a central concept so there's a focal point to work from. However, even so, a short post there can take several days to develop. It's a good challenge, mind you, and an immensely gratifying one when I think a post "works".

So, perhaps I'm too hard on fiction writers and the efforts I make on the other site will teach me some respect and empathy for what they face. Somehow, I doubt it.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

U.S. Passport Renewal (By Mail)

The XPack 500 next to a B5 envelope with my old passport and a very expensive money order.

Last year, my husband went through a panic when his passport had expired just before he planned to go home for a visit so this year, I was keeping an eye on my passport and sent it off to the U.S. Embassy by mail about one month before it was due to expire.

As my husband and I researched the method for applying for a renewal, we found that some things had changed since last year. For one thing, it used to be okay to apply for your passport by post in Japan using U.S. cash. Now, you have to send an international money order in U.S. currency. This is very annoying both because you often have to wait in a long line to access the part of the post office where such things are done (it took a half hour) and because it costs 2000 yen (~$18) as a fee for such money orders. The fee for the new passport itself is $67 so you're out of pocket $85 just for the money order. Also, when purchasing the money order, the postal worker seemed a little paranoid about who was buying it and why. He required that my husband show his foreign resident's identification card and meticulously checked it to make sure the purchaser's name and address were exactly as on the card. We've bought these types of things before and the level of scrutiny has gone up a bit.

Another part of this that has changed is that passports can only be printed in the U.S. so it takes longer to have them processed. That means I send it to the embassy then they send it somewhere back home then it gets shuttled back to the embassy then back to me. I'm guessing this is related to changes in security measures in the U.S. and part of an effort to make getting fake passports harder, but it seems an incredible waste and more likely to introduce the potential for things to get fouled up as more fingers will be in the pie during the process.

Additionally, in Japan, they want you to send a self-addressed XPack 500 envelope along with the application, money order, passport, and two pictures. These envelopes cost 500 yen ($4.60) and are over-sized so you can't send one unless you use a very large envelope or a second XPack 500 with the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) folded in half inside of the other.

The Xpacks are actually a pretty good choice for this sort of thing since they provide bar codes and tracking numbers which you can hang on to in case things go wrong. That means I can trace the parcels if they are lost though I have no control over the middle journey from Japan to the U.S. and back again. I only can track from my address to the embassy and the embassy back to me.

All totaled, the expense of a passport renewal is a little on the high side. Getting the right size photos taken at a booth costs 700 yen ($6.40) and you have to be very careful about getting the right size pictures as most standard passport pictures in Japan are too small. Even if you have a big enough picture, it has to be carefully trimmed down to 2" x 2" as the larger ones are too tall. The photos added to the cost of the money order, application fee, and two Expacks totals about $95 (about 10,000 yen) just for a little booklet with my picture in it and some personal data. I guess someone has to feed the bureaucracy. I just wish it weren't me.