Thursday, February 28, 2008

Time to File 2008

It's time for U.S. residents residing in Japan to file their income tax forms. If you've filed before, you should have already been mailed a packet with forms. If you haven't gotten those forms, you can find them on-line or contact the U.S. Embassy. Remember, even if you don't have to pay, you have to file. If you don't, it can complicate your tax situation when you return to the United States.

I strongly recommend you keep a copy of each year's completed forms around so you can use them to guide you next year. The forms rarely change or change very little and you can pretty much follow what you did last year to speed up the process of filing greatly.

A few key points to keep in mind this year:
  • You must use the average exchange rate when converting your yen earnings to dollars rather than a current daily rate. The average as of January 2008 was 107.82 yen to the dollar according to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
  • The amount of money you can earn and still be exempt from paying U.S. taxes was raised to $85,700 (as compared to $82,400 last year).
  • It's a good idea to send the I.R.S. copies of your Japanese tax statements rather than the original forms with a Japanese stamp. The I.R.S. does not require the originals and you may need them for filing your income taxes in Japan and for immigration. Japanese authorities often will not accept photocopies of these forms.
  • Don't forget to include any taxable interest on savings accounts you may have back in the United States. If you aren't sent the forms, see if you can access them via on-line banking or have someone at home send them to you.
  • You must file separate 2555-EZ Foreign Earned Income Exclusion forms for each member of your household who worked in 2007 who earned less than $85,700.
  • Though the U.S. deadline for filing this year is April 17, the deadline for those residing abroad is automatically extended to June 15, so you have a bit longer to file.
I posted more exhaustively on this last year if you'd like more information. And again, I issue the disclaimer that I'm not a tax expert and only offering a layman's viewpoint. You should check the facts with the I.R.S.

The Dating Game

You can get your own octopus dumpling cell phone strap from Strap-ya (image pinched from their web site here).

Despite the fact that only 2 of my current crop of 11 students are married, very few of them date. Some of them are a bit mature for dating, but several are certainly young enough and sufficiently attractive to consider playing the field. All of the single women say they want to marry and have children some day except one, so it's not like they're disinterested in finding a future mate.

Dating in Japan is rather difficult if people can't find someone they like in their offices since men typically work long hours and socializing outside your immediate circle is difficult. It's one of the reasons various forms of "arranged" meetings still go on. One of the most common is called a "go kon" where 5 men and 5 women meet and socialize in what can be considered a "group date" of sorts. Usually, there is at least one member of each group who know a member of the group of the opposite sex and they arrange to bring everyone together. Some of my students have gone on these meetings at bars or restaurants, but none have been successful in finding someone they liked. My husband has had a few students who have met their mates via these 10-person "dates", so they can be helpful in expanding your horizons when it comes to finding a mate.

Given how rarely my students date, I don't tend to hear much about that side of Japanese life, but one of my students told me today about an experience she had on a one-to-one date. The situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that she wasn't aware that this was actually going to be a true "date" until she started interacting with the fellow. She thought this was an old high school friend (who now happened to attend the same university as her) meeting up for a chat. I would say this is the sort of wackiness that ensues in a culture where ambiguity is a common part of communication, but I'm not so sure this doesn't happen in other cultures as well.

The date in her estimation, was a serious close encounter with a dork. She told me that he was "not a gentleman". I didn't tell her that the implications of this in Western culture could range from his not holding the door open for her as they entered the restaurant to his attempting to surreptitiously probe the contents of her bra, but rather I asked her what that meant in Japan. She told me that it was traditional on dates for men to pay for the meal (or at least offer to do so), but he said they should go Dutch. Not only did he say each should pay his and her own way, but also he out-drank her by a fair margin and made her foot 50% of the bill. Those who live in Japan know that booze is where the lion's share of the cash is spent in a meal and you can seriously influence a tab's total with copious imbibing.

Beyond his profligate drinking partially on her dime and ungallant assertion that they split the bill for a meal he invited her to partake of with him, she said he assumed a presumptive posture by using a very informal form of Japanese for "you" (omae) when speaking with her which she believed should not be used given their level of intimacy at that time. She told me she felt using it indicated he already considered her his "girl".

He did make one gesture which could have been romantic, but, at least in her estimation, he botched it as well. A little gift was proffered as part of the date, a cell phone strap. When I asked her if she liked it, she screwed up her face like she'd just smelled something bad and said, "no!" The strap apparently had a plastic bit of takoyaki (octopus "dumpling") as the ornament on it. She told me that this gift demonstrated to her that he had no idea what women liked and that she passed the distasteful object on to her mother.

Despite the not uncommon unclear communication between Japanese folks, this fellow overtly "confessed" to her that he desired her as a romantic partner and asked that she not go to America to attend university for a year as planned. Considering he had all of one date under his belt, this was more than a little presumptuous. My student didn't respond to his declaration of "like" for her, but later decided to e-mail him and say just one thing, "I'm sorry." She told me this was all it took to let him know that she was rejecting him and, despite the ambiguity of the message in English, he'd get the message loud and clear in Japanese.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

So, I'm the Noisy Neighbor?

On a daily basis, I hear my upstairs neighbors going about the business of their daily life. I hear them dropping things, slamming doors, and seemingly tapping on the floor for no particular reason. On a few occasions, I've heard what sounds like someone tripping and falling like a dead weight onto the floor. Strangely though, I never hear any tenant's television, radio or telephone, so clearly only percussive sounds carry through the floor.

Part of living in a less than perfectly sound-proofed apartment is that these things are going to happen. I don't get mad at my neighbors or try to get them to quiet down. I also don't run off and complain to the landlord about it, though I have had to complain about former neighbors who threw dirty water onto their balcony and let it drip down onto my clean laundry that was hanging out to dry. Please note that I live in a 6-unit building (3 on top, 3 on the bottom) and I've only ever had Japanese neighbors. I know they're Japanese because it's the custom for new tenants to introduce themselves to nearby tenants in the same building upon moving in.

At any rate, I put up with daily thumping and banging and I don't moan or whine about it. About a month ago, between 9:00-9:30 pm, I was preparing dinner. On this particular occasion, I was making a chicken dish which required me to pound chicken breasts flat with a mallet. It probably takes about a minute to get each one to the desired thinness. Shortly after I started beating on the third breast, my neighbors started aggressively beating on the floor to let me know how bothersome I was being to them with my noise-making.

The implement of my evil noise-making, a rubber mallet, was actually a gag gift from a former co-worker who told me I could use it to beat some of my coworkers when I was frustrated. Little did he know I had more legal (thought certainly not more pragmatic) applications for his gift.

Not having much of a choice, I continued with dinner preparations and was treated to another round of listening to my annoyed neighbors beating on the floor. While I understand that it was probably no fun for them to endure 4 (separate) minutes of me pounding on something, keep in mind they weren't sitting in my living room (and it wasn't late at night). They are above me so there's a floor and some distance between us. Also, this was the pot calling the kettle black. I don't know what is up with their tapping, but it happens at least once a week for prolonged periods of time. It's like they're hanging hundreds of tiny picture frames on their walls one at a time.

This incident reminded me of something I've mentioned to my husband on more than one occasion while listening to my neighbors do routine things which cause us to hear lots of banging and thumping. I'm glad we're on the first floor. If my using that mallet bunched their tighty-whities, I can only imagine what walking around, dropping stuff accidentally and closing sliding doors would do to them.


The chicken dish that I made is probably one of which many folks have a version, but I'm going to give my recipe for it nonetheless. It's very good fresh because the bacon gets a bit crispy, but is also good as leftovers. Note that my husband and I make it with American bacon which is saltier and smokier than Japanese bacon. My husband picks up about a four or so 1-lb. packages of Farmer John brand American bacon when he goes to Costco and they last us about 3-4 months. It can probably be made with Japanese bacon, but the taste will be a bit different.

This dish is one of the few things I can make with chicken breast meat which my husband likes. Not only can you never go wrong with anything which is wrapped in bacon, but beating on it to flatten it out makes the chicken nice and tender. I will not be held responsible though if your neighbors complain when you make it. ;-)

Bacon-wrapped Chicken Breasts:
  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • 1/2 pound/227 grams bacon (about 8 pieces) cut in half
  • ~4 oz./113 grams mild cheese (I used Gouda or Mozzarella) cut into small chunks (about 1/2 inch or 1.27 cm)
  • 8 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper

The breast on the upper right was the first one. Notice how nice and smooth it looks. They are placed in counter-clockwise order and you can see that my work got shoddier as I progressed. The last one is a mangled lump.

Grease a baking dish and set aside. Sandwich a chicken breast between two pieces of plastic wrap and pound with a mallet until about 1/4 inch/.6 cm thick. Try not to beat it until it tears. Leave it a little thicker rather than thinner if necessary. Mix the flour and spices together in a large, shallow bowl. Rinse one chicken piece at a time and thoroughly shake off the excess water. Dredge a damp breast on both sides in the flour shaking off the excess. Place a piece of cheese in the center and fold the short side in first then the long side. Try to enclose the cheese entirely in the breast. This should form a ball that is closed on the bottom. If it doesn't hold together, secure the ends with toothpicks though be very careful to remove them before eating. Place each completed breast in the baking dish.

Place the half strips of bacon over the tops of the chicken to cover. Covering it will keep the breasts moist through the baking process. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour (or more). Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F./175 degrees C. Bake the chicken (uncovered) for 50-60 minutes or until juices run clear and chicken is cooked through. This makes 6-8 servings depending on your appetite.

For my husband and I, half of one of these along with about 4 oz. (125 gr.) of rice and a vegetable makes a very nice meal, so it's not quite as evil as it may seem from a fat point of view. Half of one is about 2.5 oz. (70 g.) of chicken, 1 slice of bacon and .5 oz. (14 g.) of cheese. Most of the fat will cook out of the bacon and pool at the bottom of the baking dish so I recommend removing the breasts immediately rather than waiting until they get cold.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cross-Cultural Attention Needs

My previous post was a caveat for the answer I'm about to give to this question that I was asked in the comments section of a former post:

"NINPO said...

Hello Shari,

I enjoyed reading your blog. I am a Japanese male living in Japan who had some experiences overseas. I'd like to state that its the social dating expectation that guys react to. When I was in Canada I would usually say the jokes that girls wanted to hear and be gentle and all that. Its because the dating scene expects that from guys.

When Im in Japan, I do not have to worry about pampering girls etc (although, Japanese girls love being pampered) and can relax more. I am not sure if that's because I am Japanese. I find that if I am with a western girl I always would have to give her attention and satisfy her and it kinda tires me. I have an Italian friend who married a Japanese and he says that Italian girls always asks for attention and its too much.

Why are guys in the west expected as a norm to pamper their woman and give her attention all the time? or am I being too general? What do you think. Would love to hear your opinion."

I loved this question because it got me thinking all evening and I want to thank Ninpo both for taking the time to read my blog and writing this comment. It offered a perspective on women I would never have considered and brought up an issue I'd never read about before.

I believe that the differences in the attention women in America (I can't speak for other Western countries) and Japan are the effects of several different broad factors.

1. The type of woman you are pursuing.

There are high maintenance and low maintenance people. One of my husband's former girlfriends in the U.S. didn't require that much attention or interaction. In fact, she sometimes felt overwhelmed by his demands on her attention. They were simply rather mismatched on their attention needs. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with either of them, but just that they were different.

I also believe that the age and attractiveness of the woman being pursued is an issue. Younger women require more attention than older ones. Women who consider themselves very attractive in their culture will feel as though they are due more attention because, frankly, they often get more of it as men compete for their favor. From a cultural viewpoint, I wonder if Japanese aesthetics may play a part in this. That is, I think Japanese people aren't quite as shallow when it comes to imperfections as Western folks and the bar isn't set so high on being considered "acceptably attractive" (good enough to marry or date) in Japan compared to the West where the consumerist culture is constantly encouraging everyone to scrutinize their appearance and find every last little detail lacking so they'll buy products to improve themselves.

I base my assertion about Japan on the fact that not everyone has to have perfect teeth (and I've been told that some people think crooked teeth are "cute") and the general aversion to plastic surgery in Japan. It has always seemed to me that the Japanese were more realistic about what people should look like and that Western standards are getting more and more out of hand to fuel various cosmetics industries.

Attractive women in the West may feel they deserve and can command more attention based on how many standard deviations they are above other women whereas women in Japan may not see themselves as so significantly different from other women on an attractiveness scale. That's not to say there aren't women who are clearly more attractive than others but just that the most beautiful Japanese women may see themselves as two cuts above average whereas the most beautiful Western woman may see herself as 5 ranks higher than average.

2. The communication styles of the country.

Ambiguity is something which is not only a part of Japanese communication, but actually sometimes admirable and desirable. One of the greatest frustrations for Western folks is the tendency among Japanese people not to say what they mean, but rather to be vague and figure we will reach the proper conclusion based on commonly known interpretations for particular types of vague language.

Generally speaking, I believe you can say also that this comfort with ambiguity breeds a tolerance for incomplete understanding and communication. Japanese people may be more comfortable not knowing exactly where they stand in a relationship because they are used to dealing with such "fuzzy" boundaries.

In regards to attention and American women, receiving attention is a constant stream of communication that you are cared about and important. Since Western folks like clear communication and firmly understood boundaries (without them, some people get anxious about the status of a relationship), constant attention, especially early on in a relationship or during the courtship phase, keeps it clear that you maintain a strong interest in the other person. If the attention starts to wane, the communication will be that you are losing interest. I will note that this is a situation that changes with greater security and experience in a relationship though it never goes away.

3. The status and power of women relative to men in the country on the whole.

While the lot of women in Japan has improved a lot, they still are not equal or even seen as as valuable to society as men. If your culture informs you that you have less value, you will sublimate your needs to the needs of the person who is seen as more valuable. You can see women constantly yielding to men on many levels in life in Japan and men asserting their right to come first. From serving tea and coffee to being relegated to support work in companies to women being expected to move aside while walking on a crowded street so the man can walk on through uninterrupted, women's needs often come second to men's. In that sort of culture, women don't even think about asserting their needs. In fact, I think that their primary mindset is not about themselves but about serving others. That is absolutely not a statement that women are subservient. However, I do believe that women are indoctrinated in all cultures (though more so in Japan) to think first of others and last of themselves.

Additionally, people without power, and the unequal situation for men and women in Japan means women have far less power than men, do not go around making demands. Women are still seriously economically disadvantaged if they do not marry and that means men have the power in relationships. The men give the support. The women need it. If you're in the position, you're hardly in a place where you can demand attention as you know your options are limited.

I think American women feel that they have the power to demand what they want because they can make their way economically on their own without serious disadvantage. If they don't get what they want, they'd just as soon be alone or move on to someone who will give them what they want. The more equitable situation (though still not equal) gives them the power to act on their needs and wishes.

4. The expectations and ideas of a relationships and marriage that are common in the culture.

Marriage in Japan is really quite different from that in the U.S. First and foremost, and I know people are going to take issue with me for this, but I can't go against a tide of discussions about this topic with Japanese people, Japanese people view marriage more pragmatically than Americans. They see it as a life partnership for creating a successful family. It is more akin to a "business" linking when you compare it to Western ideals.

That is not to say that there is no love or passion in Japanese marriages. I'm only saying that the primary consideration is the success of the partnership. Every time I discuss this topic with a Japanese person, the idea of a "love" relationship to them is "ideal" but is second to forming a partnership with someone who is capable of fulfilling their necessary role for a successful future family. That is, men have to be capable of being good breadwinners and women have to be capable of supporting the men as needed (by doing whatever suits their mutually-agreed upon goal). For Japanese people, by and large, the future is the focus, not the passion of the moment.

For American folks, the passion of the moment is the focus and the future will fall into place later. They feel that "love will find a way" and often discard notions of obstacles and pursue their feelings in even the most imprudent situations (such as falling in love with married people or people with fatal character flaws and problems). With this focus on passion comes the need for attention. If you aren't paying attention, you aren't passionate and the other person doesn't feel special or that you're really loving them.

Tangentially related to this, I believe that the nature of men's and women's roles in the culture also play a part. American society has very flexible roles. People tend to relate in individualistic and idiosyncratic ways whereas the roles in Japan are more traditional and easy to fit into. A good husband in Japan knows what he must do to be a success in that role as does a good wife in her role. The benefit of this situation is that each party can fulfill the others expectations by fulfilling society's commonly-held expectations. There's no need for husbands or boyfriends to deliver flowers and chocolates or go out for romantic dinners on a regular basis to be a "good husband" as both parties accept that his role is to work hard so his family can live well and be a kind person. In the U.S., each couple defines their relationship as they see fit and that often requires a lot more communication. The American situation is fraught with insecurity because of this lack of solid boundaries for what is "good" or "bad" in a relationship. That insecurity leads to the need for a lot more attention.

In Japan, the other main point I think is that the women's future focus is on their children rather than their husbands. Women here tend to get their emotional satisfaction as mothers more so than as wives. In the U.S., the relationship between the husband and wife is the one that primarily fulfills needs, not the one between parent and child. This is because the family in Japan is seen as an eternal unit with interconnecting responsibilities that will last throughout lifetimes, but in the U.S., kids are expected to become independent after 18 or college. American parents can't rely on an emotional bond with their kids that will sustain them, but they (hope to) rely on their spouses. Generally speaking, husbands and wives or life partners rely on each other more for their happiness in the U.S. and that means they need a lot more interaction and attention.

One final note I'd like to add is that, I don't think it's only women in the U.S. who need more attention. I think men in the U.S. need more attention as well, but men in general are more self-absorbed and tend to be content with non-verbal attention. Men essentially require a different form of attention so they don't recognize it as being any special need, but it is there as well. They recognize it in women mainly because it's not what they need so it strikes them as a hassle to provide. The perception that women require more attention than men is compounded by the fact that women tend to more readily and seamlessly offer men the forms of attention they need without complaint or prodding since they are socialized to be more other-directed. That being said, there is almost certainly a relationship between men's need for certain types of "attention" and complaints about women not wanting to have sex often enough and not "nurturing" them well enough (e.g., cooking, cleaning). The only difference is that men see what they need as being "natural" and what women need as being "unusual."

Anecdotal Lives

Sometimes I get very interesting questions from my commenters (and luckily I almost always get excellent comments as well). The questions which get me thinking rather deeply about something sometimes spawn their own post are among my favorites, but they also place me in a somewhat precarious position when answering.

Recently, I got a truly excellent question (which I'll address in a subsequent post) which I'm keen to answer, but I felt obliged to place a lot of caveats in front of the answer. In fact, I think so many "warnings" needed to be put in place that I figured it'd add about a quarter to the length of the answer, and my posts are already pretty long!

When I answer questions which have broad applications (and implications), I want the reader to keep in mind that I'm speaking in general and not about anyone specifically. While generalities are very useful in forming a theoretical framework and developing an overview of the world, they don't apply to any one person or situation. All of our lives are anecdotal, and I don't wish to lay claim to dispensing all encompassing wisdom.

And, honestly, I also don't want to come across as asserting that I'm "right". Like everyone else on the planet when considering an issue, I take all my experiences, ideas, and thoughts and collect them into a little pile, then sort them out into what seems to be the best answer available to me at the time. It's not the only answer. It's not the best answer among all the people you could possibly ask in the world. It's not even the same answer I'd give 10 years from now, but it's what makes sense to me right now at this moment.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lights Out

My apartment is pretty small, dark and airless so I have to leave the lights on in nearly every room to keep them lit sufficiently to work in them. It's not that there are no windows, but rather that the surrounding buildings block out a lot of the light most of the time. The only time they don't block out the light is around 4:30-5:30 am when the sun shines brightly just behind my husband's and my sleeping heads. Anyone who doesn't believe in daylight savings time should have to put up with all that candle power shining on them at an ungodly hour. It'll change your mind.

Because my apartment is so dark, my habit up until a month ago had been to leave the lights on in both the living room in which I actually teach and the kitchen which is directly behind me. The students walk through the kitchen to get in and out (floor plan here to clarify) and I felt it might make them uncomfortable if they looked out onto the yawning dark behind me as we spoke. Well, it's not a big space so it's more of a tiny yawn, but you may see my point.

There was also a bit of a logistical problem in terms of smoothly welcoming the student in (with the light on, of course), pouring tea or coffee as the student is seated in the adjacent room, and then having to break eye contact and interrupt preliminary chatting with the student to walk over to the entrance and turn off the light before carrying the tea into the room. Also, when the lesson was over, I'd have to again break eye contact and go turn the light back on before the student entered the kitchen. In order to avoid the feeling of being in a dark apartment and this awkward set-up, I just left the light on all the time and figured this was a sacrifice I'd have to make for doing business in my apartment just like I have to be sure to use heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer to be sure students are comfortable.

About a month ago, I decided that the environmental impact of running a light in my kitchen when no one was in there for between 40-50 hours a month was not worth the dubious benefits and I started to turn it off just after students sat down and on before they left. The situation is still a bit awkward for me, but the need to turn it on actually helps give me and excuse to get up at the end of the lesson time and head for the kitchen (to get the light) ASAP so the student can put her shoes on. This tends to have the highly desirable effect of getting them to pack up and hit the road a bit sooner and not steal quite as many extra minutes from me at the end of the lesson.

This month marked the first contiguous block of time where I could see the measure of my efforts in regards to the lights. Though my kitchen lights are fluorescent and I only use half of the strip (one tube instead of two), my electric bill went down by between 500-600 yen ($4.60-$5.50). This is a relatively insignificant amount of money saved, but it does show rather clearly that there was an appreciable amount of energy wasted in the use of just one fluorescent tube (albeit for quite a lot of total hours). Every time I forget to turn off a light after going to another room, I'll be keeping this little example in mind to motivate myself to go back out and turn it off.

Chocolate Sushi

Despite the fact that Valentine's Day was quite awhile back, my husband received the fun assortment of chocolates above from a student yesterday. He also got a box of truffles from the same student, and while they were lovely and sophisticated, they weren't quite as photogenic as the whimsical item pictured above.

The characters in white in the center of the label say "sushi". The banner with gold letters to the left says "special" and the real "joke" of this item are the black characters on the right which read as "cho-ko" though when written as kanji (Chinese characters), the words don't mean "chocolate" (choco), but (apparently) "sake cup". Somehow, I figure there must be another meaning I'm missing that applies to sushi. Usually, the word chocolate is not written in kanji, but rather in katakana which is the Japanese syllabary for (mostly) foreign words so it's sort of a joke. Ha. Ha. OK, we foreigners don't find the same amusement in Japanese wordplay as the Japanese might, but it's still cute.

Click this picture to see detail.

The contents are mainly blocks of chocolate wrapped in plastic with pictures of various seafood items on them, though the small packet filled with green balls is full of super sweet white chocolate bits coated with shiny green candy. These balls might be meant to resemble fish roe, I imagine, though I'm not sure (particularly since roe is reddish in color). They do look suspiciously like the stuff my father used to bait his hooks with from time to time when he went fishing. However, the packet itself has a picture of gnarled wasabi roots and says "wasabi choco" so perhaps this was the best they could do to emulate small amounts of wasabi. The candy also has an odd aftertaste which may actually be wasabi flavoring. The packaging is very well done right down to having the omnipresent fake plastic "grass" that you see in sushi assortments and a real wood container (that smells quite nice).

The chocolate with a picture of a shell on it has some funny English on it. On the front, around the shell, it says:

"Scallop stands a sail and runs all over the seas."

On the back, it says:

"There was a dog to which the sea is crossed. The ear was pinched with the husks of HOTATE." 

"Hotate" apparently means "sail upright" in one of its incarnations, though it can also mean "pilgrim". Without Chinese characters, it's impossible to know but all the talk of the sea makes the sailing definition likely, yet somehow, renders the sentence it is a part of no more logical.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Student Roster - February 2008

About a year or so ago, I wrote out my student roster for the sake of my own future recollection, knowing it was of little interest to anyone but me. However, this is my blog and I'll bore if I want to. ;-) I am posting this on a weekend day when most folks are outside enjoying their real lives (and I'm busy working) and less likely to read this blog, so I'm trying to exercise a little consideration here, but those of you who aren't interested in profiles of people you don't know and never will might want to find something good on T.V.

Looking back at my previous post, I'm surprised to see that I had 12 students at that time as I didn't think I had so many at that time. That being said, one was a "temporary" who was never meant to attend more than 3 lessons and one of the ones who appeared in that list showed up for one lesson then vanished not only from contact with me but the agency that sent her to me. Sometimes I wish I knew a little more about the types of agreements the agency makes with students as it's not uncommon to get a student or two who will seem to be "dabbling" and then go away after a one to six lessons lessons or after sampling several "demonstration" lessons with 2 or 3 different teachers. I have a feeling there may be some system whereby the demos or a limited number of lessons at the beginning may be cheaper than long-term lesson contracts. It could be they offer such lessons as "bait", but I can't be sure. The inner workings of the business and financial situation are often not explained to teachers.

At the moment, I have 11 students and 6 of them have been with me for over a year and appeared in my former post. Here is the current roster:


(5:15 pm) 20-year-old university student who is studying French as her major. She works at a clothing retailer known for cheap casual clothing part-time and likes watching "Lost" and Disney sitcoms like "Hannah Montana". She's one of my 5 "survivors" from last year and one of my favorites. She tends to pick new vocabulary up quickly though she doesn't study much outside of the class because she's so busy at university. She's been studying and taking the TOEFL test and recently got accepted into an exchange student program. She'll be headed to Montana to attend university there for one school year starting from August and I'll be losing her at that point, unfortunately.

(7:45 pm) A woman in her early 30's who works at a bank doing accounting work. I seem to get a lot of female accounting workers for some reason. This student enjoys surfing and used to live by the sea, but recently bought her own condo in central Tokyo (with a hefty 30-year mortgage). She's unusual looking for a Japanese person because she's got very Western-looking eyes and you wouldn't necessarily conclude she was Asian by looking at her face. She's also had more of her share of being followed around by weirdos than my other students, though I don't know if these facts are related. She also goes to Costco more regularly than anyone I know and buys food which is always more than she can actually eat.


(4:00 pm) A 61-year old man who used to be a government bureaucrat then worked for an insurance company and is now retired. He has traveled all over the world and has a great interest in politics, social issues, and news. His vocabulary is advanced and he's very liberal and open-minded. He has lessons not only to improve his speaking for travel but also for the stimulation of discussing things with a foreign person. He has lamented to me on several occasions that he believes he cannot have such discussions with his friends because they think he's weird both for his viewpoints and for wanting to talk about them. His main goal is travel, particularly to world heritage sites, but his elderly mother is ill and he can't do what he'd like. I often sense he feels a bit trapped by his situation and once he asked me if I thought he was selfish for wanting his mother to get better mainly so he could pursue his dreams. I told him that I didn't think it was selfish at all to work hard your whole life then want to fulfill your dreams after retiring.

(7:00 pm) I haven't taught the student who will be in this time slot yet. I've only been told that she's a beginner and a nurse. In my experience with beginners, they don't tend to last as long as intermediate to advanced students. I think that the one-to-one lessons are a bit intense for them at their level and, when they don't experience rapid improvement, they tend to move on to give up. However, I remain optimistic!


(6:00 pm) A 64-year old semi-retired man who is my second "survivor" from last year. This older gentleman is a dynamo for his age. He works part-time teaching people at community centers how to use computers and cell phones as well as proctors insurance exams for certification. He takes social dancing classes and has been on adult homestays in America. Though his level isn't particularly high, he's easy to teach because he plans for the lesson himself by choosing a grammar point or phrase he wants to practice and he's very self-motivating in carrying out the practice. I don't have to light a fire under his ass to get him to talk and that's rare. He's one of only two of my students who are married. He's also the student who holds the record for having taken the most lessons with me to date. Last Friday was his 100th lesson.


(10:45 am) A sales support staff person in her early 30's who works for a major computer hardware and services company. She looks about 8 years younger than her age and presents herself with a sense of energy and vitality that I envy. She really enjoys sports and golf in particular and is very dedicated to her job. I believe she studies English because her company is a foreign one, but also for travel. She has studied Italian cooking both in Japan and on a culinary tour of Italy.

(12:00 pm) An office worker at a major fashion designer's Japanese branch in her late 20's who is mainly studying English for doing business in Italy. In fact, as I write this post, she's in Italy now 3/4 of the way through a month-long business trip. Though this woman is a bit reserved, she's my kind of person on many levels. She's thoughtful, analytical, and candid. She's never frivolous or giggly, but is forthcoming and friendly in a way which isn't put on or overdone. She's also quite serious about improving her English and does work on her own in addition to coming to lessons.

(3:30 pm) A 24-year-old insurance company worker who would like to learn English for travel abroad. As I write this, she's in Hawaii for a vacation and she is another of my "survivors". She's a classic example of a well-rounded young woman in Japan. She takes flower arranging classes, works full-time, has an interest in live shows and performances of many types, travels, and reads a variety of books on politics, art, travel, and culture. When she first came to me, she had problems making sentences or having a basic conversation, but now can express herself much more freely, though not necessarily quickly. I've seen concrete improvement in her ability and that's a rare treat for a teacher in Japan since students tend to either bug out before you see improvement or they don't tend to take it seriously enough to get much better.


(10:45 am) A marketing representative for a pharmaceutical company who is in her mid 20's, this student is the younger sister of the woman who works for the fashion designer. She's the person who has been trying to break into journalism, but so far has only managed to get work doing freelance transcribing. I've only taught her about a half dozen times and don't have a good handle on her yet. She's nice and a bit more outgoing than her sister, though not nearly as hard-working when it comes to independent study. She mainly wants to improve her English skills as a means of selling herself to a publication company.

(12:00 pm) A 41-year-old company worker who was new to me when I wrote about her last year (when she came at 3:00 pm). She continues to work in the accounting section of an architectural firm and still hates her job rather passionately. Ironically, she was recently promoted but was completely indifferent to her elevation in status. She's been talking about quitting for the entire year or so that I've been teaching her, but hasn't found the kind of job she feels is ideal. She doesn't want to job hop frequently so she isn't keen on leaving her current job for an interim job. Her goal for study, career advancement, remains the same. She likes to attend Japanese puppet shows (bunraku) and live performances of artists who might be considered "has beens" in the West because they were popular in the 80's or 70's.

Random days and times:

A 32-year-old freelance translator who makes subtitles for mostly English (sometimes other languages) movies for the Japanese audience. Though she has been officially "with me" as a student for about two years, I've actually only seen her about 25 times because of the sporadic nature of her work. She only schedules lessons when she has a project which she needs help with. Her goal isn't to build her overall level but to make sure she does the best work she can when she makes subtitles. She took a part-time job at an office (doing subtitling) for better financial security so she could move into her own place last year. I don't tend to spend much time doing free conversation with her because of the nature of her lessons, but I do know she enjoys beading and travels to resort areas in Japan several times a year.

A 44-year old former pharmacist who currently attends a U.S. college on a military base. She's the second of two of my students who is married. At present, I'm seeing her 2-3 times a week to help her complete a copious number of assignments for a distance course she's taking. Among my current crop of students, she's probably the person with the highest level ability and definitely spends the most time doing independent study. She's very dependent on me in getting her college work under control and tells me sometimes that she's afraid I'll leave Japan and she won't know how to cope.


Comparing last year's list to this years, I'd say I've gotten a better crop of people through time. I have more people who are easier to engage in conversation and are earnest about improving. I'm also pleased to have retained about 50% of them as it's always a better experience if you know each other well. I'm a bit saddened that I'm going to lose the young woman who is headed for Montana in August. It's always a bit difficult losing students who you've taught for a long time and gotten to know pretty well.

One of the interesting things about their departures is that they almost always ask for my e-mail address and ask if I'd mind if they write me. I always give it to them, but I never hear from them again. I figure they're sincere in their desire to keep in touch, but since the vast majority of them leave me under circumstances where they are having a major life change, they find themselves too busy and preoccupied to take the time to compose messages to me. I'm not exactly broken-hearted about it, mind you. I'd be happy to hear from them if they wrote, but I don't mistake a friendly business-based relationship for a friendship.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Charisma Men

Image pinched from the Charisma Man home page where one can order a comic book of the strips. Click this version to see a more readable size, or, visit the web site.

Back when I first started working in Japan, there was a young Canadian man working at Nova who worked the same morning shifts as I. He was only 20 years old and had come to Japan when he was 19. Somehow, he managed to get a work visa despite only having some junior college under his belt. (For those who don't know, the minimum requirement for a work visa is (usually) a Bachelor's degree.)

On occasion, I interacted with him either when no lessons were scheduled or in the conversation lounge when we were scheduled in there together. Unsurprisingly, he was sometimes pretty immature. Somewhat surprisingly, he was prone to emotional outbursts on the job. The main things I noticed were that he was prone to chatting with young female students in Japanese whenever the least opportunity presented itself, even when he was supposed to be helping them practice English.

As time went by, he developed a crush on a British coworker who I was friends with. He interacted with her like a lovesick puppy until she agreed to go on a trip to Tokyo Disneyland with him a few young Japanese women. Upon returning from this foray, my friend told me that his behavior was extremely childish and overtly attention-seeking and boastful. She said she was both embarrassed to be with him and as a witness to this behavior in front of the Japanese women. She also said that she was told by the Japanese girls that his speaking was very much like that of a Japanese schoolgirl because he'd honed his skills on young girls.

This young man didn't tend to socialize much with the foreign coworkers between classes or at lunch time. He tended to spend most of his time chatting with secretaries or lunching with students. At that time, socializing with students was not prohibited, or, if it was, it wasn't enforced. Eventually, he seemed to develop a superior and contemptuous attitude toward the other foreigners and wanted little to do with them, particularly after my friend was forced to overtly reject his interest in her.

I didn't know it at the time, but I'd just had my first experience with a classic "charisma man" type of foreign male. This is the type of guy who lacks sufficient social skills and emotional maturity in his home culture that he would have a lot of difficulty cultivating a romantic relationship with a woman in his home country, but cross-cultural differences allow him to form relationships in Japan. His "foreignness" explains his awkwardness and lack of grace in a manner which allows Japanese women to forgive him. They can't tell the difference between someone who doesn't conform to their cultural expectations because he doesn't know how to and someone who is an oafish dork. Also, Japanese people value tolerance and "enduring" hardship silently as a part of their culture so the women feel that part of being in a relationship is accepting the rough patches in their mates to a far greater extent than foreign women do. Previously, I talked about how Japanese women also generally have different expectations of a mate and that's part of the situation as well.

Fast forward 12 years and the "charisma man" I worked with at Nova shows up as an employee at the company which bought out my former company. The interesting thing is that his arrogance, disdain for foreigners and tendency to suck up to the Japanese haven't changed. He says he actually hates foreign employees over a decade down the road. I avoided him as much as possible and am relieved that he didn't work in the same office as I, but rather in a branch office.

Among the men who fit the category lampooned in the cartoon above (and please don't misunderstand, I am not asserting that all men who pursue relationships with Japanese women fit this category...they don't, not by a long shot), I've noticed they tend to have certain things in common. Before undies get balled up in large, uncomfortable wads, keep in mind, sensitive male readers, that even if you fit every item on this list, I'm not saying you're one of these losers. After all, I don't know you so I can't possibly be talking about you. I can only talk about the men I've actually met.
  • Most of these men came to Japan at a relatively young age and had limited social experience back home. They tend to be here for the vast majority of their young adult socialization and maturation process.
  • Most of them met their wives or girlfriends in Japan, not in their home countries. I've noticed a serious difference between men who meet Japanese women in their home countries and marry them then come to Japan as compared to men who meet their wives here initially. The former tend to be a lot nicer group of guys.
  • All of them (in my experience) are good at speaking Japanese as it is a high priority to become proficient enough to chat up girls, but also they prefer socializing with Japanese people as they can easily impress them simply by being foreign. They also vigorously throw themselves into practicing as it gives them more interaction with women.
  • Few of them have ever had a Western girlfriend.
  • Most of them have extremely stereotypical and derogatory opinions about Western women. They tend to view them as lazy, pushy, controlling, demanding, and opinionated.
  • Most of them have stereotypical and shallow opinions of Japanese women and emphasize the physical assets of Japanese women in opposition to their stereotypical views of the physicality of Western women. That is, they talk about how naturally (and eternally) slim, beautiful, nurturing (as in willing to do all the cooking and cleaning without complaint), and feminine (quiet, demure) Japanese women are whereas Western women are all going to end up fat and ugly.
  • Most of them base their relationship from an emotional viewpoint on trivialities such as Japanese pop culture and light social activities like karaoke, pub crawling, travel, and sports. Few of them value deep or meaningful dialog with their significant other as an important part of a relationship.
  • Most are very arrogant and have difficulties when their ideas, opinions or knowledge are challenged. Personally, I believe that is because debate where ones assertions are disagreed with is not common in Japan and since most of these men came here at a young age, they have never developed the ability to handle disagreement well, particularly if women have been a large focus in their socialization here.
  • Most of them dislike other foreigners and tend to regard most of them with contempt. In some cases, part of this contempt involves constantly measuring other foreigners' language ability, work type and status and cultural knowledge against theirs and smugly concluding they are better.
Personally, when I run across one of these guys, I try to give them a wide berth. I know they don't have any use for me except as a stepping stone to boosting their egos when they size me up and find me lacking. I also consider that these guys from a social viewpoint have succeeded wildly in Japan and therefore aren't likely to develop the type of social skills that would make them function well in a setting which includes other foreigners, not that they'd want to anyway.

In many ways, there's nothing wrong with these guys as they are succeeding in a manner which harms no one and often makes the Japanese women they couple with (seemingly) happy enough. In fact, they have essentially traded in social failure in one country for social success in another. The only problem comes when you're a fellow foreigner and are forced to work or interact with one of these sorts and put up with the attitude. It's a real test of your better nature to be around one of them for any length of time and to not start returning the contempt they exude at you in kind.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Peck of Pickled Plums

When I was a child, I was sleeping over at my grandmother's house and had been relegated to the sofa for lack of any other space to sleep in. My grandfather, who was bedridden, was set up in an adjacent room. As I slept, I had a dream in which a vicious raccoon-like animal was growling at me and considering attacking me. I woke up and continued to hear the "growling" sound. This noise was the hum of a clunky and old-fashioned humidifier being used in my grandfather's room and it had insinuated itself into my dream.

Last night, I did a lesson with a student about sleep which included the topic of dreams and particular types of dreams including those where ambient stimuli insert themselves into the dream as a part of it. She told me that she had had a dream where a phone was ringing, but she couldn't reach it to answer it and, when she awoke, the phone was actually ringing (within arm's reach). We also talked about sleepwalking and, though she never had such an experience, she had a friend who had and she told me his story.

When her friend was a child, he adored Japanese pickled plums (umeboshi). His mother only allowed him to have two of them at dinner, but he wanted more. During the night, he went to the kitchen and consumed the entire contents of a jar of pickled plums from the refrigerator and had no recollection of having done so the next morning. However, his mother, upon opening the fridge, discovered a jar with nothing but brine in it and her son was incredibly thirsty and his mouth was stained red. It turns out the jar contained about 50 pickled plums and he got so sick from the salt in them that he had to go to the hospital. From that day forth, his mother let him eat as many umeboshi as he liked at meals to try and forestall any sleep-induced wanderings to fulfill a craving.

After she told this story, I asked if she had any recurring dreams. Interestingly, she said she did not. I mentioned to her that it's common in the U.S. for people to dream that they have to take a test for a class they didn't know they'd signed up for and hadn't taken any of the classes for. I told her that it's also common for people to dream they are in front of a crowd and either need to go to the bathroom (but can't because of the audience) or aren't wearing any clothes. She told me that she never had any of these sorts of dreams and that she wasn't aware of any shared dreaming experiences among Japanese folks. Mind you, this was just one student, so I can't say she is representative in any way, but I found this lack of similar and recurring dreams interesting.

The student then volunteered that, while she didn't have the types of dreams I mentioned, she did sometimes dream of mundane experiences before they happened. For instance, she mentioned that she dreamed of playing with her friends in the yard in front of a school, but she had never been to that school or seen that play area. Awhile later, she passed an entrance test and entered a school where she found herself playing on the lawn just as she'd dreamed.

On more than one occasion, I've had the same sort of dream which was a premonition of something relatively unimportant. About a month ago, I had a very striking and memorable one where I dreamed that I had broken a black coffee cup (which we only have one of) and the next day, I broke a clear water glass (I hit it on the side of a dinner plate in the dish drainer as I was attempting to add it to the drainer) while the black coffee cup was the only thing that remained to be washed in the sink. This was very striking because the dream was slightly inaccurate yet the elements were similar enough to carry a heavy implication of prognostication with a slight misalignment.

I don't know if either my student or I are having premonitions. Since I don't believe in time except as a necessary and illusory construct in this reality, I tend to think that this is not so much telling the future as having moments where we can see through the walls that block off our access to seeing all that has happened, is happening or will happen. If you think of your life as a movie that exists in its entirety as a completed work, but has to be experienced from beginning to end by watching it through time, you can sort of get the idea of what I mean. The fact that you don't know what happens later in the movie until you get to that point doesn't mean that portion doesn't exist. It just means you can't access it yet because you are forced to experience it in a linear fashion.

When I hear about premonitions and past lives, I always think that it's not so much about remembering or prognosticating, but more about accessing, like skipping ahead or behind to other chapters on the DVD, but not being aware that you can do it or quite knowing that that's what is being done. I think people do this more in dreaming than at other times because that's the only time their minds aren't completely occupied by the realities of daily life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Such Nice, Polite People

This afternoon, I was biking to a local grocery store and riding quite slowly down the street. There was an old (Japanese) man, probably in his 60's, walking down the side along the left. To give him a buffer, I pulled further to the right and slowed down even more, but he started pulling fast toward the center. I moved further to the right and slowed down nearly to the point where I'd lose balance if I went any slower. As the man intercepted me, he angrily grumbled something at me and shoved my left arm so hard he nearly knocked me off my bike (and hurt my arm) before charging on.

Before any of you claim this was an accident, I can tell you his behavior made it crystal clear he was intent on intercepting me so he could carry out an act of physical aggression. Before any of you claim I deserved it, let me say that I absolutely was not the only cyclist on the street and I'm not exaggerating about my speed or care. In fact, in retrospect, I should have sped up when the old bastard headed my way so he would have been intimidated by the possibility of a faster speed collision and perhaps not decided to try and knock me over. No, I stupidly put myself in a position where I would be able to stop to protect the pedestrian should he get in front of me.

No, my friends, this was an act of unadulterated gaijin-selective bashing by some prejudiced old asshole. Mind you, I didn't pursue him to see if he was running around shoving other people good and hard, but I think it's a pretty safe bet that he wasn't as there would likely be consequences if he went around doing so to Japanese people.

Gaijins love to talk about what a great place Japan is and how the people are nice, polite, friendly and non-violent, but clearly, you can't say that of all of them. In fact, the fact that they view foreigners as practically a different species who don't have a right to be here increases the chances that bad impulses will be acted on. It's not like they fear the consequences when they know that their word will be taken over that of a foreigner and they can make up anything they like to weasel out of what they did. In the U.S., if someone did this to a person of another nationality, they could be arrested for assault and battery, but in Japan, well, who do you think the police are going to care about?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


A home-style design on the 1959 book.

Teaching students privately is a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, you tend to get a better quality of student who is diligent, more personable, and more goal-oriented. Teaching such students is several cuts above the dead-eyed, lifeless experience of teaching in fast food English conversation schools which are quite often catch-alls for people who have to study rather than a large group of people who really want to.

One of the two books my student has (from 1961), with whimsical artwork.

On the other hand, there's a lot more time spent in preparation for such students which is off the clock. While you don't have to do extra work for such students, depending on their specific needs, you really should if you want to give them a good lesson. However, there's often something in this extra preparation for the teacher if she approaches it with the attitude that learning for the sake of the student is also a form of learning for the teacher.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my students wants to be a journalist and she wants to write about Betty Crocker for a lifestyle magazine. To that end, I've been investigating Betty Crocker cookbooks so that I can help her (hopefully) develop an article that will be accepted at some point. Since she's particularly interested in the '60s books because of their style, I've also been researching what are considered the hallmarks of 1960s style.

A book from 1972 with rather funky text (reflecting '60s psychedelic style).

Doing this has actually been more difficult than one might imagine since the focal point of most articles is on the psychedelic and drug-based counterculture of the late '60s and not on more mundane aspects of domestic life among the non-hippie generation. While those elements were certainly a big part of the '60s, there was also a strong thread of transition from the '50s leading into the early '60s that tends not to get any attention, but you can see it reflected in the items targeted at housewives throughout the decade. Also, a lot of what is considered '60s style is actually early '70s style.

A book from 1980 which is starting to see a cleaner look, but still using relative bold text elements.

Most interestingly though, by looking at the covers of the cookbooks and the titles, you can actually make a very good guess as to when they were made. The style of the era is reflected not only in the artwork, the photographic style, and types of dishes, but also in the fonts used. You can see a definite trend from somewhat plain with country or home-style designs with a bit of a flourish to overly-stylized to sophisticated in the text styling and layout. There's also a transition from a focus on entertaining and catering to guests in the book's titles to a focus on faster meal preparation for the family that reflects the changing roles of women from the '50s to the '90s.

White tends to be used more in the most modern layout styles as it has been accepted as more of a use of space for design purposes rather than a byproduct of not wanting to do full color printing. This book from 1996 reflects that.

I'd like to persuade my student to make the article she's writing about either the way the books reflect their times in terms of food, style, and women's roles, but I believe she's fixated on the two cookbooks she has and the artwork in them. The main problem with this is that I'm not sure there's enough to say in this regard, especially after I had to disabuse her of the notion that those two books represented the entirety of "Betty Crocker" styling throughout the decades of the company's release of cookbooks. If nothing else, I now have a deeper understanding of why her original article was rejected. The suppositions she made and the claims she asserted were simply based on too little research and a lot of erroneous conclusions.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

In the Dark

Back in my former company's former office, we had a tiny little kitchen that barely two people could squeeze into for food-related tasks. It was often the case that foreign staff, who had a set schedule for conducting lessons by phone, would find themselves log-jammed into that small space at about the same time setting up drinks for the upcoming session of telephone speaking.

Since my boss and I are both tea aficionados, we found ourselves, once again, jockeying for positions in that small room as we made our teabag and milk applications and dealt with some lunch-related dish-washing. We went about our business in the kitchen with the light out because there was a single window through which sufficient light was passing for us to take care of such mundane ministrations in a relatively dim setting.

A salesman wandered over to the postage meter that was inconveniently planted in front of the office refrigerator and said, "You're in the dark. Why are you working in the dark?" Both my boss and I said that we could see just fine and didn't need to use the light. The salesman, nonetheless, walked over and turned on the kitchen light. He decided to substitute his assessment of the needs of the situation for ours.*

This experience illustrated something which I've seen time and again in all areas of life. That is, people approach life as if their perspective and judgment are the appropriate ones and that the solution to the problem is the one that suits their sensibilities. It doesn't occur to them that different people may have different needs and there isn't a "one size fits all" solution that oh-so-conveniently just happens to be in their "size" (all the time, no less).

Awhile back, there was a lot of hubbub in the foreign community about instituting a language proficiency "requirement" for people who work in Japan on long term visas. A lot of the fretting about this was misplaced and based on ignorance of the situation and inadequate research into what the details of the proposed change. (Incidentally, I have no interest in debating the merits and demerits of this potential requirement and any comments addressing this point will not be replied to and may in fact be booted by my moderator - it's already been discussed to death everywhere else.) The interesting thing about all the commentary regarding this situation was that, in debating what level of Japanese language proficiency was sufficient, everyone set the bar where they would be most comfortable setting it. People who can read and write Japanese well felt high levels were fair. People who knew little Japanese felt basic communication should be enough. Those who have studied for and taken standardized tests (JLPT) chose whatever level test they'd already passed. Those who could speak but not read and write felt only oral ability should be tested.

Except for a few rare cases (my blog buddy Penguin for one, who is quite proficient in Japanese, but had concerns about the practicality of instituting such a policy at all), most people set the bar right at where their proficiency was settled. Their "size" was the one they felt was just right for everyone when it came to Japanese ability.

My intent with this post is not to assert that I know what solutions are best or what is right and others do not, but simply to encourage people to be be less rigid about what they believe is "right", "sufficient", and "acceptable". Everyone is different and has different needs. The way you live your life and view your world from how good your language skills have to be to cope with your particular job in Japan right down to things as small as how much light you need to see to do a task can be different from person to person and you shouldn't place your judgment above everyone else's.

*I will note that blue eyes allow in more light than brown eyes and both my former boss and I have blue eyes, though clearly the salesman didn't think about what we could see. He only thought about what he could see.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Baking

Flourless dark chocolate mini cake.

Today was Valentine's Day in Japan since we get there first. (We're a day ahead of the U.S.) Last year, I talked about how Valentine's Day is different in Japan and so did every other blogger who has ever talked about the holiday in Japan so I'm not going into it again.

Personally, everyday is like Valentine's Day for me. I know, it's a horrible cliché, but what would you call living with a husband who says he loves me everyday several times a day and spontaneously surprises me with little gifts on occasion? I don't keep annoying people by saying he's perfect without valid reasons. So, this is pretty much just another (happy) day for me. (Note: After composing this post, my husband returned home from work with a little cheesecake for me making this an extra happy day. He's a sweetie!)

That being said, there are a lot of very good recipes out there for chocolate goodies at this time of year and I decided to try something new for the fun of it. I didn't necessarily make this as a Valentine's treat though I guess the spirit of the occasion inspired me.

Keeping in mind that my husband and I had a ton of dark chocolates leftover from Christmas gift-giving, I decided to track down a recipe for something that utilizes dark chocolate and came across a flourless mini cake recipe. The result is an immensely rich, light, and intensely chocolatey morsel of a cake which requires some sort of cream to balance the taste of what can only be described as a chocolate bomb. I served it with whipped cream but I think it'd do just as well with regular cream or ice cream. Even though I had to unwrap about 30 tiny dark chocolate squares, melt them down, and strain out cocoa nibs that were embedded in them to make this, the recipe turned out very well. Clearly, no special baking dark chocolate is required though I will note that the chocolates I used were Ghirardelli (from San Francisco) and European in origin. They were not Japanese.

A carton of (Sujata) "whip".

I knew I was going to make this several days ago and had been looking around for what is commonly referred to as "whip" or "cake whip" in Japan. The advantage of this whip stuff over cream is that it's much cheaper. Real cream is between 270 ($2.50) and 400 ($3.70) yen a carton whereas the "whip" is between 99 (91 cents) and 180 ($1.66) yen.

The "whip" also whips up into whipping cream much more effectively than regular cream (of all percentages) and I'm sure it's very bad for you, likely worse for you than actual cream. Nonetheless, as long as you're not eating it all the time, I'm sure it's not a bad infrequent and economical indulgence. If you decide to buy this stuff in Japan, keep in mind that it's not sweetened or flavored. You need to add a bit of vanilla and sugar (or artificial sweetener) to it. It'll also stay whipped up longer if you put in a teaspoon of pectin, though it will still eventually separate and fall flat if you keep it for more than a few days.

The funny thing is that this "whip" stuff is usually easy to buy, but because of the holiday, it was hard to locate a shop near me with any in stock. While part of the commercialism in Japan for this holiday is chocolates, the other part is homemade treats. Small basic sponge cakes are sold so that they can be adorned with fruit (usually strawberries), chocolates or sauces, and whipped cream. Baking supplies are also displayed prominantly.

Students have told me that actually baking something for someone on Valentine's Day is more of a romantic gesture than simply giving them chocolate, but I can't say they speak for everyone.


Valentine Booty

Click this picture to see a larger one with better detail. That's my baby cheesecake on the far right.

My husband brought home the collection of chocolate above over the last few days. One of the items, a Harrod's chocolate bar, is not technically a Valentine's Day gift, but my husband was given it the day before. His students and coworkers were quite generous. While everything is appreciated, some of the items are more curious than others. The "cheese chocolate" contains a bunch of little foil wrapped "mice" and is almost too cute to eat. The large box of "Royce Potechi Crunch Chocolate" contains chocolate covered corn flakes, cookie crunch bits, and potato chips (hence the "potechi" part). The quote on the box says, "by breaking down old customs and producing consistently original items we are pursuing a new level in chocolate enjoyment."

Here's to new levels of chocolate enjoyment!

Showing Off

Some of you may have noticed that I rarely type Japanese characters in my blog posts. Some of you may assume that I can't enter Japanese text and that's why I don't include it. That assumption would be incorrect. I have copious amounts of experience entering Japanese text into the computer from my years of working laying out and writing (English) textbooks (with Japanese sections and translations) for the Japanese market.

I just don't use Japanese here for several reasons. The primary one is that my readers are obviously going to be English speakers. A lot of them are family and friends who don't have the ability to display foreign language special characters installed on their machines. Using Japanese in my posts results in gibberish for them. Beyond that though, I don't believe any useful purpose is really served in writing things like "食パン" instead of "shukupan" "shokupan" (white bread) aside from showing off my ability to type in Japanese. Any person who can read Japanese and wants to practice can go elsewhere for far better practice than my blog (which isn't intended to be a study page, a news page, or an authority on Japan and is just a record of my thoughts and experiences). And white bread isn't the sort of thing you need to reference the kanji of in order to recognize it in a store so you don't need to match the characters to the product to successfully purchase it.

I have a confession to make. I don't like it when people who are primary English speakers and who write content for a primarily English audience unnecessarily use Japanese words or writing in their blogs. I don't mind if they use the Japanese to explain something or make something clear so that folks know what the Japanese writing looks like. In such cases, it serves as a reference point for those who want to be able to pick out a particular item and need to match characters to objects in real life. I also don't mind if their blog is clearly directed at a bi-lingual or multi-lingual audience or if the blog is about their efforts to learn Japanese and including that content facilitates their learning. Before anyone gets their hackles up, I'm not referring to any specific person and certainly not to any of my regular commenters, but just to some overall trends I've noticed when perusing a great variety of web sites and forums.

It gets to me when people use Japanese just to look or sound cool or appear authoritative. A grand example of this was on a forum I was perusing about cooking. The site is all in English and all about food. The topic at hand was whether or not people prefer light or dark chocolate. Not one person in the thread was Japanese but someone replied to a post with "(original poster's name)-san" and ended it with "yoroshiku." The poster was clearly a native speaker of English (this was clear from content in other posts he made) and the usage of Japanese terms was an attempt to show off a modicum of Japanese knowledge. It's incredibly pretentious to do this in such a forum and almost certainly was done to attract attention.

I don't have many pet peeves but people who go out of their way to show off is definitely one of them. There's a difference between offering esoteric knowledge or specific terms in an appropriate context and shoehorning them in just to impress people and the latter is an immature way of trying to demonstrate superiority.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


A police car drives past Koenji station and the flash highlights a curiously neon sign on its side.

(I'd been meaning for quite some time to write something about the police in Japan but never quite got around to it. However, after reading an entry in Helen's blog, I decided the time was nigh. You may want to pop by and read about her experience as it's a typical one.)

Back in the U.S., the situation with the police is generally well understood due to the plethora of police and lawyer dramas which slowly educate us about the power of the criminal justice system and our rights. In fact, we know that we have quite a lot of rights should the police approach us or charge us with a crime. We know that they have to tell us why they're arresting us and cannot hold us unless they have specific charges to raise against us. We know we don't have to speak to t hem and that we have the right to consult with a lawyer. There are also limits to how long we can be detained depending on the crime and charges.

When I first came to Japan, I assumed the police situation was much the same. I've since learned that it very much is not in a great many ways and most of them are unfavorable. It's hard to actually grasp this though when you first arrive and encounter the police as they seem docile and impotent. They ride around on white bicycles, sit in little police boxes on street corners (koban) and tend mainly to give directions and hassle people about their bicycles. If you stop and ask them about something, they're pretty friendly.

Most interactions with the police involve reporting lost wallets and tracking stolen bikes. When you buy a new bike in Japan, it is automatically registered with the police. When one of my husband's many stolen bikes was recovered by the police, they called us to tell us about it and we were able to retrieve it. Additionally, the police come door-to-door and note the inhabitants of all the domiciles in their area. They do this so they know who belongs and who doesn't as well as to help them know the neighborhood. This is all part of the innocuous side of law enforcement here.

The less innocuous part comes along when you make a mistake. Whether it be not carrying your foreigner identification card or breaking the law in some fashion, you can learn pretty painfully that your rights are very different in Japan. For one thing, you can be held for up to 3 weeks without being told anything about the crime you're being hauled in for. You don't have the right to a lawyer before questioning nor do you have the right to make a call. Your guilt isn't a matter of evidence collection so much as a foregone conclusion once you've been accused. The Japanese police do not rely heavily on forensic proof. They rely on confession and can coerce it from you. Prison in Japan is very regimented with conditions regarding meals, hygiene, and behavior that would seem quite oppressive by U.S. prison standards. They exercise strict control over what you do and how you do it as well as when you can do it.

The main danger of the situation with the police in Japan for foreigners lies in the ambiguity of the laws and rights of the accused. In the U.S., we know our rights and the limits of authorities (though we know them less now that ever before with the Bush administration's "help"). In Japan, there is enough wiggle room in a lot of laws to give the police the latitude to give you a hard time when they feel like it and ignore infractions when they feel like it.

One example is the situation regarding riding bicycles on the streets versus the sidewalks. Laws were changed at some point to get bikes out of the streets as traffic increased and it became too dangerous to have them sharing narrow streets with vehicles. Unfortunately, it was never made clear where cyclists were supposed to ride after they were forced out of the streets because it's technically illegal to ride on the sidewalk. This allows the police to selectively enforce whatever "rule" they want as they can point to whichever law they want if they decide to fine you. It seems that if you do something which the police don't like such as ride too fast or recklessly, they can call you on it, but if you don't do anything they dislike, they leave you alone.

Generally speaking, I think the best way to deal with living in Japan is to cooperate with the police as much as you can even when you don't think they have a right to hassle you. It also doesn't hurt to smile and say "konnichiwa" when you pass by one of them so they know your face and see you as a person. One thing you don't want to do is get into physical altercations with Japanese people because of an avoidable emotional confrontation. I've read quite a few stories where a man gets angry and takes a swing at a Japanese fellow only to end up in jail for 3 weeks powerless and traumatized. At the end of their stays, they are often a million yen or more poorer as they pay off the "victim" for injuries inflicted. In all the cases I've read, the foreign person was essentially held until he admitted he was completely at fault and ponied up a lot of money in compensation. It doesn't matter if you're provoked. It's not going to be worth the pain and cost if you end up getting arrested because no one will listen to your reasons.

You can fight this sort of thing when it happens if you have the time, money, and language skills, but ultimately, it's not going to accomplish anything. The ambiguity of the authority of the police will always end any challenge to their actions with the answer of 'they were within their rights to do (whatever).' There are some folks out there who make it their life's work to fight injustices in this area but I've never known one who actually got anywhere. All they end up doing is getting the runaround until their challenges peter out and they have no choice but to drop the ball and move on to the next fight. That doesn't mean that they can't point at the laws and say they have a case because they often do, but rather that it often doesn't matter in Japan whether you seem to have a case according to a piece of paper somewhere. There's every likelihood that there's probably another piece of paper somewhere else saying that the opposite of your document is also lawful and the police are allowed to act in opposition to your documented "right".

The bottom line is that, just because they seem jovial, friendly, and innocuous, you shouldn't take the police in Japan lightly as they have more power to make your life really hard if they want to than police back home do. They also have far fewer compunctions about doing so if you cross them as their notions of your rights aren't nearly as strong as your notions of your rights. Fortunately, they aren't motivated to take advantage of this power most of the time and will leave you alone if you behave yourself and toe the line when they ask you to.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Wedding "Gifts"

Yesterday one of my students attended a lesson with me after attending a funeral. She had a largish shopping bag with her which contained the gift she was given at the funeral (towels) and I took the occasion to quiz her on various aspects of money gifts in regards to the two big non-family occasions where money is frequently given. For the record, the other big money giving occasions is New Year's when kids are given cash as a gift (called "otoshidama"). However, non-family members don't tend to give kids cash at that time.

My relatively simplistic understanding of cash gifts in Japan was rather mixed up with my Western notions of why we give money. In fact, even when I know otherwise, it's difficult to separate the idea that we give money as a gift in the West to offer future security or assets to a person in the future. In Japan, money is given to cover costs of an event to which guests are invited, not as a personal bonus in celebration of an event.

At funerals, my student told me somewhat token amounts of money are given (about 5,000 yen ($46) for coworkers, 10,000 yen ($93) for closer friends or those who are older and have a higher status job) because the guest is not being treated to a lavishly catered experience. At weddings, however, she told me that the standard amount is 30,000 yen ($280) for any guest who isn't too young or underemployed to pay it. When I told her that this would be a bountiful financial gift by western standards and that even immediate family members (other than parents) would not give such an amount of money in most cases, she told me that family members don't pay this money at all. This came as a shock to me, but the way she explained it made sense. She said that the obligatory 30,000 yen is only paid by guests and family members are not considered "guests". She went on to explain that family members (again, aside from parents) will often give a real gift to celebrate a marriage, but not cash. According to my student, an exception to this "rule" is the case where a sibling is very much older than a younger sibling and the relationship is more parental as a result of the large age gap. In such cases, a sibling might give cash much as a parent would.

From a Western perspective, this seems a bit strange as it appears to require people who are less close to a couple to offer up more than family members. However, in Japan, the money is being used to pay for the facility where the reception (often called a "wedding party" by the Japanese) is held (often a hotel), the catering, and gift bags given to the guests. In other words, the 30,000 yen is the guest paying for his or her own "good time" at the party and not really a "gift" to the couple. The guests shoulder the burden of the cost of the celebration and not much more than that when the excessive cost of the hotel, which is sometimes between 1,000,000 ($9,315) and 2,000,000 yen ($18,630), is factored into the equation. Considering that family members won't be receiving souvenirs and sometimes don't partake of the catered food the same way as other guests, it makes a bit of sense that they don't pay what amounts to an "entrance fee" to the event.

From my perspective, this situation seems to have both advantages and disadvantages over the Western approach to wedding gifts. If you follow any trends in weddings back home these days, you'll notice that couples often treat their wedding as an opportunity to get as much cash from friends and family as possible. Many of them have already lived together for awhile and don't need much for their households so they try to coerce guests into giving them cash only or to choose from a small pool of very pricey high profile gifts. Rather than the wedding being an opportunity for people to offer their good wishes and a gift that will help the couple start their lives, they're being treated as a chance to milk their friends and family like cash cows so some lavish spending can be done by the couple on a vacation, car, etc. at everyone else's expense.

The Japanese approach to wedding gifts doesn't allow for this sort of crass exploitation of the event. In fact, the Japanese method is aimed at using the money to give guests a memorable experience though the drawback is that it's an experience the guest is footing the tab for. In fact, the worst point of this is that guests have no flexibility about what or how much they give in many cases and the "gift" is given most times out of obligation rather than good cheer and wishing the couple well. In the West, even if a couple asks you to give cash only (which is actually bad manners but people do it anyway), you can disregard their opportunism and do whatever you want. One could say that the money given at weddings in Japan supports the wedding industry and could be better spent on providing things the new couple may need.

My student said she had attended about 10 wedding recptions so far and each time had forked over the princely sum of 30,000 yen. When I asked her if her experiences made her consider what she'd like to do for her reception should she decide to marry in the future, she said she'd like to have a small "restaurant party" which is far less expensive, smaller, and only invites close friends. However, she said that, in the end, she's forked over a ton of dough to her friends and feels like she'd like to get some of it back so she'll likely have a lavish reception of her own some day to balance the scales.