Monday, March 10, 2008


Due to various complications in my life, I have decided that it would probably be best for me to stop blogging.

I want to thank all of the really kind and wonderful people who have taken the time to read and comment. I've developed quite an affection for some of you and seeing your names show up next to some comments always brightens my day. I'll still be reading the blogs of the nice folks who I met here so you'll still hear from me where you are doing your writing.

Thank you and all of my best to you.

Sunday, March 09, 2008


Lately, I've noticed that my strongest impulse to make blog posts seems to come within 15 or fewer minutes of a lesson starting with one of my students. In fact, as I write this, I have a lesson 10 minutes away. This seems like a pretty absurd thing to have happen as it guarantees I won't be able to finish before the student shows up, so I've wondered what this is all about.

I'm a relatively nervous and compulsive person when it comes to preparation for a task and I tend to want to have all my ducks in a row (so to speak, no actual ducks are used in my lessons though it'd be a lot cooler if they were) long before the lessons are due to start. I'm guessing the timing of my posts being started is connected with the fact that I get the preparation out of the way and find that there is still a bit of time left. The mind starts tiptoeing through the tulips of my thought fragments and trips over one that hasn't been discussed yet and I sit at the keyboard and start working.

In my experience, creativity cannot occur unless one has periods of idleness. In fact, I've noticed that a lot of my blog pieces and my Carl pieces tend to gestate while I'm standing in the shower waiting for the conditioner to penetrate my hair. The fact that I can measure my idle moments in minutes rather than in hours (or half hours even) is slightly disturbing and something I believe I should attempt to rectify sooner rather than later.

The irony is that, as a "housewife" who works freelance and part-time, it'd seem that I should have a lot of free time, but it doesn't work that way. Being female and being in the house all day is an invitation to spending more time cleaning. Also, I suffer from something I'd term "Japanese housewife syndrome". This is when your household tasks take a lot more time because of the limits of living in a culture which makes labor saving of all sorts much more difficult because there's not enough demand for it in a culture where women are expected to use their "free" time for housework.

Additionally, there's something about being in a space a lot of the time (in addition to working in it) which makes me even more compulsive about keeping it clean and tidy than I otherwise might be...and I'm already pretty compulsive. So, time is being vacuumed up in large chunks by all the myriad of "little" things I need to get done and all the piecework I do leaving only the finest dusty fragments in the corner for me to spend on creative pursuits.

Friday, March 07, 2008


Recently, I've been doing a lot of essay correction work for one of my students. This is relatively unusual as most lessons are spent actually speaking with one another rather than my staring down at a paper scribbling corrections in silence. During these corrections, it's so quiet that I can hear the clock tick.

As of late, my student's stomach has been loudly rumbling during these periods of quiet correction. While she's very embarrassed, I reassure her that it's not a problem at all and it happens to everyone. She feels obliged to tell me it's because she eats lunch just before coming over and I continue to tell her that it neither troubles nor offends me. In fact, I've become adept at ignoring all sorts of bodily noises after years in Japan including the sort which are accompanied by less than rosy odors. The human body doesn't obey the will of its owner, and this is more often so as you get older.

In an effort to hopefully make my student feel more at ease, I told her a story of an incident at my former job about 12 years ago. In addition to making textbooks, my former company made CDs of various types of content to accompany the books. For one of the books devoted to improving TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores, my company decided it'd save some money by making a male coworker and I do the voice acting in the recording studio.

On the surface, voice acting may not seem like much of a chore, but it's actually quite difficult. Voice actors in Japan ask for anything between 10,000-25,000 yen an hour ($97-$242) (or at least they did at that time, rates may have changed by now). In fact, I believe the woman they hired for the Japanese voice acting chores may have been on the upper end of that range. Since my coworker and I were both North American (and therefore had the "right" accent for such work in the opinions of the Japanese), had reasonably nice voices, and, most importantly of all, were only being paid 2,000 yen ($19) an hour, we were pressed into service.

The sessions were held in a ramshackle studio in the armpit areas of Shinjuku. We sweat because using the air conditioning in the small, tightly-sealed space caused too much noise and would be picked up by the mics. What's worse, certain heavy traffic nearby would shake the room and the vibrations could be heard. It was hardly the ideal set-up for recording, but I'm guessing it had the same benefit that my coworker and I did. That is, it was cheap.

We would have to record for hours on end and we were not up to the task. Neither of us had any experience and there are certain "tricks of the trade" we weren't aware of like making sure you don't blow air out of your lips too strongly when you pronounce a "f" or a "p" sound as it'll make a strange noise on the recording. It also seemed that we never had enough "acting" skill and were both constantly told we sounded too "flat" and had to infuse our speaking about things like exchanging business cards or buying a pair of pants with more life and energy. They also expected us to time the pauses between dialogs and sentences by counting in our heads rather than offering us a watch, clock or timer, and I was always starting too fast or slow and being chastised for not waiting long enough. It was hard enough to focus on the script and not flubbing up or losing my place, not puffing out too much air on my "f's" and "p's" without having to silently count between each sentence.

After sitting in that small room for hours on end with the oxygen running out and the heat building up and being constantly criticized, it was rather difficult to build up much of an energetic vibe. Some sessions lasted 3-4 hours and we were pretty wrecked by the end of the first one. If all the various inadequacies of the soundproofing of the studio weren't enough to frustrate our progress, my coworker started to have serious empty stomach rumblings. They were so loud that the mics were clearly picking them up and we had to keep stopping and doing things over. Eventually, someone ran out and bought a bunch of bananas at a "Mom and Pop" fruit shop near the studio and he crammed a few down to try and quiet his disruptive digestive system.

After these experiences, I never wanted to set foot in a recording studio again and believe voice actors who are good at what they do deserve every yen of their high fees. Getting back to my student though, I told her this story mainly to let her know that it happens to everyone, and that it's clearly out of one's control. Even when you desperately need to stop it like in the situation we were in, there's nothing you can do.

The Dead Helping the Living

My friend Joseph over at "Tame Goes Wild" has been studying Japanese at university for the past several years. It's a staggering amount of work becoming fluent in Japanese and I really respect how hard he both tries to accomplish his goals and become a better person. He often uses his Japanese speech and presentation opportunities to discuss important social issues. He's a gentle, kind soul and I hope you'll all make his Daily Mumble a regular read. He'll inspire you to try to be a better person, too. Sometimes when things in life make me feel down and discouraged, reading about his efforts lift my spirits.

In today's post, Joseph mentioned some interesting facts about organ donation in Japan and I made a huge comment containing some information I was eventually going to get around to posting, but hadn't gotten there yet. Google sent up error messages each time I tried to send the comment (with an attractive hexadecimal code to send along so they'd know what went wrong). I figured I'd try and salvage the (potentially) lost comment and just make the post I was going to make anyway.

A very long time ago, there was a legal drama called "L.A. Law" by David E. Kelly. This is the same man who currently makes the television drama/comedy "Boston Legal" and previously made the (abysmal in my opinion) "Ally McBeal" and (brilliant, again in my opinion) "The Practice". One of the things Kelly does in a lot of his legal shows is use real life cases as fodder for the dramatic situations on his shows. One of the memorable cases on L.A. Law was about a friend of one of the attorney's on the show who needed an organ donation or she would die. She was on a waiting list, but a 50 something Japanese man was being given the next available donation because he had paid a lavish sum of money for the privilege. The attorney argued about the ethics (or lack thereof) of allowing financial capability to determine who gets organs rather than need and how this created a situation where the rich and privileged received disproportionately better care. The way this worked, by the way, was that the donor was bribed to offer their organs to the highest bidder. She lost the case and ended up paying a bribe to another donor in order to keep her friend alive despite her own disapproval of this practice and that of her colleagues.

The reason this little drama was written into the show is that this is exactly what happens when many Japanese people need organ donations. As Joseph's statistics show, a staggeringly low number of Japanese people are willing to donate organs despite the fact that a very high percentage claim to approve of them. It is clear that they approve of them as recipients, not as donors themselves and to this day it's common for Japanese people who need organs to go abroad and pay big money to get them.

If you think I'm wagging a finger or criticizing the Japanese, you'd be wrong. While the imbalance is obvious (they're receiving and not giving), there are cultural reasons for their reluctance to donate organs and, despite cases where people can pay for the organs they get abroad, I'm sure that there are far more cases where people die in need of organs. In the end, they only harm themselves, and it's not really about fault but about belief systems which they have grown up with and a medical system which gives power to the families rather than respecting the wishes of the deceased.

My husband and I have discussed the topic of organ donation many, many times with students as there's a lesson on it in one of the textbooks both of us use (Impact Issues) about the topic. There's a cultural reason for the Japanese not donating organs (likely based in Buddhism according to my students). They do not believe the body should be cut into after death and feel the removal of any parts inhibits their ability to reach heaven. As it was explained to me, they have to cross a river after death and not being intact makes it hard to do so. In fact, I recall a gruesome murder case awhile back where a little girl was murdered and her hands were cut off by the killer and the comment the mother made to the paper was something like 'how can my little girl get to heaven without her hands?'

While Japanese people are not religious, they can be superstitious and also become more spiritually minded as they get older (as do most people). They may not exactly believe in their faiths, but they figure it's better to be safe than sorry, especially about the afterlife. They're not the only ones who feel this way. Some people who are raised as Christians and abandon their faith will still baptize their children "just in case". The fears and ideas you are indoctrinated in can be very strong and it's something all cultures share, not just the Japanese.

The other problem is that organ donation doesn't only come down to what the person who died wanted. If an individual signs up for organ donation and his family decides they don't want him to donate his organs, they can cancel his request, so even open-minded, "fearless" people who go against the grain of their cultural beliefs can be trumped out of making donations after death by a family who is uncomfortable with the idea of organ donation. Given cultural notions about cutting up the body after death, I have to imagine that most families would opt not to allow for donations.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Temporary Shuffle

When I first started working full-time at my former company (a Japanese office job that involved textbook making as well as teaching via correspondence), I was informed through indirect channels that the president had a policy with the foreign employees which was essentially "three years and you're out." At the time, I thought this was a plan built around the idea that they'd have to pay us more if we stayed around too long or a frivolous desire for fresh blood. To this day, I can't be sure that that wasn't the case, but something I learned about working in Japan awhile back has made me reconsider my original thinking.

The lion's share of Japanese employees can be roughly divided into two categories. First, there are salaried employees who have all the benefits that one would expect. They get twice yearly bonuses, salary raises each year, the possibility to be promoted, health insurance payments are subsidized by the company, and there is the possibility of a company pension and a housing allowance. Salaried workers are also hard to fire and have better job security. On the down side, they often live the classic life of the overworked in Japan and work overtime, particularly if they are male. These days, overtime is often paid though most employees generally don't claim all the hours they work and are in fact told not to claim more than a certain amount of overtime hours no matter how much they work.

The other class of workers are "temporary" workers. In the U.S., a temp. usually means a person who is relatively short-term and whose work at a particular location is measured in months. In Japan, it essentially means a contract employee who works according to the terms of a one-year contract which may or may not be renewed at the end of the year. The hope tends to be that the employee will renew though rather than they won't be renewed. Of course, at times, the contract employees don't make it past a probationary period, but the same sometimes happens with salaried workers who don't work out.

In contrast to salaried workers, contract (or "temporary") workers don't get a company pension, their insurance isn't augmented in many cases, and usually don't get bonuses or tend to get smaller or less frequent ones. I've never known one to get subsidized housing or company housing. Generally speaking, a lot of contract employees are female and single or married and working to augment the family income until they decide to have children. That's not to say there are no male contract workers, but just the vast majority are female. The benefits of being a contract employee are that every hour must be paid so there's no unpaid overtime and the hourly wages tend to be a bit higher than salaried workers when you don't factor in bonus payments. Also, the responsibilities of such employees are often spelled out in their contracts so work can't be heaped on them in some cases.

Something I learned within the last year or so about contract employees, of which I was one at my former company, is that there is a law in Japan which says that such employees can only serve three years at their current position and then, by law, must be offered a chance to be a salaried worker. Of course, the companies can simply not renew the contracts of such workers after the third year, but generally, they would prefer to keep experienced workers. You can see why I started to question my conclusions about the "three years and you're out" rule for foreign employees at my former company. It's possible they were trying to adhere to the law in this regard.

I can only speculate as to the motivation behind such a law. If I had to guess, I'd think it has to do with making sure people who are good and well-suited to a job have security and are rewarded for their efforts to apply themselves to a job. While I'm generally cynical about the laws made to protect employees, I can't see how this one necessarily benefits employers since they view contract employees as being cheaper to employ than salaried workers. In fact, one of my students recently told me that she was concerned because her type of work was almost entirely populated by this class of worker and she was afraid that, as a rare salaried employee working as support staff, she'd be forced to take a different job or accept a change in her status which would carry a lower wage and none of the benefits she currently enjoys.

More recently, I've learned that companies are finding loopholes in this law. They are circumventing the nature of it by shuffling contract employees to different sections. Apparently, the law only says that you must be offered a salaried position only if you're staying on for a fourth year in the same position. If this sounds like a bit of a sneaky way of avoiding hiring people on in better positions, I regret to say that it gets even worse. Some companies are not satisfied to shuffle such workers to avoid offering them better jobs in accord with the law. They weasel out of compliance by leaving the employees in the same position doing the same job, but rename the section so it appears as though they have been transferred.

Apparently, there has been a court case recently which directly relates to the attempts on the part of some companies to get around the law and Canon has been on the hot seat for having done this. It's relatively rare though that an employee stands up for his or her rights though so I doubt that any sort of precedent will be set even if Canon should lose. Also, the truth is that a lot of contract workers prefer to stay where they are and refuse salaried positions when they are offered. This is probably because the biggest benefit of being such a worker as compared to a salaried worker is that you can walk away with far less guilt and with no sense of "betrayal" of company loyalty as such loyalty is not expected from them.