Friday, April 14, 2006

The "eyes of others" as a social engine, interesting new directions for 7-11 in Japan, and fun with Japanese words part XXVI

One of the engines that drives Japanese society and makes Japanese people the way they are is called hito no me (HEE-toh no meh), which translates as "the eyes of others." In all that you do in Japan, there is the sense that you're being watched by everyone around you, and that if you stray too far outside the invisible lines of what is acceptable, you'll be judged harshly by your neighbors. This tendency to be concerned with appearances is a big part of daily life here, and it's part of the reason why Japan can seem a very homogenous place when viewed from the outside. In Japan, you throw your garbage out on set days, and knowing what kind of trash is okay to put out on any given day can require a Masters Degree in Trashology. But if you don't follow the rules and put exactly the right trash out that morning (not, by the way, the night before, even if you're a gaijin who works til 11 pm at an English school and prefers to sleep til noon), you'll suffer the ire of the ever-watching people around you, which subtly causes you to conform in ways that no threat of punishment could. Since most people in Japan are considerably thinner than they are in the States (at 100 kg, I am gargantuan for Japan, and have been asked if I was a professional wrestler), there is always that pressure to conform to the others around me and lose weight -- which is a good thing of course, if it improves health. In the U.S., we try to value adversity and individuality, and if we saw someone walking under an umbrella even though it wasn't raining outside, we might chuckle and say that he dances to his own tune. But in Japan there's less chance that doing something that no one else is doing will be viewed in a favorable light.

I think I found studying Japanese at SDSU enjoyable because it was so different from English -- there were so many linguistic concepts that didn't exist in my native language, which sometimes made constructing sentences easier in Japanese (no messing with past participle and present perfect tense, as they don't exist), and sometimes more challenging. One group of intriguing expressions that fall into the latter group are "repeating phrases" the are pregnant with meaning. The phrase soro soro adds the idea that the time for something has come to a sentence (e.g. soro soro ikimasho, "Let's go (because it's time we should be going)"). Another similar phrase is waza waza, meaning "to go to all the trouble" (waza waza motte kite kurete arigato, "Thanks for going out of your way to bring it to me"). If you have a sparkling new car, it's pika pika (pee-KA pee-KA, gleaming with newness), but if you don't take care of it, it'll be boro boro (old and rusty). These descriptive repeating words get blended with English, too, with words like rabu rabu (love-love, describing a couple that is very much in love), and ero ero (which describes most males I know, similar in meaning to ecchi).

Japanese Denny's with 7-11 sign

As the Japanese economy limps on, some companies are having to reinvent themselves to survive, and one such company is the beleaguered Ito Yokado group. Their department stores has fallen on hard times, but the chain of 7-11 convenience stores that they own is still doing well, so the company decided to reorganize their whole group under the name "7&i Holdings," with a revamped 7-11 logo. Now while driving through our city we can see normal 7-11 convenience stores here and there, and one department store with the same logo, like a giant 5-story version of 7-11 that happens to sell clothes and furniture. The company also operates Denny's restaurants in Japan, and sure enough, these have all been "re-branded" with the new logo. While the food in Denny's in Japan is pretty good (they lack the 800-calorie strawberry shakes that they sell in the States, though), having a 7-11 sign stuck on the side of a restaurant can really make you think about food and we perceive it.

Here's the Ito Yokado department store in Maebashi, with its spiffy new 7-11 logo.

And their Denny's/7-11 logo.

Denny's in Japan is all about washoku (Japanese style food), and there's no Big Mac clone, no giant thick shake (with an extra stainless steel cup in case you didn't get enough the first time), no Grand Slam or breakfast menu.

The miso soup is good at Denny's ni Japan. Much better than the non-existent miso soup at Denny's in the U.S. And you know, if you can see from this pic, these are the coolest, most carefully carved balsa-wood chopsticks I've used in a long time.

The true bellweather for a restaurant is how good its ice coffee is, and Denny's was really good, right up there with Kizoku no Mori and Silk Road, two local restaurants whose ice coffee we revere.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Modern Japanese problems and "Amakudari," politeness in Japan, and when to show reflection for something

First of all, the J-List website was down for a few hours on Friday night due to a server glitch, which we solved by switching in a new machine. We're very sorry for the inconvenience if you were trying to use the site during that time window.

All modern democracies face various problems, including how to deal with aging populations, how to manage fiscal resources to provide the maximum benefit to the public, and so on. A major problem in Japan today is amakudari, which literally means "descending from heaven" and describes the tradition of high-ranking government bureaucrats retiring from public service then entering the employment of companies in industries they used to regulate, trading their name and kone (personal connections) in exchange for a high salary. There's a government-mandated two-year waiting period before outgoing ministry officials can work in the private sector, so the officials promote the creation of "special corporations" (特別法人) to fill various needs, for example building a beautiful glass-and-steel facility to provide services for the elderly in a rural part of the country (whether it's really needed or not). When the official retires, he can work at this "special corporation," whose finances come from the public purse but whose expenditures are almost completely free of outside inspection, then move on to his high-paying private industry job when his two-year waiting period is over. Japanese taxpayers are rightly upset by both the massive wasting of their tax dollars as well as the inability of Japan's politicians to tackle this huge problem.

Japan is a country that believes in getting along harmoniously -- a good idea, considering that they have half the population of the U.S. crammed into an area the size of New Mexico, if you go by habitable land. The Japanese have evolved a system of politeness that acts as a guide in many formal and business and some day-to-day situations, which consists of two parts. The first is that you should act in a humble way, keeping strong opinions to yourself in certain situations and deflecting praise others might direct at you away from yourself ("no, this cake I baked isn't delicious at all"). You then raise up certain others to a higher position than you -- say, someone you're doing business with, a customer in your shop, or a guest in your home -- with special language, called "exalting" speech. Certain common phrases, like irasshaimase (ee-RAH-SHAI-mah-say, meaning "welcome"), which is what employees in a businss say to customers as they come in, are based on this formal system of politeness. Of course, Japan isn't always such a well-mannered place, and you can verify this by going to a supermarket and watching the middle-aged women beat each other for the last tray of sashimi, but by and large, politeness plays a big part of getting along in Japan.

Related to the idea that humility is a good trait for people to have is the concept of hansei, which can be translated as reflection, introspection, and contemplation. Parents strive to bring their kids up so that they are able to honestly reflect on their mistakes, and the Japanese version of being taken out to the woodshed is to be made to sit seiza style (kneeling while sitting on your feet) for one hour and reflect on what you did wrong. I received a lesson in hansei soon after I came to Japan. I was riding my mountain bike (it's a requirement of the Geneva Convention that all gaijin in Japan ride a mountain bike) when suddenly an elderly woman scrambled out in front of me. She had been looking for cars, not bicycles, and didn't see me at all, which resulted in me crashing into her and careening over the handlebars. An ambulance came to take her to a hospital so she could be checked out, and the police came to make an official report. I remember being surprised when they immediately told me that the accident was completely my fault -- I figured that a collision between a bicycle and a pedestrian would be something like 50-50, since neither is an automobile. When I asked about this, the policeman got angry with me, and I realized that I had failed to show the proper attitude of reflection and concern for the woman I'd hit that was called for in a situation like that. Fortunately, the woman was fine, and I learned something about how to get along in Japan.

J-List loves to bring you things from Japan you can't find anywhere else, and one thing we love to sell are wacky J-Snacks. This year Nestle brought out a limited edition Green Tea Kit Kat made with Uji Cha, a delicious variety of green tea grown near Kyoto. While the deluxe-sized package containing 17 individually wrapped Kit Kats is great for keeping in your desk or putting in a bowl for everyone at work, it might be a bit much for those who just want to see what they taste like. Well, we've got a new Green Tea Kit Kat Half Set, with a more manageable eight individually wrapped packs of Kit Kat at a reduced price. Enjoy!