Thursday, December 28, 2006

The start of Japan's important Holiday Season, a local battle over a Ferris Wheel, and understanding Japanese humility through baseball players

Now that Christmas is past, Japan is getting ready for its own big season, Oshogatsu or New Year's Day, by far the most important holiday in Japan. But before we can start the new year, there's plenty of work to do, beginning with ohsoji (oh-SOH-jee, 大掃除), the year-end "big cleaning" that everyone does here, cleaning their home from top to bottom, re-papering the shoji doors, replacing the family toothbrushes, and so on. Companies do "big cleaning" too, and tomorrow is the day when all J-List employees will stop work and spend half the day cleaning everything, sweeping and vacuuming and wiping every inch of the office, washing all the windows, and even the front door -- you know a building is clean when the doors have been washed. It's also the season to eat one of my favorite Japanese foods, mochi, called rice cakes in English, essentially a block of white rice that's been pressed into a solid shape. Cook the mochi squares over a flame and they will become soft and chewy, just delicious wrapped in nori and smothered in soy sauce. Between cleaning and having Year End Parties and stocking up for the first few days of January when most stores are closed, people are extra busy this time of year. The old name for the month of December is Shiwasu (she-WA-su), and that word now describes the frazzled state everyone is in as they try to get everything done before the clock runs out.

Ferris Wheel in Cherry Blossom season

J-List is based in Isesaki, a small city of 200,000 people that's located almost at the exact center of Japan's main island of Honshu, famous for the "Three K's" of konnyaku, kara-kaze and kakaa-denka (respectively, a traditional gelatin-like food made from boiled yams, the cold, the biting winds of winter and strong-willed women who are usually more competent than their husbands at getting things done). It's also famous for a giant Ferris Wheel that was for a brief time the tallest in Japan when it was erected in 1985. While eating lunch, I was surprised to see our little city appear on the TV news, with the home of the mayor (who by an amazing chance lives next door to us, hence our house was also visible on the news) talking about his big plans to tear down our perfectly good Ferris Wheel and build a new one about two km to the north, so that people driving by our town on the freeway can oo and ah about it and presumably get off the freeway to ride it. The plan, budgeted at a cool $9 million, is made possible by a grant from the national government, which is picking up 70% of the tab to encourage commercial activity. Japan is positively in love with construction, and every year brings an endless parade of pork-barrel projects that are extremely wasteful of the country's resources, like the infamous Aqualine Tunnel from Tokyo to Chiba, which takes longer than driving the long way around yet costs a whopping $30 to use. Although most residents oppose the new Ferris Wheel project, the City Council has already accepted the money from the government, and no one questions the fact that most of the councilmembers (and the mayor himself) either own or sit on the boards of local construction companies that are well positioned to capture a lot of that $9 million for themselves.

One of the most important qualities for a person to have in Japan is modesty, a reserved, unconceited nature, called kenson (ken-SON) in Japanese, and you need look no further than the Japanese baseball players active in the U.S. for an example of this concept. Observe the quiet pre-swing pose struck by Ichiro Suzuki before he meets the ball, the shy smile of Hideki Matsui and of course the pure self-effacing personality of the man who made the current wave of Japanese players possible, Hideo Nomo. Humility is important in the sumo world, too, and one of the reasons famous Hawaiian wrestler Konishiki failed to achieve the top rank of Yokozuna was that he was judged lacking in the humble spirit that a Grand Master of the sport must have. A reserved, humble attitude is tantamount during a Japanese-style job interview, too, and successful applicants will actually talk down their own past work achievements in ways that would be incomprehensible in the U.S., where resume-padding and a bit of exaggeration are all part of getting a job. You can really get a feel for Japan's respect for the conservative and reticent by comparing Japan's #1 fashion doll, Takara's Licca-chan, with Mattel's Barbie. Where Barbie is extremely tall and glamorous with a figure that most girls could only hope for, Licca is a petite, polite girl who helps her mother around the house and studies hard at school, traits which make her more popular with Japanese.

Some random images from Guam. We had to rent an "open car" for the island of course, so I decided to splurge and get a Mustang convertable.

One of the places we visited was a memorial park commemorating the places where the American troops came ashore in 1944. Many people died right where we were walking. Another island, Saipan, is even more famous for its battle scars, and there are many beaches you can't go in because there's ordinance and rusting tanks sitting out there. My son, American and Japanese, was curious about the entirety of the war, and asked how the hell tiny Japan thought they could somehow defeat a huge country with bajillions of natural resources like the U.S.? Good question...

Sugoi. (Amazing)

The kids.

This was our day in Cocos Beach or whatever it was called. Among other things, this beautiful beach serves as a major place where Japanese photobooks and "image videos" are shot.

Daughter Rina relaxes in a hammock.

My feet.

My view. It was good at the time but now I'm back in cold Japan :(

I guess people in warm places have fun in Christmas too, but we were tickled by all the Island Christmas stuff we kept seeing, Santa Claus decorations, plastic snowmen, that sort of thing. It was quite amusing.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Extremely warm Christmas greetings from Guam, comparisons of Christmas, and using a "contrite attitude" to get government documents

The warmest Christmas Greetings from J-List! We hope that everyone is having an great holiday wherever you are, surrounded by good family and friends. We're enjoying ourselves on the island of Guam, a tropical paradise located about 1500 miles from Tokyo, one of the few places where Christmas is less "Christmas-like" then sunny San Diego. Because it's a territory of the U.S. courtesy of the Spanish-American War of 1898, it's blessed with all the comforts of home, like Taco Bell and Tony's Ribs and what is likely the only K-Mart in Asia. Besides going on a dolphin-watching cruise and getting in some quality snorkeling in, we're stocking up on all those useful items like Pop-Tarts, Campbell's soup and Triscuits (go ahead, try living in a country that doesn't have Triscuits, you'll pine for them too). During one day trip, we passed near the portion of the jungle made famous by Shoichi Yokoi, a Japanese solder who remained in Guam, unaware that the war had ended for 28 years. He hid in a tiny cave, eating bugs and rats and making his own clothes out of jungle plants until he was eventually discovered in 1972. The jungle where he lived is quite a tourist spot now.

Christmas in Japan is a lot different from the rest of the world. Without a genuine tradition of celebrating yuletide, the Japanese often choose to import the more "fun" elements of the season, with Santa-san (yes, they really call him that) and presents and Christmas songs, and not so many of the solemn, pleasant themes found in America and Europe. Christians do celebrate Christmas, attending a special mass after they get off work (Christmas isn't a holiday in Japan). For my first Christmas in Japan, I attended mass at the local Baptist church, and was surprised at how similar everything was to what I'd seen back home, except that the Bible was in Japanese. But by and large religious themes play a small part in Christmas here -- instead, Christmas is something for kids, for couples to go on that special date, and for friends to have a fun Christmas party with lots of loud music and maybe firecrackers. This is a major difference between Japan and the U.S.: we are usually solemn on Christmas and have a blast on New Year's, but things are done in reverse here.

When you live in a foreign country and learn a foreign language, it's natural that you internalize the values of the people there. I'm sure that foreigners who emigrate to Canada tend to pick up the Canadian way of doing things, while my sister, who's lived in Germany for many years, is no doubt very Germanized inside (we've got the Axis languages covered quite well in my family). In Japan, there's a concept called hansei, which means to reflect on what you've done wrong and show the proper humble attitude, an important skill required for Japanese society to function smoothly. At the airport coming here, I had a problem with my passport -- I'd stupidly forgotten to get a re-entry stamp put in at the local Immigration Office, meaning that I might not be able to re-enter Japan when we returned, even though I have permanent residence status. My wife was beside herself with worry -- would she and the kids have to leave for Guam without me? I knew, though, that striking the proper contrite attitude (not faked of course, I was truly sorry for forgetting to get the stamp) with the immigration officials would somehow create a solution, and sure enough they come through for me. While they were working on putting the stamp in my passport, there was another gaijin with a similar problem in the office with me. He was acting angry and frustrated rather than apologetic, and was causing more problems for himself by doing so.

Remember that we've got less than a week in our first-ever free shipping sale on Domo-kun products going on this month, which allows you to bag a bunch of cool Domo-kun stuff and not pay any shipping (yes, even if you choose EMS and yes, even the Really Big Domo Plush that we've still got in stock). This sale will never be repeated, so you should get your order in before Dec 31st if you want to score some cool Domo-kun stuff.

Here's us on a banana boat. Merry Christmas from J-List!