Sometimes it's fun to look back on how things have changed since I came to Japan in 1991. The Tokyo land bubble had just burst but the shock hadn't trickled down very far yet, and businesses still seemed to be in "bubble mode" -- on my first trip to Tokyo Disneyland, for example, I went into an ice cream shop and was surprised to see no less than eleven employees waiting to serve me ice cream even though I was the only customer in the place. In retrospect, the off-and-on recession years of the 1990s were really good for Japan, forcing it to adopt a "reality based" approach to its economy which is bringing benefits now. When I first came here, Japan was a very closed place, truly an island nation, where common brands like Coca-Cola and Budweiser seemed downright exotic because there were so few other foreign products around, but there's a lot more choice now. By far the biggest change in life in Japan has been the arrival of that newfangled Internet thing you've been hearing so much about. Back in the day, it cost $4 a minute to call home, so I learned to talk fast, but in the age of broadband and Skype, Japan doesn't seem like such a far-away place anymore.
Like plover birds that clean crocodiles' teeth, gaijin in Japan serve many useful functions to our Japanese hosts. First and foremost, we notice things, and provide an important point of reference for Japan's all-too homogeneous society. When I first arrived in Japan, I was shocked to see cars on the roads with children playing inside and nary a child safety seat in sight -- carseats just weren't part of the national consciousness yet. No doubt the combined "frown power" of foreigners living here helped push lawmakers to enact Japan's first carseat law, which they finally did in 2000. Sometimes I find myself noticing little linguistic oddities in the Japanese language and sharing them with people around me, whether they want to hear about them or not. For example, the word sashimi (sliced raw fish) is written with characters that mean "stabbed meat" （刺し身）, but if you've ever tried stabbing sashimi with chopsticks you'd get some funny looks. The word chawan means "rice bowl" yet is written with characters that actually mean "tea bowl" (茶碗), and no one thinks anything of this. A Japanese child who has lived abroad for a time and returned is a kikoku shijo (帰国子女）, which means literally means "return-country girl-child" even though the term applies to boys, too. And the Japanese word for novel is written with characters that mean "short story" (小説）. There's plenty of weirdness in English, of course, but because we aren't as aware of the individual meanings of parts of words, we don't notice them as much.
More pictures from "What we did on our Oshogatsu" (New Year's Day). Here we sit at my wife's uncle's house, drinking beer, eating good food and playing old Japanese card games. This is a rather easy game about a princess, a feudal lord and a Buddhist priest.
Then it was time to play some Hana Fuda, which my kids love.
The deck of Hana Fuda cards our uncle brought out was quite rare. Can you guess why? Hint, look at those three characters on the bottom of the package of cards. These cards were made by Nintendo, back when this was what they did.
No New Year's would be complete without mikan oranges. Since we had no mikan oranges, we ate deko-pon oranges, which are larger and sweeter. But they're not strictly speaking, mikans.
I was holding my MacBook Pro and my cell phone, and our uncle was so interested I showed him some of the stuff you could do with the Internet, namely Google Earth and Google itself. He wanted to look up some pictures of his old ship, the Ise, and we found some good ones. This was a hell of a ship, a battleship with three main batteries of guns, along with runways in the back that could accommodate 22 planes. See more pictures here.