Saturday, August 18, 2007

Japanese High school baseball update, things I've learned from teaching ESL, and the next "boom" to hit Japan -- Vinegar Beer?

You never know where the next interesting "boom" will come from in Japan. Maybe it'll be a strange new fashion trend, like the Bob Marley craze a few summers ago when young Japanese thought they should dress in Jamaican colors, or the more recent Brit-Punk fashion trend inspired by the popularity of the manga Nana. (I'm hoping for the return of the heso-dashi summer, when all the cute girls wore half-shirts that showed their belly buttons.) Or maybe it'll be a food-related explosion in popularity, like when everyone was lining up to buy Belgian Waffles, or this summer's boom in mango-flavored foods of every type. With our house being renovated, I've been hitting the local onsen (hot spring public baths) pretty hard, and in one I happened across a poster advertising what might just be the next big thing: a cocktail of beer and delicious vinegar. There were two flavors for you to try, made with apple and grape vinegar, and both looked like they might actually be reasonably tasty, as far as those things go. Vinegar is considered quite healthy in Japan, and most mornings my wife presents me with a glass of diluted "black vinegar" (kurozu) made from unpolished rice, to reduce the acid content in my body, or something. Next to the Vinegar Beer was a poster advertising another new item: Ramune flavored "soft cream" (soft-serve ice cream), with the taste of that famous Japanese marble-in-a-bottle soft drink. Sounds delicious!

Beer with vinegar?

It's August, and that means it's time for another report on the High School Baseball Championship going on right now at Koshien (koh-she-en) Stadium near Osaka. High school baseball is really big in Japan, and teams from each of Japan's 47 prefectures try all season long to win the right to go to the championships. To go to Koshien is the dream of every young ball player, and it has a positive effect on the future careers of thousands of young men every year, whether they go on to play professional baseball or not. The high school baseball championships are followed closely on TV and in Japan's many sports-only newspapers (my father-in-law manages to read three of them every day), and fills a similar role as college sports in the U.S. The drama of a Koshien race is captured in manga and anime such as the classic Touch, a comic I used to study Japanese with while at SDSU. Thanks to one of the many bizarre coincendences that seem to happen only in Japan, the city I came to live in just happens to be the birthplace of Touch creator Mitsuru Adachi, and my wife has the same birthday as him -- go figure. This year our prefecture is once again represented at Koshien by Maebashi Commercial High School (abbreviated "Maesho"), Adachi-sensei's old alma mater (and also the school that our own Yasu graduated from). They're doing well, too -- if they win today's game they'll be in the top 8. Go, Maesho!

Before I started J-List, I did what many English-speaking foreigners before me have done, working as a teacher of English as a Second Language (ESL) and imparting my native language to students of all ages. Once thing I've noticed, at least when dealing with junior high and high school age students, is that they view English has having two sections that are only casually related. "English" is an important scholarly study, consisting of grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension, and it's needed to succeed in school and pass university entrance exams. This English is rather similar to mathematics, and there's only way "correct" answer to any given question, one "right" way of translating a given paragraph. The touchy-feely "English conversation," on the other hand, is optional, and only needed by Japanese who plan to live overseas or do a lot of traveling. Since the Japanese are so precise about their English, they take it for granted that all native speakers know every single English word ever, including complex medical terminology. They're also mistrustful of native English-speaking teachers who can't answer the question "why?" Why does this sentence need a gerund instead of an infinitive verb? Why do you say 'on a ship' when you're actually inside it? Being a teacher in Japan really led me to come to understand my own language on a new level.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Large and small forms of taste-related culture shock, why do the Japanese live so long, and how you can come live in Japan

There are naturally many large and small forms of culture shock a person experiences when they go go live in a foreign country, and I've had my share in Japan. One was getting used to the new tastes that were waiting for me. Right off the bat, Japanese milk tastes...different when you're used to American milk, at least at first. It's not bad or anything, but something about the Japanese cows or how the milk is processed took me time to get used to. Some other familiar products, such as Oreos, also taste slightly different (not as much sugar in them), although humans can adapt to anything. Then there were familiar products that came in "odd" taste variations, like milk flavored bread, salt flavored ramen (which is really chicken flavored), or -- it's really delicious, trust me -- "coffee jelly," coffee-flavored gelatin, excellent on a hot summer's day. Unlike America, where companies tend to think in terms of their next big national product roll-out, Japanese companies are more comfortable releasing short-run products on a more limited scale, which sometimes leads to some really interesting taste experiments, like Cucumber Ice Pepsi. Readers of J-List's snack pages know that you can always find something interesting in the taste department, from sukiyaki-flavored furikake to sprinkle on rice to rose-flavored gum and candy to the delicious Green Tea Butterscotch from Chealsea, we've got lots of fun stuff for you to try.

I noticed that the world's oldest woman passed away at the tender age of 114 the other day, and I wasn't surprised at all to see that she was Japanese. Mrs. Yone Minagawa was born in Fukushima Prefecture in 1893 when Grover Cleveland was in office, and was already in her 50s at the end of World War II -- wow. Thanks to healthy diets, social networks of lifelong friends and a generally competent national medical system, Japanese females are the longest lived people on the planet, with an average life expectancy of 85.8 years. Although it probably didn't get much mention in Michael Moore's "SICKO" documentary -- I've long stopped expecting the government and media in America to look at the various systems at work in Japan -- I think the country's medical system could be studied as a model that obviously works (since people are living a long time). It can best be described as a "blend" of private hospitals, clinics and related companies and a publically-guided insurance system, which imposes a framework that companies must work within. When you go to the doctor or dentist you bring your insurance card, and in general 70% of the costs will be covered. There are trade-offs, of course. Because of the cost caps instituted by the two health insurance systems -- Social Insurance for employees of medium-to-large companies, and Citizen's Insurance for everyone else -- not all types of care are available, so if you want to get the really good ceramic caps on your teeth as opposed to the ugly silver ones, you may need to pay for that yourself. Also, expect to go to the dentist 8 times to fix those two fillings, since they're not allowed to charge you more than a certain amount per day. Since there are more limitations on the Japanese medical system, some companies don't see the same amount of profit as in the U.S., and as a result, there's less investment in technology here (although I've never known of a hospital that needed an MRI scanner and didn't have one).

I receive a lot of questions from people interested in living in Japan someday, so I thought I'd address some of these issues in case it's helpful to anyone. While it certainly is difficult to come to a country as different from the U.S. or Europe as Japan is, it's certainly doable if you are determined. Many foreigners come to Japan on a tourist visa (3 months) and use that time to look for a job. When you find one, you have to leave the country once to process your working visa then re-enter on that visa -- most gaijin travel to nearby South Korea and do some sightseeing while they wait for their paperwork to come through. Alternately, citizens of some lucky nations like Canada, Australia and New Zealand can come on "working holiday" visas instead. Westerners are usually shocked by the difficult system of "key money" you must pay when renting an apartment. Between a security deposit (2 months), a finders-fee (paid to the company that got the apartment for you), first months' rent and "thank you money" (a move-in bonus for your landlord), it can cost $2000-4000 just to move into a small apartment. Of course, any discussion of how to work in Japan is precluded by the fact that to get a working visa at all, you must have a degree from a four-year university. So whenever young people interested in Japan ask me how they can come work in Japan, I invariably advise them to find a good, well-rounded university and get a degree -- do that, and you'll be surprised how easily the rest can fall into place.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Thoughts on e-books and other "revolutions," the worst-run government program in history, and why you don't want to be in a car in Japan now

Imagine what would happen if a quarter of all Americans lived in the Washington D.C. area instead of spread out around the country from sea to shining sea. That's essentially the case in Japan, where 27% of the nation's population lives in the Greater Tokyo Area, including Tokyo, Kawasaki, Yokohama and neighboring cities. When a long holiday like the current Obon break rolls around, everyone naturally tries to get out of Dodge at the same time, which can cause frightful congestion. This morning the snaking traffic jam out of the Tokyo area was 55 km (34 miles) long, as people tried to get back to their inaka (ee-NAH-KAH, home town), or anywhere out of the concrete jungle. One of the most popular destinations for Tokyo-ites is Karuizawa (ka-roo-ee-za-wa), the charming little town in the mountains that was discovered by a Canadian Priest in 1886 as a getaway spot for foreigners and which has enjoyed a special appeal ever since. Unless you like sitting in your car for 12 hours, however, I don't advise going there right now. The rush back into Tokyo Wednesday will be even worse, as hundreds of thousands hurry home so they can get back to work on Thursday.


One smart rule of thumb is that whenever a new product is pushed as "revolutionary," it probably won't be -- true revolutions, like TCP/IP, open email standards and Salad-in-a-Bag sort of sneak in through the back door when no one is looking. On my last flight back from the U.S. I happened to be seated next to a medium-level Sony executive, who seemed to be on a mission to show everyone on the plane his cool Sony e-book reader, which let him flip through pages of "virtual" books. If its e-books you're looking for, they may be here in Japan right now, available on the phones that people are already using. Just point your keitai (cell phone) browser to websites like EZ Book Land or Gokko and you can buy thousands of books from "light novels" aimed at the anime-and-manga crowd to steamy Harlequin Romances (yes, they have those here). There's even a whole category of novels actually written by authors using cell phones, due to a quirk of the syllabically-structured Japanese language that makes it as fast or faster to input text using a 10-key pad than on a computer keyboard. (Using a phone keypad, "arigatou" (ありがとう) would be 1992*44444111, which looks confusing but it's quite easy once you know how hiragana works.) Even major companies like Yahoo Japan are getting into the electronic novel business, adding services top help readers find this week's top-selling titles.

If there was an award for poorest administration of a government program ever, I'd like to nominate the Japanese National Pension System. The equivalent of Social Security in the U.S., the program is designed to guarantee Japanese a minimum income after requirement, but it's got a lot wrong with it. First of all, workers are "required" to make their premium payments, but since there's no mechanism to force employees of smaller companies and the self-employed to do this, millions never bother -- including some well-known politicians, a scandal which brought down a few careers when it came to light in 2004. Then there were the many wasteful projects built with pension money to "foster economic activity," like a government-built resort that no one ever uses called Green Pier. Finally, there are the estimated 50 million payments that were mishandled by the National Pension System during the computerization of the records in the 1980s, which has resulted in a huge number of people losing credit for real money they parted with years ago. The government is trying to fix the problem, but with the old records thrown away, many citizens are reciting that famous Japanese phrase, shikata ga nai (it can't be helped). This is one of those rare times when having more lawyers would really help, since Japan lacks the basic legal framework to force the government to take action and fix things before, say, pensioners start dying of old age. Taxpay- ers have found one effective way to vent their anger at the situation, at the voting box, and the election last month saw the ruling Liberal (not) Democratic (not) Party go from 64 to 37 seats. I still have to check and make sure the 4+ years I paid into the system as a salaryman teacher were counted or not.

View of Mt. Asama, the really big volcano.

My breakfast was less than traditional, being comprised of Miso Soup and Count Chocola that I'd brought back from the States.

Time to head back. We always try to buy somethiing from the old couple who runs this little shop (really, they fill the vending machine out front), since they look like they could use the business.

Always nice to have a "Navi" when taking a road trip.

This is my favorite drink in the world, essentially a carbonated health drink by Coca-Cola that tastes like vitamins, but I like it for some reason anyway.