Saturday, November 03, 2007

Funny moments in Japan, Tokyo's famous Asakusa district, and limitations of Japanese "humility"

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Today was my ningen dokku or "human drydock," an annual health check-up that tests every part of your body with assembly-line precision, a modern tradition that's one reason why Japanese have such long life spans. While I was waiting for the next test I saw on the TV that Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets had passed away at the age of 92. He was the pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, something that made him rather infamous here in Japan. It was an interesting moment to be an American surrounded by Japanese people, and the room suddenly seemed to get a little quieter around me -- I probably had one of those big drops of sweat on my head like in anime. It can be hard to know how to feel about the bombing of Hiroshima, an event so terrible it's hard to comprehend, yet it helped end a war that might have gone on for two more years and claimed another million lives. When I took my kids to see the excellent museums in Hiroshima I tried to present the complexity of these problems to them so they can make their own decisions about the past, since they're both American and Japanese.

One of the most famous spots in Tokyo is Asakusa (ah-SAH-ku-SAH), home of the Senso-ji temple and a nice place to eat, drink or take part in a festival. Several famous corporations also happen to be located in the district, including the Bandai Company and Asahi Beer, which has a giant golden, er, shape on top of its headquarters which is supposed to remind you of the head on a cold beer...but everyone agrees it looks like a giant golden unko (poop), which the president of the company probably did for good luck purposes. Asakusa is a popular destination for foreign visitors to Japan, the last time I was there I was impressed to see a local shop owner barking prices at various customers in English, Chinese, German, French, Korean and occasionally Japanese. I'm sure more than a few foreign visitors have been surprised to see the beautiful lanterns that line Nakamise Dori with big, bright swastikas on them. They're nothing to do with the Nazis, of course -- the hooks go to the left, not to the right -- but seeing to this symbol in daily life takes some getting used to. Look on any map in Japan and you're sure to see many of these symbols indicating the presence of a Buddhist temple. Other symbols used on Japanese maps include a Japanese arch which marks Shinto shrines, and one of my favorites, the "onsen mark" or registered symbol indicating a volcanic hot springs. All of these characters are included in Japanese fonts and can be produced on any Mac or PC. (We've got a few cool T-shirts incorporating some of these designs on the site.)

From a certain point of view, the Japanese are all about "kenson," or modesty, and there are many customs related to avoiding appearing boastful to others. Right off the bat, this tendency towards humility is built into the language, and to speak very polite Japanese is to alter between using words that lower your own status while raising up the person you're talking to, actually changing the verb depending on whether you're talking about yourself or the person you're trying to be polite to. For example, the normal verb for to eat is taberu, but if you were speaking very polite Japanese, you'd use meshiagaru when referring to your teacher, boss, etc., and itadaku (as in "Itadakimasu!" which is said when you start a meal) when indicating your own lowly self. Modesty works like am umbrella, covering everyone in your respective in-group, and it's common for a mother to talk "badly" (as seen from my American point of view) about their own children to other mothers in the neighborhood -- they never study, the read manga all day, and so on -- as a way of appearing self-effacing to others. I've noticed that Japanese modesty stops short when it comes to money, however, and like most people in the world, they know how to flaunt it when they've got it. I once taught English to the wife of the former president of the Sapporo Ramen Company, who lived in a traditional Japanese house that was so fine, I thought I had been transported back to Nara Period Japan. There's a variety show on TV called Minna-san no Okage ("All Thanks To You") which features a chair that rises along a big slope. Famous idols, actors and athletes come onto the show, make some small talk with the host, then the chair moves up the slope to indicate how much money they make annually. Poor swimsuit idol Yoko Kumada was stuck near the bottom of the hill, while famous actor and former baseball star Eiji Bando was happy to be carried all the way to the top, indicating his considerable wealth.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Thoughts on biculturalism and Halloween, types of ramen you should try, and my fascination with Japanese females

Happy Halloween from J-List. Halloween is one of those "American" holidays (although originally Irish and Scottish) that has a way of working its way around the world, and although Japan doesn't exactly need an excuse to engage in cosplay, what with their strong tradition of dressing in anime costumes and all, awareness of October 31st grows here year by year. Raising kids who are part of two countries has always been a challenge for my wife and I since we want them to really be a part of both, which means (on the American side, at least) having a cultural awareness of things like trick-or-treating and Scooby Doo and being able to sing the School House Rock songs (they can). So we've gone out of our way to make trips to the U.S. for Halloween and Thanksgiving, not on our regular travel schedule, although it was a lot easier to do when the kids were small and didn't have the pressure of school to deal with. This year we decided to be traditional, and carved a (fairly ugly-looking) Jack-o'-lantern. We had a bit of culture shock when I asked my mother-in-law for a candle to put inside the pumpkin: the only ones she had in the house were the long candles for lighting at the family's Buddhist altar in remembrance of the dead...which is actually closer to Halloween's original meaning, if you think about it.

Picture of a bad Jack-o-Lantern

Ramen is one of the most famous "Japanese" foods around, although its history in Japan isn't very long, having been imported from China in the Meiji Era. While instant ramen has proven to be a revolutionary product, allowing the cost of a meal to brought way down in price, readers who have never enjoyed "real" ramen in a good restaurant are missing out. The basic type of ramen familiar to most people is shoyu, made with a soy sauce-based soup, although there are other varieties, including "salt" (a clear soup sold under the tastier-sounding "chicken" moniker in the West) , "tonkotsu" (white "pork bone" broth), and sura-tanmen (think "sweet n' sour ramen"). Another popular type of ramen is miso, the delicious soy bean curd that my mother thought was peanut butter when she saw it, which is one of the "meibutsu (famous things) of Sapporo in Hokkaido. Right now, the Sapporo Ramen Company is running a commercial featuring a beauty pageant in which different brands of ramen compete in for the title of "Miso Universe," a great tribute to the current Japanese Miss Universe.

One constant source of fascination and confusion for me since coming to Japan has been trying to understand Japanese women. Like the country itself, they're incredibly complex, and can just as easily delight you as leave you scratching his head in confusion. First, Japanese females generally tend to be calm, cool and good at planning ahead. Sometimes (from the standpoint of my over-exuberant American self) they can seem rather emotionless, and the thought has occurred to me that I know what it's like to be married to a Vulcan from Star Trek. "Lack of spontaneity" is another label you could apply to most Japanese females I've known: when I went to Europe I brought a backpack, a Lonely Planet book and a credit card and played everything else by ear, which shocked my wife, who so loves to plan every minute detail of a vacation ahead of time. I've mentioned before that Japanese females often seem to have problems with constipation, which no doubt arises from eating rice three meals a day. Japanese females also seem to be subject to chills, and the Totoro Lap Blankets made by Sun Arrow are no doubt used by more than a few OLs ("office ladies," i.e. female company employees) trying to stay warm with the air conditioning on around them. Japanese females often seem to have some rather strange and inexplicable fetishes. For example, several women I've known have loved pulling my chin hairs out by the roots, and have begged me to not shave for a few days so that they could rip my hairs out with tweezers -- totally bizarre. Although they can be confusing to men, learning a little about the care and feeding of Japanese females can certainly have its rewards.

Monday, October 29, 2007

NOVA goes "nova," the latest trends in women dressed up as men, and little "incompatibilities" between Japan and the U.S.

Well, what everyone feared has come to pass: the chain of English schools called NOVA has gone, well, nova, officially filing for bankruptcy protection. While I'm happy to get that damned pun off my chest, it is unfortunately a dark day for English teachers everywhere. Nova is (has been) the largest of Japan's "big four" McEnglish conversation schools, with a staggering 4000 native English teachers in its employ, and most of these teachers are now in the market for other jobs. Sadly, they haven't been paid for a month or more, and the status of their back pay is up in the air thanks to the bankruptcy. Nova brought these troubles on themselves through massively bad management, preferring to railroad students with "discounts" that involved multi-year contracts -- and you thought the U.S. cell phone industry was bad -- rather than satisfy their customers by teaching them well. Now, its the poor eikaiwa teachers and former students who end up paying the price. Having worked for a failing ESL school in the past, I do feel the teachers' pain, and I hope they'll all be okay. The president of the company, Nozomu Sahashi, has done what many Japanese company presidents do when things get rocky by going missing, and if I'm right he'll mysteriously take ill and have to be checked into a hospital soon, as a way of staying away from the news cameras.

The only constant in life is change, and in that tradition Japan's otaku world is always coming up with something new for us. Everyone knows about Maid Cafes, where beautiful Japanese women dressed in exotic maid uniforms pour coffee for their (usually male) customers, whom they address as "Master." Now women who are interested in yaoi comics, anime and PC gaming culture can enjoy Japan's first "BL Cafe." In Tokyo's bustling commercial district known as Ikebukuro there's a street called Otome Road (Maiden Road), fast becoming the yaoi answer to the more traditional otaku culture found in Akihabara. On that street is a restaurant called Lily Rose, staffed with incredibly attractive men who look like they stepped out of a BL comic. Oops, scratch that -- the staff is actually all women who are dressed as yaoi-esque males, complete with male names like Keisuke-kun. The employees of the restaurant are known as gyaru-son, which combines the word "gal" (i.e. hip young Tokyo girl) with "son" to make garcon, a really fabulous joke. Why would women want to eat in a restaurant staffed by women dressed as effeminate men? One patron said: "Because the staff are really women, I can eat without fear of a man trying to pick me up, allowing me to take in the beauty of the 'men' around me as I enjoy my food."

Japan is a great place, and I do love living here. That's not to say that things aren't plenty of large and small "incompatibilities" that foreigners need to get used to when coming here. First of all, the Japanese use the metric system, so if you're from the U.S. you'll find yourself learning to think in meters, kilograms and degrees centigrade, to the great annoyance of friends back home, and before you know it you'll be like me, unable to remember your weight or shoe size under the American system. In lieu of paper sizes like "letter," the Japanese use the A4 stanard, which takes time to get used to but is very logical -- A4 is similar in size to letter, A3 is twice that size making it similar to tabloid, and so on. Japanese plugs are the same shape and voltage as used in the U.S., but they nearly never have the third prong for a ground (or "ass" as they say in Japanese, the local pronunciation of "earth"), and this causes you to get pretty savvy about carrying a plug adapter with you in your laptop bag. DVD regions are different, of course, with most discs sold in Japan encoded as region '2,' although we've got our region free DVD player at home to take care of that for us. The air nozzle for bicycle tires is a special type used in Japan (and France), so if you bring a bicycle from the U.S. like me, prepare to be unable to add air to your tires. Finally, there's probably nothing taken for granted less than paper coffee filters, but they're quite important to us: the large filters are not available in Japan, with its tiny "girly man" coffee makers, so if we want to have our morning coffee we need to plan ahead.