Thursday, December 27, 2007

Comparing my kids Japanese and American personalities, more on what makes Japanese people tick, and all about sitting on the floor in Japan

We hope you had a wonderful Christmas holiday, wherever you are in the world. We had a great day, complete with turkey, lots of champagne and authentic Yorkshire Pudding.
It's interesting, being in the U.S. with my Japanese family and observing how my kids are taken over by their "American personalities" the longer they stay here. The Japanese have a saying to the effect that boys will take after their mother and girls will be like their father, an idea which I'd poo-poo'ed as a superstition until our kids were born. Our son is very Japanese, and although he has a lot of knowledge of English to draw on, he's often so shy about making mistakes that he'll refuse to open his mouth at all, a lot like his Japanese mother. My daughter takes after me, though: she seems very American in all that she does, and she's never shy about opening her mouth to speak English. While my son gets along quite well in Japan, my daughter's "American-ness" sometimes causes minor problems for her in her school, with the many meaningless rules she has to follow getting her down at times. All of these problems go out the window here in America, where (as seen from our Japanese life, at least), anything goes -- a person can do anything and be anything they want, and our daughter is positively glowing here in the States. One of the biggest rules in Japan is "act your age" (ii toshi shite), and generally speaking, people do what's expected of them according to their age group, which usually doesn't involve collecting Star Wars toys into their thirties. When my mother bought me a cool remote controlled R2-D2 toy for Christmas, my wife commented that it'd be very rare to find a Japanese man my age receiving a gift like that.

One aspect of living in Japan every foreigner must come to terms with is sitting on the floor. The Japanese do a lot of floor sitting, and even the most modern Western-style house will probably have at least one traditional Japanese-style room with tatami mats. One of my favorite things in Japan is the kotatsu, a low table with a heater inside and a blanket between the frame and the tabletop, which lets you get warm by sticking your legs inside. Since Japanese homes lack central heating, and it'd be far too expensive to heat the whole house anyway, kotatsu are very economical, as you're only heating a small space used by several people at once. They're also great for improving family life, since everyone will jam their legs inside and have a conversation rather than scattering around the house to do their own thing. The only negative to kotatsu? When Jiichan (grandfather) has flatulence inside the blanket part, causing a huge problem for everyone.
Each country in the world has what the Japanese call kokumin-sei, a kind of "national personality" or a list of traits that most people from that country tend to share. For example, Americans are seen by the Japanese as being optimistic almost to fault, believing that virtually any problem can be solved. We're also extremely friendly, even with people we don't know well, which can be hard for them to understand. The Japanese kokumin-sei is quite unique, too. In general, Japanese tend to be very peaceful, and go out of their way to avoid conflict with others. They're concerned with the image Japan presents to the world, and some major construction projects such as Japan's first bullet trains were done partially to make foreigners oo and ah when they came for the 1968 Tokyo Olympics. Also, most Japanese tend to be extremely modest, and it can be surprising when Westerners compliment a Japanese on their English ability, only to have them vehemently deny the remark. In my single days, I traveled all around Japan, hitchhiking or riding trains (there's a cool ticket called "Youth 18" which lets you ride as far as you want for $24, a bargain as long as you don't mind riding the slow local trains for 16 hours a day). Once, I encountered a boy and his mother while traveling near Hiroshima, and as we talked, the boy was going on and on about how baka (stupid) he was, so stupid that he'd never amount to anything at all. It surprised me to hear anyone talk like this about himself, much less an educated youth from one of the world's richest countries, but I realized later it was a kind of polite self-effacing that didn't mean much.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Thoughts on Christmas in Japan vs. America, my surprising first Christmas in Japan, and Japanese food for poor single men

Well, the stockings are hung by the chimney with care, and we're all getting ready for a wonderful Christmas around here. My family got in from Japan a few days ago, and the kids are fully into "American Christmas mode," shaking all the presents to try to guess what's inside. The holiday is a relatively recent cultural import to Japan, and Christmas there can be a little different from what you may be used to. To the Japanese, Christmas is usually more of an excuse to have a fun party than a solemn time for family, or more recently, an extra reason for parents and grandparents to spoil the kids by getting them something from Toys "R" Us. Christmas Eve is also a day for lovers to go on that special date, generally considered more important than Valentine's Day, and if you want to take your sweetheart out to a nice restaurant you might have to plan ahead a few months. 
I'll never forget my first Christmas in Japan. I'd not expected the Japanese to be very religious, so after arriving in my city I was surprised to find myself surrounded by a kind community of Japanese Baptists who ran a friendly church complete with a kindergarten for the local children. I enjoyed observing my new friends and seeing how similar they were to folks in the U.S. -- there seemed to be no differences at all, other than the language. In the grand tradition of Americans living in Japan, I was asked to play "Santa-san" for the kids, and I had great fun ho-ho-ho'ing as I handed out presents, as always being careful to speak only English, since that's what language Santa Claus presumably speaks. (I've since donned Santa suits dozens of times -- there must be something especially Christmassy about my personality as seen from the Japanese point of view.) I was of course surprised to find that Dec. 25th wasn't even a holiday in Japan, and driving in a traffic jam on that particular day takes some getting used to, I can tell you. One unfortunate aspect of Christmas for foreigners who haven't been "in country" too long is homesickness, since Dec. 25th is always a hard day to be away from family, no matter where you are in the world. Bottom line, Japan is a nice place, but the best place to enjoy Christmas is home with the people you love. All of us at J-List sincerely wish you and your loved ones a wonderful and warm Christmas holiday this year! 
I'll never forget my single days back in college, surviving on foods like frozen waffles, Campbell's soup, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and that great friend to the pool college student, Top Ramen, which could be had for 3 for $1 back in the day. Japan has its own varieties of "bachelor food" too, so easy to make that even a single guy could handle it. First and foremost is the category known as "cup ramen," which seems to be as close to the hearts of Japanese consumers as cold cereal is to Americans. There are hundreds of varieties, from cheap noodles in a styrofoam bowl to the high-end "nama type" noodles which are fresh, not dehydrated, for a more authentic ramen experience. Next comes Bon Curry, boil-in-bag curry that allows you single men who can't prepare Japan's staple dish from scratch to enjoy it nonetheless. Poor men living alone love to eat "sea chicken" (tuna fish) mixed with mayonnaise spread over rice with a dollop of soy sauce, too. Japan is a country that puts great store in doing things the "proper" way, and when it comes to a single man (or woman) living alone, this is defined by cooking rice using a rice cooker on a daily basis. When I was living alone, everyone I knew would ask me "Are you cooking rice for yourself everyday, as you should?" almost as a greeting, not unlike "How are you?" They were invariably amazed that a foreigner could wash and prepare rice for himself without help.