Friday, February 15, 2008

Japan as a Functional Western Democracy

On the whole, Japan is pretty functional as a Western-style democracy. Politicians make laws which are executed by the nation's army of komuin, public employees who function as a British-style bureaucracy that provides the actual "body" of the government. There is corruption, of course, but it's limited to comparatively rare cases involving high-ranking politicians, never on an individual level, and it's taken for granted that every person you interact with during the course of the day will be honest. This is quite different from countries like India, where (I'm told) the speed that the phone company installs your phone line is proportional to the size of the bribe you paid the clerk. Still, not everything is perfect in Japan. Although the number of (largely wasteful) public works projects was reduced significantly during the era of Prime Minister Koizumi, Japan still spends $71 billion a year on roads, bridges, dams, etc. Another problem are the constant streams of hakomono, essentially "pork barrel project in a box," conceived by politicians so their friends who own construction companies can make money. A textbook example of this was the plan by our city's mayor (who lives next door to us, by a really strange coincidence) to build a second Ferris Wheel in our city, despite the fact that we already have a perfect good one. Happily, that wasteful project got national media attention and the project was withdrawn

How Japan has Changed for Foreigners

Japan has really changed for the better over the past decade and a half in terms of how easy it is for a gaijin to live here. When I arrived in Heisei 3, the third year of the reign of Emperor Akihito (i.e. 1991), it was quite difficult to find a bit of "home" -- when I'd get homesick, I'd go and eat Egg McMuffins at McDonald's, just about the only thing that was exactly the same as it was back in the States. Slowly, Japan opened up and let just about any product in, and now consumers have a lot more choice, from Doritos to Subway sandwich shops to AM/PM Mini Marts. The Internet has obviously helped improve the lives of foreigners living here, allowing expats like me to do things they could never do before, like buy books from Amazon or log into a SlingBox and catch the Superbowl live. There's been one setback for Americans living outside their home country, however: last year the United States Post Office stopped offering surface mail service for packages going out of the U.S., meaning that my mother can't throw some Thanksgiving goodies into a seamail box and send them to me. It's been quite an inconvenience -- now she has to send the items by airmail or else call shipping companies like Yamato for container shipping quotes. (Note that seamail shipping into the U.S. is still going strong, and you can choose it as an option when purchasing from J-List as long as you're not in a hurry for the items.)

Being Sign in Japan, and How to Make Tamago-Zake

It's funny how being sick makes you revert to what you know best. I've got the flu that's been going around the J-List office, so yesterday I headed home early, took some of the various U.S. cold medicines I stock, and laid down to rest. For dinner I wanted noting other than good old Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, which we'd brought back with us from our last trip. (The Japanese don't know what Chicken Noodle Soup is, the only soups they eat here being miso and corn potage.) When Japanese get sick, they naturally turn to their own cultural remedies. Supposedly, it's common to broil a leek (which they insist on calling a "long onion") until its soft, folding it inside a tenugui (a traditional hand towel), then they wrap that around their neck and go to bed. Then there's shoga-yu, which is hot water with grated fresh ginger in it and a little honey to improve the taste. The most famous folk remedy is probably tamago-zake, or egg and sake. To prepare it, put one cup of sake in a pan with a beaten egg, and heat it until just before boiling. Stir in some sugar if you like, the drink it back, and you'll be feeling better in no time. Or so they tell me anyway.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine's Day in Japan 2008

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and all throughout Japan men are looking forward to receiving the gift of chocolate from females around them, in keeping with the local custom of women giving chocolate to men. There are two kinds of chocolate a man can receive, the most common being giri choco or "obligation chocolate," which females might give to males they work with or to teachers or male relatives because they feel it's expected of them. A lot of this is the result of good marketing, since virtually every convenience store in the country is decked out with decorations reminding shoppers that February 14th is around the corner. The best kind of chocolate is honmei choco, "true heart chocolate" that's given to a loved one, and all across Japan men will be looking forward to eating hand-made chocolates, cakes or other treats from our wives, daughters or girlfriends who want to show their love and appreciation.

Incidentally, since there's giri choco I thought I'd be cute and ask if they made ninjo choco as well. You've never seen such anime-like expressions of confusion on the J-List staff...

Tricks You Can Do with a Lemon and Chopsticks

The Japanese, of course, use chopsticks at almost every meal, whether they're eating rice, noodles, fish or meat. (Certain foods like curry rice or steak, of course, call for Western cutlery). Chopsticks are very easy to use: you just hold one stick between your middle finger and thumb, then hold the second with your forefinger and thumb so that you can create a "scissor" action that allows you to pick up food. With practice, it's very easy to pluck the last grain of rice from the bottom of your bowl when eating. The use of chopsticks is taught to children at around the age of three, and it's common for parents to want to make sure their kids learn to use them properly before they start preschool, making chopstick use one of the first forms of pressure children are subjected to in Japanese society. In Japan there's exactly "one" correct way to do things, a concept that extends to the holding of chopsticks as well, and it's common for conversations over beers at an izakaya restaurant to turn to how strangely one of the people at the table is holding their chopsticks. To me, the ultimate test of how good you are at using chopsticks is being able to wring the juice from a slice of lemon without getting any on your hands. Just slide the chopsticks into either end of the lemon slice and twist in opposite directions, extracting the lemon juice. Incidentally, J-List stocks many kinds of chopsticks from Japan, including ones with rough patches at the ends (to make them easier to eat with), and we even have a great line of "training chopsticks" for beginners.

All About Factories and Other Cool Things

You never know what will become the next interesting mini-boom in a place like Japan. Over the past few years, many Japanese have decided that the coolest thing is...factories? Amazingly, the strange industrial beauty of factories and other dark places like electric power plants does have a certain charm, and there have been a string of popular photobooks dedicated to capturing these eerie places. There's a variety show on TV that features objects being made in factories while famous TV personalities try to guess what's being manufactured, writing their answers on digital screens that are later revealed so the audience can laugh at all the wrong answers. It's quite fascinating to watch nylon fibers being spun and coated in plastic that turns out to be a fire house, or watch as long rods of steel are fed into a machine which clips pieces off and stamps them into pachinko balls. I was also fascinated to see how Mitsubishi makes pencils -- I couldn't take my eyes off the bizarre stream of wood as it was shaped and wrapped around the graphite leads.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Signs that Japan is Getting Older

Japan is getting older, and it's interesting to see the way society evolves and changes. Even during the 16 years I've been in Japan, I've noticed quite a change in way products are marketed, with a lot of companies embracing the coming market for services for the elderly. It seems every third TV commercial on daytime television is for companies selling products to older Japanese, including ways to remodel your house and make it "barrier free," a term the Japanese have coined meaning a living space that's free of stairs and other obstacles that make it hard for mobility-challenged people to live. Diapers for adults are also advertised openly on TV, as are hair-loss products aimed not just at men, but women. Insurance companies like Zurich and AFLAC have found a profitable business in Japan selling supplemental insurance to elderly Japanese who worry about being hospitalized and not having enough insurance to cover the costs. Then there's the I-Pot service that home electronics maker Zojirushi operates, which is essentially an electric pot for boiling water that's linked wirelessly to the Internet, which can be configured to send you an email every time your elderly mother makes a pot of green tea, to reassure you that she's okay. Aww, that's nice.

One Way of Understanding Japan's Culture: Kata (Form)

One way of approaching an understanding of Japan is through the word kata, which means "form" and describes the many aspects of life in Japan that follow a specific, pre-determined structure which society at large has agreed on ahead of time. Without a doubt, the Japanese are a people who like to follow fixed forms in many aspects of their lives, and it can be amazing how naturally people fall in step in these situations. I was reminded of this a week ago when the brass band that my son performs in at his school participated in a recital along with ten other elementary schools, an event that required everyone to be completely in sync with each other. First, there is a "greeting" speech by the chairman of the organization that put on the event, followed by comments from other high-ranking members. Then the performances came, perfectly executed by each school's band, as the audience clapped. Finally, the nice lady who was most responsible for making the whole recital come together received the largest bouquet of flowers I've seen in my life from her students, which seemed spontaneous but was also part of the overall form of the event. You see this tendency to closely adhere to pre-approved forms in many different settings, from weddings and funerals to the way the average Japanese person interacts with teachers, doctors and anyone else they want to show respect to. Incidentally, Nintendo sells a trivia game for the DS platform here in Japan to help players learn the "common sense" associated with these events and avoid embarrassment -- that's pretty smart.


(You can see my son way in the back with his Bass Clarinet that's as big as he us)

Reflections on Beef Bowl and Japanese Culture

Over the weekend I took my son out for a bowl of gyudon, steamed beef over rice, the most popular form of fast food in Japan. The restaurant was crowded, so I added my name to the list, writing "Peter" in the katakana writing system that's generally used for foreign names and loan words, and sat down to wait. "Everyone else wrote their last name," my son observed. "Why did you write your first name?" This was an interesting question, and I didn't have an answer for him right away. Ostensibly, names in Japan are written in family name, given name order, so someone named Taro Yamada in English would be Yamada Taro in Japanese. But by unwritten rule, Westerners nearly always continue to use their name in the same order as they do back home. When I was a teacher, I was universally known as "Peter-sensei" by my students, never "Payne-sensei" as you'd expect. I'm pretty sure this is done unconsciously -- the Japanese staff at J-List, who are used to me asking them difficult questions when I'm posting an update, all said they'd never noticed this phenomenon -- and probably because English teachers are supposed to be as "fun" as possible. Having my students use my first name certainly did seem to bring them a little closer to me, so it was never a problem. While Japanese never use English name order for themselves while in Japan, it's not uncommon for TV "talents" (comedians, actors etc.) to choose stage names that sound more like English. When the Los Angeles-born son of legendary martial arts film star Sho Kosugi started his own career on TV here, he debuted using the name of "Kane Kosugi" (in English word order) which underscored his American-ness and the fact that he could speak English fluently, and added a bit of spice to his appeal with fans.

beef bowl