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 Happily, that wasteful project got national media attention and the project was withdrawn
Friday, February 15, 2008
Wednesday, February 13, 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...
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
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)
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.