Friday, April 18, 2008
My family is going through our annual "what are we going to do about summer?" decision-making process, trying to make plans for our kids to go to the U.S. Figuring out what to do with kids during summer vacation is a challenge for any parent, I'm sure, but in our case it's extra difficult due to various cultural and scheduling differences between Japan and America. First of all, summer vacation is very short in Japan, being only six weeks long, so the time we have to work with is quite limited. We like to find activities for our kids that will help them maintain their English skills, like Girl Scout Camp for my daughter and various science-related camps for my son, but choosing the right program is never easy. While I think summer should be a time for kids to relax and have new experiences at a leisurely pace, my wife always goes into kyoiku mama ("education mother") mode, insisting that anything we choose for the kids to do have serious academic value. While the idea of doing homework over the summer break is totally alien to American children, kids in Japan aren't so lucky. In addition to everything else, we've got to factor in about 20-30 hours for the mountain of homework my kids will have to work through before school starts in September.
Japan is a great place, and I like it a lot. The people are kind and honest, and every day is a learning experience for me, both in terms of language as well as the wider world of Japanese culture around me. Japan is a free-market country in which products can be introduced into the marketplace to create value for smart companies with good ideas, the investors who provide capital to the companies, and the consumers who get the benefits of having innovative products to choose from. However, there are some areas in which Japanese-style capitalism doesn't always function in the way that a Westerner might expect. First of all, many companies must deal with competition from an unexpected source, the Japanese government itself, which chooses to involve itself in a wide range of businesses including operating Japan's horse racing industry and a government-subsidized provider of life insurance (Kanpo) -- they even ran Japan's largest tobacco company until it was privatized in the 1980s. Last year, an investment group called Steel Partners tried to engineer a U.S.-style takeover of Bull-Dog Sauce Company, the makers of that heavenly tonkatsu sauce that's usually usually called "sauce" in Japanese. While I'm all in favor of my favorite condiment company not being bought out in a hostile merger, there is the small issue of companies being owned by the actual shareholders, and not the management of the company, who seemed bent on preserving their own positions above all else as they fought off the takeover bid. Japan is a wonderfully litigation-free country, which is certainly a good thing all around. However there are times when a functional democracy might just need a few lawyers, for example if the management of a company did something that actually harmed the investors, yet in Japan concepts like shareholder lawsuits are completely unheard of.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Starbucks Japan has a new product for the coming summer season: the Coffee Jelly Frapachino, which is a coffee frap with chilled coffee-flavored gelatin at the bottom. Although coffee jelly ("jello" to our American readers) is probably up there fermented soybeans (natto), puffer fish (fugu) and pickled squid intestines (shiokara) as something you wouldn't expect to find gaijin eating, it's actually really good and easily one of my favorite desserts in the summer. It's sold in every convenience store or supermarket , usually in the form of little plastic cups that come with a separate container of sweetened milk that you add to your coffee jelly before eating it, just like you'd do to a cup of black coffee. There are many ways to eat coffee jelly, including pouring the milk over the pristinely shaped gelatin then digging in with your spoon, but I prefer to mix my coffee jelly up first then add the milk, letting it seep everywhere before I eat it.
The subject of religion in Japan is a complex one. The two main religious traditions here are Buddhism, which was introduced through the Korean Peninsula along with the kanji writing system in the 6th century; and Shinto, the naturalistic original religion of Japan which sees kami, gods or spirits, in trees, rivers and mountains. Anywhere between 63-96% of Japanese report themselves as being Buddhist, with around 3% and 1% for Shinto and Christianity, respectively. Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, though, since there's no subject more "about" (an English word the Japanese use to mean nebulous or imprecise) than religion here. Although someone's family may belong to one religion or another, nearly everyone mixes themes regularly over the course of their lives, generally turning to Shinto or Christianity for life-affirming ceremonies like weddings or baby namings and Buddhism for funerals and ceremonies that pay respect to family members who have gone on. It's quite a mish-mash, really, but somehow each group is able to coexist alongside the others without friction. If you ever have a question about religeon in Japan, feel free to ask a Japanese person about it, but be prepared for a less than satisfactory answer, as Japanese rarely think deeply about their own country and culture in the way that foreigners fascinated by the country do. One of the great achievements of modern Japanese society is that they've managed to completely separate religion from politics, and when election time rolls around, the question of what religious background a certain candidate might have isn't contemplated in the slightest. (A possible exception to this might be members of the New Komeito Party, which is affiliated with the "evangelical" Buddhist movement, Sokka Gakkai, and whose members are presumably a member of that religeon.)
Monday, April 14, 2008
Is it possible for a person to forget their native language? You wouldn't think so, but during my years of living in Japan, I've definitely noticed my skills at English changing in alarming ways. The first to go were my college-level reading skills, something I realized with a shock while thumbing through a graduate school catalog less than a year after graduating from SDSU and coming to Japan to teach English as a Second Language. Teaching ESL is especially challenging since you're surrounded with students who speak very simple English, and in order to make yourself understood you find yourself talking more slowly, perhaps, or pronouncing the "t" sound in "party" more than a native speaker would. When you go for months or years without hearing English vocabulary words above the Junior High School level, the brain can have real difficulties pulling difficult words like "irreplaceable" or "gynecologist" out on short notice. But it's really shocking when you make an actual mistake, which happened to me once when my family and I were in the U.S. In Japanese the words for splinter (a sliver of wood) and thorn (the prickly things on a rosebush) are the same, toge (TOH-gay), and once, when my daughter got a splinter in her foot, I got the two words confused in my head. When my mother heard me asking to help get the "thorn" out of my daughter's foot with tweezers she looked at me funny.