Friday, February 06, 2009

Benefits of Being Male in Japan

In a lot of ways, Japan is a "men's paradise" where males are able to enjoy certain benefits that would probably be hard to find in the States, even beyond receiving Valentine's Day chocolate from females on February 14. For example, sometimes when we're having a family argument about something, my wife will tell the kids, "Everyone stop arguing. Your father has spoken, and we'll all do what he says because his word is law in this house." I have to say, it's kind of nice: like living in the Father-knows-best 1950s, but with high speed Internet. But although I may be the daikoku-bashira or the "big black pillar" that holds up the family, I'm more than happy to follow the standard Japanese custom of allowing my wife to control the family finances, including managing our savings, planning for long-term goals, and so on. This is accepted as joshiki (common sense) in Japan, that women are better at managing money.

I've done this for so long, though, that I don't know if it sounds odd to people not living here. Is it really rare for the wife to handle the family's financial situation?

My wife is smarter than me, so I don't mind letting her handle our daily finances.

Warm Winter

When you're coming from sunny San Diego, where it's often above 70° Fahrenheit/20° Celsius in the winter, just about any other part of the world is going to feel chilly. Japan's winters are usually very hard on me, thanks to the combination of cold temperatures, the biting kara-kaze winds that blow down from the Japanese Alps, and homes that aren't well constructed because you're expected to tear it down and build a new one in 15 years anyway. But this winter has been an incredibly warm one, with temperatures more like March or April than February, and I haven't needed to put on multiple pairs of long underwear to keep from freezing to death even once. Every year in our prefecture there's an ice fishing event held on Mt. Haruna, when the lake at the top freezes, but yesterday it was announced that the event would be cancelled this year due to the warm temperatures keeping the lake from freezing completely. The warm summer is even affecting the Sapporo Snow Festival going on in Hokkaido right now, where hundreds of beautiful snow sculptures are displayed. The warmest winter temperatures in 18 years have made the snow watery and difficult to work with, which forced the city to truck in extra snow for the event.

Beautiful snow sculptures in Sapporo

One Glass or Two?

Japanese is a complex language, with a lot of information that's not openly stated since Japanese people are usually good at communicating things indirectly. The other day my family went out for miso ramen and I ordered a beer, since that restaurant had Yebisu, my favorite brand. The serving girl who was taking our order asked, "How many glasses should I bring with the beer?" and since I was going to drink and let my wife drive home, I told her to just bring one. A minute later I realized she hadn't asked about how many glasses we wanted at all: instead she was gently reminding us to avoid drinking and driving, just in case I'd planned on having my beer then driving home myself. The new policy of restaurants taking a more proactive approach to customers ordering alcohol without a designated driver started a few years ago, with new policies put in place by the National Police Force, including a new rule that a passenger who lets another person drive drunk or the person that served the alcohol can be charged with a crime. The new policy has born fruit, with the announcement that deaths from traffic accidents numbered just 5155 in 2008, the eighth year of decline and a huge improvement over 1970, when the number of traffic deaths was more than 16,000.


New social pressures against drinking and driving are having a positive effect on the accident rate.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Gaijin Envy

"You've been in Japan too long when the foreigner sitting across from you breaks the wa inside the train car, but somehow your own presence does not." The psychology of foreign expats in Japan can be quite complex, and I'm sure you could write a Ph.D. thesis or two exploring what's going on inside our minds. One odd phenomenon I've observed is the tendency for foreigners here to get a negative impression of other gaijin for one reason or another, a silly reaction that I've worked hard to outgrow. One of the most famous Americans in Japan is Dave Spector, who can be seen on the morning "wide show" (a news and gossip program covering a wide range of topics) reporting on what's happening in the entertainment world in fluent Japanese. He's frequently hated by foreigners living in Japan, who complain about him speaking "American-accented" Japanese on purpose and dying his black hair blonde to better conform to the image of foreigners that Japanese have, and of course we dislike him for speaking better Japanese than us in the first place (that bastard). More than a few foreigners have improved their language skills by learning to sing enka songs at the karaoke machine, myself included, but when Jero became the first "black" professional enka singer in Japan, I noticed more than a few negative comments on message boards by non-Japanese who couldn't contain their jealousy. These days the only foreigners I get a negative impression of are those who don't make the slightest effort to fit in with the society around them, or who are purposely loud and/or rude with their Japanese hosts. Happily, these kinds of people are quite rare.

Kirin beer cans


Dave Spector and Jero are two of the most famous gaijin in Japan

On Economics and CEO Hair

As of last November, Japan is officially in a recession. It's an especially bad situation for the country since they're so dependent on exports, from automobiles to semiconductors to many other manufactured items. As they've done in past recessions, the Japanese news media is going out of their way to shed light on the new economic challenges being faced, looking at the business situation from many angles to help their viewers understand what's going on and adapt accordingly. One of my favorite TV shows is called The Dawn of Gaia, a hardcore news program that delves into difficult issues of the day, from the falling birth rate to the coming lack of sufficiently trained medical staff in Japanese hospitals. The other day they did a fascinating story about the difficulties faced by the American automobile makers and what they were doing to change their businesses, with comparisons to what the companies in Japan were doing, and it was very interesting to see the Japanese take on the situation. It may be the lack of 24-hour cable news lowering the signal-to-noise ratio, but my perception of the news media in Japan that they hold themselves to a higher standard of professionalism than what I usually see in the U.S., with less endless interviewing of "talking heads" who frequently say nothing and more meaningful reporting. Between programs like Gaia and Live TV Til Morning, a show in which top politicians are put in a studio to debate various public issues from midnight til 6 am while viewers watch, I generally think that Japanese TV viewers have access to higher quality news with less political bias than in the U.S.

During the show about the American automakers they interviewed G. Richard Wagoner, Jr., president of General Motors, and I remarked to my wife that he certainly had the proper head of "CEO hair" that you'd expect from the president of a large company. "What's that?" she asked. "Company presidents have special hair in America?" Apparently this particular perception didn't apply in Japan, although there are some things the Japanese believe about a person's body that are quite interesting. First, it's thought that a person with large ears will become wealthy, since the ears are so big money can't help but "fall in." If your middle toe is longer than your big toe (called ashi no oya-yubi or "the parent toe of your foot"), it's said you'll go farther in life than your parents did. And men, if you've got a large nose, you're in luck: it's commonly thought that the size of a man's nose corresponds to another part of his body. Hope you enjoyed today's edition of useless information from Japan!

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The president of GM and his "CEO hair" (source)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Meticulous Japanese Women

One of the first things I noticed about Japanese females was how meticulous they can be. For example, when three Japanese women eat lunch together at a restaurant, one will usually produce a calculator so they can accurately split the bill, figuring the amount that each should pay down to the last yen, including splitting the tip, if in the U.S. One of the driving social concepts in Japan is the expectation that everyone should be chanto shita, that is, "proper" and completely honest, and making sure money is always accurately accounted for is part of this. If one person in the group paid too much or too little, a delicate social balance would be upset, causing confusion and bad feelings. My current favorite anime series is Sayonara Zetsubo-Sensei ("Goodbye, Mr. Despair"), about a sometimes-suicidal teacher and his classroom of odd students. In one episode there's a funny scene in which Chiri, the girl with the need for everything in her universe to be proper at all times, is asked to cut a cake for seven people. Her brain goes into high gear, trying to calculate how to slice the four strawberries on top so that everyone gets an exactly equal share. "In order to divide the cake equally, each slice must have an arc of 51.428571428..." In the end, the only way to ensure that everyone received an exactly equal amount was to dump the entire cake into a blender and liquefy it.

Kirin beer cans

Chiri tries to divide a cake among seven people with complete accuracy; Mt. Asama belches out a plume of ash

The Sociology of Tokyo Disneyland

I caught an interesting commercial for Tokyo Disneyland yesterday which said, "It's time to say goodbye. Why not make one last visit here, and make some memories together?" February is definitely the "season of goodbye" in Japan, when students who are graduating from junior high or high school part with friends they've had for years. The Japanese are very relationship-oriented, and work hard to keep friendships strong, often for decades -- all of my mother-in-law's friends are people she went to school with, for example, which boggles my mind -- how do you keep the same circle of friends for 60+ years? In general, a person will have two sets of school friends: those from the same neighborhood who attended elementary and junior high together; and friends from high school, which is not compulsory, with students choosing a school that fits their academic goals and level. Disneyland was reminding students who are about to graduate that they'd be parting from their friends (and boyfriends/girlfriends) soon, and that it was a great time to plan a group trip to Disneyland to have some fun together. It was an incredibly smart marketing message for the company to think of, and I'm sure they'll be making money hand over fist as a result.

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Tokyo Disneyland is the most profitable theme park on the planet thanks to understanding psychology

The Price of Volcanic Hot Springs

As you probably know, I love Japan's culture of onsen, bathing in volcanic hot springs. But nothing good in life is free, and the wonderful hot water pouring out of the Earth does come with a cost, in the form of live volcanoes and earthquakes. Japan is an extremely active place seismically, with a whopping 1/10 of the world's 840 active volcanoes located here, which are the source of the quakes that often send my Star Wars figures tumbling. Today Mt. Asama, one of the most active volcanoes in the country, spat out a plume of ash that reached Tokyo some 140 km away. This was a minor eruption as these things go, but in 1783, Asama rained fire and ash down on the village of Komochi, killing 1500 and earning the village the nickname "The Pompeii of Japan." Since I go to the foot of Mt. Asama every other week or so, it's only dumb luck that I wasn't right there to see the fireworks.

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Mt. Asama, which is about 2 km from our apartment up in Karuizawa, goes boom