Teaching In Socks

The problem with bags
September 10, 2010, 1:56 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , ,

This summer in Japan has been the hottest recorded in 61 years. Actually, that statement is most certainly wrong as with each day the number of years increases back further into the annals of history. This trend will undoubtedly continue until sometime in October when climate historians will announce that this has been the hottest summer since the earth’s crust was molten and people will resort to to violent and primal non-society where the only things that count as currency are ice fans. There is of course a chance that the world will begin to tilt on it’s axis and it will start too cool down, but until that happens I will continue to believe that this summer is the one where the Earth finally reveals itself to be a sun disguised as a planet.

To make it worse people have been dying–or rather people who have been dead are being found. This unfortunate series of events kicked-off around the end of July when local authorities in Tokyo went to congratulate Japan’s oldest living person. When they finally gained access to his house, they learned that he was not Japan’s Oldest Living Person but instead that he had been dead, relaxing in his recliner for thirty years. Actually it’s important to note that he had been dead in his recliner and receiving a pension for thirty years. You may have heard this story, it made the international news circuit at the time. Taken by itself, while unfortunate for the man, it’s kind of a humorous Darwin Awards-esque tragedy about the failures of bureaucracy. However, as we are dealing with bureaucracy, no problem can be taken by itself. Bureaucracies are systems and their problems more often than not are systemic; thus, thousands of municipal workers were sent scrambling through their towns and cities to check in on pensioners.

The number of missing centenarians and pensioners snowballed. In a matter of days one hundred missing pensioners became two hundred, and then three hundred with final estimates reached around eight hundred missing across Japan.It was front-page fodder.

Now, the American in me looks at this situation as eight hundred missing people in a country of one hundred and twenty-five million. It’s bad, but statistically, it doesn’t sound that bad to me. If a study was done diligently, America would probably fare far worse. However, what was at stake here was the pride of Japanese diligence, and the reputation of country known for close knit families with multiple generations living in the same home.

For the most part,  the problem for the most part was confined to urban areas but the whole country felt the international impact that accompanied the findings. Japan was predictability and cruelly mocked by Asian rivals China and Korea, who took their shots with political cartoons and editorials mocking what they purported as the “lie” of Japanese longevity.

Things got worse when authorities began to locate some of the missing pensioners. In a handful of cases the missing person’s mummified remains were found in the houses, storage spaces and, most grotesquely, the bags and backpacks of their relatives. In many of these cases, these remains had been sitting around for years, even decades collecting pensions. The relatives often explained that at the time their family member died, they had no money to pay for a proper funeral and furthermore since the death had no means of an income and instead relied on the pension of the deceased.

While it’s certainly not and honest or morale way to make a living, if this was indeed the situation, it’s hard for me to mock these people. Japan, despite having the third largest economy, has been a pattern for stagnation for over a decade.  These people may have had difficulty finding sustainable jobs, and in some cases may have had to quit such a job  to take care of their ailing relative. This is all speculation of course. I suppose the ironic part of this is that one of the primary growth industries in Japan is elderly care.

The moral of this story is a bit unclear. There are several to choose from; Should bureaucracy work harder and more efficiently to do it’s job better–of course, should people not disgrace their deceased family members for their own financial gain–certainly.  However, these morals were both kind of givens. Instead I think the real important lesson to be learned here is, if you’re a cadaver-conscious pension-collector, who is feeling a bit ill and is living with unemployed relatives who surreptitiously start buying a few large-size duffel bags, maybe it’s in your best interest to take a vacation somewhere and not come back.

cell erosion
August 13, 2010, 3:01 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Japan used to be the epicenter of new cell-phone technology. When I first arrived here I had designs on grabbing a state-of-the-art cellphone with TV capabilities, a 32-inch screen, super-internet and the ability to conduct all my conversations for me (preferably in a Christopher Walken type voice and demeanor).  Instead, I discovered that, at the time–and still, the most advanced phone on the market was the iPhone (and even that had debuted in Japan many months after it had in America). This was almost as devastating and learning that I would not have robot pets.

I ended up with a phone made by Sharp. It has many many features–more than a standard phone in the U.S. would. Unfortunately, none of these are as useful or user-friendly as anything the iPhone offers. So what happened? As this New York Times article reports, part of the problem is that Japanese cellphone makers evolved too quickly. They jumped to Network structures other nations weren’t prepared to move to, and they developed an overload gadgets that have moved past the point of convenience. For example my phone has the equivalent of the Microsoft Paperclip-helper, except it’s a cartoon beluga who does tricks and sends heart symbols in my direction.

In addition to the beluga, my phone has a cellphone camera that can read bar-codes placed in the corners of advertisements (which takes me directly to their web page). It has an IC chip that allows me to use the phone as a credit card at stores. It has an infrared transmitter so I can transmit and retrieve information from other people’s phones. It has a GPS, TV capabilities (I don’t know how to use), the Internet(but not the real Internet–the Japanese mobile Internet), a touchscreen (sort of), blue tooth and a Kanji reader (that has never correctly read any Kanji for me).

The downside of having all those features seems to be that it doesn’t really work well as a phone. The speaker isn’t loud enough and the microphone picks up a ton of ambient noise. It doesn’t feel comfortable when I hold it to my ear. The whole thing makes me feel like Andy Rooney.

As the New York Times piece points out, in the last year Japanese cellphone makes have adapted their phones to try to fit to a more global market. The clamshell shape phones are gone. Some phone makers still promote their phone’s hardware however it is almost always attached to a piece of software–for instance new camera’s allow you to post videos of your cat directly to youtube or post pictures of that mime you say in Europe to your mixi profile (the Japanese Facebook).

One line of phones in Japan I have found intriguing is the Iida line. They seemingly have shunned both the hardware and software cold war and decided just to make phones that look weird. I like this idea; this is what cellphones used to be about.



The Ply for example, despite it’s claims to change how you feel about your relationship to the phone, appears to offer nothing new in terms of hardware or functionality. But, it looks kind of wild and it has a funny and apt name. It’s the kind of phone you could pull out at a party and everyone would stop to ask you what kind of phone it is and what does it do. The answer to those questions would be “The ply” and “looks cool”. It’s the phone as a conversation piece. Which, from where I’m standing, it way better than a worthless Kanji reader.

Iida’s latest phone is the Light Pool.  It has a boring phone, and probably cannot hold applications that recommend what wine to drink with my meal. It’s gimmick is that it kind of looks like the Hearst building (Norma Foster) and that lights up silly colors. I’m not going buy one (that would kill my Andy Rooney buzz) but it probably works better as a phone than the thing I have now.

shiny things

Honor or Madness
June 3, 2010, 4:44 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , , ,

I had a bad day

This morning, Japan had their semi-annual holiday event where everyone wakes up in the morning, reads their paper, eats their breakfast and then goes to work only to find out that at some point during their commute the Prime Minister has resigned. I say semi-annual because this is the third time it has happened since my arrival just twenty months ago. Furthermore, in the last twenty-two years there have been sixteen Prime Ministers (that crazy Elvis-loving cat, Koizumi stuck around for four years, skewing the average). At this point, I’m surprised they haven’t developed a special kind of roll cake or pastry to commemorate the day each time it happens; retailers, you are a missing an obvious cash cow.

Prime Minister Hatoyama–I’m sorry–Former Prime Minister Hatoyama resigned this morning after only eight months in office. I’ve lived in Japan long enough to not be surprised by his decision, (and as I mentioned previously, it only took less than two years) but it doesn’t mean I understand why he decided to resigned, and why others before him have also resigned so abruptly after fairly short terms. The obvious deduction to make is that this is vicious cycle of copy cat quitters, but I think this runs deeper than that. The frequent changing of the guard has evolved from a developing habit into fuzzy area between tradition and ritual

The general consensus in regards to the current case seems to be that the motivating factors behind Hatoyama’s resignation include, his mishandling of relocating an American Airbase in Okinawa (locals wanted it moved away, Hatoyama flip-flopped on issue and then kept it in Okinawa), pressure from a hostile Japanese press corps and his general inability to deliver promises on made in his party’s Manifesto published in the fall. I wouldn’t dispute any of those contentions, those things all happened. However, if we compare Hatoyama’s situation to the failures and tribulations of other world leader, the obstacles he faces seem minute–and certainly not circumstances worth resigning over.

is that a shirt or a magic eye?

To take a shot at my own motherland, Obama, for instance, has (at the time of this writing) unequivocally failed on his explicit promise to close Guantanamo Bay, he hasn’t ended “don’t ask, don’t tell”, he edged in a heavily compromised Health Care reform bill that the general public still doesn’t fully understand, and let’s not even begin to discuss Wall Street or Afghanistan or the fact that he hasn’t mastered the ability of flight or telekinesis (that we know of). And Bush, through his eight years…well. Despite all of this, I don’t think Obama should resign, and I never thought Bush would resign. The problems they face (or created) are large the solutions required are generally equally large, challenging and to the consternation of everyone, slow. Americans, get this though. Yes, we whine, scream and do silly silly stupid things, but a general consensus seems to be that we value persistence higher (or at least equally) than the notion of honor (cough cough Mark Sanford).

Japan seems to differ in this opinion. One should be persistently honorable, rather than honorably persistent.

The big rallying moment against Hatoyama came during a series of protests in Okinawa–the biggest of which attracted a crowd of 90,000. That is a large number of people, and they were very passionate and loud about their dissent. Still, Japan is a country 123,000,000 people, it’s not like the protesters were a powerful and overwhelming majority. I’ve been ot football games with bigger crowds.

string pullers

Hatoyama’s approval rating was low (I don’t have the actual numbers, but I recall at one point last week a Fuji News Network reported them somewhere in the 20% range) but there’s no constitutional imperative for a Prime Minister with bad approval ratings to step down*. Also, last time I checked, approval ratings seems to be things that fluctuate based on a variety of variables, many of which the person being approved of has control over. In Japan, the political parties seems to hit the panic button when the ratings hit below 40%, after that it’s political quicksand.

I believe I said this before, when Fukuda resigned in the Fall of 2009, but I believe this pattern has something to do with Japan’s concept of honor. We are after all talking about a country who traditionally has no qualms about ritual suicide. Seppuku has all sort of connotations. Still, it seems to me this obsession with doing the honorable thing has started to cost Japan. In January when Obama was receiving foreign dignitaries to a dinner at the White House, Hatoyama, despite being the leader of a G7 country, was notably not given face to face time with Obama. The reports at the time were that people close to Obama had suggested that it would be a waste of Obama’s time–and frankly they were right. How can Japan remain a major player in the Global economy if no one is sure who to do business with or if the current leader will be around to enact the promises he or she has made?

soooooo honorable

I know champions of democracy often talk about the importance of term limits, but Japan may be the first developed country in need of term minimums. Enough with the pleasantries, if you mess up, do something terrible, to bad, you have to keep showing up to work for another year, it’s your duty.

I should note, that the Highlight of the Hatoyama administration has been his fashion choices. Many people have criticized that too much has been made of this, but the guy really just has too much money and not enough taste. Sometimes, when I was watching the news it would to try and concentrate on what they were saying, his outfit was just too mind-blowingly weird. As you can see, he takes Cosby to a whole new level. (Also, it should noted that you can pick up that prime colored checkered shirt from some fashion designer in China, it’s only $500. The designer called Hatoyama visionary but I think he’s just a guy who accidentally traded suitcases with DJ Jazzy Jeff one day and hasn’t noticed.


*That I am aware of– I have not read Japan’s Constitution

May 19, 2010, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Japan | Tags: , , , , , ,

This year’s Golden Week made headlines for having the best Golden Week-weather in recent memory. Kansai, the week went without a single rainy day. During the weekend I had the chance to take full advantage of the great weather during   a day trip to Naoshima.


Naoshima is a tiny island in the Seto Island Sea, which the seas between the main island, Honshu, and Shikoku.  Getting there requires a twenty minute ferry ride from Okayama City and, in my case, a two-hour car ride from my old haunting grounds in Ako.  Until recently, Naoshima was a fairly unknown, sparsely inhabited island. However thanks to the Benesse House complex and works in recent years by Pritzker prize winning architects Tadao Ando and the Tokyo-based SANAA, the town has become and art enthusiasts pilgrimage site.

As you might have noticed from this blog, I am pretty big fan of Tadao Ando. While my appreciation originates with his work that he did on the Contemporary Museum in my hometown, St. Louis, I have become a genuine admirer of buildings. I think this can partly be attributed to that fact that I have had to chance to see a number of his sketches and plans, and have a feel for the amount of thought that went into to his process. I also think that as a self-loathing pack rat, I really admire the simpleness and beauty of clean open areas and nice geometric shapes–these things are scare in my life.

The Benesse House, designed by Ando, must have been a challenging concept. The building is both a modern art museum and a luxury hotel. Luxury hotels aren’t the type of building that are in Ando’s wheelhouse. Who wants to pay $400 a night to sleep in a room with bare concrete walls–the answer of course is people who pay millions of dollars for Pollack’s splatterings and Morris’s stripes and Klein’s Color, so imagine many people find it money well spent.  I didn’t check out the room situation personally, but the rest of the hotel was filled with gallery rooms with a moderately sized collection of art. I really felt as though the layout of the hotel framed the Seto Sea and the surroundings very nicely. The balconies has great perspectives of the coast, and the interior of the building flowed really nicely. If anything, some of the building concepts were too nice and made you forget about the art. (this might be the biggest whine wine on the Internet right now)

The pinnacle of the island was the ChiChu Art Museum, also designed by Ando. The museum sits a couple hundred meters up the hill from the hotel. The building is entirely under ground, with the exception of a few lighting windows, the emerge from the top of the mountain to let light into the galleries. In fact,  from above the only clear indication that the museum exist are the windows that protrude from the ground to let light into the museum below.

fit for a Bond villian

There are only three displays inside the museum (well four if you count the museum itself). Two of them are interesting installations,  and the third is the Monet collection. By far, I enjoyed the Monet room the most. I must confess that before entering this room, I don’t think I had ever had an enjoyable Monet experience. That’s not to say I hated his work, but if I was going to make a list of artist I liked, I would probably not put him on the list, or probably only would so as to not to appear foolish or uncultured. The Monet room at the ChiChu art museum changed that. Mostly because looking at Monet in the ChiChu Art Museum is like looking at Monet in Space, in the future, hundred of years from now. To enter the room you have to take off your shoes, and put on sandals. The floor is made of small soft white stones, that somehow have the sensation of walking on felt.  On the walls five paintings hang, only illuminated by the small amount sunlight let in from above. The painting are encased in plexi-glass, free of the tradition frame. It would be cliche to say that I saw them in a new light, but something about the way these paintings were prepared allowed me to appreciate them in way I did not before.  That said, it will probably also make me critical of any other Monet I see, just hanging there, displayed in a manner that I know is highly inferior.

The only draw back of the island (if you call it a drawback) seems to be a popular destination especially amongst foreigners. While the island was packed over Golden week, we had to wait and hour and half to gain entrance to the museum, the crowd there had to be the highest ratio of foreigners  of anywhere I have seen in Japan, Kyoto included. Also, while we arrived on time for our ferry, the ferry was already full and we were forced to wait an hour and half for the next one, which of course was when we learned that the island doesn’t have many restaurant options, but that’s minimalism for you.

倒産 is the Japanese word for Bankruptcy
May 11, 2010, 5:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

I suppose it’s only natural in this day and age of the credit crisis, CDS’s, CDO’s, prices at the pump, and sub-prime everythings that part of my Japanese educational experience involve participating in a bankruptcy.  I am fortunate in that it’s not my own personal bankruptcy, but unfortunate because, well, it sucks.

Two weeks ago my company declared bankruptcy during a press conference in Tokyo. I think people were surprised, but not shocked. The English conversation school market has declined rapidly (by over half in just the last three years) and most companies in this industry have not adapted quickly enough. My company was not the first fall, nor have we fallen the most spectacularly (if you want to hear about that, just google “NOVA Japan).

Apparently, one can still run a a successful English school in Japan–businesses in Japan still need employees that are fluent in English and schools and colleges still require their students to pass tests; however the company that I worked for was simply too big, and perhaps too poorly managed in a a shrinking market

The details of the in-the-boardroom-story that have emerged have been keeping the media busy. There are accusations (probably true) that board members embezzled money from profitable overseas school in Australia (and perhaps elsewhere) to keep the Japanese schools afloat.  Coincidently, the Australian schools were declared insolvent by the Australian Government in January.  The board was also apparently split on the decision to declare bankruptcy with the founder and President of the company filing a motion to try and halt the bankruptcy in court last week.

Somehow, through all of this, I have, for the moment, seem to have come out (sort of) alright. I lost a month’s worth of salary; however it appears that I may be covered by a Japanese government insurance policy that will repay and portion of my wages at a later date (go go gadget welfare state!). I lost all the vacation days I banked. I lost my contract. I lost my end-of-contract bonus. I lost one months worth of travel expenses. These are all things that are nice to have, but not necessary to survive. Also, I didn’t lose my job (yet).

A good chunk of the remaining schools were taken over by another language company, and they have kept the schools running and signed all the teachers at those schools to short term contracts–what happens after those expire no one knows yet. The employment with the new company, albeit in the same role maybe be a short-lived and oddly colored parachute, but it’s a parachute nonetheless.

The crisis at hand has been stressful, but at the moment I’m trying to view it as less of a stress and more as an interesting experience (although it takes a lot sometimes).

In the weeks following the bankruptcy it’s been interesting to see students who never showed up attend class seemingly out of the ether and worry about the status of their lessons that they used only sparingly before. It’s been interesting (and perhaps a bit sad) to see how my students react to bad news; while the new school has guaranteed to honor their contracts there is the general feeling that they are, and will be, getting screwed over somehow.  The mom types, complain to the managers, and then step into the classroom and immediately start checking that you’re getting enough to eat, the engineer types, excited to finally have something to talk about want to break it down matter-of-factly, innocently neglecting to consider that maybe it bums you out a bit

It’s been interesting. I get to learn some new Japanese words, memorize a few new strange kanji, and I even almost made my first appearance in the Japanese news when the reporters flocked to our school. My best friend, for reasons unrelated to this, was on Japanese Television four weeks ago, I guess God knew that I was subconsciously jealous and this is his interesting way of giving me what I wanted. Thanks.

Just because we’re both foreigners doesn’t mean we’re friends
April 16, 2010, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Japan, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , ,

Gaijin (pronounced “guy-gin”) is the informal word for foreigners in Japan. Boiled down to it’s literal translation “gaijin” means “outsider”. Because of it’s context, it’s a word you don’t hear coming from the mouth of a Japanese person unless either you have done something excessively offensive, or if they happen filled with some pretty heavy prejudices. In polite conversation its considered more appropriate to instead use the word “gaikokujin” which means “foreigner” in a more literal, less slanderous sense.

Like other words of it’s ilk, the word “gaijin” is used frequently amongst the group of people it’s intended to offend.We call bars that foreigners frequent “gaijin bars”, certain cities have “gaijin networks”, and we ask each other if they know any other “gaijin” in the area.  I’m not exactly sure why this word was appropriated into the foreigner lexicon. It’s inception could have been an instance of the oppressed (relatively, obviously) seeking to dull the verbal weapons of the oppressor (again, relatively) by co-opting their vocabulary. The usage could have been the result of a collective attempt to try and sound more native, by using a bit of Japanese slang. Maybe it’s a hip-hop thing; Rappers sound cool tossing around the n-word, and thus foreigners wanted to sound cool by dropping their own forbidden fruit in casual conversation.

I tend to lean towards the third possibility, but maybe that’s just self-fulfilling colloquial historical revisionism because I like Wu-Tang and Lil’ Wayne.

While many of us gaijin subscribe to the same vocabulary, gainjin interactions beyond that can be complex. When I see a foreigner on the street I am often conflicted about what to do. On one hand, I know there is a good chance that this person and I have the shared experience of being a stranger in a strange land. We could probably share embarrassing stories about onsen trips or the number of times we have been asked if we know how to use chopsticks. I also know, that there might be a chance that we speak the same cultural language, and I could always use more friends around me who get my Chris Farley references.

On the other hand, I didn’t come all the way to Japan to rehash the greatest moments of Matt Foley: Motivation Speaker (in a van down by the river!). I also don’t want to perpetuate the Japanese misconception that all gaijin know each other. I can’t tell you how many times I have been a shop where there happened to be another random foreigner and the shop keeper assumed that we knew each other. I feel like I’m always trying to avoid looking like I’m part of a great gaijin conspiracy.

As I mentally debate these two contrasting view points I often find myself either giving the other person the polite but subtle head nod (which never looks cool) or doing the very obvious “I don’t know you” cold-shoulder.  In retrospect, the deciding factor on which one I do seems to be whether or not I suspect the person of being a tourist.

Don’t get me wrong, I like being helpful. I just don’t like being caught in a situation where I am helping the hopeless, and if you’re walking around look like a tourist, then you are already lost beyond my ability to save you.

These past week I was playing pool with two gaijin friends, a Kiwi and a Brit, when a foreigner couple strolled in past us. As they walked by, the guy yelled, “People speaking English, that’s what I like to hear”. No one in my group replied. Internally, I sighed; the man’s accent was American, I was going to have to take care of this or it was only going to reflect poorly on me amongst my peers.

As predicted, within minutes the girl came over to our table are started asking us where we were from. We were polite, I asked her where she was from. “Orlando” she replied. “Which is great in Japan, because when people ask us where we are from we just say Mickey Mouse”. That is great, I thought. Really great.

In my experience, people from Orlando are particularly dangerous on foreigner countries. They are generally entirely uncultured, but completely oblivious to it. They assume that their proximity to a theme park that is visited by people internationally has put them on a some sort of cultural pedestal and clued them in to the secrets of proper international relations. Just because the restaurant you work in taught you how to say “My name is Renee” in their language doesn’t mean you are some preferred customer to come poke around their country.

The girl left  us alone, but over the next thirty minutes they kept finding reasons to pop back over to our table. It quickly went from”Where are you from?” to “Do you know any good hotels in the area?”, “where can I get wifi around here” to bumming cigarettes. Like I said before, I am happy to be helpful, and politely helpful, –we drew them maps and wrote down Kanji; however there are travel agents and an American Embassy for a reason.

As we left the bar, my friends lightly lamented about how a day dedicated to shooting pool and drinking beer became a tour guide symposium. I rued that this was another reason the terrorist hate us, and vowed to stick to the cold shoulder routine more steadfastly. Some gaijin are gaijin enough to be “gaijin”

Naked and Confused
March 25, 2010, 4:02 pm
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During my “blog blackout” last month I made a short weekend trip to Kurayoshi in Tottori prefecture. Tottori prefecture is on the North side of Honshu (the Japanese “mainland”) and to get there I had to take the Super Hakuto train north, all the way across the island. I had never traversed the country from North to South before and it was quite interesting to watch the shifts in the landscape outside the window.

When foreigners list things they associate with Japan, the shifting landscape probably isn’t high on the list. This is unfortunate, because it’s kind of spectacular.  The numerous and lengthly tunnels couple with the quick progression from plains to field to mountains to coast line resembles the ride at Epcot–you know, in the good way, minus the space part and the talking Presidents.

I started in Aioi, along the coast of Seto Inland Sea, where it was cool and sunny. Within twenty minutes on the train the horizon was filled with sharp, gray mountain peaks and snow-blanketed fields. A handful of stops later, I was back again at sea-level, passing the famous sand dunes of Tottori and traveling alongside the Sea of Japan as waves crashed against the shore.

The abrupt transitions reminded me that I wasn’t in America. Back home it often always seems like you have to travel for days or jump on plane for the scenery to change significantly.

I headed to Tottori with my fiancée and her family for two reasons: Onsens (natural hot springs) and Crab meat. I can’t speak for the rest of Japan (although I think I do) but here in Hyogo, heading North to eat crab and sit in scorching hot water are a winter tradition.

Onsens have always kind of freaked me out. While Japanese culture highly values privacy, the notion of natural purity seems to supersede it. What I really mean is; at most onsens you are required to bath in them naked. There is usually a number of pools connected to the hot spring and they separate the men’s side and women’s side. Thus, when I go with my girlfriend, this basically leaves me stranded in terms of having a cultural consultant. Normally, I can hold my own, but onsens complicate the situation there is a strict code of etiquette at the onsens, (that involves bathing at certain times, not having tatoos and so forth) that is designed to maintain the purity of the water.

Now, I can get past the nudity (barely), and as you might have noticed from reading this blog, I have a wealth of experience in dealing with social faux pas. However, the one thing I dread is committing a faux pas while naked. Naked faux pas are like the sixth of Faux Paws hell (I saw six because I there must a be a seventh circle that I don’t want to–and hopefully am unable to–imagine).  Also, any transgressions is compounded by the fact that I am a foreigner– it’s not like I can blend in the with crowd or hope that an incident will slip anyone’s notice.

Now, I imagine that you, the reader, are anticipating some ripe and juicy story where I do something offensive and am chased down the streets, running to the embassy buck-naked.  Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you. I lucked out. First, we were traveling on a Sunday and Monday so the ryokan (Japanese style hotel) was fairly empty. In fact, at night I had the whole men’s side of the onsen, with four different onsens–two indoor and two outdoor, to myself. I could have swam laps ( sort of did, I ran around and jumped in every onsen for no explicable reason). The second day, I stumbled upon a poster in the changing room that outlined the proper onsen etiquette. For those interested it’s:

Step 1: Take a shower

Step 2: Get in the onsen.

Step 3: Don’t splash around or swim. Don’t eat food, don’t drink, don’t put your washcloth in the onsen, it’s uncouth.

Step 4: Chill out, you’re in mineral rich hot spring water. It’s one of the few benefits of living on top of a bunch of volcanoes.

Getting that sussed out helped make the weekend more relaxing. In between going to the onsen and eating the largest crab meal I have ever had we had a chance to go to a Yakuza-run arcade (classy and retro) and walk along the river–which held an outdoor all-male public onsen. I’m not sure what the protocol is on the outdoor onsen, but I bet it’s a bit too European for me.


Fill'er with Diesel and Bacon

Since January 15th of this year McDonald’s has been running it’s “Big America” campaign here in Japan. I assume the “Big America” title is supposed to be some sort of word play involving the “Big Mac” but all it makes me think of is fat, lazy McDonald’s-inhaling Americans (like myself). Basically, it’s a rather apt title.

The campaign has included four specialty burgers, The Texas Burger, Burger New York, the California Burger, and the Hawaiian burger (sorry Chris, no McRib). Here’s a list describing each burger. I can’t say I fully agree with the ingredients corresponding to their locations. What’s so New York about Monterrey-Jack cheese?or so Hawaiian about eggs? Do they even have eggs in Hawaii? If so they definitely aren’t indigenous. Please note, however, (as the author of the above link does) that all the burgers include bacon. Baconizing everything sounds very American We should be the United States of Bacon. Bacon, the most beautiful thing on Earth.

In Japan I try not to go to McDonald’s.  “Try” is the operative term though, I have gone a few times (they’re everywhere!) and each time I do, I feel like I am fulfilling a cliche. Even if it’s not the case I get the impression that the staff either looks at me and snicker at the humor of the stupid foreigner eating the stupid foreign trash-food or that the person behind the register sees me as some sort of McDonald’s expert who is going to enlighten them with my advanced McDonald’s knowledge. The sad thing is, when I look at the menu, I feel like I have advanced McDonald’s knowledge. I’ve seen McDonald’s items they cant even possibly fathom. Ordering McDonald’s in Japan simultaneously feels like cheating on my dream to be a worldly person and playing little league as an adult.

I went last week because the fries are still awesome, (even in Japan, even in England, even on the moon) and there is one down the street from my office. I resisted the brief temptation to order off the Big America menu. Huffing down a Big America burger would just put me one step closer to being a Big American.

No Pictured: The Jersey Burger- Bacon, Trash, and Tackiness--Class Free

I should also mention that the “Big America” campaign has been complimented by a number of strange commercials that involve a portable McDonald’s driving across America to deliver cheeseburgers to uncomfortably happy people. The whole things seems to be some sort of electric-kool-aid party gone corporate; in the commercials everybody dances as the tiny McDonald’s mobile delivers them cheeseburgers with bacon–which I guess wouldn’t be so bad, I mean bacon is involved.

Just a stranger on the bus
March 10, 2010, 4:29 pm
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In Japan, the public bus system is not used just by people who can’t afford cars and the mentally disabled.  It is used by them, but also other types of people as well: college students, the elderly, and working professionals. Japan has such a excellent comprehensive public transportation system that it really is possible –although not always extremely convenient–to get around without using a car.

I have recently started using the bus system for the first time since elementary school. Overall, I feel as though the Japanese Bus system is vast improvement over it’s American counterpart. However, in some ways this is it’s downfall. Because it’s nice, a wide variety of people use, and thus inside the bus there is a mixture of people with schedules and places to be and people who have absolutely no respect for time. I would even go as far as to say that it’s a metaphor of why communism, socialism, and basic kindergarten sharing all don’t work.

On the flip side I could see someone arguing that the Japanese bus system is evidence of why the previously mentioned ideals would/do work. The buses here are exceptionally clean, they leave their destinations on time, and in my experience, they are fairly safe (read: not made by Toyota) in terms of interior incidents and external accidents. In my opinion though, this viewpoint doesn’t look at carefully enough at the internal bus passenger interactions and overall atmosphere–it’s high tension.

I don’t think Capitalist or Americans are wired for bus riding. In my specific case, I take the entire ride too personally. If between my apartment and workplace the bus seems to take forever and stop at every single stop (as it did today) I take this as an omen that the rest of the day will be miserable. It should be noted that I often view things that I can’t control, such as stoplights, queues and commercial breaks, as God’s way of communicating messages to me (and about me). However within this paradigm it has become apparent recently that the bus ride duration holds a heavier often more dubious weight than the other mediums. Some might call it solipsist to believe that God communicates directly to me and about me through the number of bus stops I get to bypass (or not bypass) each morning but I prefer to refer to it as a brand or perfectly normal failed transcendentalism.

I would agree though that the bus proves the pervasiveness of solipsism even in a country as polite and conformed as Japan. Actually, maybe it doesn’t prove the pervasiveness of solipsism per se, but more specifically the blatant disregard people have for other people. This is perhaps what I find most irksome about the bus and where it really gets dicey.

On Japanese buses you pay a staggered fare based on how long/far you rode the bus. In order to pay this fare, you have to pay exact change. If you don’t have exact change, there is a change machine at the front of the bus (right next to where you pay). More often than you would think college slackers, indignant seniors, and just general self-absolved jerkfaces at the back of the bus signal that they want to get off at the next stop, then only when the bus has come to a complete stop at their desired stop do they get up and saunter to the front of the bus. Once at the front they suddenly, “oh, I have to make change so I can pay my fare, Let me do this while everyone waits and watches”. Then we, the lucky fellow passengers, get to wait to while this genius makes change, sorts out how much he needs to pay, pays and then finally leave the bus. I have seen people try to hold conversations with the driver while they do this, I’ve seen people look at the change in their hand as if they are doing algebra, I have seen people pay and then stand at the top of the step and look at as if they are some 18th century sea captain surveying a new island –it’s as if they have no clue that there are other people on the bus who have places to be.

I know I sound a bit like a curmudgeon complaining about this. However, being American abroad, I am aware of our reputation as clumsy, impolite fat lazy walking cheeseburgers. In the spirit of constantly wanting to prove people wrong (whatever the dispute may be), I have tried to be acutely aware of proper etiquette and basic public decency. This means giving up my seat on the train to the elderly, holding open doors for excessively long periods of time (one time in Osaka I was worried that I would stuck there until closing) and most recently chasing after a girl through the train station who had unknowingly dropped her cellphone on the ground.

Thus, it ticks me off when it feel like I’m the only one trying over here. Never mind all the little rules I break constantly because I don’t even know them, when people don’t prepare their exact change before arriving at their bus stop it makes me feel like God hates me.

box forts
March 4, 2010, 4:32 pm
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I didn’t intend to take a month off, however it appears that’s how long it takes to move and get Internet in Japan.  Actually, it takes a few days less than that, but if complain about NTT not giving you your Internet password information for a few days while also not checking your mailbox  that is exactly how long it takes.

During the process, I have learned a couple of interesting new tidbits about Japan:

1. The moving process is not enjoyable, not in any country, not ever.

2. A fourth-floor walk-up is a fourth-floor walk up even in Japan where it seems like the stairs are miniature stairs.

3. The Ikea in Kobe is exactly like the Ikea in New Jersey which is both great and terrible.

4. In Japan you can bargain with the sales staff even in the big-box electronics stores. This really surprised; not only have I been getting ripped off but I have been missing out on the thrill of used-car dealership-type negotiations.

Still, it’s great to be in a new apartment. I have a great view of the Akashi Bridge and Awaji island in the new place. Also, I have real furniture that didn’t come with the apartment and is not bolted down in any way.

The new place considerably bigger than my old one (but still small) full of appliances, Ikea furnishings  and a bunch of empty cardboard boxes. Why do I still have all of these boxes? Because in Japan there is a proper way to do everything and in Japan that way with boxes is to cut them into tiny pieces, wrap the pieces into bundles with string and then dispose of those bundles ONLY (ONLY!) on the first Saturday of every month.  Anything else is is an insult to your neighbors (and yourself).

I find this box-disposal methodology a bit cumbersome. It’s a lot of work for something they’re probably just going to incinerate. Also, the waiting time is a far cry from New York, where you could bring anything from your apartment outside and put it on the curb at anytime of the day on any day of the week and within hours that item that you put on the curb would become part of someone else’s home. The upshot of Japan’s way of doing things is that the neighborhood doesn’t always smell like trash; my apartment however, smell like cardboard boxes. Obviously, the only viable solution is to build a box fort in my apartment and just live in the fort until the night before the first Saturday of the month, at which time the fort will have to be sieged and raised. It’s the only logical solution, but that may be the box fumes talking.