Saturday, February 28, 2009

Tea Kaiseki

…one of the most poignant messages that Japan pressed into my consciousness was to live each day as if there were no tomorrow. I saw that at Euryaku-ji Temple. In Buddhism, life is seen as fleeting, therefore every moment is sacred and should be appreciated to the fullest. The art of tea embodies this concept. Every tea ceremony becomes a unique occasion because you will never gather again with that same group of people on that day, during those hours, in your lifetime. The evanescence of the gathering, not unlike the brief flowering of the cherry blossoms, heightens the pleasure found in such pathos.

This kind of thinking brings grace and meaning to everything you do, including the mundane. In preparing dinner, for example, you can treat it as either a chore or a joy.

To me, cooking a meal is a gift you give to someone, including yourself. Tea kaiseki taught me that. Each dish becomes a creative expression of the heart, filled with kindness, compassion, and love. That is why the tea ceremony and tea kaiseki will ultimately live on. Both are art forms that despite the many challenges they face nourish the body and spirit.


Untangling My Chopsticks, Victoria Abbot Riccardi

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Addendum

Looking back on my articles, I’m thinking I might have been overly critical on Japanese society. Not that I don’t fully agree with everything I wrote, but it would be a shame for someone to only see negatives in a country with so many wonderful aspects.

Japanese People

Contact with locals can always vary from traveler to traveler, attitude included, but I don't think I’ve ever met a more generous people than the Japanese. The gift-giving mentality in Japan is instilled at such an early age that to those of use coming from “selfish” western cultures, it seems nothing less than godly.

When finishing any major contract of employment, you will most likely be treated to an evening of eating, drinking, and other debauchery (karaoke… or a hostess club depending on the business). In Japan this is no small feat, with all-night prices going upwards of 100,000 yen for just a few people. Upon my completion at Shin Nippon Biomedical in Kagoshima, I was kindly given a blue yukata and invited to join in the party for another departing coworker.

Nor is this limited to the business world. Readers may recall my adventures hitchhiking in Kyushu, when a kind man drove tens of kilometers out of his way to ensure I would reach the main highway, and presented me with some senbei to pass along to my fellow staff members. Unbelievable. It was further trumped in an ultimate display of generosity that took place less than four hours later.

I was dropped off by an elderly couple in central Kumamoto around 9:30, with 210 km between me and my apartment. With nothing else to be done but stick out my thumb and try my luck with the night drivers, I got a ride from a middle-aged couple in a matter of minutes. They incorrectly assumed that I was a stable, sane foreigner who wouldn’t do anything so foolish like hitchhiking to Kagoshima in the middle of the night; but, I told them I was a company employee, who must return to work at 8:00 AM on Monday and I had just gotten several rides from Nagasaki, where I had run a half marathon in 1:28.

They didn’t drive me to Kagoshima. They didn’t take me any further down the highway. They consulted with each other and decided they didn’t want to worry about me, a random stranger in the night, coming to death on the side of the road in Kumamoto Prefecture (I doubt this would have happened). Instead, they took me straight to Kumamoto Eki and paid for a shinkansen ticket direct to Kagoshima Chuo. I was stumbling through every “thank you” I knew in Japanese, and I knew that wouldn’t be enough. I passed along my email and told them to contact me; unfortunately, I never heard from them, and didn’t get the chance to return the favor. They wouldn’t give me their phone number… just a name. I’ll have to look them up if I return to Kyushu.

Advice to you all: return the favor. Give gifts when the situation calls for it: New Year’s cards, White Day, Valentine’s Day, Birthdays, employee departures (permanent, or even a long vacation), end of the school year… I’m sure I’m forgetting a few – Christmas is more of a romantic holiday, though. Bring plenty of supplies from home to use as presents; something homemade is best.


Group Harmony, wa

I was never the best at this, having pretty much destroyed the office wa with my cross-cultural blog entries on AEON. After that, the damage was already done, so I didn’t see any harm in widening the crack in the ice; I turned the thermostat down when no one was around; I ducked out as soon as my last class ended; I never went out to eat with other teachers. Hopefully from my tone, you can tell I should have been doing the opposite.

Life in Higashi-Hiroshima started out easy enough; introduction parties, letting our hair down with excessive eating and drinking, learning our respective personalities. But I didn’t know this. I was hot (arrived in June), drained, nervous, and unable to speak ten words of Japanese. I didn’t realize that these outings were practically necessary to maintain group harmony, to establish wa in the on-hours, to show each other we could relax and have fun. My sentiments about the working environment aside, I should have been able to establish a better sense of community with my coworkers; it remains a big regret for me, not taking advantage of many opportunities to further my insights on Japanese culture.

Showing strong emotions without first establishing your baseline behavior is pretty much social suicide in Japan. Yelling in particular (think about it… how many times have you heard a sober Japanese person yell in anger?) is likely to make others give you the cold shoulder for weeks to come. I admit I was certainly frustrated enough at times to let off some steam in class, but I restrained myself. By the end of the year teaching, I think my students would have considered it a joke if I started spewing obscenities or looked at them with my brow furrowed; by that point, Turner-sensei wasn’t “an angry person”.


Escape is ok

You don’t have to eat sushi every day, drink yourself into a stupor with coworkers every Saturday night, and visit a shrine on Shogatsu in attempts to convince yourself you’re making the most of your Japanese experience.

Sometimes I just felt like grabbing a Domino’s pizza, drinking a Dr. Pepper from the import store, and watching Rocky Balboa online…

“Don’t get me wrong, everyone’s been super-friendly, but I want to play cricket, have a barbecue at the beach and lie in the sun.”

Under the Osakan Sun, Hamish Beaton

Under the Osakan Sun

The screen door opened and the old woman entered the room. She was carrying a plate of writhing purple spaghetti. The plate was placed in front of me.

I had noticed a live octopus in a large tank when we had entered the restaurant. He had been swimming around happily. My manhood test, however, had required him to be plucked from his tank, laid on a chopping block, and have two of his finest tentacles removed with a cleaver. The two wriggling, squirming tentacles had been diced into smaller wriggling, squirming pieces and carefully laid out on an attractive serving platter.

The assembled company gasped. Live octopus tentacles, it seemed, were a rare treat, and a tremendous honour for the guest.

I looked down at the plate. One of the tentacle pieces had managed to crawl to the edge and drop on to the table cloth. The rest were squirming helplessly. Emboldened by the alcohol I’d consumed, I reached out with my chopsticks and grabbed a large piece from the middle of the plate. Magnum clapped and everyone cheered. The tentacle resisted and stuck fast to the plate. I tugged and it came free.

Its slimy coating was, however, difficult to grip with the chopsticks. The tentacle dropped to the tabletop and started to crawl away. I gripped it again and swooped it into my mouth.

There was another drunken cheer and the audience peered at me immediately, eager to see how I would react to this delicacy. The tentacle squirmed madly and attached itself to the roof of my mouth. I gagged, and then proceeded to chew the demon tentacle until it gave up the struggle.



Under the Osakan Sun, Hamish Beaton
A New Zealander’s tale of three years in Kanan Town with the JET programme.


“There were no vending machines, no power lines, and not a hint of concrete. For a few moments, I forgot that I was in Japan”

He says this so offhandedly, yet that kind of numbness to the urban sprawl of Japan scares me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

7 Continents in 21 Days

Breaking the Guinness World Record for Fastest Time to Run a Marathon on All 7 Continents

Australia - USA - Germany - Lebanon - Kenya - Chile - Antartica
November 22 - December 12 2009


http://www.7continents21days.com/

Monday, February 23, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Part V

Conclusions



I hope this has come over as not so much of a critique on Japan, rather than advice to stay mindful about what you see. Readers know me from my blog entries, which may give the impression I'm a bit of a Japanophile (as opposed to a Japan-basher), but I’ve tried to open my eyes a little wider since I stepped on that international ferry in Osaka, effectively ending my Japanese experience; nothing will make you realize how you feel about Japan better than getting outside of it for a brief stay.

I miss the hot springs on chilly evenings. I miss nibbling yakitori as I stroll through outdoor markets. I remember all the discussions I had with locals as my Japanese improved and I felt I could move past the "where are you from/do you like sushi" conversations.

Having spent so much time in Japan, I do still think about it on a daily basis, wondering if I made the right decision, trying to take myself back to the same state of mind I had while living in Hiroshima and Kagoshima. I can recall shuttling myself to distant islands far from the lights of Tokyo… but did you know when I was on Nakanoshima, there were two major construction projects going on? One, to extend the harbor; two, paving a new road on the southern side of the island (one hundred people live there, few with cars!)

Unlike Kerr, I haven't known what it's like to walk in the streets of the real Kyoto. But the dream keeps me going, makes me search (most of the time, in vain), to find that "real Japan" image wherever I can. Being situated in Kagoshima put me in a unique position; I could see islands where few have walked; my studies concerning Buddhism made me aware of the 88-temple walk in Shikoku; even running in Japan allowed me to see the country in a new light.

Japan is a massive concrete jungle filled with people you won't understand at first, or even after years of residency.

Japan is a very comfortable, very pleasant place to live, filled with every amenity you can imagine, and some you can’t.

Thinking about your role in Japanese society is depressing; fit in as best you can, and take the rest in stride. There’s nothing else that can be done.

As contrite as it sounds, we foreigners need to educate Japan. Not on matters of English, but of world views, and even Japanese culture itself; whenever I returned from a trip to Sapporo, or Matsuyama, or Shimonoseki, my students were practically in shock: they had never found the time to travel to these places themselves, nor were they aware of just how much someone could appreciate them. Now imagine I’m describing a foreign country to them; to give them that yearning to know what is beyond Japan's borders is the best gift of all. But please know what you're talking about beforehand.

Eat sashimi and drink ocha. It’s good for you.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Part IV

Japan is not a "get away from it all" place



Those of you sitting at home watching movies like Karate Kid II and Lost in Translation should know better. Yes, Japanese culture spawned rock gardens, Zen temples, samurai, and Godzilla (which, incidentally, I NEVER heard mention of in two years), but the country is hardly full of kimonoed girls and Zen masters on every corner. In big cities like Osaka, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, you’d be hard-pressed to find even one feature one might associate with postcard-worthy Japan. This is good... but not exactly ideal, considering what the Japanese have put in its place.

Forty plus years ago, one could roam the Japanese countryside, enjoying the comforts of traditional ryokan and perhaps missing any developments one would find appropriate in an urban setting… the "old Japan", as it were. But, as Alex Kerr points out, a trend is emerging:


"...Japan has become arguably the world's ugliest country. To readers who know Japan from tourist brochures that feature Kyoto's temples and Mount Fuji, that may seem a surprising, even preposterous assumption. But those who live or travel here see the reality: the native forest cover has been clear-cut and replaced by industrial cedar, rivers are dammed and the seashore lined with cement, hills have been leveled to provide gravel fill for bays and harbors, mountains are honeycombed with destructive and useless roads, and rural villages have been submerged in a sea of industrial waste.

Similar observations can be made about many other modern nations, of course. But what is happening in Japan far surpasses anything attempted in the rest of the world. We are seeing something genuinely different here. The nation prospers, but the mountains and rivers are in mortal danger, and in their fate lies a story – one that heretofore has been almost entirely passed over by the foreign media."

Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan


And, as evidenced by my initial reaction to Osaka, one passed over by foreign eyes as well, caught up seeking the "old Japan" and ignoring everything else: power lines, cemented rivers, cramped buildings, unnecessary monuments...


"It's part of the phenomenon of foreigners' exotic dreams of Japan. Mason Florence says, 'People come to Japan seeking enchantment, and they are bound and determined to be enchanted. If you arrived in Paris or Rome and saw something like the new [Kyoto] station you would be utterly revolted, but for most foreigners coming to Kyoto it merely whets their appetite to find the old Japan they know must be there. When they finally get to Honen-In Temple and see a monk raking the gravel under maple trees, they say to themselves, "Yes it does exist. I’ve found it!" And their enthusiasm for Kyoto ever after knows no bounds. The minute the walk out of Honen-In they're back in the jumbly modern city, but it doesn't impinge on the retina – they're still looking at the dream.'"



Kyoto was spared bombing during the war, only to begin destroying itself 20 years later with the erection of the tower. As my only glance of the city came six months into my Japanese life, the quote above describes my feelings perfectly: "Wow, so this is modern Kyoto... now where can I find these scenic temples? Snow falling on wooden rooftops?"

Japan's construction state did start becoming more visible to me over time. In 2007, I visited Kurokawa Onsen village in Kumamoto Prefecture, which Lonely Planet describes as "a tiny, forgotten village that you’ve been lucky to stumble upon".


Courtesy of Ogitaro


When I was there, this was still more or less true, but it was not to be for long – a new super hotel was being finished and is probably already open for business. The only non-ryokan style of lodging in the village, it is a beige box with no aesthetic value, interrupting the steady line of houses under ten meters tall. How long will it take the government to build another one?

I’m kind of spoiled in this regard, as I lived in one of the few parts of Japan where it is possible to get truly untouched onsen, and I have no real problem with the small, grey neighborhood onsen of Kagoshima, as long as the baths are big and the water stays hot and soothing.



This construction frenzy, however, isn't just about onsen or major urban centers like Kyoto; it’s dominating every corner of the country in an ironic attempt to sell Japan as a modern nation. In doing so, it becomes one of the ugliest, but is still rather unique, in that no one has ever seen a country go to such great efforts to pave over its natural beauty. About 40% of Japan's trees have been replaced with sugi (cedar, also plentiful on Yakushima). Tetrapods line over half of what was once natural sand beaches, under the pretense of preventing erosion (in fact, causing more).


Courtesy of Pokoroto


Newbie foreigners take all of this in stride, having never known the quaint pleasure of a Japanese village in anything other than photographs, as disconnected from them as knights, castles, and chivalry are from Europeans; they see Japan and force themselves to think "modern, modern, modern", and it blinds them to what could be, what should be...


"…in Japan, beauty no long comes easy; you have to work hard to see it."


To illustrate this better, let’s try a little exercise. Try to take a picture of a truly "Japanesey" sight and tell me how much you had to crop out to make it even remotely beautiful. Mt. Fuji doesn’t count.


The irony...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Part III

You Will Never Be A Japanese



Let me clarify that – I don't care if you've lived in Japan for twenty years out of 25 and know kanji that would baffle the most advanced language scholars. Unless you were born and raised in Japan by an ethnically Japanese family, you are not a Japanese. And never will be...

This was one of the more depressing aspects when weighing whether I wanted to live in Japan long term. Being treated as a token foreigner is amusing for a few months, perhaps even years, but for the rest of your life?

When I first arrived in Hiroshima, I was perfectly content in not being Japanese (or even a permanent resident), appreciating that it would take time to understand how to function in this society, or if such a thing were even possible.

During my first 8-9 months in Japan, I unwittingly played the role of the stereotypical foreigner:

- Being amazed by all the "old" shrines
- Looking aghast at raw fish
- Drinking too much at expat bars and picking up Japanese girls who seemed to enjoy "international liaisons"
- Clocking out on the dot
- Drinking Coke and eating pizza
- Frequenting "gaijin circles" of friends

It was mostly due to ignorance, and the excitement of simply being truly independent in a foreign country, once that summer camp mentality wore off.

As time went on, however, and I started to actually consider what an amazing place Japan is and wonder how it came to be, I focused more energy inward, continuing my Japanese studies, and trying to make certain mannerisms second nature: bowing, using the correct guttural sounds to show I was listening to someone, humbling myself in the eyes of others, trying not to stand out.

They are habits that have stuck with me even today as I live in New Zealand and study Buddhism. A girl I met in Austin was curious as to why I bowed to her the first time we met.

Some people simply don't reach this phase, and choose to remain a guest of Japan for 5, 10, 20 years drinking, only teaching English, hooking up in clubs, and badmouthing anything Japanese before they realize their youth is used up, their job prospects slimmer, and they discover even after years of living in a foreign country, they haven’t learned anything. Or changed.

Those who do try to be less of a "stake that sticks out" will find, however, that it's impossible. Despite a new generation of semi-rebellious Japanese youth, the country remains a conservative, closed-off nation: even with an aging population, falling birthrate, and increasing labor shortage, there is no policy designed to promote immigration; Japan's problems (even though they "don’t exist"), will be solved by Japanese alone.

Excluding Asian nationalities (and most of these residents hold the passport in name only), Japan’s foreign population is less than 1%. Japan is all well and good if you want to go to a museum or stay at a five-star hotel like a tourist, but what if you're living in a rural area and want to indulge in a soak at the neighborhood sento (bathhouse)? You may find a sign stating simply "Japanese Only". Some restaurants or lodging establishments may not want to deal with you if you can't speak Japanese. Even after living here for years, you're still fingerprinted like a common criminal.

With the exception of being refused a haircut on one occasion, I never encountered any of these situations. But they do exist. In few numbers, to be sure, but the fact that they do and the country allows it sends a clear message: Japan for Japanese; you’ve overstayed your welcome.

Friday, February 20, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Part II

Japan is Comfortable

There’s no denying the Japanese have a "work hard, play hard" mentality. As many foreigners reject the former and focus their efforts on putting in whatever hours at the office are necessary to enjoy the rest of life, Japan truly can be a land of milk and honey: things to relax you (onsen, shiatsu), things of convenience (vending machines every 10 meters, transportation that would sooner derail than be late), things to entertain (karaoke, nightlife, 日本酒).

If you so choose, there is absolutely nothing preventing you from having the same lifestyle or schedule as you would back home – going to the gym, catching a movie (in English, of course), enjoying a nice dinner out, hanging with friends on the weekends…

Japan, despite whatever backwards connotation one may have associated with it, is a modern country. You are not living in a poor part of the world (2nd largest economy, need I remind you?). The water is drinkable, the country clean, the people beyond friendly.


"Japan... with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politenesses shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of 'lotus land', where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things… it has become the land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this."

Lost Japan, Alex Kerr


Kerr goes on to discuss the mentality instilled from almost birth; bad things simply do not happen:

1. The economy, despite the fact it's in debt for trillions of Yen, doesn't collapse mostly because people refuse to believe it can.

2. From my observations - violent crime doesn't happen in Japan, because the Japanese are "more civilized" than the dangerous outside world. When murders are reported, the media tries their best to make the issue about foreigners (ex. "Chinese kills family in Fukuoka". When a Japanese is undeniably involved, they go so far as to trace his heritage, to see if he has Chinese or Korean roots. The message sent to the public and the blossoming youth is clear: civilized Japanese do not commit crimes, it is the fault of blood-thirsty foreigners.

3. Kerr’s references 2001: A Space Odyssey to describe the role the media and aisatsu (announcements) play in modern Japan. Loudspeakers, with the exception of those blaring messages from political candidates, are the voice of Hal, telling you what to do, where to go, why you shouldn't worry... "everything is alright... you’re in Japan!":

"Exits are on the left side of the train."

"Take care not to fall into the volcano." Great advice!

"Stand up, sit down, stretch to the left!"

If you don't know how to enjoy the serenity of some of the few decent temples left in Kyoto, don’t worry – recorded messages continually broadcast a history of the place.

The media is a further extension of this. Unlike in China, where undesirable news is simply removed or blocked, Japan warps facts to fit its needs. Just try watching one of those segments where they interview people on the street, or go undercover into a nightlife district to discover the truth regarding underage prostitutes... I bet over 80% of Japanese TV is scripted.

...

It was precisely for these reasons that I chose to leave after only two years. Although I was certainly comfortable, I was also falling into a routine not befitting a traveler – working just to fill my bank account, eating the same food (not all sushi), not trying to stretch my language skills...

More than that, I had the feeling both more and less unique as a stranger in a strange land. Japan in particular is notorious for being perfectly amenable to foreigners as guests, but when they choose to make Asia their home, an alarm sounds.

But more to the point, I stood out as the foreign guest, and as a result, reaped benefits far too numerous to mention:

- Attention, stares on a daily basis
- Being paid an absurd amount for a job I was qualified to do from birth
- More appeal to the opposite sex
- Genuine interest from genuinely interesting Japanese

I was a celebrity. At least... my face and white skin made me such. My soul, my personality... it just wasn’t required. Imagine a computer singing Phantom of the Opera; it may be able to create the sounds mathetically correct note for note, but the soul and feeling are lacking. That's what upset me, this sense of being diluted; while a part of me appreciated the attention, another knew it had nothing to do with me especially: I would have been treated the same way had I been a dimwitted foul, an arrogant prick... attitude and intelligence play no part in the typical Japanese perception of a foreigner.

Which brings me to my second point...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

From Shima to Shima, Part I

Thoughts and reflections on two years in Japan



When I first set out to write this all-inclusive thriller of yet another expat's experience in the land of the rising sun, I put forth far too much effort in an attempt to make the article suitable for the likes of world class travel magazines. These conclusions are not for the armchair traveler, the yet-to-travel layman who chooses to spend his money on National Geographic rather than a plane ticket. No, this is for you, my Japan readers. Those who have lived the life of teaching English on a year's contract, those who look back on years past, now struggling to remember the simplest Japanese expression. And those who have yet to arrive. Let me be of service.

In doing so, I'll be quoting largely from the works of Alex Kerr, who, in my humble opinion, expresses what Japan is to foreign eyes more clearly and concisely than any other author. To see this country without the "emerald glasses", as it were, read Kerr’s Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan.

Nothing here concerns the English-teaching experience except in passing. For that, you'd best read The Truth About AEON.

...

Summer camp mentality, I believe, is always the first to present itself in those who choose to travel abroad; whether you're a retiree who pays her own way in an elaborately organized tour, or a 20-something striking out to distant lands for work, the same instincts occur. From the moment you land, you're told where to go, what not to do (native customs), what to wear, what to eat, where to sleep. All decision making in what should be the most independent situation of your life is removed piece by piece, and you're 12 years old again, instructed to stick with the group as you're shuttled between museums. As an English teacher, you have difficulty distinguishing what time belongs to the company and which is yours alone; clinging to the institution like a camp counselor is second nature, given how far you've come and how difficult it may be to venture out on your own.

I've just landed in Osaka, and spend a good sixty seconds with my own thoughts before spotting a company rep sporting the customary blue and white of AEON. The most corporate among the "Big Four" eikaiwa (now, some would say three), AEON was my only choice in going for a Japanese adventure: no shared housing, as opposed to NOVA; one fixed location, which the JET Programme didn't allow; most importantly, they interviewed in my hometown – ECC only reviewed candidates every six months in LA.

It was a whirlwind, being exposed to so many aspects of Japanese culture all at once, seeing the country through the eyes of a first-timer, finding no faults, laughing at mistranslated Japanese signs in English. I couldn't even escape the first of many traps, set out for me from the day I decided to send in my resume: gaijin circles.

I couldn't even explore through my own eyes now, I had to listen to different negative perspectives of New Yorkers and Canadians. And the worst part was, it felt right to cling to them, to speak only English in Japan and chuckle over the ridiculousness of it all... what were we doing here, so far from home?

As our group reached critical mass and the AEON rep ran down her checklist, it was time to see the world outside the vending machines and phone card booths of Osaka International Airport.

Step 1: Turn in any baggage not needed for training to the luggage forwarding desk.

Step 2: Enter the local train system and make our way to the shinkansen.

Enter the first curious Japanese on the local to Shin-Osaka (although I didn't know the name at the time). Tom, a beefy guy with quite the inspiration for comedy, took the lead with questions. None of us knew any Japanese. I was still shy, and hoped the man might just pass me by... it didn’t take long for him to ask what I enjoyed.

"Running," I said, turning my head away slightly.

"Ohhh… champion! Champion!"

The journey of a thousand kilometers... We were all tired, covered with thin films of sweat, dehydrated, out of place, out of mind, alone, yet not alone, disconnected with the reality that out that window was a world we might actually come closer to understanding in the next year.

Looking back on it now, I remember not thinking much of the exposed power lines and cookie cutter designed grey buildings that are Osaka, one of the ugliest cities in Japan, if not the world. Such is the power of a fresh perspective – I didn’t think to compare Japan with what I knew of the states, or the UK, or China. I just assumed, "Alright, so this is how Japan is supposed to look, supposed to be..." Every time something happened, negative or otherwise, in the following months, I just thought to myself, "This is how Japan is supposed to be. I can’t change it. It isn't my country. Shoganai."



We can all do better. I'm not suggesting going in blind, like I did, then imposing your own set of values on an Asian culture ("gaijin-smash", as it were), but we can help, even in the subtlest of ways.

I'm going to reveal some truths about Japan, many of which readers are most likely unaware. Namely, Japan, to me, is ugly on the surface but not beyond its own rich fading culture; Japan is comfortable, to the degree you may start only seeing things with "emerald glasses"; no matter how long you live in Japan, how hard you try, how much you do, you will never be considered a Japanese.

Relax, grab a cup of green tea, and make sure your browser is encoded to read kanji.

I give you "From Hiroshima to Kagoshima: A Texan's Tale of Two Years in Japan".

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"The Bubble" Recovery Finally Coming Back to Bite Japan?

January 1990. For the next two years, Japanese stocks fall 60%. The Nikkei index of the Tokyo Stock Exchange soon became half what it was in the heyday - approximately 39,000 points. Bank loans amounted to nothing. The economy is still in debt for trillions of Yen.

Fact: The Japanese economy is the second-largest in the world.

How did they do it?

One of the reasons Japan prospered during the Bubble was its financial analysis model: prices do not fall. Land value always increases. Stocks must go up. On the whole, this is a terrible way to do business; if, on the other hand, you have a Gross National Product that can't help but increase by an ungodly percentage (about 6%, I believe) for over a decade, and your citizens are convinced in the stability of the Yen, it works surprisingly well. When the GNP did fall in early 1990. and the country effectively had no way to deal with these losses, the entire system should have collapsed in on itself, similar to the 1929 crash in the United States. But it wasn't to be so in Japan. Why?

People still had faith in banks and stocks that were guaranteed NOT to produce any income. The government kept spending, and most of the burden in recovery during the 90's was absorbed by your average salaryman wanting low taxes and a reasonable pension. Many financial analysts around the world couldn't get their heads around how the country had basically ignored the fact that trillions of Yen were due to be paid in some form.

Now it finally may be time for a true reversal of fate, to make the government aware of the precarious economic situation.

The gross domestic product has dropped at an annual pace of 12.7 percent. In my humble opinion as someone who has studied the Japanese "economic recovery", this was inevitable, the result of staying the course on an economic model completely impractial during both the Bubble and the recovery. Why we didn't see Japanese being taxes 5,000,000 Yen (approx $50,000) in 1995 to attempt some sort of balance is beyond me.

And the funniest part is yet to come. In response to this drop, Prime Minister Aso has supported a 4.8 trillion Yen stimulus plan to pay out to taxpayers (coming to approx. 10,000 Yen/person). Wow. Brilliant. Enough to buy lunch for two. Or maybe just coffee if things keep going the way they are. I know! Let's just will the economy to do the right thing. Gambatte! Fight!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Story of Sushi

“The word omakase means ‘I leave it up to you.’ It’s what the sophisticated customer says to the chef when settling down at the sushi bar. Sushi connoisseurs seldom order off a menu. Traditionally, sushi bars in Japan didn’t even have menus. Omakase is an invitation to the chef – not just to serve what he thinks are the freshest ingredients of the day but also to show off his skills. And for any serious sushi chef, that includes cooking.”

The Story of Sushi, Trevor Corson

Saturday, February 07, 2009

I've Become My Own Worst Enemy

Readers may recall scattered mentions of my encounters with Japanese who simply walk up to foreigners in the middle of the sidewalk and want to practice their English. Often, these foreigners are not native speakers, which makes it all the more amusing for me, as a bystander, to overhear some of the resulting confusion.

The main motivation for all these encounters being, of course, many Japanese want to feel like they've had an "international" experience, a close encounter of the 3rd foreigner, a chance to put into practice some of the skills they learned in school besides bowing and aisatsu (recorded messages). For those with the time and resources, an eikaiwa is often the better choice; foreigners on the street may not exactly be in a talkative mood... or capable; foreigners in private schools are paid to be your eigo tomo (English buddy).

It's been a strange experiences giving up my Japanese residency and traveling to several different countries - China, Thailand, New Zealand, the US - over the past few months. Beneficial and beautiful, but still, I feel a little out of place, and want to recapture the feeling of being in Japan. I do so by looking for Japan-like hot springs (only one or two have come close), and trying to keep up my language skills.

Arriving in Auckland proved to be a major eye-opener. I knew that the Kiwis and Asians had a common ocean, but I never imagined such an incredible Asian influence in a city like this; Queens Street is lined up and down with Korean, Thai, and Korean restaurants, there's a 100 yen store (or, rather, NZ $3 store), and quite the diversity.

The opportunity to test out my skills, the desire to practice, was too strong to resist... I find myself eavesdropping on random groups of Asians to see if I can understand anything; more often than not, they're Koreans, but on occasion, I can catch some Japanese phrases. Take this evening, for example: the Lantern Festival, a celebration of Chinese culture, is being hosted in Albert Park. Out of the numerous Chinese and Thai food stalls, there was one takoyaki yomise. I couldn't help myself... I positioned myself close to the sample tray under the pretext of looking at the menu (at a takoyaki stand? I mean, com'n...) and listened in... after a few seconds...

(in Japanese)
Japanese person: "Just look around... everywhere, gaijin, gaijin gaijin."

Me: "Yes, indeed, there are many gaikokujin, and some of us understand you. Watch out."

Japanese person: (jaw hangs slack with surprise)


I was cracking myself up walking away from that stall, but at the same time, I felt a little guilty - I was no better than the drunk Japanese businessman who once accosted me demanding a free English lesson in front of my apartment; I'm the one walking around an English-speaking country, attempting to discern whether someone with Asian heritage is Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, or just a local Kiwi, and, when I do find such a person, practice my Japanese skills. A truly international experience.

Nor am I above the nihongo tomo crowd; in Auckland, there are many restaurants run by Japanese, but I enjoy dining at Sharaku on Queens Street. It may not exactly be a sterile classroom, but the teachers give me cups of hot green tea, the conversation is fluid, and I look very international to the curious spectators who ogle at the Japanese-speaking white face.

I am such a tool... but if it helps me retain my nihongo... I had to think for ten minutes before I could remember the word for "study". I mean, benkyou??? Really?

Any similiar experiences?