Sunday, May 31, 2009

Recurring Fear

Suddenly, from behind, I was struck hard.

"WHAT THE F*#@!" I yelled. Pain seared across my ear. I whirled around to face this man. My ear was ringing mightily.

"What the F$#% are you doing?" I demanded.

He began yelling at me, smiling, leering. He was with others, young men with cruel expressions. A crowd had stopped to watch. They stood silently, just watching. I didn't like this. None of it. I didn't understand what was going on. I had been hit. I didn't know why. The man continued to yell. And he smirked. He leered. The scene was incomprehensible. I decided to walk away. I turned to go. I started walking.

SMACK.

"WHAT THE F*&%, YOU MOTHER%*&@!#," I shouted.

He had hit me with an open-handed slap to the back of my head. Now he was taunting me, smiling maniacally, yelling. There were hundreds of people gathered around, starting with inscrutable faces. No one said a word.

"COULD SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT HE'S SAYING? WHAT DOES HE WANT?"

- J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet China


I don't know about other expats living in Japan and other parts of Asia, but this is a recurring fear for me. No, not being smacked upside the head by a crazy or racist native, but rather the feeling of helplessness that comes from being thrown into a potentially dangerous situation when you don't speak the language well enough to defend yourself or escape.

Take the scenario from "I Just Didn't Do It" and replace the confused Japanese businessman with an expat who's barely been in Japan a few weeks. Now make the girl, the accuser, a little more malicious. What would happen?

You, a foreigner, are stepping off a crowded Tokyo train on your way to lunch. Suddenly a schoolgirl grabs your wrist, refuses to let go, and screams "CHIKAN!!"

You have no idea what that means, and are confused at what you seem to have done. The station staff arrest you, and you are promptly sent to jail for three years after being beaten and forced to sign a confession. Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe this is an unlikely scenario, in Japan of all places. But what about other countries? If someone falsely accuses you of a crime in the native tongue, how are you supposed to know what's going on? How can you utter just the right words to at least give off the appearance of innocence?

Troost's reaction is probably the best one - walk away. Frame your facial expressions not to appear angry, but confused at the accusation of this lunatic who likes to get foreigners into trouble. Violent behavior on your end will only make the situation much, much worse. Get out of there as soon as you can, because police or not, it's unlikely you'll be able to explain yourself as well as a native; you're still learning the language, the customs, the law, the types of hatred that run too deep to reason.

Just look at what happened to a photographer in Korea.


What would you do if thrown headfirst into a confrontation abroad and you didn't speak the language?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More on Fear and Trembling

Finally had the chance to see the film Fear and Trembling, based on the book by Amélie Nothomb.



Although I still am of the opinion Miss Fubuki Mori is a demon of pure unadulterated evil and must be crushed flat with a shoe from a giant salaryman, seeing (rather than reading) her reactions as portrayed by Kaori Tsuji did give me a minute amount of empathy to a woman in her situation - I honestly think she believed Amélie was out to get her and lacked the brain power for the simplest tasks... I guess it would be better to think of her as a vindictive *expletive deleted*. Who can say for sure? Their relationship reminded me of an article on Trans-Pacific Radio a while back (read first half of story), discussing the sempai - kohai connection.

I also have a lot more sympathy for the Japanese take on zangyou (after time). For those of you who don't know, it is quite common for Japanese workers to spend hours beyond their official contracted schedule at their desks doing work which may or may not be productive. The key is in saving face, you see; showing your boss you have what it takes to burn the midnight oil all day every day.

I still disagree with this practice, but truly, it's not too far from what employees sitting at desks do all day; even if you don't have anything in particular to do work-wise, it's not likely you'll crack open a six-pack of Asahi and read your favorite book. No, you'll probably maintain the appearance of work: writing at your desk, doing pretty much anything on your computer... the Japanese just happen to do a little longer than in most countries. I get it.

As more of a note to self, I really need to get on the ball with these social networking sites. My site traffic is embarrassingly low.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Let's Forget Our Worries

With a classic song from Adam and Joe Go Tokyo:

Finally, Noteworthy News

I haven't been blogging on the Japanese "swine flu epidemic" because... well, it's stupid. Swine flu is only slightly more likely to kill you than the regular flu viruses, and it's been over-hyped and used by the media far too often to solicit fear:


Thanks to Japan Probe


Nevertheless, there is international news in the vicinity of Japan, as North Korea follows up its second nuclear test with the firing of short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan.

I'm up pretty early, so most of the blogging community hasn't yet had the chance to comment. AMPONTAN is offering his informed rant, though.

I guess none of us should be surprised. North Korea knew it would be acting in defiance of the rest of the world with the first test, and their leadership went through with it anyway. This isn't a bluff, a negotiation tactic, a bargaining chip. This is the real world; the DPRK wants the the ability to blow up the planet piece by piece, just like everybody else.

Ten Useful Phrases

This one comes courtesy of the Matador Network's own Tim Patterson, who wrote a great roundup of ten Japanese phrases for travelers:

1. Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu
"Please favor me." Used in greetings and when exchanging business cards.

2. Yosh. Ganbarimas.
"OK, I'll do my best." Yosh is also a common word to exhale during particularly strenuous activity, like lifting heavy objects or standing up after hours of sitting (in a Japanese office, for example).

3. Ara! Onara suru tsumori datta kedo, unchi ga dechatta.
“Oops! I meant to fart but poop came out." Yeah... funny enough.

4. Mo dame. Yopparachatta. Gomen.
"No more. I'm already drunk. Sorry."

5. Koko wa doko? Watashi wa dare? Nani mo wakannai.
"Where is this place? Who am I? I don't understand anything." Your foreigner catch phrase.

6. Issho ni karaoke ni ikko ka?
"Shall we go to karaoke together?"

7. Honto ni oishi des yo!
"Really, it's delicious!"

8. Anata wa haru no ichiban no sakura yori utsukushii.
"You're more beautiful than the first cherry blossom of spring." I'll have to remember this one at parties.

9. Nihon daisuki!
"I love Japan!"

10. Kona ni kirena tokoro wa hajimete mita.
"I've never seen a place so beautiful before."

Monday, May 25, 2009

JET Eligibility

Applicants to the position of ALT must:

1. Be interested in Japan, and be willing to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of that interest after arrival.

2. Be both mentally and physically healthy.

3. Have the ability to adapt to living and office conditions in Japan.

4. Obey all Japanese laws.

5. Applicants with a suspended jail term must have finished their period of probation by the time they submit their application form.

6. Be a citizen (not just a permanent resident) of the country where the recruitment and selection procedures take place. (Those who possess dual citizenship with Japan must renounce their Japanese citizenship before the date for submission of the Jet Programme Reply Form). Applicants who have dual citizenship may only apply in ONE country.

7. In principle, be less than forty (40) years of age (as of April 1st, 2009). One of the main purposes of the Programme is to foster exchange between Japanese youth and young professionals from the countries participating in the Programme.

8. Have excellent pronunciation, rhythm, intonation and voice projection skills in the designated language, in addition to other standard language skills. Have good writing skills and grammar usage.

9. Have not participated in the JET Programme since 1999.

10. Not have declined a position on the JET Programme after receiving notification of placement in the last JET Programme year. However, exceptions to this rule may be made in cases where it is determined that the participant had a valid, unavoidable reason for withdrawing.

11. Not have lived in Japan for three or more years in total since 2001.

12. In the case of entry into Japan for participation on the JET Programme, agree to reside in Japan under the status of residence stipulated in Article 2-2 of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act.

13. Be interested in the Japanese educational system and particularly in the Japanese way of teaching foreign languages.

14. Be interested in actively working with students.

15. Hold at least a Bachelor's degree or obtain one by the departure date of Group A participants; or hold a qualification of 3 years or more in a training course in teaching at elementary or secondary schools or be able to obtain such qualifications by the departure date of Group A participants.

16. Be qualified as a language teacher or be strongly motivated to take part in the teaching of foreign languages.

Successful applicants are expected to study or continue studying the Japanese language prior to and after arriving in Japan.



I managed to obtain a copy of the JET Programme's most recent pamphlet at the Satsuki Matsuri and gave it a once over, curious to see how Japan was selling itself to the rest of the world these days. Actually, I thought the ALT job requirements were rather straight to the point and admirable (with the possible exception of 5 and 6 - renounce Japanese citizenship???). Unlike AEON, where the sales are brushed over to make "teachers" believe their work resides in the classroom, JET pretty much lays it all out:

- You have three options to work with the Programme, as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), CIR (Coordinator for International Relations), or SEA (Sports Exchange Advisor)
- You will be spending lots of long, boring hours at your desk during the vacation months. At least they're honest.

Moreover, they do emphasize the importance of being a part of Japanese culture and learning the language (I imagine this is especially true for JET candidates, as they can be stationed in some pretty remote parts of Japan, e.g. Nemuro).

I personally think the JET Programme is the most progressive way to go for English education in Japan - introducing students to a native speaker as early as possible. The only problem is recruitment is pretty much up to the same standards as other eikaiwa and smaller schools in Japan; teachers do have Bachelor's degrees, but often little to no experience and no intention of making work their focus while in an overwhelming foreign environment. As a traveler, I appreciate this. As someone concerned with Japan's education... it's really not the best way to go.

From the gaikokujin side, JET has its pluses and minuses. You get to be pretty much the only foreigner in a Japanese school office, teach in a fully Japanese class, and, depending on your principal and teachers, design your classes and club sessions with that special western flair. On the other hand, JET teachers are a tightly-knit group, getting together to drink, for outings, etc. While this is fine in moderation, most of the instructors I knew were basically a part of just another "gaijin circle". Be mindful.

Oh, and in case you were curious, the majority of ALTs come from the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Ireland, followed with a steep drop-off by Singapore, Jamaica, India, South Africa, France, China, and Germany. That's right - China trumps Germany. Strength in the statistical probability of having more decent English speakers, I guess.

Anyone signed up, heading out to Japan for the first time?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Selling Japan's Economic Future


(Courtesy of CNN)


CNN recently reported on a record fall in the Japanese economy: a 4% drop in the last quarter, and similar statistics all very impressive to get the point across. Apparently, from reading this article, Japan is doomed. But when facts and numbers just won't suffice, why not throw in a picture?

In this case, CNN chose one of the least likely scenes one would see in Japan: a raggedy homeless man toting a misshaped cart of cans and junk in the middle of the street.

Now, there are plenty of homeless people in Osaka, as there are in many Japanese cities: Tokyo, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Nagasaki (didn't see too many in Kagoshima, though). But what you have to remember is they are still Japanese! Japanese homeless exhibit a behavior all their own; if you were to see one walking down the street it would be unlikely you'd recognize him as homeless. Shoes are taken off outside sheet metal and cardboard shelters. Meals are readily available, as the standards of freshness force shopkeepers to toss out new bento boxes and baked goods in less than a day. With baths available in cheap onsen and sento, hygiene isn't exactly a big problem, either.

And there's the Japanese part of them not wanting to stand out from the crowd. They know they're living on the streets and must eventually return to a makeshift shelter at night, but that doesn't stop many from bathing and shaving in the morning, donning clean clothes (I have heard of some wearing full suits to mix in with salarymen), and taking their place in Japanese society as a glorified extra in a movie - part of the background, blending in with the masses perfectly.

The point being, even with a homeless population like Osaka's - and yes, there are a few homeless who walk down the street with unkempt clothes and a cart - this photo is not a typical scene in everyday Japan, nor is it the likely outcome with a steadily falling GDP. I though CNN was exempt from a lot of the bias and poor tactics to sell news other organizations use, but apparently not.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Enforcing Health Insurance

For those of you who don't live in Japan, let me clarify: all residents must be enrolled in either the National Health Insurance program (kenko kokumin hoken), the Social Insurance program (shakai hoken, for companies with 5+ employees), or a private plan. Many foreigners have found ways to circumnavigate this "requirement", however, as when you first register for a gaijin card, the desk clerk doesn't exactly wave a gun when telling you to go to the next counter and sign up for your insurance and pension.

According to Let's Japan, this may be about to change. Beginning in April 2010 there will be stricter enforcement for foreigners who find ways to slip out of hoken coverage, with consequences including having your visa revoked.

I had touched upon insurance in my Truth About AEON blogs; a few years ago, AEON was one of the many eikaiwa who kept their employees on just the right number of hours/week so as to not require insurance (as I mentioned, they tend to work you more than that anyway). A lot of companies do this without the government intervening, but sometimes it catches up to them. I believe now teachers at AEON are made aware of the insurance payments before arriving in Japan, but off and on for a few years, the company gave instructors a choice:

- Option A: Enroll in shakai hoken under your current terms of employment
- Option B: Change your contract hours to 29 hours and 30 minutes a week, keep the same salary, and not enroll in shakai hoken.
(Courtesy of Let's Japan)

Take it from someone who's broken his wrist in Japan: YOU WANT INSURANCE. Pay the extra 20,000-30,000 yen/month for that peace of mind. Unless you've got a travel insurance policy and are just exploiting loopholes in the insurance system to avoid paying for what you already have, sign up for National or Social Insurance. Can't say I enjoy paying into the pension, but with one comes the other...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Satsuki Matsuri in Austin



Apparently the city of Austin, Texas may be more influenced by Japanese culture than I had originally given it credit for. 9% of nearby Houston's population is Asian and Asian-American (and it shows through the quality of food), and even though Austin has its fair share of sushi bars and exchange students at the University of Texas, it doesn't exactly exude "Japaneseness" (Japanese population roughly 0.2%).

However, after seeing a notice at Whole Foods' headquarters on 6th Street for a Japanese tea ceremony, I followed up on the sponsoring organization, the Japan-America Society of Greater Austin. JASGA also happened to hold an indoor festival this past Saturday, which promised to be a gathering of Japanese food, culture, people, even medicine. I had to partake.






It was actually quite nice, though a bit stereotypical. There were the usual Japanese festival booths of catching the fish for kids, face painting, and our own American cotton candy. Tables displayed local Japanese-owned businesses ranging from consulting firms to private chefs (I may have to arrange for a gourmet obento).

And of course the people. My language skills have really gone down the drain as evidenced by my simple-minded phrases at the matsuri. Of course, I had the advantage of being in Texas, where most people know English, so the conversations didn't exactly lag. I picked up a few businesses cards, including one for a decent shiatsu massage, missed out on some Osaka okonomiyaki (I like Hiroshima style anyway... those noodles and cabbage really make it good), sipped some green tea, and ate some mochi while watching a kendo demonstration. Good times.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Facebook

I've added KPIJ to the NetWorked Blogs application on Facebook. Click here to follow along with your friends' updates.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How To Order Sushi Like A Ninja


Fatty tuna sushi nigiri by Adactio


Ever felt lost sitting down at a sushi bar? Want to be able to act like an expert to impress your less-than-enthused date? Now you can! Check out these tips on ordering sushi to ensure your place as a charismatic, cultured sushi-goer.

Secret Origins of KPIJ


http://www.flickr.com/photos/manuelsagra/


It was almost two years ago that I first blogged about where I thought my instincts about Japan had arisen. The search is ongoing, and what inspired me to write 5 Cartoons That Taught Us The Meaning Of Wanderlust. Although I have no doubt The Legend of Zelda played a significant roll in my Japanophilia, another contender has entered the ring: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Ninjas were all the rage in 80's, 90's Hollywood movies, from TMNT, to 3 Ninjas, Beverly Hills Ninja, etc. In fact, I'd be willing to bet there's more recognition with the word "ninja" than "samurai" among Americans.

In any case, anyone who grew up in the 80's had to have woken up Saturday morning to catch the latest installment of four mutated turtles fighting for truth, justice... and to return an evil overlord to his native Dimension X. The theme remains the same for all ten seasons: no matter what the odds against them, no matter what the firepower, these turtles will use their superior ninja skills to win and return to the sewer in time to catch the pizza delivery man.

Martial arts has always been a favorite for Hollywood directors to pervert; Japanese descendants of samurai must have been laughing their 尻 off. I may not have firsthand knowledge of what it's like to be a ninja, but I do know this: ninja were not the honorable warriors TMNT portrays them. Ninja were secretive... assassins... the elite of the elite in terms of fighting techniques and slipping into the shadows... But to sell them as heroes, protectors of the innocent? I doubt it.

Another thread in the tapestry - I'll have to watch some of those old episodes and see if they make any references to sushi or foreigners in Japan.

Tom Hanks on the Swine Flu in Japan

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Tom Hanks
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Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sketchy Hiring Practices

UPDATE 6/12/2009
WinBe has been ignoring my emails, and they just keep being vague when I call them. I rescinded my interest via email, and will look for other opportunities.


As many of you are aware, I've been looking for employment in northern Honshu and Hokkaido for a few months now. After extensive online searches, I came across an opportunity to teach at the WinBe English School in Nemuro, Hokkaido. Here's what happened:

1. Sent in my resume through Gaijinpot and received an offer for a telephone interview.

2. Telephone interview successful. Offered a position at WinBe.

Here's where it gets sketchy. WinBe offered me a position without telling me where and when I would be stationed. No offense, but that's a pretty big deal. They attribute this to the time required to apply for a visa and receive my certificate of eligibility, but again, the maximum amount of time all of that could take amounts to four months or so, a fact which they confirmed...

"[Confirming the start date] won't be possible until we actually receive your certificate of eligibility. The timing of the arrival of the certificate of eligibility is extremely unpredictable. We have had it arrive in as short a time as two weeks and as long a time as 4 months. This is the unfortunate reality of dealing with a bureaucracy."

That's true, it can fluctuate... but why not just go with a start date around four months from the time of application? I need something to work around.

In addition to that, the company rep informed me all of their instructors are given a starting salary of 250,000 yen/month, despite the fact the ad on Gaijinpot stated a salary of 250,000-280,000 yen/month. When I asked for clarification on this, he got a little belligerent:

The starting salary is the same for all instructors, 250,000 yen per month with a 100,000 yen end of contract completion bonus.

If you are not satisfied with the conditions then it may be best for you to explore other options. There is not much more we can decide at this point and it would be in both of our interests if you were fully satisfied with both the salary provided as well as your location and the process by which you will be placed.

It is extremely important for us to recruit instructors who finish their contracts, and, in our experience, instructors who are satisfied with placement and salary are not only more likely to finish their contracts, but go on to extend their terms for 2 or 3 years.

For now, we will put your application on hold so that you can re-think whether this is really what you would like to do.


So essentially, I must the unstable one by asking why the company is offering a different salary than that posted. Not only that, but I called my first contact with WinBe today and she was under the impression I hadn't sent any emails since the offer of employment was accepted. Either the people at this company aren't talking to each other, or I'm just being really obtuse.

What do you think? I'm considering just dropping the whole thing and holding out for another option.

Long Overdue

If any readers are logged in right now, they may have noticed that the template and text of KPIJ are fluctuating rapidly. I'm finally taking the time to update the blog for Blogger Beta, which should make it better for site feeds and networking sites - just wait for my Twitter, Facebook, Stumble Upon, and Digg links.

I'd also welcome any suggestions as to improving the layout or accessibility - anyone?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

What's That You're Drinking?


http://www.flickr.com/photos/changwenpei/268501627/


If you've shopped in Japan, then you've also most likely seen some of these small drinks resembling energy shots, though with a more yogurt-like texture. In fact, Yakult is a popular probiotic beverage.

What are probiotics?

Think of antibiotics - drugs designed to kill or lessen the effects of harmful bacteria on the body. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria (your body needs lots of good bacteria for digestion) designed to balance intestinal function and improve the immune system.


Who came up with this?

Probiotic bacteria occur naturally, of course, but many strains have been developed to test for the most beneficial in the human body. The one used in Yakult is lactobacillus casei Shirota, created by Minoru Shirota.


Ok... then what is this drink?

Yakult is little more than sterilized milk powder, sugar, and glucose, cultured with 8 billion bacteria. Unlike those in yogurt, these bacteria will survive digestion in the stomach, enabling them to travel to the intestines.


Why drink this?

- Poor diet
- Illness
- Stress
- Old age
- Overmedicated


So the next time you see a mysterious clear bottle with red Japanese writing, crack open one, and enjoy the vitality... everything is a factor when you want to live as long as the average Japanese.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Yaeba


http://www.flickr.com/photos/ninpou_kobanashi/3273778904/


A Japanese girl sent me an email not too long ago asking if I would offer a foreigner's perspective on this trend. Yaeba, 八重歯, literally meaning "double tooth", occurs in many Japanese due to smaller jaw bones; instead of the front molars falling in line with the rest of the row, they tend to crown out, producing the look you see above.

Because this occurs in so many residents, Japanese tend to think of yaeba as cute, even desirable - TV personalities, models, even princesses have crooked teeth.

My Japanese girlfriend had quite the pronounced yaeba, which I think gave her more of an innocent girl look. I don't know, I guess regardless of the fact few Japanese have control over their teeth, the appeal goes hand-in-hand with Japanese men's obsession with innocence. Maybe I'm wrong. Personally, I think it depends on the rest of her face, but could see it working for some.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

How To Eat A New Language

How did I learn Japanese? It's quite simple, really: I WAS HUNGRY. Check out these tips to discover that the way to a foreigner's brain... is through his stomach.