Brave New Traveler Article

An article I submitted a few weeks ago to the website Brave New Traveler regarding my injury has now been published:

How To Handle Medical Emergencies On The Road

Feel free to add comments.

Sorry about the constant lack of substantial updates. This is probably the busiest and most interesting time of the year in Japan: the elusive cherry blossoms, the end of the school year, salarymen moving their desks to a different floor, new recruits coming in, and the tourist population increasing exponentially. 面白い.

Updated by the Japan Meteorological Agency on 3/27 at 3:30 PM

Prime Dates for Cherry Blossoms

Tokyo (東京) – 3/28
Nagoya (名古屋) – 3/28
Osaka (大阪) – 3/30
Hiroshima (広島) – 3/29
Takamatsu (高松) – 3/30
Matsuyama (松山) – 3/28
Fukuoka (福岡) – 3/26
Naha (那覇) – 1/19 (missed it)

Kagoshima (鹿児島) – Oh com’n, the largest city in southern Kyushu and the agency can’t hazard a guess?


For foreign residents of Japan, things seem simpler. We know. We can handle ordering food with kanji menus. We can speak to the locals. We describe our destinations to a cabbie or train attendant. Even when minor inconveniences occur for which we are unprepared, we cope and learn for the future.

Take that knowledge of residency away. You don’t understand Japan. You know nothing about the people. The language remains a mystery. The country oh so far away. An island nation nothing like yours.

We know it’s ok to live here. Others don’t necessarily, and have few reasons to think otherwise when certain events occur…

How can a family handle losing a loved one abroad? A murder, no less.

Lindsay Ann Hawker moved to Japan in October 2006 to teach English at the Koiwa branch of Nova, Japan’s largest private English conversation school. She was reported missing on Monday March 26, 2007 by her employers after she failed to answer her mobile phone when her flatmate called.

After being alerted to her disappearance, police visited the apartment of 28-year old Tatsuya Ichihashi, in Ichikawa, just east of Tokyo. Despite the police presence, Ichihashi escaped the scene. After he had fled, police found a backpack containing two days’ underwear and the suspect’s shoes. His socks had been cast aside a few hundred metres from his home. Police dogs lost his scent soon after, suggesting that he had escaped in a taxi. A warrant was issued, but the suspect has not yet been apprehended, and there is a growing belief that Ishihashi may have already committed suicide, though there have been no statements from police.

Hawker’s naked body was found buried in a sand-filled bathtub on the apartment’s balcony. She had severe injuries to her face and arms, and her possessions were strewn across the room.

It’s been a year. Tatsuya Ichihashi remains at large:

Although the Hawker family has been coordinating with the Japanese police from Britain, they are still unsatisfied with the outcome of Lindsay’s case (rightly so, as Ichihashi has been on the lam for a year), and are returning to Tokyo this week for three days to raise more public awareness and hopefully find some kind of peace they haven’t been able to reach for twelve months.

20/20 News Story on Murders in Japan
20/20 Video with Footage of Lindsay Hawker

Lisa Hawker (26), Louise Hawker (23), and Mr. and Mrs. Bill and Julia Hawker need your eyes and ears, for they really are at the mercy of Japanese authorities and interpreters. I can only imagine trying to deal with a situation like this in a foreign country.

Lindsay Ann Hawker – Official Website
Japanese police: 047-397-0110

All civilization was just an effort to impress the opposite sex…

This is what I get for reading too much while my physical prowess is slowly being restored: a head full of cross-cultural ideas and a blog on which to vent them.

Many people have posed theories as to why paleness was and still is an admirable trait among women in Japan. For that answer, I’d suggest looking to David M. Buss, psychology professor at my alma mater and author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies for Human Mating. That’s right, kids: everything comes down to impressing the opposite sex, as I think Futurama sums up quite nicely in that little public service announcement.

“The most culturally variable standard of beauty seems to be in the preference for a slim versus plump body build. This variation is linked with the social status that body build conveys. In cultures where food is scarce, such as among the Bushmen of Australia, plumpness signals wealth, health, and adequate nutrition during development. In cultures where food is relatively abundant, such as the United States and many western European countries, the relationship between plumpness and status is reversed, and the rich distinguish themselves through thinness. Men apparently do not have an evolved preference for a particular amount of body fat per se. Rather, they have an evolved preference for whatever features are linked with status, which vary in predictable ways from culture to culture. Clearly such a preference does not require conscious calculation or awareness.”
– The Evolution of Desire, David M. Buss

Precisely. As much as we’d like to believe we are completely independent of social norms and not slaves to conformity (yes, even in the Japanese “group mentality” mindset), you can’t exactly fight hundreds of years of cultural evolution overnight. Just as paleness in western cultures was once associated with high status (e.g. duchesses and princesses who were “kept” – their beauty or lack thereof restricted to castles or places of riches out of the sunlight), so the US and many cultures have reversed this standard based on the image those in status present

No longer are the rich usually locked in golden prisons far from the sun-weathered skin of peasants, but rather they are adventurers, out in the sun and using their wealth to live to the fullest (well, most anyway, even if it is just lying on an expensive beach). Who knows who started the change to bronzed goddesses rather than the pale ones atop Olympus?

Yet, in Japan, this cultural landmark simply didn’t happen. Oh, of course, you’ll see some Japanese laying out on the sand trying to achieve a picture-perfect Hollywood tan just as others anywhere in the world would, but by and far paleness is still a trait associated with high status and being financially secure, at least in terms the opposite sex intuitively understands.

I can only speculate as to why this particular aspect of mating behavior has been prevalent for so long in Japan…

1. This country retained so much of its cultural identity at the expense of shutting others out for a long time. There were influences from the Catholic church, the Portuguese, the Dutch, even a little from the British, but for the most part, Nippon was closed off to the rest of the world until the end of the 19th century. As a result, Japanese had little-to-no reference as to what those across the globe considered associated with prosperity and wealth.

2. The old rather incendiary argument that Japanese women are more prone to conform to a man’s needs, rather than his to hers. By this logic, women would want to have pale skin not primarily to appear successful and attract a mate, but to raise the status of her current mate in the public spotlight (i.e. that man is with a pale, attractive woman, therefore he must be special).

3. Geisha. This argument is quite like the “chicken and the egg”, but merits a mention, as there were and still are geisha in Japan (incidentally, the first foreign geisha started work not too long ago – Sayuki of Akasaka). Sentiments of the geisha profession aside, I doubt anyone has associated one of them (highest of those in the “floating world”) with low status. And what do they do? Accentuate their features, especially by painting the face white.

4. Stricter adhesion to gender roles. It is a brave new world now, but as recently as fifty years ago, the Japanese (and the US, western cultures, of course) had a more predominantly patriarchal society: women stay at home, in closed doors, raise the kids; men go out and be bread-winners. Anyone who showed physical signs of straying from this “divine plan” (sun-weathered skin, for example) would be considered a social deviant – not necessarily out of reach, but requiring more effort than most, and as such, less desirable.

For some, being a Japanese woman simply means falling into the outdated “one race, one people” idea that all Japanese are monoethnic and immutable: a Japanese women is pale and short, and has black hair. To change this precept would be to deny the culture and heritage of being a Japanese.

At least, those are my theories. Thoughts?

Even in Japan, Wriststrong remains alive and well. Not quite up to full strength…

A fan of KPIJ passed this link along to me – a list of some of the best Zen gardens in the world. Most are in the temples of Kyoto, naturally, but I was surprised to find one in Portland, Oregon.

Top 20 Zen Gardens From Around The World

A new set of eyes never hurt anyone. My family is visiting Japan this week for the first time and bringing to light things I’ve just really taken for granted since living here. (Also of note: that’s why I haven’t been updating the blog regularly)

What are the first things some tourists notice about Japan?

1. Toilet envy. Despite the fact that many Japanese live in rural areas and aren’t privy to the latest advances seen in Akihabara, a lot of tourists associate space-age technology with Japan as a whole. Toilets are among the most interesting of these advances, with features like heated seats, automated raising/lowering, and vibrating massages.

They are going to begin setting up factories for sales in America soon enough.

2. Sick masks. SARS is long gone (not that it was ever a threat), but it’s not surprising to encounter Japanese who wear surgical masks across the lower half of their faces to protect others from their germs. There’s nothing in the air; just relax.

3. Traditional pillows. Depending on where you stay (ryokan, minshuku, or hotel), some lodging areas will stock the rooms with bean-filled pillows. Personally, I don’t care where I rest my head.

4. Convenience stories actually have meals. 7-11’s in America may carry hot dogs and ready-made sandwiches, but I doubt they could compare to ones here, which sell compete bento boxes with fish, meat, rice, sauce, and vegetables. Lawson, Sunkus, 7 & i-holdings, Family Mart, AM/PM… they’ll all heat your food.

5. Japanese kids are soooo cute. かわいいね?

6. Bathing customs. Even those just booking lodging in Japan could encounter this problem – private or communal bathing? A private bath costs extra? Why? Why are hot springs so big in Japan? How do I use them? Read up on the answers to these questions in one of my stories about using an onsen in Beppu.

7. The language. If you’re a resident with even remotely primitive Nihongo skills, your speech will seem incredulous to those who don’t understand it. True, you may be far from fluent, but your knowledge of 15% of the language is more than most people back home acheive.

8. No tipping. Whatsoever. Not to a cab driver who drives you 15 km at 2 AM. Not to a waitress who served you the most delicious sashimi you could ever hope to masticate in your lifetime. Not one coin extra, or they’ll come chasing after you to return said yen.

8. No yards. Space is a luxury in Japan, whether it is or not. Even out in the countryside, where some land may be undeveloped and houses needn’t be restricted in size and height, the design is roughly the same. Tight quarters, packed together, no places for kids to frolic about except the nearby public park.

9. Students go home late. Extended hours, club practice, cram schools (juku, 塾)… all these things and more lead to the sighting of uniformed 17-year-olds on the 10 PM trains.

¥100 = $1.00

According to CNN, the exchange rate between US dollars and Japanese yen is the best it’s been in years. Start stockpiling those 500 yen coins, let them fall into a pile, and act like you’re counting pirate treasure. “Ah, my beautiful, precious gold…”

The results from the Japan Meteorological Agency are in, and will be updated every week until the season is over.

Blooming dates

Tokyo – March 31st
Nagoya – March 31st
Hiroshima – March 31st
All of Shikoku – March 31st
Fukuoka – March 31st
Nagasaki – March 31st
Kagoshima – early April
Osaka – early April
Northern Honshu – mid to late April

The mountains slowly passed me by as I sat engrossed with the latest best seller, a hobby-turned-necessity in light of my recent inability to do anything else. Darkness slowly falling… it’s so easy to keep track of the time of day around here. When I wake at seven and see bright green blanketing across the landscape; taking a break in the early afternoon and watching those colors fade, ever more yellow under the baking sun; my journey home, on a road adjacent to the now dark forest greenery, arriving just in time to see the last visible clouds.

I forgot I was in Japan.

Common mistake enough for a resident of a foreign country, really; after establishing the fundamentals in a new place – employment, food, living, bank account, friends, transportation – it starts to feel like home to you, alien though it still may be.

I’d like to believe that this means I’ve achieved a level of Japanese fluency that is more than capable of dealing with telemarketers, I’ve learned enough of the culture to find myself comfortable in any situation across the country at any time, and my ensemble consists entirely of Japanese friends when I venture out to karaoke.

I’d like to believe that.

I don’t know about the situation with other countries around the world, but living in Japan, it is entirely possible to remain a gaijin, an outsider, a person who lives exactly the way they would back in their homeland, adapting to nothing, and striving for naught.

And why is this? I’m sitting on a bus reading an English book that I purchased in the English section of a prominent and quite common bookstore (Kinokuniya) around the country. I came from work where I’m surrounded by native English speakers 90% of the time, doing checks on reports that are written entirely in English. If my eyes do stray from the pages and catch sight of anything – heaven forbid – outside of my little world, it consists of “Let’s Happy Now!”, “Family Mart”, or “Jolly Pasta”. When I disembark, I’ll walk for exactly four minutes to reach my apartment, carefully avoiding any kanji signs, keel over on the bed, and enjoy watching rebroadcast segments of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central.

It’s mostly my fault, of course, but Japan really is too English tolerant. Although I might not enjoy it as a tourist if someone were to yell at me harshly for my broken sentences, as a resident, I think I’d appreciate it more in the long run. Get angry at me for not speaking fluently; don’t praise what I do know, point out what I messed up. Let me feel uncomfortable doing foreign things (my American things) in a foreign country. Only then, when I try to adjust to really living in Japan, can I be considered a resident, a henna gaikokujin (i.e. foreigner who walks like a Japanese).

Naturally, this isn’t going to happen, and I’ll have to adjust accordingly. Last month, when I returned to Tokyo for a short visit, I discovered it was so much like being back in the states – the amenities, the visible diversity… even Japanese tend to first speak to me in English instinctively, rather than assuming I have the means to communicate. I can eat at Subway. I can read the train departures (well, this is true anywhere). Random people would understand me if I suddenly chose to stand in the middle of the Shibuya intersection and scream a sonnet.

Some might argue this is only the existence of foreign pleasures, not part of most people’s everyday lives. True. I guess where temptation exists, I find myself following it. I might choose the rocky path over time, but in the short-term, when it comes to living day-by-day, I have a hard time resisting the comforts of home.

From a phone interview, which took place on Thursday, February 21st over Skype.

I’m speaking tonight with Arudou Debito, formerly Dave Aldwinckle, naturalized Japanese citizen since 2000, human rights activist, and author of Japanese Only: The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan and most recently the Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan. Welcome, Arudou-san.

First of all, please tell us about your new book.

New book, answer

Would you recommend this book even to those who are just going to stay a year with the eikaiwa and then return home?

Eikaiwa, answer

Is there anything in the book we can’t find on the “what to do if…” section of your website?

What to do if, answer

How would you respond to people who say you don’t do things “the Japanese way”? More to the point, do you think there is such a thing?

Japanese way, answer

(Debito’s first experience in “thinking outside the box”)

Recently, there was a case involving a Pakistani girl being refused admission to a ballet school in Tokyo on what appeared to be racial discrimination. However, and correct me if I’m wrong, it turned out to be just a simple misunderstanding…

Ballet school, answer

Do you think you jumped the gun a little when you posted the story on your blog, without first contacting the school?

Jumping the gun, answer

Has there ever been a time in your activism work that you thought you acted overzealously? Were there any consequences to such actions?

Zealous, answer

There seems to a pattern among Japanese to be proud of being a monoethnic culture – do you think Japan is gradually starting to get a sense of pride from the growing diversity, or is there still this old school “closed-off island nation” mentality?

Monoethnic, answer

Ok, let me rephrase that – as far as the government is concerned, do you think there is an unspoken policy of trying to discourage immigration?

Government, answer

The basis of that question was really along the lines of your theory surrounding the police and the Gaijin Ura Hanzai File

Police, answer

What’s your opinion about the new language requirement under consideration by the government – they haven’t really gone into specifics, but do you think a language requirement in general is a good idea for Japan?

Language requirement, answer

(Followup: Debito’s definition of a “gaijin”)

Do you think this policy is designed to – and I hate to put it this way – increase the “quality” of foreigners coming to Japan, the intelligence? In general, do you believe it’s intended to discourage or encourage immigration?

Quality of foreigners, answer

Anything else you’d like to get the word out about?

Debito’s book tour

All right, talking to Arudou Debito. Thank you very much.

The book, “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan” is now available for order by fax through Debito’s website