Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Lesser known expressions...

Temporal Provincials
People who are ignorant of the past, of history, and proud of it (though most likely won't admit it). Doomed to repeat past mistakes and suffer lagging conversations for the rest of their natural lives.
Source: Michael Crichton, Timeline

Japan Probe really does its homework. Check out this latest post regarding some of the best Japanese commercials. I finally know the source of Tommy Lee Jones' appearance in this world of ours.

Apparently if your account belongs to one of the major Japanese banks, you can withdraw cash from any convenience store ATM (even with an ATM card, not just a credit card). This will prove especially convenient to someone in Tokyo with a Hiroshima Bank account.

Here's a decent luggage transport service between Japan and the rest of the world - Japan Luggage Express Ltd.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Onward to Valhalla

I'll be leaving Japan this Saturday to return home for a week. Just enough time in Tokyo to view Tokyo station, the Ginza electronic district, and the Imperial Palace East Gardens. As a result, I won't be updating the blog for two weeks. Be patient. Go running.

The Emperor's Birthday is also this Saturday, December 23rd. I'll be stopping by the Imperial Palace to join in the people's viewing before I head to Narita Airport. Details here.

My article regarding Christmas in Japan has been published on The Foreigner. Still working on getting something into CommonTies.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Alive to See Shimonoseki

I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.

Yosa Buson (1716–1783)

Just like Mt. Fuji, many westerners try fugu for the experience. The risk that you may be poisoned. In all honesty, I found it to be somewhat less thrilling than gambling (and this is coming from an adrenaline junkie), with the threat of death tossed in. Even with the knowledge that Shimonoseki chefs haven't caused a fugu-related death in sixty years, I have to admit I felt a little nervous. Just a little. For those who aren't aware, fugu (河豚), also known as takifugu, is the Japanese blowfish, a fish whose liver and internal organs contain deadly amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin. There is no known antidote. If the diner somehow injests poisoned fugu, he can only be supported as far as passive medical treatment - respiratory and circulatory assistance.

If you are traveling to the small coastal town of Shimonoseki (下関市) in Japan, it is definitely a worthwhile experience. The Shin-Shimonoseki station is connected to the local JR lines, so travel is convenient. The area surrounding the Shimonoseki station is colorful and rife with shopping. To top it off, Shimonoseki is home to a key international ferry between Japan and Pusan, Korea.

Despite Lonely Planet's recommendations, I'd suggest staying somewhere close to the JR area. The Hinoyama Youth Hostel is cheap (about ¥3000), but you really should take a bus or taxi from Shimonoseki Station to get there. There are already plenty of moderately priced hotels in the station area, like the Via Inn (ホテルヴィアイン). Plus, all the attractions and shopping are close. True, if you want to climb Hinoyama to get a better view of the straight between Honshu and Kyushu (the two islands of Japan), or if you want to be a little closer to the Shimonoseki Kaikyohan (aquarium), by all means travel east.

The aquarium in Shimonoseki costs ¥1800, features a dolphin and otter show, viewings of all the different types of fugu, and some amazing trilobite-like creatures.

The Kaikyo Yume Tower offers a great view of Kyushu and the Shimonseki area, including the Kanmon Kaikyo Bridge between Honshu and Kyushu.

If you are only in Shimonseki for a few hours, there's a good plan for you - the tower, the aquarium, and head back to the station for some fugu dinner and souvenirs. The station souvenir shop has everything from fugu-shaped chocolate to dried fugu, to fugu cookies.

If you are in the mood to "risk your life" (I really don't believe you are doing so, but might as well scare you a little), there are two options for you:

1. If you have time, are with a large group, and not concerned about money, by all means ask the information officer at the station a recommendation for a good fugu restaurant. The experience at a good izakaya is always a plus, and if you throw fugu into the mix... excellent. However, fugu sashimi can be incredibly pricey, running up to ¥20,000/plate, so be careful with your money.

2. If you're in town for a short time and just want to taste fugu for the experience, there's also an excellent restaurant in Shimonoseki Station. I believe it's the only one, but they should have the fugu dinner set on display outside for you to confirm. For less than ¥3000 you can sample all the different kinds of fugu.

- The fugu sashimi is quite exquisite - it is eaten with sauce and not wasabi, but rather some red paste similar to wasabi. Maybe the fugu equivalent.

- The fried fugu tastes exactly like fried chicken. If you're in the mood for that, there's a KFC next to the station.

- The miso is served with boiled fugu inside the soup.

- The hot pot contains a few pieces of boiled fugu, which is also very similar to chicken, both in taste and consistency.

- However, the real kicker is the sake. Japanese sake is of course very potent, but I found the one served with fugu to be very strong. Served hot. A fugu tail fin is dropped inside for extra flavor. Then, the sake is lit on fire and covered to hold in the taste. Very strong, very unique, quite delicious.

Five different types of fugu in one meal - savor it, and tell your friends you're still alive. Also noteworthy - fugu is better known as fuku in Shimonoseki. The city itself hosted the Treaty of Shinomoseki, which effectively ended the first Sino-Japanese War.

With all the traveling I've been doing and my plans for Hokkaido in February, my eikaiwa budget is pretty much drained. It's plenty of money to live on in luxury if you never leave your town - you can buy all the clothes, food, and hostess bar drinks you want. But, if you're planning on doing any exploration of Japan, budget everything wisely. Sayonara.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


Here's a good story about teaching in Japan.

Will report with details on the fugu experience when I return. If I return. Otsu kare.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Death by Fugu?

Lesser known vocabulary...

Any flight or journey to a more desirable or congenial place.
(e.g. my hejiras across Japan)

Recent news - I don't really believe this to be true, but Japan Times published an article about a growing trend: Japanese people favoring studying languages besides English. Read it here. English will always be the language of international business, and Mandarin is on the rise.

For such a culture that prices itself on acceptance and humility, I found this to be a little disturbing. Maybe it's racist, maybe not. In the work environment, I'm often told my style can be insensitive and harsh by Japanese standards. Apparently it's not a huge cultural difference if Japanese TV considers this a hit.

I knew it.

This weekend I will be exploring the small coastal town of Shimonoseki as my final trip in the 18th year of Heisei. Two reasons. One, just the experience. Two, to try the exquisite Fugu (河豚). Shimonoseki is renowned for its Fugu, the Japanese blowfish. If prepared incorrectly, you could be poisoned. Hence, all chefs have to have a special license to be allowed to prepare Fugu, which require them to eat the fugu they prepare. Only 30% of these cooks pass the necessary test. The rest are either poisoned, or make some small mistake in the preparation.

Technically, and I doubt most people know this, all fugu eaten contains trace amounts of poison. In fact, the poison is what gives it some of the flavor. You just have to be careful with which parts of the fish you'd like to consume. The fugu sashimi, raw fish, which is favored more by the natives, is very expensive. Cooked fugu is also common but considered less tasty.

I'll have a full report on Shimonoseki and fugu... assuming I survive. Wish me well.

Information about fugu

Making one last trip to Miyajima to get a good picture of a deer, the sun, and the famous torii. Should be a good Christmas present. Also searching for a Fugu shaped Christmas ornament by request. This is me telling you... don't hold grudges. My eidetic memory can be a terrible curse at times - I remember everything that's happened to me: every wrong, every injustice, every harsh sentence. I never let things go. But... as corny as it might sound, I want to be a better person. Moving forward, using my humanity. Good night (おやすみなさい).

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Japan at First Sight

Invoking the Muse

Sing to me of a man, Muse, the man, who having wandered the lengths of the land, driven away by time and fate, saw and learned the minds of the people around him, and told his story for others to follow. Can there be such ability in gaijin minds?

...might not make sense if you haven't read the Odyssey or the Aeneid. Just the first paragraphs will suffice. I did have somewhat of an adventure in my small little mountain town. As is the case with all of Japan, there are mountains ready, willing, and able to be climbed at any given moment. This was my opportunity. Whether you're in Hiroshima, Aomori, or Matsue, everyone should climb at least one of the mountains surrounding the area; it gives you a good opportunity to meet local adventurers, take aerial photos, and get some exercise.

If you are in the Higashi-Hiroshima area, there's a campground with trails to two decent peaks not far from the train station. Everyone at Hiroshima University (広島大学) knows one peak as the broadcast mountain, as all the TV broadcasting equipment is stuffed onto one mountaintop.


When I first arrived in the land of the rising sun, I was a little taken aback. Of course, I hadn't bought into the Hollywood stereotype of Samurai and Karate on every corner, but I didn't know exactly what to expect. This is long overdue - here were some of my first visual impressions of Japan:

1. The women here are inherently smaller. This makes it incredibly difficult to discern someone's age, especially if you can't see her face.

2. You really don't notice a huge difference in height between foreigners and Japanese people. For the most part, the Japanese are shorter, but there are plenty towering over me (181 cm).

3. Groups of wandering school children are quite common, with or without a teacher. They move in herds, are known to shout and laugh, and will always reach out to your typical foreigner. Crickey, look at them move.

4. School uniforms are everywhere. On or off the clock, chances are anyone under 18 is supporting a uniform. They often commute by train, so you'll see the same white shirt, blue jacket, and knee-high socks.

5. MacDonald's is common, but 7-11 even more so. Seattle's Best and Starbucks are around. So is Subway, in certain cities. Coca-Cola is in every vending machine, but I wouldn't expect too many food brand names.

6. Train stations can be especially daunting your first time traveling. Determining the differences between the Shinkansen and local trains, local and limited express - each varies slightly with their timetables. What can I tell you? It takes time. If you happen to be living in a small town with nothing but a platform for a train station (e.g. Kinmeiji 欽明路), you'll still have to deal with JR to get around.

7. Bowing. Two businessman meeting in front of a train station. JR staff traveling between cars (they bow before they leave the car). Even in Fuji Grand, a cashier bowing before she heads back to restock the shelves. I'm sure there are other common situations, but I've noticed - leaving an area with other people, and a professional meeting. Sometimes when you make a purchase at a store you can expect to receive a bow. I have had this happen maybe 40% of the time; perhaps they just don't think foreigners will respond to it.

8. Everyday food. I love Japanese food of course, but I'm still a foreigner - rice and fish just aren't in my blood... that would be rather disgusting. Sandwiches, at least the kind I'm used to, aren't very common in Japan. Lawson, 7-11, and other convenience stores sell prepackaged ones, of course, but they're usually made of cheap white bread, terrible meat, and covered in mayonnaise. I still can't stomach them, so I make my own "American-style" sandwiches for lunch if I'm not settling on a bento.

9. You'll occasionally see the elderly hunchback. A woman who stands upright at about 5'1", but is literally bent like an L-pipe to stand at about 4'0". Don't stare. I imagine they'd feel insulted if you offered to help them climb the stairs. They may be "disabled", but they're perfectly independent. What this is a result of, I'm not entirely sure.

Of course there are many more... for a later time. Wish me luck booking a flight for Sapporo. Otsu kare.

Monday, December 11, 2006

More on Sapporo

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Know your Kanji sizes

Big, tai, dai
Middle, chuu
Small, sho

After planning the best possible route from Hiroshima to Sapporo, I came across some interesting facts. Apparently there is a ferry from a town on the northern coast of Honshu, Maizuru (舞鶴) to Otaru (小樽, 30 minutes to Sapporo by JR), and it is relatively inexpensive, but it takes twenty hours. The Shinkansen doesn't even run to Hokkaido; evidently, once you get about three hours north of Tokyo, you're stuck with local and limited express routes. The only train that can take you from Honshu to Hokkaido runs underground for more than 60 km on the Seikan Tunnel: the longest train tunnel in the world. They say everything is bigger in Texas... well, Japan isn't a slouch, either.

The timing of the Sapporo Snow Festival (Feb 6-12) couldn't be more perfect for those seeking omiyage or presents for Valentine's Day. Granted, in Japan women traditionally give presents on Valentine's Day, and have the favor returned the next month on White Day. Sapporo offers Shiroi Koibito (白い恋人), "a chocolate slice sandwiched in two wafers of sweet biscuit, individually wrapped and available boxed in a range of different quantities." Japan wins out again in variety of desserts.

Gaikokujin columnists for the Japan Times:
Amy Chavez
Thomas Dillon

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Tonight's Word... Travel

The Seishun Juhachi Kippu is now on sale at all JR ticket offices - be sure to take advantage of this, traveling everywhere on the local trains for ¥2300/day.

If you are booking one of the night trains with the Seishun Juhachi Kippu, I should mention I had a little trouble booking the Moonlight Nagara route from Tokyo to Ogaki. Apparently you need to be very, very specific when making this reservation; in other words, you need to know the stops. You have to book three different tickets for this route: Tokyo (東京) to Odawara (小田原), Odawara to Nagoya (名古屋), and Nagoya to Ogaki (大垣). It may vary from station to station, but the staff didn't understand me when I said I wanted to go "Tokyo kara Ogaki made" (from Tokyo to Ogaki). Eventually it was sorted out. The fact that the day changes when you're on board the train doesn't help either; if you're using the Seishun Juhachi Kippu, pay about ¥500 for the first leg (the last few minutes of the previous day), then use your Seishun Juhachi Kippu for the next day. This site has good information about the seating options.

Looking for winter travel plans? I'm checking into the Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri さっぽろ雪まつり), running February 6th-12th. This is one of the largest festivals in Japan, the biggest in Sapporo, and besides... who doesn't love snow? Come for the ice sculptures, stay for the 3 AM Ramen. It's a good life. You might want to book quickly - air and hotel reservations start opening up two months prior.

You might find these links useful:

Official Website
Backpackers Hostel
Sapporo International Youth Hostel
Japan Guide Forum
Domestic Travel in Japan
Good pictures
Toyoko-Inn (The only place I found with any rooms available for Saturday night)

If you are making domestic travel plans, you might want to avoid using HIS Travel. Japan Probe had an interesting article about them regarding fare hikes for foreigners. Read it here.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

I Gotta Be Me

"sono koto wa arimasen"
The correct response for praise or when presenting a gift. Literally "not at all".

This was my submission to the writing blog Common Ties.

“What did you do this weekend?”
“Oh… eito… I go to my hometown to visit my family.”
“Ah, nice. What did you do there?”
“Oh, I see old friends, and my mother friend died… there was uh… uh… how do you say?”
“Funeral? The death ceremony? Do you know that word?”

I’m speaking to a scientist capable of teaching a university-level physics class. His IQ is higher than I can count in Japanese. He clearly has a sense of humor, and is well spoken. The problem? Right now, I am the senpai (mentor) and he the kohai (pupil). He may be a genius in his own country, but the language barrier between us has reduced him to the appearance of a stumbling simpleton.

There’s one quote from a popular cartoon that particularly sticks out in my mind; the main character and two deckhands are on a fishing boat, dumping the daily catch onto the wooden deck. Upon being “rewarded” with a fresh bag of Doritos in lieu of a bonus, he tells his friend in his native language: “In Portugal, I was a cardiologist.”

Who am I? I’m that cardiologist hauling smelly fish for my “superior”. Just one of the thousands of people who chose to live a portion of their lives abroad: teaching English, experiencing a different culture, seeing a new perspective. I have a degree in aerospace engineering. I can recite Shakespeare from memory. I have no problem singing Phantom of the Opera to make a lady friend swoon.

And yet… in this land, I am the simpleton, the outsider. I am the one pointing to pictures in restaurants to order to survive. I’m the one who needs assistance when dealing with any bureaucratic matters, or something unexpected that requires a native speaker. I may be a student of Japanese, but it takes time. I’m an illiterate, poorly spoken fool in the land of the rising sun.

It really makes one think about just how much we take for granted; in my hometown, I know every restaurant, every bank branch, every movie theatre. I can read the language. I can talk to random people if I so choose. In Japan, I am starting from scratch. My education? Gone; I can’t even tell others what I studied. My cultural references? Irrelevant; “24” may be big in Japan, but I prefer political satire. My sense of humor… it isn’t even understood, let alone appreciated; how can I use dry humor and sarcasm in an unknown language, assuming it even exists in the same form?

My transition into this cultural world was… rough, to say the least. Even considering that I was dealing with one of the safest and friendliest countries on the face of the Earth, I had certain expectations of myself. I didn’t want to be a gaijin (outsider), but rather my highest goal would have been to obtain the status of a henna gaijin (outsider who doesn’t behave like an outsider).

I can hardly blame the people I come into contact with to refer to me as “gaijin”. Even after living here for many months, I know what I sound like: “I’ll take this… this one, please… where is the toilet…. do you speak English… I speak a little Japanese.”

It just goes to show I’m in a very tolerant country, with very tolerant people. If I were a native French speaker in America and tried to survive in the same manner in which I’m living in Japan, I guarantee there would be yelling: “Learn the language! Go back home! What? What? Speak English!” But this country is very English-friendly, both a blessing and a curse; without the ridicule and uncomfortable silence associated with dealing with a true gaikokujin, there’s little motivation; I can point to my food, I can speak the names of the destinations on the train, and no one gives me a hard time for my poor pronunciation and grammar.

I’m finding myself feeling much more empathetic to the few Spanish speakers I had encountered during my time in Texas. As a people, as part of humanity, instead of being superficial, we might bother to consider the people behind the language travesty, this illusion we put up in our minds. Where do these travelers come from? They’re obviously here for a reason, and maybe they’re trying to learn the local language. They could be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and office workers, people perfectly capable of being eloquent. But what do we associate with them? Lack of intelligence. “You can’t speak properly, so I must be smarter than you”: an assumption so far from the truth it’s ridiculous.

This feeling can be stifling at times. Even when you’re not talking to random people in your own country, they leave a mark on you, consciously or not. You know you can talk to them for emergencies; even that small window gives you comfort amongst a sea of people. It’s something I don’t have here. I want to express myself. I want to be the one with Japanese friends seeing me for who I truly am, instead of merely a token foreigner who “speaks a little Japanese.” In the end, everything comes down to words: the feeling behind them, the power of others listening to or reading them, and the personality of the writer shining through them.

It is I. Can you see me…? Can you hear me? Do you know what kind of person I am? You’re one step ahead of the 125 million people around me. Let’s all keep trying.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

65 Years Ago...

This day in history - Pearl Harbor Day.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Take My 腎, Please

Let’s face it – travel is incredibly simple in Japan. The Shinkansen can take you across the country in a single day. Japanese airports are staging points for almost all traffic from the western world. It’s no surprise you see some wealthy Japanese businessmen finishing off their breakfasts of rice and Miso in Osaka, and enjoying lunch in Peking. One morning you’re surrounded by giggling Japanese schoolgirls yelling “bye bye”, in the comfort of the conformity of your world; when the afternoon rolls around you could be strolling the streets of Shanghai, walking along the reconstructed Great Wall, getting your organs transplanted…?

Kenichiro Hokamura made international news in March 2006 as one of many among the Japanese elite to receive a kidney transplant in Shanghai. Although a man on dialysis finally receiving a much-needed organ isn’t exactly headline news, Hokamura’s case brought two major issues into the spotlight.

One, Japan has a very poor organ donation program, at least compared to the US and Europe - less than fifty Japanese people nationwide have donated their organs since 1997. Fifty to distribute amongst thousands of those on dialysis, with failing livers, suffering from genetic heart conditions…

Children in the land of the rising sun are ineligible to donate any organs whatsoever. Even with parental consent (or, regrettably, in the event of death), life-saving vessels cannot be legally removed from a Japanese child under the age of 15.

So what are the options? Living donors, for one. Adults are perfectly entitled to donate their liver or kidneys freely to a family member or friend in need, even a child if size isn’t an issue.

But more than likely, you have Japanese citizens focusing their sights overseas, to treatment in the US, the European Union, or China. The United States’ system may have its flaws in terms of advantaged individuals (e.g. the “John Q” scenario), but clearly, more donors are available, including children.

This was the only option available to Hokamura other than continued dialysis and eventual failure of his kidneys. But where to go?

Choosing treatment in the United States would have required Hokamura to wait on the official organ donation list. A list, sadly, that may have a waiting time up to a year.

Buying a kidney? Donations in the United States are given freely and without monetary compensation, despite tremendous demand. Doctors cannot legally transport an organ that was knowingly purchased on the black market. This policy, and the supply coming up far short of the needed demand (approximately 100,000 people in the US alone) have produced drastic measures; there are a few good Samaritans (donors who volunteer to give to strangers without any expectation of compensation), but others decided to test the limits of the system. In 1999, a man tried to sell his kidney over eBay (source).

Clearly the United States was not the best option for Hokamura, in immediate need of a suitable transplant. He settled upon China, after consulting with a Japanese organ broker. The 62-year-old businessman was told his new kidney was coming from a “young executed prisoner.”

Second issue: the Chinese donation system. China is no stranger to executions, putting nearly ten thousand, perhaps more, people to death every year. Ten years ago, with the silence surrounding the exact number of executions, it wouldn’t have been surprising to have discovered a huge black market organ trade, “illegally” removing eyes, kidneys, hearts, tissue from prisoners.

In Kenichiro Hokamura’s case… voluntary or forcibly removed from the corpse of an executed felon, legal or not, his new kidney was successfully implanted without any complications within two months. The price? ¥6,800,000. Misappropriated or not, he considered the transaction “cheap” and wiped his hands clean.

Responding to international attention from situations like Hokamura’s, the Chinese government has made assurances of cleaning up its organ donation market, eliminating sales altogether. What this will do for the country, as nearly two million people need transplants, is uncertain.

The main problem with this issue? Just like any other, it’s all black and white, no room for grey. A system that rejects a kidney from an organ harvester who may have acquired it from someone he murdered is the same one that rejects a kidney from a sane, healthy individual in need of some extra money. You only need one to live, so why not profit a little? If China adopts a policy similar to the US, some lives might be saved, but others would be lost. There’s never an easy solution.

Adding to the trouble is the shared belief of both the Japanese and Chinese that removal and implantation somehow make the body impure, as if you’re no longer truly yourself. Reasonable or not, we shouldn’t expect to see any rise in the number of donors in Japan anytime soon. With the questionable Chinese market available to any Japanese person with some extra Yen, we may start to see Chinese prisoners being removed from their cages and taken piece-by-piece to the land of the rising sun to live once more. Ask yourself – what would you want inside you? Could you let the ends justify the means?


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sleepless in Nagasaki (長崎)

Here's a nice travel itinerary for you: Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Hakata, party it up in Hakata Saturday night, enjoy some pre-dawn Ramen in the warmth and friendly conversation of the yatai, and catch the first limited express to Nagasaki.

Of course, if you happen to meet someone friendly in Fukuoka... well, Nagasaki might be put on hold. In any case, once you're in Fukuoka, it's a fairly good staging point to travel across the rest of Kyushu - limited express trains to Nagasaki run every half hour or so for about ¥5000. However, after visiting Nagasaki, I'd really recommend sticking around Fukuoka for the day instead; it's a much better city in terms of attractions, atmosphere, people, and nightlife.

Not that Nagasaki doesn't have its perks. Trains run in one direction as the city is located on a pennisula in Kyushu, but the trams do a good job taking you the many kilometers of the city. Of course you have the international attractions like the 2nd Peace Park to honor those fallen during the atomic bombing on August 9th, 1945 (11:02 AM); not quite as large as Hiroshima's, but equipped with more art, creating a more introspective environment than you might see with the A-Bomb dome.

In addition, Mount Inasa offers an excellent view of the city at night, the skyline a mere twinkling of lights from the height of the observation tower. The ropeway runs until 9 PM, and a roundtrip ticket will cost you ¥1200. Of course, you can climb the mountain, but I wouldn't recommend it for a vacation plan.

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Nagasaki is its rich diverse history, practically unprecedented when you consider the rest of Japan. A few hundred years ago, when all of Japan's harbors were closed to trading, Nagasaki's was the only one that remained alive and well. As such, the city developed a large foreigner presence, particularly among Chinese and Dutch traders. To this day you can see the Dutch-style houses in an area of the city called Dejima and the Holland Slope. Nagasaki supports its own Chinatown district and supports two excellent Chinese shrines, Sofukuji and Kofukuji.

The best food? They have champon, a local noodle specialty, but I preferred the kasutera (カステラ) - a simple pound cake available in spades anywhere in the city. You can also pick them up in Hakata Station - look for a store with the Batman logo, I kid not. If you want some imported foods, there's a shop in the station shopping area similar to Jupiter Imports.

Pictures of Nagasaki are up.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Evidence of my Absence

I've been in Nagasaki over the weekend, but I'll have a new posting soon. Also, I've accepted a position as a writer with the Ground Report.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Kanji Arcane?

Your random Kanji fact of the day...

There are roughly 50,000 Kanji in existence for the Japanese language; number 50,128 accurately describes the nature of the universe and the purpose behind every action. Unfortunately, no one can read it.

This is closer to the truth than one may realize. Yes, there are technically 50,000 Kanji available for use in Japanese writing, but only the best of the best of the best language scholars would know all of these and how to correctly draw them. I've been told since the computer era, these language experts must be consulted every time a new font is created, to determine if every last character is found to be clear and legible.

Not that it's very likely that someone would even use half of these Kanji. It's a conundrum is what it is: a language in which the masses don't understand more than 50% of the written word. That strikes me as a little odd, and this is coming from the native speaker of the most complicated language on Earth (English is, undisputed - all the small rules).

I was recently talking to one of my educated, well-spoken Japanese friends. Even with a bachelor's degree, a master's, and going for a doctorate, he still only knows about 2,000 Kanji. 4% of the language, and this is common. You might very well meet some people who know up to 20,000 characters (usual length of Japanese dictionaries), but I wouldn't bet on it.

A few hundred Kanji will keep you sane on the streets of any major city. A few thousand will have you reading the newspaper and being considered a literate member of Japanese society. But why is this the case? Let me give you an example:

The Kanji for fish (in general) is .
- sardine, iwashi
- turbot, karei
- killer whale, shachi
- bonito, katsuo
- carp, koi
- tuna, maguro

Look closely at the Kanji for fish and look at the left symbol for these different types of fish. Identical. Even without knowing the specific type of fish (or the correct pronunciation), you have a general idea of the vocabulary family you're dealing with. Kanji is full of these mixed symbols - not every one is entirely original.

With these difficult patterns and the growing trend among Japanese youth (due to technology), I'd really recommend that everyone learn to type Japanese Kanji before writing it by hand. More and more people are, and who are we, if we don't at least try to conform?

In the meantime, I'm off to study the brush stroke order to Hiragana. If you're looking for a skiing job in Japan, this site may help you. Oyasumi nasai.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Useful at Being Useless

Courtesy of Tokyo Architecture

What stands before us on this calm winter day is nothing other than a scar on the face of this blessed country, a danger to all who come within sight of it. Men are callously, and without warning, slowly moving treacherous bricks on an evil sidewalk. What will we do? Where can we go to escape this menace? Who will save us...?

Japan has the answer. As I was walking to work along a relatively uncrowded street on a wide sidewalk in my quiet little mountain town, I see a little construction going on. No big deal. Clear reflective arrows showing where to go (as if you couldn't see the path). And yet... the city actually hired someone to direct "traffic" through this area.

In a major metropolitan area like Tokyo I suppose I could understand this, if the construction were significant enough and the people passing through numerous. But to have a man in my neck of the woods stand for twelve hours every day, doing nothing more than waving a flag? It's a joke.

An Englishman In Osaka had a recent story about these guys. They definitely are the answer for Japan's low unemployment figures. Them, and the superfluous people you see in the bureaucracy. I guarantee there are thousands of jobs in this country for doing nothing more than pointing people in the right direction.

When I visited China a few years ago I saw a similar approach to putting people to work. Tiananmem Square (天安門廣場) is kept spotlessly clean by dozens of Chinese people whose only job is to pick up every scrap of paper, every toothpick, every piece of kleenex in sight. Effective? Very. Efficient? No, but it certainly is a nice way of maintaining the touristy areas, giving a high opinion of Beijing to international visitors. People will take care of you, regardless of cost, regardless of time-management. Japan has this same hands-on approach.

Otsu kare sama des, construction guides. Save the children.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Magnetic Levitation

The future of the train system, maglev, will connect Osaka to Tokyo with an hour commute. Check out the technology. Keep up to date with the Japanese progress here and here.

If you're passing along the Sanyo local line from Hakata to Osaka and want to stop at a good restaurant, check out Watamin-chi. Thirty seconds walk from Saijo Station. Excellent variety, and high quality food. They just opened.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


"Running a race in Japan is like dating a foreigner - you may not understand all of the language, but you'll probably get hot and sweaty in the end."

Oh my god, I haven't felt this drained in months... what is wrong with me? I knew I should have done more hill workouts. Who am I kidding? I should have done one hill workout. Is it starting to rain? Ugh... I need energy. I can't let him beat me this time...

Welcome to the thoughts I had one kilometer into the race. I know, I know, it's pathetic. I've tackled Heartbreak Hill in Boston, my high school cross country coach put me through thirty minute hill drills every week, and I ran two half marathons which included sixty degree inclines. Still, I haven't had too many opportunities to do any hill workouts in Japan. The country may be the most mountainous in the world, but I still have trouble walking on anything other than flat surfaces in my typical day (not intentionally, of course).

The Hiroshima Seniors Running Club hosted the Miyajima Cross Country race on this day: November 26th, 2006. A day that will live in infamy. A day when your blogger, arrogant as he was, sought out to beat all his fellow foreigners in trial by speed. I did not succeed on this occasion, but wish me gambatte, and I will try again.

The Course

I'm being melodramatic, but it was a good race. The first hill was fairly draining, but the course went through the hills above the famous Torii shrine, and took us past many crowds on their way to pray Sunday morning. As you can see from the map, the first 4.7 kilometers were on the southern side of the island and fairly hilly - once we passed Miyajima Junior High School (starting point) for the second time, it was a long, smooth path to the finish. A little longer than anticipated: 10.7 kilometers.

The weather - overcast, average temperature, drizzling rain.
The people - about forty to fifty foreigners in sight, Japanese senior citizens
The outlook - Japan just keeps getting better

Pre-Race Entertainment

Miyajima Junior High School Band


Post-Race Ramen

Our hosts really treated us well - a covered stretching area that could hold several hundred runners, people guiding you every step of the way, plastic covers to hold the finisher certificates, and ocha (green tea) and Miyajima's unique momiji manju (maple leaf cakes) at a special booth. Otsu kare sama, runners - you deserve it.

Runners by region
Race homepage
GetHiroshima Details

Remember your Japanese Running Words

スタート Start
クロスカントリー Cross Country
全国大会 Athletic Meet
ゴール Goal (Finish)
ナンバーカード Number Card
Place (ranking)


Friday, November 24, 2006

Caveat Magister

College Grads - Teach English, Travel and Save Money!

TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is a fantastic opportunity for young and old and for those with and without teaching experience. If you are in or recently graduated from college, then this is an opportunity of a lifetime.

Teaching experience helpful, but not necessary.

Our goal of creating a friendly and intimate learning environment...

The result is that our instructors often learn as much from their students as they teach them...

So you're suddenly drawn to Japan by the various advertisements on Craigslist, newspapers, or company websites. Looks like a really good deal, right? Housing provided, a small but decent salary, and a chance to travel all across the land of the rising sun. To experience a new culture, to live a different life, to meet other souls like you in a different world... all this is absolutely true. You do get to enjoy something few people will ever experience in their lives.

However, when you're researching different English teaching companies in Japan, take a close look at the fine print. There's a reason that these companies take extra measures to "sell" you onto Japan. Interestingly enough, most of the companies in Japan, especially the large eikaiwa schools, don't want you to be a teacher.

No teaching experience necessary...
Teaching experience helpful, but not necessary...

More important than your teaching skills in Japan is your appearance. In every sense of the word. I'm not speaking of whether you're attractive or not, rather that you look foreign, and you speak English. Your appearance is your selling point, and your schools will exploit it to no end. Japanese people see a native English-speaking foreigner in a school, and it's a high selling point, knowing they'll get to listen to him.

But who are you? You're not a teacher. You're a foreigner who happens to speak English. Who are you? You're a salesman. Getting the green (or beige over here). Bling bling. Dollar dollar bill ya'll. Your job, despite individual experiences with different management, exists for one purpose only, and it isn't for English education; it's to put money into these companies.

Now, one can argue that this is necessary. Well, of course it is. If you didn't have students, the company would have no money, and you wouldn't have a salary. Of course; it's so simple. But it's far beyond this. You were brought into this country as a teacher. The titles of these ads proclaim: "Teach English in Japan." Nowhere do you see: "Become a professional salesman in Japan and teach English on the side." This is closer to the truth than many of us would like to admit.

You're expected to sell your students materials they don't need just to bring in money. And do you get a commission for these sales? Of course not; you're a "teacher", not a salesman. Or some would have you believe.

A spokesman for one of the large eikaiwa, who chose to remain anonymous, commented on these extra materials: "Of course, even if [the students] are perfect, we must tell them they need to improve, so we can get money... that's not the pretty side of it, but it's true."

Wisdom21, an American-owned English teaching company in Japan, really lets the eikaiwa have it on their homepage:

In the foreign community in Japan, it is common knowledge that the four or five big chain schools are a rip off. To begin with, young and inexperienced foreigners are brought to Japan to "teach" from textbooks. Like instant 'ramen', this do-it-yourself, ready-made teaching brigade hardly receives much worthwhile training. And many of them are not very interested in teaching at all.

Moreover, in order to qualify for a company sponsored working visa, Japanese immigration law requires that westerners restrict their employment activities to English teaching - in spite of any others skills (accounting, computer, etc) they might have.

Meanwhile, the big chain schools, loaded with these new, low cost, under-trained foreigners, attempt to lure their customers into signing long term contracts (usually through a finance company) which generally requires a financial commitment of two or three years. Thus, the student signs the contract and the chain school receives the cash in full (minus a collector's fee, of course) from the finance company. Regardless of whether the lessons are completed or not, the students are stuck with the payments to the finance company.

After receiving the money in full, the chain school no longer has incentive to provide quality service (or lessons!) to the student. Their new incentive is to hope the student quits the school so that another, unsuspecting and naive customer can take their place.

As tragic as this story may sound, this scenario is all too common in the 'Eikaiwa' industry in Japan.

Part of this is simply the Japanese experience - you're expected to go above and beyond stated work criteria: from working overtime, to skipping lunch, to doing things you know your job doesn't "require". It's very deceptive, and I really believe it's intended as such; would you come to Japan if you were told your "teaching" would be limited to a set plan with 1% flexibility, and your "off time" would be filled with selling points and other company necessities? Overall, it's just easier to paint this picture:

Why not spend the next year (or more!) teaching in Japan, skiing the Japanese Alps, exploring Japan (not to mention Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, and China), and eating amazing food all while gaining valuable professional and life experience?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

An Epidemic

No quotes this time, just listen...

I thought I'd gotten away from this problem, but it seems that even in Japan, certain behavior will never dissipate in schools. People underestimate just how screwed up (yes, I chose that pedestrian word for a reason), kids can get. Don't you remember? Hormones rising, sex everywhere (stressful whether you're having it or not), verbal taunts around every corner, emotions running high, the pains of homework on you every second?

You have the rest of your life to do with as you choose; in those times, all you could see were a few moments ahead. The next time that girl walks by your locker. The class you have with that jerk who you wouldn't mind seeing dead (a few moments, remember... consequences don't exist). The homework you need to finish in ten minutes. The people you try to avoid on a hourly basis so you don't spend the rest of the day hitting yourself, cursing yourself for not coming up with a clever retort, something to make them feel as horrible as you do. Don't sell it short - it's probably one of the most stressful times you will ever experience.

When people call high-schoolers "short-sighted", "immature", or "irrational", they fail to realize that their perspective doesn't matter. We're so different from them we just can't see anything. No one in high school is any of these things... from his point of view.

And apparently this epidemic has hit my new home. There are no school shootings, no bombs, no mass fatalities. If this had been another Columbine story about an oppressed teen lashing out, I probably wouldn't have been as surprised. But these occurrences, and the reaction of those who are supposed to be responsible, are unbelievable.

There have been a string of letters sent out to the education ministry of Japan, followed by successful suicides. All from students who have been alive less than fifteen years, all complaining about the intolerable abuse they received from bullies:

Japan pupil in 'suicide warning'
Suicide of 'bullied' Japan pupils
Two 14-year-old boys kill themselves in Fukuoka
14-year-old Niigata boy hangs himself

The deaths of these children are tragedies in themselves, but what really upset me was the ministry reaction to these events. Education minister Ibuki Bunmei, after receiving so many suicide notes by mail, informed these victims that they should not send him letters on the grounds that they would "confuse [their] parents." He has since taken a more human role in this, but his reaction seemed to be motivated by public concern rather than empathy for the bullied students.

Seven more letters from people threatening suicide have just been received by the ministry... "Teachers did nothing for me. I may be dead by the time this letter has reached you."

Full story here

The author of Trans-Pacific Radio posted an excellent write-up regarding this issue. This sheds some light on Ibuki Bunmei's behavior - in this case, implying that the public fiasco, the word spreading across the country, is the problem to be solved. Certainly I have to admit that the media and the administrators reacted in such a way, but I don't think it's the best picture of Japan for those of you outside looking in. It is true that Japanese people will go to great lengths to avoid "inconvenience" for others, not themselves, and sometimes the wires get crossed; instead of dealing with one person's problem, they consider the reaction of this problem by other people. Keeping the peace, so to speak, can result in some deadly consequences.

Mentor and pupil in Japanese culture: Senpai (先輩) and kōhai (後輩), respectively.

I like to talk, but I don't buy into everything I had heard about Japan before I arrived. True, many assumptions I had made about the corporate world were right on, but I haven't seen too many social preconceptions being proven true. Japanese women do love the foreigner for the most part; I don't see too many people eating in the streets, but it's not unheard of; people don't slowly inch away in fear when I sit next to them on a train. I know other people have had different experiences, but I think I'm through buying into every story I've heard. Japan is an open book, and I'll read it page-by-page in the order I observe it.

Also, I should point out - if you're a potential eikaiwa teacher, or someone considering a move to Japan, feel free to send me an email. I've got time to answer a few questions. If you're looking for some more information, this article rings very true.

Turning a Leaf While the Leaves Turn

Fireside Chat
Choosing the travel book that's right for you...

"Could I borrow your Frommer's? Oh, here it is. Bratislava. Hmm. Capital of Slovakia. Oh, here's a fun fact: You made out with your sister, man!"

Your Japanese lesson for today: expressing obligation, as in "I need to" or "I have to". Look here.

I have renounced a little of my ranting regarding the blatant Japanese commercialization of Christmas in response to a beautiful Christmas tree in Hondori shopping center, and seeing something very interesting while shopping for xmas presents in Tokyu Hands.

Apparently, in addition to their usual promiscuous garb, the girls in this fair country will be donning sexy Santa costumes. I saw at least three dozen varieties for sale in Tokyu Hands - innocent Santa, seductive Santa, evening gown Santa... it goes on. Think of something similar to the picture below.

How does an American celebrate Thanksgiving in a country which has no turkey, no football, and no Texas Hold 'Em to pass the time? In Hiroshima, a Thanksgiving dinner will be held at Kemby's with all the traditional food. Only one problem - it's too early for those of us with eikaiwa hours. Maybe next year I'll go home. Then again, the part time ¥255,000/month might make that a little difficult.

Thanksgiving Dinner

I don't know this photographer, but he or she has travelled far and wide in Japan to take some of the best pictures I've ever seen.

Photos of Japan

This Thursday is a national holiday, which may have just happened to coinicide with the American Thanksgiving. I learned that Canada celebrates their version of Thanksgiving in October... interesting. Enjoy this week, and the life you're living while doing it. Remember - you're in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds, because Truffula trees are what everyone needs.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Craigslist Okinawa

The power of the people triumphs. Let's work on Hiroshima.

Craigslist Okinawa

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Japanese War on Christmas

As a reputable member of a Japanese eikaiwa (英会話), I found it somewhat surprising that I was asked to don a Halloween costume in late October for my students' benefit. Is All Hallows' Eve really considered an international holiday? Despite this fact, I saw no harm in playing along for the kodomos' (子供) benefit, as Halloween really doesn't evoke much religious connotation these days. What do you have? Candy, Jack-O-Lanterns, costumes, ghosts, and black cats. What do they mean? Well, honestly... nothing, from any cultural standpoint.

I don't claim to represent the true pagans or gothic worshippers in our time, but I would say with a few exceptions, all the significance has been sucked dry from Halloween. It happens. All we are left with is tried-and-true capitalism. How should you make money in late October, when it's not quite Christmas? Sell candy and expensive costumes. Oh, but how best to do these things? I know: we've got this little holiday that exists for no other reason anymore than to create profit.

Japan is completely cut off from the history of this holiday. The United States and Europe naturally have ties to its origins, but nowadays... it's all about the Benjamins.

Such is the case with Christmas. Less than one percent of the population in Japan follows Christianity (primarily Shinto and Buddhist), yet the entire country sees a sudden and immediate change in decoration around early November. Stores support "Merry Christmas" signs. Wreaths and lights are hung. Red and green are spread as far the Shinkansen can take them.

Why do this? Why bring Christmas to a country that is both geographically and emotionally cut off from the religious aspects? And the simple answer is... money, of course. Now, I don't want to come off as the hypocrit. I know America does the same thing this time of year. Not only that, but we actually bring statements like "the war on Christmas" into the media. But in addition to being more religiously diverse, a majority of the population celebrates Christmas, instead of merely buying into the holiday. About 75% of Americans are Christian.

I suppose there's really no harm done. Children get to have their presents. People can go to the stores for holiday sales. Residents get to enjoy the homely feel of mistletoe and Santa Claus around every corner. Still, this says something about the national pride of Japan; instead of creating more displays and traditions around Shogatsu, they would rather embrace a foreign concept. Halloween, Christmas... let the westernization of Japan permeate every prefecture. Soon we'll see Japanese people eating McDonald's on the run in December after doing some xmas shopping in Parco while singing along to their favorite English song and later enjoying a pint down at the new American-style strip club. Hmmm... this has probably happened already. Gambatte Christmas.

You want a direct correlation between Japan and Christmas? Fine - apparently Jesus was buried near Aomori. This was the strangest story I'd ever heard.

Jesus in Japan

Side note: many people in Japan travel to the southern island Okinawa during the winter holidays, including Shogatsu, to escape the cold mountain weather. Although Okinawa is equally as popular during the Golden Week holiday, you run the risk of rain. I've been contemplating as to whether I should take a ferry from Kagoshima to Okinawa as an alternative route. The ferry system in Japan is just as developed as JR; as long as you leave in a reasonable-sized town on the coast, chances are you've got a port. Hiroshima to Matsuyama. Matsuyama to Kyushu. Kobe to Imabari. Get connected.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Your daily Japanese expression
Osaki ni shitsurei shimas
"Excuse me for leaving first" - commonly said in business if leaving before a co-worker or manager. As we eikaiwa workers don't like to work late hours to maintain the façade of overtime, you can expect to use this often.

I'm sitting, exhausted and beat down after a full day at the eikaiwa, going through a "mandatory" company outing: a co-worker's birthday. At least I can relax with some food, drink, and conversation after four straight classes. I accept a slice of pizza, then...

"Turner-sensei, would you like some cake?"

"Iie, kekko des."

(Uncontrollable giggling)

"Are you making a joke, Turner?"

"Kekko des" in Japanese means "no thank you", but it is pronounced like "cake-o". I have unwittingly become part of the Japanese humor ring. The language supports many deep proverbs and subtle meanings, but as of yet, I have found the most common humor in Japan includes plays on words; in all likelihood, this is one reason Japanese people have a difficult time understanding English jokes - without perfect understanding of the language, from pronunciation to definition, these elements are lost on them. Let me give you an example: some common Japanese anecdotes.

A farmer runs up to another farmer with a mouse inverted in the palm of his hand. "Look at the big mouse I just caught!" he said.
The other farmer says, "He's not so big; I can see his tail."
"No, no, okii da!", the first farmer replies.
"Chiisai da."
"Okii da!"
"Chiisai da!"
"Okii da!"
Finally, the mouse says, "Chuu, chuu!"
(Chuu in Japanese means middle-sized; but also, "chuu" is what Japanese mice say instead of "Squeak, squeak.")

Instead of saying "oyasumi nasai" (good night), say "oyasu miruku" (cheap milk).

Cited from David Ellis' Homepage

I have heard Japanese friends recite sophisticated and thought-provoking jokes before, but in general, I would say these types, wordplays, are much more common. Where they might receive a smile or small chuckle in America, in Japan they are found to be just as humorous as late night TV. This isn't even necessarily limited to humor, either; remember the reason that the number four is feared as a superstition.

I never realized it before, but since I've been in Hiroshima, I haven't had more than a few days with clear views of the mountains. Although Japan is quite possibly the most mountainous country in the world, the major cities are built on flat areas. With the haze that comes in all summer, you never feel like you're living in a topographical nightmare - all you see are the flat streets and a white mist covering the sky. This is a sharp contrast to Alaska, where I woke up each day to see blue sky, brown trees, green mountains piercing in every direction.

Tsunami (津波)

A small (emphasis on small) tsunami has just struck Hokkaido following an 8.1 magnitude underwater earthquake north of Japan.

CNN story here

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Forgetting Home, Losing the Day

Kanji of the Day

Denki, electricity
電気, read as でんき
ki is also found in...
Genki 元気
Similar to... rai, thunder,
So 電気, in some ways, means "electrical spirit"
Linked from here - good Kanji site.

It's a little surreal to have visited the point of my arrival in Japan. I've visited many places in Chugoku more than once, but none of them quite had the same effect as returning to Okayama, my entry point into my current home. Memories come flooding, feelings surface, and I realized that I'm infinitely more comfortable in Japan that I had been when I was first thrust into the Shinkansen and put through the ordeal of eikaiwa training.

I remember what it was like to be home... but even for my excellent synapses, those memories are slowly floating down the river as each new dawn approaches. I know homes are meant to have a dishwasher and oven... I know that, but I've become accustomed to doing without. I remember plastic containers for milk and orange juice, that somehow these containers extended shelf life and ensured a purer taste. I can recall when I didn't eat rice for months at a time; yet here I always enjoy the soothing presence of my rice cooker. Steadfast, truthworthy, reliable.

I can still imagine a world of steak sliced larger than a pancake's width, cities with no karaoke bars within sight, English on every sign and spoken by all... well, I could still be talking about Japan; they are really open to English.

Nevertheless, this is my home now. My contract with my eikaiwa will end by next June at the latest, and I am searching for work in the greater Tokyo area following its completion. Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your help, as I try to help you understand this country of ours. I'm not here to be a foreign novelty to the citizens. I'm not here to criticize cultural difference - rather, enlighten others about them. I'm here to live, to live my life as I would in any other place on Earth. This is no different for me than moving to a new city in the US, starting a life, and moving forward. Japan is just as much an opportunity as I could ever find.

I'll have to keep these things in mind as I return home for the holidays... my first visit back as a Japanophile. I know it'll feel like I never left. I know I'll splurge on fully American experiences, and soak up everything I missed. But it's a visit, a glimpse. Nothing more. What you leave behind isn't as important as how you lived your life.

I have to admit, as a final note - I may just walk up to random people and start shouting at them in English, just for the thrill.

Random Cultural Experiment
Want to try something unique? Start jamming on a shofar - they really should be used more than twice a year. No, I'm not Jewish. Just enjoy messing with my readers minds. That, and I think I heard a shofar band parody on Conan O'Brien.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Don't Let Arrogance Guide You

I know the American political world is in a state of upheaval, but I'm not an American. I'm a gaikokujin. Welcome to the Japanese world, wandering souls.

I've touched upon workplace behavior - genkiness, overtime (zangyou), work ethic - before, but obviously, I'm only scratching the surface; there's so much that I don't know about, or some things I'm aware of but have not yet fully understood. The business world in Japan is just as much a culture shock as entering the country itself.

"The Japanese have a saying: fix the problem, not the blame. In American organizations it's all about who f****d up. Whose head will roll. In Japanese organizations it's about what's f****d up. and how to fix it. Nobody gets blamed. Their way is better."
Michael Crichton, Rising Sun

You're an American. You've traveled to Japan to work in a law firm in Tokyo. It's been a few weeks, and you're starting to become friendly with your co-workers, your manager, and learning to be comfortable with your work environment. Today, instead of arriving to work early, as you usually do, you stop for a leisurely cup of coffee and enjoy people watching on the streets of Tokyo - definitely entertaining.

You had come into work early on previous occasions to make a good first impression with your manager, but today, after a few weeks, you feel as though you should get into a comfortable, relaxed routine and start conforming to the standard 9-5 hours.

You arrive at 8:59, and your manager is waiting for you at the door. He looks furious.

"Why are you late, Turner-san?"

What just happened? Should you feel guilty? I prefer to think of working in Japan as working as an actor in Los Angeles. Three basic rules:

If you're early, you're on time.
If you're on time, you're late.
If you're late, you're fired.

The Japanese are notoriously strict on time management, especially when dealing with workers. Although this might hardly be a surprise to anyone, as most people, including Americans, understand they should come in a few minutes early, the solution is not quite as obvious.

A simple apology works wonders, but the conditions must be right. You cannot simple utter a quick "gomen nasai" or "I'm sorry" and hurry along to your desk. No, this is a performance, a show your manager observes with all of his senses. Maintain eye contact. Tell him you are truly sorry for the inconvenience, and it will never happen again. Bow slightly. Lower your eyes. Do whatever you believe is necessary to humble yourself in your superior's eyes. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. Your manager doesn't want to be angry at you, believe it or not - he just wants your reassurance, and the problem of lateness fixed. If he asks why you were late, tell only the truth, as a lie will just make the situation worse. You're allowed to smile or laugh slightly after the apology; this action tells Japanese managers that you are ready to put this situation behind you and get back to genki workplace behavior.

This situation, among others, is the principal reason Americans have trouble working in Japan. By Japanese standards, westerners, especially Americans, are among the most arrogant, conceited people on Earth. It's not something we do knowingly; we were just raised according to a different code of conduct. We believe apologies are necessary at times, but many people see them as lowering yourself. Japanese people are willing to do this. Americans may, but probably won't be as happy about it. Humbleness, Keigo, considering others' time as infinitely more important than your own (stress on infinitely)... we weren't brought up with these ideas.

You're definitely a stereotypical westerner in Japan if:

1. You don't apologize often
2. You don't present omiyage (gifts) as an apology or returned favor
3. You believe your way is the best, and refuse to consider other options
4. Your comments are considered too direct (e.g. instead of asking "should I...?" or "shouldn't I...?" you simply make your case, and invite others to contradict you - not the Japanese way)
5. You refuse to clean the office. In Japan, very few small companies or schools have complete maintainance service. Employees and students are often asked to stay late to clean carpets, bathrooms, whiteboards, dust, etc. It's quite common.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Conversations on a Train

Sometimes being the center of attention in a foreign country can work to your advantage. Although I am often treated with the same respect and nonchalance as a Japanese citizen in public, I also find myself pulled into conversations with random foreign-doting crowds. All it takes is a glance, a smile, a nod, or even a defiant refusal to look in their direction, and suddenly some people believe I would enjoy spending my time teaching them English during my off-hours.

Other times, however, the people I encounter are merely curious and want to know more about me (and I them), so I usually indulge them, and learn more about the customs in the land of the rising sun. Who are these people. What are they thinking. What goes on that foreigners don't know about. These are worthy questions. Answers that I have learned, all with conversations on a train.

"No one has touched me in a long time."

I didn't mean to drop a piece of chocolate on her leg, but instead of flinching back in response to a random foreign man grabbing her, she just giggled, completely unphased. We met on the platform and had been speaking in fractured English for a few minutes.

"What do you mean, aren't you married?"

"Yes, but in Japan, being married is different. I have no kids. I need man to touch and comfort me. I have no boyfriend right now."

"Would you tell him you were married?"

"Maybe... sometimes, it's secret. How about you? You handsome man, you have girl for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday...?"

I didn't really want to get into specifics about my desire to have something more than just a physical relationship, so I just told her I hadn't met anyone I liked. But her information intrigued me...

My first impression of Japanese women was based entirely on a foreign friend's Japanese girlfriend. He told me he wouldn't have been surprised in the least if she was cheating on him. Fidelity isn't exactly typical here, especially when you're dealing with young women who make it a mission to go after foreign men.

But what about marriage? Although I've never been inside, I've heard about the goings-on of the Japanese hostess clubs. Men come there mainly to be heard and respected, because their wives don't listen to them and don't tell their husbands they like their ideas. This is the first time I've heard from the other side of the coin; are both typical husband and wife in Japan looking elsewhere for needs that should be satisified by marriage? I may be an outsider, but I don't understand.

"Oh no, my husband don't speak Japanese."

"Oh, he's foreign? Is he American?"

"No, he Romanian."

"Oh, you speak Romanian?"


(Awkward pause while I struggle to figure this out)

"Ummm... how do you talk to each other?"

"We speak in English."

This definitely sparked a moment of insight for me. Although I understand there are thousands, if not millions, of interracial couples across the world, I always assumed at least one of the partners was speaking his/her first language. Apparently this is not necessarily the case, as the evidence from Japan Railways would lead me.

An English-only relationship where neither of the participants is a native English speaker. That must be unique. I could understand this for a very casual relationship - a Japanese girl dating a French man, for example - but for marriage? Shouldn't one of them make the effort so at least one of them isn't inconvenienced? Isn't that the Japanese way? Fix the problem, don't assign the blame.

I spoke to this woman for twenty minutes. Her English was decent, to be sure, but I hardly thought she could handle a serious conversation with useful vocabulary or necessary grammar. Is her husband the same way? This may go back to the standards on marriage, especially when a Japanese woman is involved, but I don't think so. She seemed perfectly normal and content with her place. Regardless of how they met, how their relationship developed, feelings are forces more powerful than anything we can communicate with words. Holding a hand, looking into someone's eyes, letting them cry on your shoulder... these actions will always speak louder than words in any language.

Foreigner connectivity is equally as common. I've struck up random conversations with foreigners on trains from Fukuoka to Matsuyama, and later had the opportunity to meet them in another station. This must happen quite a bit in Japan - seeing a friend entering a train as you depart, neither of you able to exchange more than a few words due to the efficiency of the Japanese rail. Even when I'm not the instigator of these dialogues, you get the impression they want to talk to you; one way or another, you're meeting new people.

Diverse hoi polloi
Physical, emotional
The connecting train

Veni Vidi Vici

As fast as Lance Armstrong
... as long as there's not a bike involved. Lance Armstrong made his debut in the New York City Marathon, finishing in two hours, fifty nine minutes, and thirty six seconds. Full story here.

In the meantime, before I endeavor to match Lance's biking record, I'll stick with adventures a little closer to reality. Aki-no-Kofuji, sometimes referred to as Hiroshima's Mt. Fuji (Aki is the old name for Hiroshima), looms over the bay like a giant onigiri was somehow dropped onto one of the neighboring islands. The mountain is located on Ninoshima, one of the smaller islands just south of Hiroshima Port.

To access this island, take the #5 tram from Hiroshima Station, then go to platform #5 at Hiroshima Port. A roundtrip ticket (and you'll need one; you don't want to spend the night on this island) will cost you ¥760.

From Hiroshima
06:30, 07:30, 08:30, 09:30, 11:30, 12:30, 14:00, 15:30, 16:30, 17:30, 18:30, 19:30, 20:30

From Ninoshima
06:00, 07:00, 08:00, 09:00, 10:15, 11:30, 13:00, 14:30, 16:00, 17:00, 18:00, 19:00, 20:00

Other than the mountain, there is little to nothing else on the island. To me, this is a completely different culture - true, I grew up in a landlocked area, so I'm not familiar with life on the east coast. Taking the ferry to Staten Island, going to a private residence off the coast of Boston... people do this kind of thing regularly. Japan even more so. All these small islands in the Hiroshima area are inhabited by people who commute to the city daily. Even on an island like Miyajima, there are schools, homes, restaurants, public facilities, etc. Ferries capable of carrying hundreds of people and their cars (well, a dozen cars) are quite common.

This is the environment you're walking into once you disembark at Ninoshima Port. It's a small town, connected only by one small boat. Yet there are children playing in the streets, women walking to the store, old men greeting me as they fish... very nice, and very rustic.

To get a nice overview of this area, follow the signs. Take a left as you leave the dock, and you'll run right into a marker like this one:

It's a straight shot from that point on. I should point out once you're starting to clear the town, and the path forks for the first time just past a garden, it seems like the best choice would be right, as the northern path is overgrown and unclear. Yet you should go left - it clears up in about fifteen minutes. Just wear long pants, and watch out for kumo (spiders). They will try to eat you.

Once you do reach the top in about an hour, you get a nice view of Hiroshima and the surrounding islands:

I'd really recommend a night viewing on Aki-no-Kofuji, as the lights of Hiroshima would be incredible from this location. But... it's not the best trail to attempt in the dark, ascending or descending. You could bring a flashlight for the descent, just be careful. You are really cut off from civilization, and the last ferry to Hiroshima leaves at 8 PM.

The Miyajima race is a go thanks to some ingenuity on my part. Come out and join me on November 26th when the autumnal leaves are at their brightest.

Here it is, your moment of literary confusion:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Commercialism, Not Christmas

How to escape a Japanese Gideon...
Japanese approach - bow slightly, accept his pamphlet, and say "arigatou gozaimasu"
Liberal American approach - yell loudly about his intention to subject others to his beliefs, rather than letting them discover everything on their own path
Scary foreigner approach - chew and swallow the paper without a word - he'll never bother you again

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Japan, and the Gideons are swarming about like locusts. Amazing, I would have thought that would be one thing I'd be guaranteed to escape in Japan...

Walking down Hondori Street in Hiroshima, I had a foreign looking man step directly into my path and ask loudly, "Do you speak English?" Not wanting to give anything away, I accepted the paper he was offering (it might have been a free coupon, for all I knew) and continued to walk. He pursued, which was somewhat unusual.

"Have you considered letting Jesus into your life?"

At this point the wear and tear of climbing a mountain earlier in the day really took its toll - here I was, a foreigner in a prime opportunity to stick it to all missionaries by providing a nice international retort... yet, that didn't happen this time. I continued walking and pretended he was something loathsome. Instead, I should have said, "I live in Japan, buddy; I have a hard enough time letting natto into my stomach. Baka."

Nevertheless, despite my hatred for Gideons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and everything they stand for (well, not the beliefs, just the fact that they believe they need to "sell" them), Japan is starting to look a lot more Christmasy. Right after Halloween the ad campaign began.

Japan is primarly a Buddhist society, though it is relatively religiously diverse. But Christmas, like Halloween, means absolutely nothing to a Japanese person. It's just a holiday, like any other. Another excuse to party. An excuse to buy expensive gifts. An excuse to decorate. I would say this is true for many Christians as well, but why even bring the holiday to Japan?

The answer... is simply taking advantage of a consumer society. Give them a symbol, an image to work around. Christmas will do. Halloween will as well. I may be writing an in-depth article on this for Fukuoka Now, so I'll hold off on major details. Nevertheless, Japan is exploiting Christmas, as it exploits so many foreign ideas.

The day I ran the Peace Marathon in Hiroshima was a national holiday - Culture Day (文化の日). Read more about it here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Going the Distance, Going for Speed

"It's more than just a race, it's a style. It's doing something better than anyone else. It's being creative."
- Steve Prefontaine

Hiroshima Peace Marathon
My first Japanese racing experience. Quite a benchmark for someone who has been marketing himself as a "Gaijin on the Run" for the past five months. Nevertheless, I competed with distinction and honor. Well, as much honor as one can have calling himself a gaijin.

At this point I should point out that I'm an idiot. I looked at the racing flyers, I read the map, and for some reason I convinced myself that the starting line was at Hiroshima Baseball Stadium, not Hiroshima Stadium in the middle of Hiroshima Prefectural Sports Park. As such, when the tram dropped me off near Sogo shopping center, I assumed I had a leisurely ninety minutes to warm up, stretch, and enjoy running talk with fellow gaikokujin... how wrong I was.

I spent the next hour searching for the correct starting line, wondering if I would make it on time, and telling myself that I should just give up. Luckily I don't quit that easily. If I could wait in line for a restroom for an hour before the Boston Marathon, I could walk a few kilometers to run my first Japanese 10k. Eventually I did locate the stadium by chance, after hearing the racing announcer on loudspeaker. Lucky break.

Check in was at the foot of the stadium near the running track. The whole place was filled with runners doing sprints, warm ups, stretches, and just relaxing. I was supposed to have checked in before 10:50; fortunately the typical Japanese standards of lateness didn't apply to getting bib numbers. I received mine without causing too much inconvenience.

Already I was looking for some international differences in racing... there weren't too many. Bib numbers were required to be worn on both front and back, but that could just be for this particular race. Time chips were the same design, also worn on the feet. Everyone was dressed roughly the same way, same pre-race routines. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Naturally, I was running a little behind schedule. I barely had time to slip off my warm-ups, apply suncreen, attach the racing numbers, and stretch before 12:20, the official start time. There weren't too many convenient places to store my bag, so I had to settle with hiding it under a wooden sign stand. I later learned GetHiroshima would have happily taken it under their tent. Bag safety, at races, train stations, or otherwise, has been a growing concern lately; things aren't as safe out in the open as they used to be. Is this the result of foreign influence?

I was already soaked from sweat, having walked from the city proper to get here. I hadn't hydrated as much as I would have liked. But, my legs were strong, my muscles loose, and my resolve firm. My T-shirt on my back, I set myself out ahead of the pack. There might have been 500-600 runners in the 10k.

One major difference (besides the fact I couldn't understand "on your mark, get set..."): no gunshot start. Not even a whistle. Just the announcer saying "Go!" Not really an issue, though, as I was keeping my eyes peeled for foreigners whom I might like to pace off of. There might have been a dozen or more in the 10k. I think I beat them all.

The first half (5k) was no problem - never got passed, and took on about a hundred people. Got them all. There were no water stops and no kilometer markers until the turnaround point, however. Once we did head back for the finish, there were stops and markers at every kilometer. No Gatorade or energy drinks, just water. Still, it was reasonably well organized, given the amount of people competing. Lots of fanfare shouting "gambatte" (good for cheering on at an athletic event), even people I didn't know. You even had the practicing-English crowd yelling "Go! Go!"

It could have been colder than day. The sun wasn't really baking me as there was a nice breeze, but still, probably drained me more than I care to admit. No negative splits this time. Maybe 2-3 people passed me and stayed within eyeshot until the finish; I suppose I could have caught them, but once I saw I wasn't going to win, I just wanted to take it easy and not stop. Reduced to this... a marathon runner actually considering stopping during a measly 10k. Still... I do that at all my races. I'm probably one of many people who questions his sanity at the start of every race. We always feel better about it afterwards.

Beautiful views - the first and last kilometers take you across one of the inlets and give you a great view of west Hiroshima. Highly recommended running path if you live out there. Once my legs starting throbbing and my forehead decided to warm up, I decided it was time to end this thing. I throttled in to the finish for a nice 39:21 clock time, 39:04 chip time. Otsu kare sama des. That's about a 6:17 mpm (minutes per mile) pace.

Kudos to the students of Hiroshima International School - I think they all ran the 5k, and stuck around the finish line to cheer on the foreign runners. Thank you. I'll return the favor someday. After the finish, chips were collected, winners' certificates printed on the spot, and award bags distributed.

My special thanks to the people of GetHiroshima and David Koerner, who was offering free post-race massage therapy. GH (GetHiroshima) had a tent set up with free towels, Gatorade, and English conversation. Good people.

Where you might expect some protein boost in the form of sausage back home, in Japan... ramen, yakitori, dessert crepes, and carbonated beverages. No complaints here. They did have the standard free yogurt for entrants, though.

That's my report on your typical Japanese race. I never realized it before, but you don't really need to listen to anyone (announcer or otherwise) during the warm up, race, and cool down, so it's especially good for someone like me, who needs to improve his listening skills. What's next? Running across Miyajima, and looking into the Osaka Marathon.

Thank you heroes. Wish me well, and I will do the same for you.

Pictures of the Race
The Course

GetHiroshima Race Details
Official Race Website