Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tatsuya Ichihashi Caught and Charged!

Six weeks ago Tatsuya Ichihashi, the suspect in the brutal murder of Lindsay Hawker in 2007, was finally captured by Osaka police; he was attempting to board a ferry to Okinawa.

Advance to 6:05

Two years. I honestly thought they would never catch the guy. Hawker's family has been keeping the search alive with semi-frequent visits to Japan and interviews with her father, her wife, and her sister, Lisa.

This case was about to turn into just another sad story when it comes to foreign women making contact with less-than-reputable characters in Tokyo; Lucie Blackman's and Lindsay Hawker's experiences have already been the focus on media attacks on hostess bars, the subject of the book Tokyo Hostess by Clare Campbell, even alluded to in the BBC radio series A Tokyo Murder.

Ichihashi was on a two-week hunger strike before finally caving to a terayaki pork bento; I guess we all have our weaknesses. Who knows what he's thinking? The man escaped the Chiba police, supposedly spent the next few months in the city bouncing between his gay lovers' flats, made his way west, had cosmetic surgery done, and was attempting to head south when finally apprehended by police in Osaka. My apologies if I missed anything.

Bottom line: the man is in custody, and as of today, has been formally charged with the rape and murder of Lindsay Ann Hawker. He is already quoted as having bound and gagged the young English teacher to rape her on March 24th, 2007, but has yet to give further details on her murder the next day (putting her in the sand-filled bathtub is another story entirely).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Leaving AEON

I remember my last few days at AEON quite clearly. I was already having issues getting my boxes shipped to Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories in Kagoshima, the luggage service still relatively unknown to me. On top of that, AEON usually has the incoming teacher occupy the outgoing teacher's apartment, meaning I had to vacate two days prior to my leaving Hiroshima. No worries, though, as they usually put you up in a nearby hotel (I actually got shifted between two; how can a hotel in Saijo ever be booked solid??).

My last few days, as you might imagine, were rather hectic:

- Getting my boxes transferred to Kagoshima
- Keeping just enough supplies for those last few days
- Training the new teacher
- Disconnecting my internet service, settling final bills
- Planning my farewell speech and gifts to teachers

It should be noted that my branch of AEON was a pretty tense working environment since I had disrupted the group harmony by posting my teaching experiences on this blog. I couldn't really read anyone's expressions in the end; I didn't even know if I had a single friend at that branch (really liked the part-time teachers, strangely enough). Whereas another outgoing teacher had been treated to a nice dinner party with gifts from most of the staff, I would have been relieved to receive a handshake and "thank you".

That's more or less what happened. My dinner party went through without a hitch (a few days before my last teaching day), though I did pay 4000 yen for everything there. After my last class was finished, the teachers and staff gathered at a nearby restaurant for one final dinner, where I received a chopstick holder and cover... something they probably got at a 100-yen store. I didn't think much of it at the time, but it occurs to me now that gift really was as close to a slap in the face as the staff could manage. Think about it... a chopstick holder... yeah... that's exciting. Still, I just thanked them for their gift, offered my own - a Texas T-shirt for the assistant manager - and walked outside for the final farewells. My last paycheck, end of contract bonus, and airfare stipend added up to about 400,000 yen, which I had in hand as I bowed to each teacher in turn, bade each of them farewell, and set out to walk down the street as I had done so many nights: leave the glowing sign of AEON behind, pass the hair salon, duck slightly under the hanging vines, cross the river, maybe pick up a snack at Lawson convenience store, cross the street at the all-night diner, pass the Ford dealership and the Hiroshima Bank, then take a left turn to face my apartment building.

That last walk still sticks out in my mind. A huge relief, a sense of a job well done, satisfaction having stuck out the year, more satisfaction with the money in my pocket, and a bit of sadness over leaving Hiroshima. Less than twelve hours later, I took the shinkansen heading west.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Questions About AEON Interviews and Training

How should I dress?

I place this at the top for a reason; Japanese business standards are almost always very strict when it comes to professional dress. White and black are the standards. Full black or charcoal suit with white shirt for men, the equivalent for women. More important than knowing what you're doing is looking the part.

What can I expect for the information session?

Not much. Your usual witty banter with fellow candidates, a brief history of AEON, a video covering a day in the life of an AEON teacher (probably still showing the same one), some Q&A, and a preview of what is to come should you be chosen for private interviews, and eventual employment.

What can I expect during the group interview?

90% of it is you just keeping your mouth shut and acting like a typical ESL student. When it comes time for your turn to present your prepared 5-minute demo lesson (for which you should have written a 15-minute lesson plan), just relax, and focus more on your presentation than the material; the recruiters will be more interested in teaching mannerisms and classroom English - how simply you speak; do you use complicated words - rather than your explanation of the future perfect tense.

After the group interviews finish up, there will be a brief recess while all the recruiters decide whom to cut and whom to schedule for private interviews. Stick around, and everyone will be given an envelope sealed with your fate: an interview time, or a note stating "sorry, try again."

What can I expect during the private interview?

If you are selected for a private interview, it may be scheduled later that evening, or sometime in the next two days. If you have traveled far for the AEON interview and have already made plans to leave, let the recruiters know and they will try to work around that.

What happens next?

Not much, at least for a few weeks. If you're lucky you'll get a phone call offering you a position; they will have the location and start time. If these are impossible, you may defer employment for some months, but I encourage you to get into the country as soon as you can. Should you accept, the recruiter will add you to the AEON mailing list and forward you cultural tips, paperwork, and any problems that might occur.

The first step in your paperwork will be to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility (COE) from the Japanese government. AEON will do this on your behalf, provided you forward them everything they need. After that, you need to send the COE with your passport and the appropriate forms to the nearest Japanese consulate or embassy for the working visa. You will be entering Japan with a 1-year "Specialist in Humanities/International Services" visa.

Once you have your passport with the visa sticker, it's simply a matter of purchasing a flight, packing your bags, and saying goodbye to turkey sandwiches.

What can I expect during training in Japan?

This varies significantly by location. I believe they hold training classes in Sapporo, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Omiya, and Okayama. AEON asks that you schedule a flight landing within a given window of time (a few hours, so as to not keep the representative waiting; chances are you'll see another teacher on the same flight). You'll land, forward one or two bags to the school branch where you will be spending the year, then catch the train to the training center, as the representative has purchased the tickets in advance and will be "holding your hand" most of the way.

Housing at training, in Okayama at least, is dorm-style, two to a room. You may be the only person in your training class, which would suck, but will leave you a little freedom when it comes to settling in at night. Many people have asked me about free time during training. Let me stress: working at AEON is not summer camp. You do not have to ask your trainer's permission to leave the dorm or go anywhere (provided you're at training when they request you to be). This is a job, and you are an adult. Don't forget it.

Training itself also varies. If you're teaching at an A school (adults only), it will last one week. B school - kids and adults - about ten days. Generally they'll have you start around 10, 11 AM and finish up around 6, 7 PM, with an hour for lunch. There aren't any "official" outings during training, but I encourage you to go out with your trainer and fellow trainees on the town. Go to dinner. Sing karaoke. Check out the nightlife. See the local castle. It's alright if you're too jet-lagged and need some time to chill in the dorm, but don't be anti-social. During my ten days of training I believe we went out to karaoke three times, dinner almost every night, and played poker over pizza at my trainer's apartment one time.

And after that?

Say your goodbye to your fellow Japan newbies, take the train to the station closest to your school, and prepare for your welcome dinner, greeting a few students, and settling into your apartment. Congratulations.

Any other questions?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

I'm Still Here, Chief

Will post on some of the common questions I've been asked regarding AEON interviews and training soon.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Yakuza Moon

I opened one of the albums on the table, and looked at photos of what must have been the tattoo master's work. One in particular caught my eye. It wasn't just a tattoo: it was a piece of art using the human body as a canvas, with delicately curving lines representing graceful koi leaping up a foaming waterfall. I'd grown up surrounded by men with tattoos, starting with my father, and I'd never felt there was anything wrong with having one. Ever since I was a kid I'd loved to draw, and I was sure I'd been inspired by the beautiful work of art on my father's body. But nothing had ever spoken to me like the work of this tattoo master.

Shoko Tendo, Yakuza Moon

I don't know why I chose this quote, as most of the book is about Shoko's addiction to drugs, a series of violent, especially brutal relationships, and her struggle to "grow up", even in her thirties. There's not much substance here, IMHO, but I have to say the insight into the yanki lifestyle (punk kids) was an eye-opener: never in my life had I imagined any kids in Japan behaving so disobediently, skipping school, inhaling paint thinner, ordering gang members to rape girls...

Every time I consider getting a tattoo I always come back to my first concern: Japanese hot springs. If I were denied entrance to even one, it wouldn't be worth it to me just for a little piece of macho art. Do women really go for that on guys? Discuss.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Japanese Whaling in South Park

The latest episode of South Park tackles the Japanese whaling practices - absolutely hilarious. Apparently they hate whales because they believed a whale and a dolphin flew the Enola Gay to Hiroshima. Definitely check it out.

Monday, November 02, 2009

20 things I wanted to do in Japan but couldn't find the time...

I started out small in my Japanese travels: walking behind Saijou Station to the local Shinto shrine; discovering the AEON supermarket open 24-hours; only then venturing "way out" to Hiroshima City... for 35 minutes and 570 yen of travel, you'd think I'd know there was more to see. Eventually, as my language skills developed and I read more about some of the sights within ferry, train, and biking distance, I grew more comfortable trying my luck on the road. Despite everything I managed to see in two years, a huge list remained, giving me a reason to come back.

1. Watch Yabusame

Horseback archery. Some of those riders are amazingly gifted. There were a few yasubame events in Kagoshima Prefecture, but I wanted to see one of the famous shows at the Tono Matsuri in September. Tono, in northern Honshu, is insanely remote.

2. Ski in Hokkaido

My Japanese skiing experience is limited to Mizuho Highland in Hiroshima Prefecture, but I always longed to try out the mountains in Hokkaido.

3. Visit Cape Soya

Like Alan Booth, I'd love to see Japan from cape to cape. Scratch Sata off the list after my cycling adventure last year.

4. Tanabata Matsuri in Aomori

The biggest of its kind in Japan.

5. Hike ALL of Kirishima

I did get to do a day trip to Kirishima, but missed out on several of the key peaks and hot springs; It'd be great to camp in that area.

6. Visit the North Coast - Matsue

I know there's not much to see if you follow the coastline from Shimonoseki to Matsue, but that's precisely what I wanted; not even trains run east to west that far north.

7. Run the Yoron Marathon

I was signed up for the 2008 Tokyo Marathon, but as you may recall, I shattered my wrist about two months prior to the start. There are several Japanese races I'm proud to have competed in: Miyajima 10k, Nagasaki Bayside Half Marathon, Hiroshima Peace Marathon. I wrote about the Yoron Marathon as my choice race for Asia in a recent Vagabondish article.

8. Eclipse Ceremony on Akusekijima

Akusekijima is a small, small island in the Tokara Chain in southern Kagoshima Prefecture. Every year in late July, the island brings back its traditional ceremonies - dancing in big wooden masks - for the coming of the solar eclipse. I missed the greatest eclipse in the history of time on July 22nd, but we'll see what the future holds.

9. Visit a Tea House in Kyoto

This would be expensive, unlikely, and probably not live up to its expectations. Still, if I had the right Japanese friends or business associates, I'd love to drink and eat in a Kyoto tea house with real geisha (not the watered-down version they use for tourists). Maybe Sayuki would take me?

10. Finish the 88-Temple Walk in Shikoku

I walked this Buddhist pilgrimage ikkoku mairi, one prefecture at a time. Tokushima-ken was mountainous, difficult, and extremely beautiful... but I only finished 23 temples. 65 more in my lifetime...

11. Be a Guest in a Japanese Home

I've been a guest for lunch as part of my osettai on the Shikoku Henro Trail, and received an offer from a kindly old man in Sapporo, but have yet to really experience everything one can in a full tatami-mat, doting mother, rebellious daughter, steaming bath, amazing dinner Japanese home.

12. Cherry Blossom Festival in Okinawa

Well, I suppose just visiting Okinawa would be enough... if I could kayak around Zamamijima. I never really got the full hanami experience, either: sitting down with friends with some yakiniku and sake as the pedals gently fall.

13. Spend Money on a Hostess Bar

Yen yen ya'll. Guess that expression doesn't work cross-culturally. Let me first point out I have no desire to look for a date in a hostess bar... but I can't help it, I'm curious. Curious to see what these modern-day teahouses offer to the working man (and woman). Unfortunately, unless I happen to have several thousand dollars I'm willing to blow on wine, karaoke, and the company of an attractive woman in the floating world, it just won't happen. Closest I've come is reading Bar Flower by Lea Jacobson.

14. Learn to be Fluent in Japanese

Pretty self-explanatory. My language skills, though enough to get me around, weren't exactly on the level of a Japanese intellectual.

15. See the Lantern Festival in Nagasaki

The ceremonies in Hiroshima were very awe-inspiring. I'd really like to know if there are any differences with the August 9th events in Nagasaki.

16. Shame an Evangelical on a Crowded Street in Japanese

I hate missionaries, Evangelicals, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Hate them. Hate. Clear enough? I managed to steer clear of them the majority of my time in Japan, but every so often... well, let's just say if I had the Japanese skills, the time, and the right inclination, I wouldn't hesitate to loudly stuff that religious nonsense down their throats.

17. Do more Volunteer Work

Volunteering an orphanage in Aira was a rare opportunity, one I'd gladly repeat.

18. Study Aikido

A lot of the marital arts were tempting (with the exception of sumo), but I think aikido is the best fit for me. Of course I know I can look for a training group outside of Japan, but still...

19. Eat Ikizukuri

Sashimi is usually prepared in restaurants from a live animal, but, once served, quite inert. Ikizukuri is something very different. It often begins with a diner choosing a live fish, which a trained chef will then carefully slice up and present - the heart still beating as you take a bite.

20. Yell in a Kabuki

Unlike in many western dramas, Kabuki plays encourage audience members to participate by shouting out names and answering characters’ questions. Now if I only knew what to shout...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

What NOT To Do In Japan

Not just customs, as I wrote about last week for iloho, but rather the activities and sights that are just too cliché to even merit a visit. Check out the full story on Matador.

There are many wonderful and unspoiled places in the land of the rising sun: islands with cedar trees thousands of years old; floating shrines providing the backdrop for a sea of fireworks; girls dressed up in gothic and "living doll" costumes in Harajuku. However, for every sight you absorb on a visit to Japan, you should be aware of the paths that have been beaten to the extreme, the activities designed for tourists that are over the top, screaming cliché, or just too crowded and overpriced.

1. Don't Spend Money on Pachinko

Pachinko is one of the few ways to legally gamble in Japan, but don't be lured into a parlor thinking you'll see attractions like those of Vegas. The place is beyond loud - noise making your ears bleed in matter of seconds - and full of cigarette smoke. The games themselves should be reserved for a 10th circle in Dante's Inferno. Imagine a pinball machine with a computer screen display; once you pull the lever you have literally no control as to where the ball ends up. Just like in Vegas, you'll find burnt out slot jockeys spending hours on end inserting yen, winning once every 27 days. Fun fun.

Do sing karaoke
A karaoke booth with an all-you-can-drink special is a much better alternative if you want to be surrounded by video screens and loud noises.

It’s nothing like a country-western karaoke bar in the U.S.

All the booths in Japan are private, so you can only make an ass of yourself in front of close friends.

The Shidax chain is my favorite, but every town should have at least one place to sing.

2. Don't Climb Mt. Fuji... When There's A Line

Fuji is swamped with foreign and Japanese tourists in the official hiking season (peak in August), and completely overwhelmed during the Obon holiday week; by this, I mean you will have to wait in line the entire journey to the top, and struggle to crop people out of your photos once you see the sunrise stream across a blanket of clouds.

I'm all for conversations with Japanese and international tourists, but if it means slowing your natural pace, getting stopped, and dealing with a crowd on what should be a leisurely hike, then I'd say it's worth the threat of hypothermia or slipping on ice to risk climbing in the off-season.

Do Climb it in the Off-Season

Late September and October would be "safest", as there may be minimal snow, but if you want the trek to yourself, bring the right gear and see if you can get permission from the 5th station to go in November or December. Obviously, this can be rather dangerous, and I don't recommend it to anyone who doesn't have serious experience climbing on ice. Attempting the ascent early, in May or June, can be just as risky with the rainy season.

If you're looking for an alternative path to the summit, check out the Fuji Mountain Race.

3. Don't Drink at the Lost in Translation Bar

The famous establishment is actually located at the top of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. Stick to the the gallery and coffee shop atop Roppongi Hills for just as impressive a view.

Do Stop By When Money Is No Object

I mean, would you normally pay 4000 yen for a fruit and cheese platter?

4. Don't Pay an Absurd Amount of Money to Dress Like a Geisha

For the ladies out there (although I've heard they'll do it for men, too), this is one activity many guesthouses and hostels offer throughout Kyoto. For about 10,000-30,000 yen (USD100-300), depending on the services offered and the time allowed, your face will be painted pale white, your hair arranged in traditional geisha style, and your body stuffed and folded into a slim silk kimono.

The purpose of all this? Photos to send home... the chance to see what geisha experience... sometimes you're allowed to take a short walk outside in full regalia and watch the reactions of startled Japanese men and tourists thinking "Wow! A real geisha! Get the camera!" Unfortunately, it's just not worth it; with foreign noses, eyes, and facial features, we simply look ridiculous. The areas in which you walk are well known by locals, and you can hardly expect a genuine reaction from another foreigner wasting money to "look Japanese".

Do See The One Foreigner Who Can Pull It Off

American-born Sayuki, currently working in the Asakusa district of Tokyo:

5. Don't Travel Far and Wide for Cherry Blossoms

Imagine you've just flown into Tokyo one Sunday in April; those flowering trees that have inspired thousands of haiku and drunken hanami (viewing parties) are now in full bloom and ripe for the watching. Instantly, you think: "I've got to get to the best viewing spots in the country, quickly!" Many travelers opt to follow the spread of the sakura (cherry blossoms) from the south of Okinawa in February all the way to Hokkaido in May.

Do See Local Sakura

If you feel as though your current location is lacking in these wondrous plants, think again; every city, town, and prefecture in Japan has a great place to lay down a blanket, crack open an Asahi beer, and view the pedals falling as gently as snow. I'm not going to deny there are some great trees out there, but don't feel pressured to rush out of town; cherry blossoms bloom for only one week, and even with reliable predictions, your scheduled holiday may have you arrive a few days before or after full bloom. Instead, take advantage of your present surroundings.

6. Don't Restrict your WWII Studies to Hiroshima

There is more to the history of Japan during World War II than the Peace Museum, the A-Bomb Dome, and the Paper Crane Memorial in Hiroshima City. By all means, see every one of those places, but once you finish...


- Take the train over to Nagasaki and look at their Peace Park, the lesser visited of the two. Did you know Kokura was the original target on August 9th, but cloud cover caused the pilot to divert to Nagasaki?

- Really go off the beaten path with the Kamizake Museum in Chiran, Kagoshima Prefecture. Hundreds of letters are on display, each from pilots writing their goodbyes to family memories prior to departure.

- Before you leave Tokyo, make sure to visit the Yasukuni War Memorial shrine, honoring the spirits of those fallen.

7. Don't See Japan With Emerald Glasses

'If you arrived in Paris or Rome and saw something like the new station you would be utterly revolted, but for most foreigners coming to Kyoto it merely whets their appetite to find the old Japan they know must be there. When they finally get to Honen-In Temple and see a monk raking the gravel under maple trees, they say to themselves, "Yes it does exist. I’ve found it!" And their enthusiasm for Kyoto ever after knows no bounds. The minute the walk out of Honen-In they're back in the jumbly modern city, but it doesn't impinge on the retina – they're still looking at the dream.'
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, Alex Kerr (quoting Mason Florence)

By this, I mean most newbies to Japan hold a kind of mysticism as a veil over their eyes. At some level we appreciate all the fancy robots and electronics in Akihabara, but more often that not, we want the "old Japan": Zen temples with chanting monks, samurai warriors parading the street. The contrast to what we actually see upon landing in Tokyo - high speed trains, school girls in insanely short shorts - almost blinds us to what Japan has become...

The "old Japan", the Japan in the movies you know and love, the Japan you dream about as being somehow removed from time and left in pristine historical condition.... that Japan has been fading from existence since the 1960's.

Do Recognize The Signs of Insane Modernization

I'm not saying you can't enjoy your holiday, sleep in a capsule hotel in Tokyo, and reap the benefits of modernization. Just be aware of some of the things Japan has given up to get to this point.

Kyoto, 1964: A steel eyesore, the city tower, is placed directly in front of the main train station, despite numerous protests from locals. Thus begins the dismantling of historic Kyoto; buildings no longer have to be shorter than ten feet, Zen temples have information loudspeakers installed for tourists, and power lines remain unburied.

Japanese coastline: Why leave sandy beaches alone when you've got concrete quotas to fill? Thus the implementation of tetrapods.

...designed to prevent erosion, but in fact increasing its likelihood. And don't they look pretty?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Secret Life of Water

I once conducted the following experiment. I filled a jar with plain water from the tap at my office in Tokyo, and then I put it on my desk. Since the water came from the city water-works system and contained chlorine, attempts to make crystals from the water failed.

I then asked for the help of five hundred people located throughout Japan. At the same time on the appointed day, they all sent positive thoughts to purify the water on my desk and then sent the message "Thank you" to the water.

As expected, the water changed and was able to form beautiful crystals. The chlorinated water from the tap had changed to pure water.

How could this have happened? I think you know the answer. The thoughts and words of five hundred people reached the water without regard for the borders of time and space.

Masaru Emoto, The Secret Life of Water

Emoto is also the author of The Hidden Messages in Water, a book I had looked at briefly some years ago without really considering its significance. Due to my studies in Buddhism (and after reading Dan Brown's latest thriller, The Lost Symbol), I find the ideas in this book to be some of the most overlooked and most important in human existence. And no, that's not an exaggeration - books like these are considered by the mainstream to be too "out there" or junk science, but if you'd explore the concept for yourself over a given time, you too might be a "believer".

As Brown says, imagine a grain of sand: pretty small and insignificant, right? We know it has mass, therefore it exerts a certain gravitational pull on nearby objects, but by itself, this effect is minimal. Now consider a beach full of these grains of sand: the mass of these millions of pieces now has the power to affect objects on a larger scale. Both Emoto and Brown's characters have got it right:

Thoughts are just like these grains of sands, and we can see the effects of positive and negative thoughts on matter in the real world.

Why do doctors encourage positive thinking in terminal patients? How is it that someone's soulmate can know if harm befalls the other when they're separated by an ocean? Why should the shapes of crystals in water change according to the thoughts being directed at them? Why do followers of a particular religion seem to gain support quickly and with absolute devotion (it's certainly not for the logic of their holy books)? Because thought has power outside of the mind, and for people thinking the same thoughts, the effect is exponential.

Emoto goes a bit further than this, exploring the crystals formed when water is exposed to positive and negative thoughts, writings, music, prayers from different religions, and when it is gathered from certain sources. I admit he goes a little over the edge (for me, at least) when discussing his ideas of water changing the world, but his heart is in the right place, and the research and pictures are fascinating.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Latest Language Learning Endeavor

I got an email from Kim Nguyen over at asking to promote their site for readers interested in continuing their Japanese studies.

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"Over 60,000,000 downloads of over 1000 different educational audio lessons, video lessons, and iPhone application by people just like you looking to have fun learning Japanese and learn at their own pace."

Ahhh... pace. A key word for me. Click here to sign up today.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

10 Things You Definitely Should NOT Do In Japan

New article from iloho is now up. Check it out at

When you are travelling in Japan follow these simple guidelines to ensure that cultural misunderstandings (or worse) do not occur.

10) Misuse Your Shoes
Thresholds at businesses and all homes and apartments in Japan have a convenient place for you to store your shoes and don borrowed slippers for your journey. However, did you know you should never wear slippers on tatami mats? It's also a huge cultural faux-pas to come out of the bathroom still wearing toilet slippers, as they've been rubbing on dirty linoleum (although this even slips Japanese minds from time to time).

9) Bathe in the Bathtub
The bathing culture in Japan is unparalleled. Even if I soak in a mineral pool in the backwoods of New Zealand, nothing will make me feel more cleansed inside and out than a soak in a traditional Japanese hot spring resort. Ignoring the fact the water is still hotter and contains more minerals than most hot pools abroad, Japanese bathing etiquette dictates one should shower thoroughly before entering the steaming bath; if you were to do otherwise in Japanese homes (as a guest you would be given the honour of bathing first) the family would have to completely drain the tub, clean out the ring, and refill. You'd probably just be kicked out if you brought soap and shampoo into the pool at a public bathhouse.

8) Fumble with Chopsticks
You don't have to be able to pick up an individual grain of rice to use chopsticks properly. Rather, just be aware that there are a few things for which they were not meant to be used. First, even if you're sharing dishes with a group, do not pass food from one set of chopsticks to another, as this is considered in bad taste. Second, when not using them, set your chopsticks across your plate or bowl as you would a knife; poking them out of your rice resembles two sticks of incense commonly used for a certain death ceremony... and why would you want to be reminded of that over a fine dinner?

7) Grope on a Train
Obviously this isn't a mere misunderstanding of cultures if such an act were to occur, but even when visiting Japan and having nothing but pure intentions, one should be aware of the dangers. Women (and even men) have been fondled on crowded trains and often cannot trace the hands back to their owners. This has lead to women-only subway cars during peak travel times, and the police giving advice to young girls: seize the arm of your attacker and don't let go until security sees his face. I only mention this because if you're a foreigner riding a train in the land of the rising sun who knows absolutely no Japanese, and when disembarking you find a man or woman screaming "shijou!" or "chikan!", respectively (the terms for female and male perverts), you're essentially at the mercy of one individual who may have mistaken your desire to get a little bit of room on the car as blatant groping.

6) Choose the Wrong Seat
There's a somewhat antiquated custom when it comes to eating out in groups. If you're with some business colleagues, it's better for a junior member (in terms of hierarchy, not age) to take the seat closest to the doorway or access point, the senior member the farthest away. The belief is that should an attack occur, the least experienced (thus the least valuable) will be killed first, giving the others time to mobilize and protect the higher-ups.

5) Show Strong Emotions
One of the most common mistakes a foreigner makes upon entering the Japanese business world is to openly express his frustration when the unexpected comes along... and it always comes along. Showing strong emotions like anger is a social death sentence in Japan; the only time someone might get away with it would be if he were seriously inebriated, or at least making the effort to get there. Tears, especially those of happiness, can be forgiven (even from men), but take care to keep your temper in check.

4) Blow Your Nose
Even out on the street when it's sub-zero degree weather, blowing your nose in Japan is probably one of the rudest things you can do, even more so if you're talking with someone face-to-face and take a moment to pull out your handkerchief. It's the equivalent of asking someone to watch you use the toilet.

3) Yawn
This is a good policy for conversations around the world, but it really hits home in Japan. Whereas in the States or other countries one might dismiss a tired expression with a certain nonchalance or a chuckle (e.g. "crazy night on the town?"), in Japan you might as well slap your superior in the face to completely prove your desire not to listen.

2) When Listening...
I had an interview with an English school in Akita Prefecture not too long ago. As I was listening to the manager speak via Skype, I realised how out of practice I was at listening by Japanese standards. He spoke for only a few seconds at a time, each time taking my silence as an indication that the call must have been disconnected. Why? Because I failed to provide the appropriate guttural sounds: when speaking one-on-one with someone in Japan (group meetings can be an exception), it's best to utter a few words every now and again to show you still have the speaker's attention. A simple hai (yes), or so des ne (ah, I see) can work wonders.

1) Respect Yourself
Modesty is a virtue. I cannot count the number of times as an English teacher I gave high praise to certain young Japanese students, only to have their parents contradict me by saying something like "yes, but she's terrible studying at home" or "no, you must be mistaken". Disregarding or refusing complements in Japan is the only way to accept them graciously:

(in Japanese)
Me: Excuse me, but could you tell me the way to the nearest train station?
Japanese: Ooohhh! Your Japanese is so skillful!
Me: No, no, it's nothing really.

By claiming you have no skills or any life experience exceeding that of another, you in fact raise their impression of you. If I were to refer to myself as "Turner-san" or respond to such praise of my language skills with "Thank you very much! I have been diligently studying for nine months!", then I might be forgiven as an ignorant foreigner... but more likely marked as arrogant.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Japanese Culture in Star Trek

Ok, so maybe I'm pandering to the Trekkie crowd or just secretly hoping this will be Twittered and Stumbled Upon by the sci-fi groupies in a matter of minutes, but I'm still surprised no one, Japan expat or otherwise, has written up an entry like this.

Many months ago, as I was Couchsurfing my way across Austin, Texas, I happened to stay with four self-declared geeks. Beyond geeks; they actually made a profession of attending sci-fi conventions and reselling merchandise as commodities. Regardless, once I told them I had lived in Japan and began describing some of the finer points of the culture, they brought to my attention some interesting similarities to the alien races in Star Trek...


This race of warriors would seem to be the most obvious comparison. Without a doubt, the Klingons represent the samurai caste in Japanese society, those who prefer to die at the hands of another rather than peacefully of old age, know their attacker's face as opposed to being shot from a distance... Some aspects Gene Roddenberry didn't even bother to change:

- Klingons' hair styles are identical to those of the samurai (if you ignore the ridges)
- Eyebrows are dark and pronounced, like those of the Japanese
- "way of the warrior" = bushido
- The architecture of Chronos, the Klingon homeworld, bears a strong resemblance to traditional Japanese homes and castles

Granted, the warriors in Star Trek seem to embody more animalistic qualities (drinking, fighting, hunting, cursing), a sharp contrast to the calm controlled behavior of the samurai, but the comparisons cannot be dismissed out of hand.


Cardassians are well known for their xenophobic tendencies and a criminal justice system that results in a 100% conviction rate; once you are arrested, you are already found guilty and your fate is sealed - the trial is performed purely as a public spectacle. Sound familiar? Thank god the Japanese system doesn't always have a penalty of death, and you at least have a 1% chance of being found not-guilty.

The xenophobia is a little harder to ignore. Like Japanese, Cardassians have a strong belief in "racial purity" (though I guess it would be purity of the species) and driving others out of their territory. Japan makes no secret of its "one race, one people" policies and its lack of enthusiasm for immigration.

By another token, both peoples believe they are (were in Japan's case) destined to control the world (or Alpha Quadrant) by divine right.


The Vulcans embody the mysterious and religious aspects of Japan: meditation practices; calm, controlled behavior in the face of unrestrained Western emotions. There may not be a higher power at work (i.e. Buddhist practices), but that's no reason to not sit in temples and develop some truly amazing existential ideas.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Once A Traveler Up and Running!

My new travel website, Once A Traveler, is now up and I'm posting on New Zealand. Be sure to check out my sections on Japan: I've information on places off the beaten path, running in Japan, teaching English in Japan, and living in Japan. Not to mention my page on hot springs...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Off to Kiwi Country

I'm heading out to New Zealand in a few hours, but will post on a few things when I get the chance. The first thing I'll do when I arrive? Eat sushi... and chocolate chip cookies. My new site, Once A Traveler will be up VERY SOON.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Japanese for Runners

Always keep up with your essential vocabulary.

Push yourself! - ganbatte, ganbare 頑張って、頑張れ
Just a bit further! - ato mou sukoshi 後もう少し
Fight! - faito ファイト
Don't give up! - akiramenaide 諦めないで

Courtesy of Running in Okinawa

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Christopher McDougall's Interview

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Christopher McDougall
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei

I found a good documentary about them on YouTube:

"Japanese culture is gradually dying. I deeply regret the way Japanese people are embracing anything new and are not making much of the old things."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The World’s 10 Deadliest Delicacies

Fugu makes the cut as I run down some of the most dangerous foods to be prepared on this planet in my latest Vagabondish article:

#1: Fugu - Shimonoseki, Japan

Fugu Sashimi Platter, Japan © k_haruna

Fugu (河豚), also known as pufferfish, is a fish whose liver and internal organs contain deadly amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin, for which there is no known antidote. It might surprise many to know, however, that any fugu chef worth his weight in Japan will attempt to leave just the right amount of poison for a tingling sensation to pass through the diner’s tongue, leaving him satisfied with the taste and experience.

Just like climbing the picturesque Mt. Fuji, many westerners try this dish for the experience, the risk 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), even with the threat of death tossed in. Thirty years ago, it caused a stir throughout Japan as Bando Mitsugoro, a famous Kabuki actor, died after eating four servings … though he may have overindulged a bit.

If you are in the mood to “risk your life”, be sure to travel to the city of Shimonoseki in western Japan where no fugu-related deaths have ever been reported. In addition, you have the choice of raw fugu sashimi, fried fugu (tastes like chicken), boiled fugu, fugu with miso, and fugu sake.

Becoming Japanese... with Surgery

I've mentioned many times that I believe no matter how long you've been in Japan, how much Japanese you know, how many Japanese friends you have... you will never be considered a Japanese unless you were born in Japan to an ethically Japanese family. That's the cold hard truth.

However, after discussing websites with a friend in Austin recently, she reminded me of an old episode of Nip/Tuck that I happened to see back in my TV-watching days. In it, an interracial couple - Asian girl, Caucasian man - seeks the help of plastic surgeons for the man to look "more Asian" so that his girlfriend's parents will accept him into their family. Sadly, I found this to be a very practical solution to acceptance in Asian countries - only by looking the part will one truly be at ease in the crowd.

Faces change, Sean. And asses and thighs, but people? Do you think that guy’s gonna be any more Japanese because we make him look Asian? We are who we are.
Nip/Tuck episode "Kurt Dempsey"

So that got me thinking - has anyone in the real world ever actually tried this? There have been Hollywood actresses and many superficial people who have had their eyes surgically altered to look more Japanese in nothing more than a vain attempt to gain more sexual appeal (yeah... and it worked), but has there ever been a foreign resident of Japan who tried to have his appearance altered purely to gain acceptance into Japanese society? Certainly, it would be difficult for a Caucasian to completely eliminate all signs of his heritage, but impossible? Perhaps not... I had to find out.

First, we need to consider the standards of cross-cultural beauty. Many Japanese women admire western models for traits genetically denied them: blonde hair, fuller lips, bigger eyes, larger breasts, a more pronounced figure. This is one reason why we see so many Hollywood actresses and models in Japanese cosmetic departments rather than native ones; this is slowly changing, but by and large, it's blonde hair, blue eyes all the way. By the same token, many western women look to Asian women for exactly what they lack: slanted eyes, slimmer figure, different facial features. If only there were a happy medium, but I guess the grass is always greener.

As a result, many Japanese women have plastic surgery to look "less Asian". Even children, who may be lacking a full understanding of their Asian heritage, are exposed to the idea of changing their features at a young age.

It's hardly the first time we've heard of people trying to change their race through surgery or makeup, a process known unofficially as racial transformation. Sean Connery's character in You Only Live Twice was surgically altered to look like a Japanese:

Courtesy of Mutant Frog

The odd trend I seemed to notice was that a surprising majority of racial surgery cases involved non-Caucasians; there are plenty of Caucasians going under the knife, but most of them simply accentuate their own features rather than altering them to look "black", "Asian", etc.

You may hear Shoyu-gao(Soy Sauce face)or Sauce-gao (Worcester Sauce face) when you talk about the various shapes of faces. Shoyu gao means an Asian looking face, and Sauce-gao means a Western looking face. If you raise the outside corners of your eyes, you’ll have a Shoyu face. More than 90% of Japanese are Shoyu gao. Everybody can tell Ichiro (Seattle Mariners star baseball player) is 100% Asian. He is a Shoyu gao. On the other hand, Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) is Japanese but doesn’t look Japanese. He is a Sauce gao. Many Japanese people dream about being a Sauce-gao and having a western face. Some young Japanese ladies use glue in an attempt to have doubling eyes, and put long eyelashes on there eyes to make their eyes look bigger. Some even try a little nip and tuck with plastic surgery. These stupid tear-provoking efforts sound stupid, but it reveals the Japanese complex for Western people.

If a foreigner were to attempt to get plastic surgery to look Japanese, I can imagine three possible outcomes:

  • Let's imagine what would happen if you went half the effort; that is, you get plastic surgery to look Japanese, but the result is that you seem to be someone of mixed heritage. In that respect, the surgery was essentially worthless; "half"'s (half-Japanese, half-foreigner) in Japan are somewhat common, but still treated differently.

  • You get the surgery, but it's extremely obvious you're a westerner in disguise, someone who tried to have plastic surgery done to merely fit in. In the Nip/Tuck episode, this has a favorable result: the man is found out, but his actions impress the girlfriend's parents so much they agree to the marriage. I believe this would be the same in Japan, if you didn't mind being a freak; Japanese would see that you went through so much effort to integrate into Japanese culture, but they would still recognize you as a foreigner. As a result, little is gained beyond the initial surprise and compliments.

  • The surgery is a complete success, and you look 100% Japanese. I don't know if this has been the case for anyone.

If you have any information on someone Japanese who has tried to look Caucasian or a foreign resident of Japan, who has tried to look Japanese, please leave me a comment. It would definitely pique my interest.


Nip Tuck: China's Changing Face
Growing Up Different but Never Alienated
Plastic Surgery as Racial Surgery
Racial Transformation

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I speak like a foreigner...

...but I run like a Kenyan.


Thursday, August 06, 2009


Yes, the favorite buzz word of many Japanese. I was recently reading over a book on the early years of the JET Program, and found this quote rather succinct. Although the information is slightly dated, it's still fascinating to learn about the birthing pains of the program: contract disputes, sexual harassment "accidents", team teaching, being a foreign pet...

The Japanese tendency to assume that linguistic and cultural competence, much less identity, was a priori beyond the grasp of foreigners lay in sharp contrast to the tendency of the JET participants (particularly strong among the exuberant Americans) to assume that Japanese not only could, but darn well should, learn English and become cosmopolitan. The implications of what seems to the Japanese to be commonsense behavior are summed up nicely by Harumi Befu:

Once dissatisfaction is fixed in the foreigner's mind because of his permanent exclusion from the category into which he wishes to be included, the label of gaijin will necesssarily sound pejorative when thrust on him against his will. Here is a classic case of mutual misunderstanding: a foreigner's wishful thinking is that internationalization obliterates the line between him and the Japanese, whereas for the Japanese internationalization compels them to draw a sharper line than ever before between themselves and outsiders.

Most JET participants saw internationalization in terms less of building bridges between people than of breaking down the walls between them. The Japanese teachers and administrators, however, saw internationalization as the development of techniques to improve understanding and communication between cultures and groups that they assumed would always be fundamentally different.

David L McConnell, Importing Diversity: Inside Japan's JET Program

Another Anniversary

The 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima is today. I'm still a little unnerved at the idea of honoring the dead by reenacting a "die-in" in the park.

Will be blogging on plastic surgery soon, you'll see...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Eclipse

Footage from NHK on board the cruise in southern Japan:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Expressions that Define Cultures

Shoganai is far from the only expression that sums up a culture in ten words or less. Take a look at how cultures from around the world define themselves in my latest article.

Shoganai (しょうがない), Japan

“It can’t be helped.” Japan is for the most part a very non-confrontational culture. Shoganai epitomizes this tendency because by encouraging people not to complain or try to “fight the power”.

Circumstances can’t be changed, so why get angry or try to avoid the unavoidable?

It’s too hot and you have walk 10 km to the nearest train station? Your boss asks you to work an extra four hours that evening?

Just accept it and move on: shoganai.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Am I An Ultra?

My most recent read is Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. In it, he explores the phenomenon of ultra-long distance runners, running races most renowned track coaches consider "somewhere between competitive eating and recreational S&M".

Cute but fair. I admit I'm one of the many to poke fun at these ultramarathon athletes; not so much disparaging their abilities, but their sanity. I can run 26.2 miles, but who in their right mind would want to go 100? On foot? Over hazardous terrain?

Since I left New Zealand, my running has slowed down in a way I never wanted. I assumed that since I returned to the states, with its ample supply of Whole Foods' stores, 'crazy' runners, and shoes my size, that I'd have everything I need to carry on building my distance a piece at a time.

Instead, I felt as though I were just going through the motions of running... still finding it a welcome release at the end of a workday, but more of an obligation rather than fun. Yes, fun! Running is supposed to be fun. I wrote a blog on my Matador account a while back after spending some time in a water park in Kiwi country and getting chased by a few kids some days later. The point being, running was fun as a kid. The thrill was in the chase, not the need for speed workouts, distance building, or always staying on the straight path. Running over rocks, jumping on benches, randomly changing direction, and speeding up and down as you see fit, not part of a grand workout scheme.

McDougall understands this all too well when he unearths the secrets of some of the greatest ultramarathoners on the planet; these people aren't concerned about stress fractures, making good time, going for fame and glory (how many ultras do you know by name?) - it's all in the love of the run. Those who experience the race just like a child sprinting to the top of a jungle gym are inevitably the best suited for the long, long distances.

That's how I feel. Running marathons has been challenging, don't get me wrong, but I feel more comfortable with going a nice and easy pace over an insane distance. Back in college, 26.2 miles was just insane for me, but now I'm not so sure. I want to appreciate the run like the Tarahumara: training without concern for pace or distance, running not for release or necessity, for for pure enjoyment. Imagine that, if you will... some of you probably believe you do run just for the enjoyment. That's entirely possible - but is it always true? Do you ever feel like you just want to get outside and go an easy ten? Then reward yourself with another?

I think I do. So I tried an experiment. Night runs have always been fun for me when I'm in a big city - I dart in and around both lanes of a major road, causing motorists to honk and those sitting on their porches for a late night drink to stare in awe at the crazy runner. This time, however, I cut loose. I didn't go as fast as I possibly could have, but I kept the pace that was comfortable to me and let my inner child take the reins.

When I came across benches, I jumped up and ran right across them.

When I felt like it, I yelped and hollered to the heavens.

When my arms needed to move, I raised one up, lowered the other, and moved like I was one of the kids in the 1920's who saw the first airplanes.

I didn't limit myself to the road, or even sidewalks alongside them. Where there was an interesting path, I took it. When I wanted to explore an area, I zoomed right in.

The result? It actually was a fun little run. Now just to hang onto this feeling, and let it flow through me for the next series of long runs...

Living Among Incompatibles

World Hum has just released a great article on a foreigner living in Japan and the "contradictions" that result. Here's a sample:

...the Japanese tend, I believe, to think in images rather than in ideas, and where ideas need to be consistent, images can sit side by side, belonging to different worlds, like parallel lines in a haiku. It’s not uncommon, near where I live, to see a Zen abbot stepping out of a late-model Mercedes, on his way to his favorite bar in the red-light district. In Europe, such behavior might be seen as hypocritical; in pragmatic Japan, a Buddhist priest will perform every last rite demanded of him at funerals and ceremonies immaculately—like the Platonic image of a Buddhist priest; but when he is finished, he will go home to his wife and children, and pop open a beer in front of the baseball game on TV. He’s played his role, he’s allowed to slough off his robes.

Read the full version here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Switzerland: The Japan of Europe

Koizumi with Joseph Deiss (source)

I meet all kinds of people on the road and in my line of work. Most recently, I was introduced to a Swiss citizen living in America. As we started talking, I slowly took command of the conversation and switched the focus to Japan (naturally). To my surprise, however, her impressions of Switzerland seemed to me as if its culture and that of Japan were one and the same.

Cultural Traits

- Both the Japanese and Swiss have similar attitudes to the working environment: being on time to a fault, staying extra late, not indulging in vacations or long breaks, and examining the individual when it comes to forming a working relationship, as opposed to the company as a whole.

- Both tend to be very reserved in conversation and appearance; not being rushed into decisions or relationships, instead trying to find firmer ground.

In addition, the language barrier plays a large part in both cultures; although you are likely to get a more receptive audience speaking the native tongue in a country, in Japan (and apparently Switzerland), these barriers are much more defined. Not knowing Japanese in Japan is like being shut out of everything that makes the country what it is (English is good for the tour groups, in other words).

I guess I now know where to go if I visit Europe.


Japanese Blog Awards 2009

I just received this email from a representative of the website Tripbase:

After careful consideration, we have elected to give your blog an award for providing one of the best Japan/Travel-related blogs out there. You have emerged in 10th place for this category.

We feel your blog is an excellent example of what a blog should be and trust that you feel proud in this respect. We congratulate you on your achievement and are providing you with a badge to display proudly at your own discretion on your blog as a sign that you are in the top echelons of the blogosphere.

Tripbase Blog Awards 2009
Tripbase Blog Awards 2009

Award Recipients 2009

10th /

Not bad for a guy who left Japan last year. Cheers to Danny Choo for making the number one slot and getting featured on Forbes. As a side note, I must say The Nihon Sun has established itself as a top Japanese blog fairly quickly - kudos.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why Taiwan?

I've been considering looking at employment in Taiwan following my adventures in New Zealand. Why, you might reasonably ask?


- Japanese hot springs are available (due to the occupation)
- Chance to learn Japanese history from the other side of the equation
- Island nation
- (Hopefully) access to really remote Japanese islands
- A quasi-Japanese culture (effects of occupation, similar Chinese influence)
- Cheap to live, decent salaries for foreign workers


- Pollution; anyone know how bad it is?
- The world of grey, i.e. endless cityscape, fewer rural places
- May be too crowded even for me

Thoughts from readers? Anyone happen to be in Taiwan now?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

My Laziness Notwithstanding...

I haven't been posting Japan-related blogs nearly as often due to my hectic schedule in getting my new website, Once A Traveler, up and running. I will depart for New Zealand in September to spend another summer there, and hopefully find a job in northern Honshu or Hokkaido beginning January or February 2010.

In the meantime, if you have any ideas about what you'd like to see in a travel blog/website focused on Japan, don't hesitate to leave them in the comments of this post. I do have my own vision, but would welcome any suggestions.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

How Far I've Fallen

I never realized just to how much of a degree my Japanese language skills have fallen until this evening. I was doing my usual search of the best domestic Japanese restaurants based on the quality of their otoro (fatty tuna) nigiri; this took me to Koi Sushi Japanese Grill and Aki, the sushi chef from Tokyo, who three months ago was working at a Benihana in San Diego.

Aki-san and I went through the usual grievances of being away from Japan for so long:

- Lack of a decent hot springs' bath
- Not-so-fresh fish
- Few Japanese people
- No trains (at least not ones that work well, anyway)

But what surprised me most was how much I really had to question myself as to what I was saying in Japanese. The words no longer flowed instinctively as natural conversation or even a list of set phrases. Instead, my mind was going over each work one at a time, until it "verified" which ones to use. I was wrong half the time, and couldn't help it.

Nevertheless, the conversation was a breath of fresh air after having been away from Nippon from so long. We discussed life in the states vs. that of Japan, went over the various foods foreigners are not likely to ingest - natto, shirako, etc. - and even got as far as the practicality of long distance relationships; Aki-san's wife was still in Tokyo.

The only way for me to improve is to get back over there. Come January, maybe.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sadako Sasaki Reaches Across Borders

Brentwood Elementary School, Austin, Texas

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Flaw in UNESCO

Here at last was someplace venerable, a place hidden in a high valley in Yunnan, far away from the destructive gaze of Beijing. Until recently, that is. The moment Lijiang was declared an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, the gold rush was on as thousands of Han Chinese made their way to this corner of Yunnan Province to earn their living as proprietors of tick-tacky souvenir emporiums.
- J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet China

I had similar concerns when someone emailed me several months back asking if the Shikoku pilgrimage should be considered as a UNESCO site. Granted, Japanese don't exactly hound you at every footstep in the midst of touristy areas, but these sites can still be rather overrun by tacky souvenir stands.

Will every place in the world suffer the same fate as they get mentioned in Lonely Planet, designated a UNESCO world heritage site, or written about in a best seller? A casual reference can leave an area untouched, or inundate it with picture-hungry tourists.

It's been two years since I hiked in Shikoku, and I enjoyed it immensely. I wonder what the trail would look like in ten years with a UNESCO endorsement? English language assistance at the first temple? Routes marked clearly? Half the fun is in rising to the challenge: learning the Japanese vocabulary for the clothing you need, buying the books showing the procedure at each temple and the trail to follow... Take all that away, and you end up with something not much better than Lijiang.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

New Policy on Organ Donation

This is significant news. According to the Japan Times...

The Lower House, by a 263-167 vote Thursday, passed a bill to (1) recognize brain death as actual death and (2) allow organ transplants from a brain-dead person of any age if his or her family members approve and if the person had not openly rejected the possibility of becoming a donor.

The bill would revise the 1997 Organ Transplant Law, which allows organ donations from a brain-dead person at least 15 years old only if that person had indicated his or her intention of becoming a donor in writing, such as on a donor's card, and if his or her family members approve the organ donation.

One of the big issues surrounding organ donation in Asian countries is the consensus that brain death is not actually death. Add to that the idea of making the body impure by removing what is naturally there (applies to accepting organs as well), and you have an idea of the current Japanese policy: many go to China to accept less-than-reputable transplant procedures from prisoners, as Kenichiro Hokamura did in March 2006. The only other option available to those in need up to this point had been to legally join the UNOS list in the US, which could take months or years to receive an organ.

I have no idea what prompted this sudden change in policy, but it's especially good news for sick kids under the age of 15.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Kokoyakyu - High School Baseball

A film has just been posted to Hulu about the way Japanese play baseball. Check it out. And remember, read You Gotta Have Wa.

(My apologies to my Japan readers, but Hulu is only available in the states)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Eclipse Ceremony on Akusekijima

If you've been monitoring my Tweets, you may have noticed I've been searching the Twittersphere (tell me I didn't make that up) for information on the eclipse ceremony on Akusekijima (悪石島).

Akusekijima is one of the really small islands in the Tokara chain, south of Kagoshima city and easily reached by several hours on a ferry. I had the fortune of visiting Nakanoshima (中之島) two years ago, and remain transfixed on the culture of these small islands: Ioujima, Tanegashima, Yakushima, Amami Oshima...

But this eclipse ceremony has been something I've always wanted to see, having lived in Kagoshima and constantly seeking escape on secluded islands.

This year will mark another anniversary of the ceremony, to be held on July 22nd (if you look at the eclipse animation, you'll notice that Akusekijima lies dead center). It may be too late for accommodation, but see if they allow camping and book yourself a plane or ferry ticket ASAP. I'd venture to say you won't find tribal dances with men in giant wooden masks and grass skirts anywhere else in the country.

Official website about the ceremony (日本語で)
Akusekijima information and lodging
Onsen on Akusekijima

Japan Twitter Tracker

Inspired by the parody on The Tonight Show, I've decided to occasionally post a few selected tweets from my Japan followers, especially if there's any interesting news going on that warrants extra attention. For example...

Japan's TV Asahi in major faux pas admits photo aired of DPRK heir apparent Kim Jong-un was a South Korean construction worker.

Remember, add me on Twitter for the latest Japan updates, and my progress training for the marathon.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Arudou Debito and "Closed" Racism

I've pretty much backed off my coverage of Debito over the past year. This is not just due to the fact that I've left Japan, but also because I started to disagree with his tactics. True, I think he makes a valid case for the rights of foreigners in many cases:

- Children born to international couples, i.e. what are their rights, will they experience discrimination as a Japanese born in Japan just because they don't "look Japanese"?
- Not sitting still in many English schools because you're fresh off the boat and uncertain how to react when your rights are stripped away or you feel more like a pet than an employee. This isn't limited to Japan; many English schools across Asia, South America, and Africa draw you in with empty promises of fair wages, benefits, and decent housing. There are some cases where employers will "request" to hold on to your passport while you're working for them: they have no right to do this, of course.

I don't really have any strong objections to the new gaijin cards with IC chips when it comes to first-time visa holders and short-term residents. But, as is often the case, the rules apply to everyone, from permanent residents with families to American douchebags fresh out of college looking to get laid and drink too much while blowing off work at eikaiwa.

I believe Debito fulfills a need in Japanese society, by "injecting a different view into the debate." He brings awareness to issues that many Japanese have been complacent about and many foreign residents are ignorant about. But I honestly think he's becoming too much of an extremist (I hate putting labels on things like FoxNews, but I need something).

The key to understanding Debito's line of reasoning (and yes, he has good reasons for thinking the way he does) is understanding racism in Japan. Strictly speaking, Japan is not a racist society. I say again, Japan is not a racist society. The reason for this is we need a new definition to define the type of discrimination which occurs far too often in Japan. Japanese people don't treat foreigners differently because they have strong objections to white or black skin; they treat them differently because they are not Japanese. They don't fit into society's rules and therefore, must be treated like they don't belong. Ironically, this is more of an attempt to make foreigners conform; it doesn't work, because we can't (very similar to the mentality behind ijime, bullying).

So let's talk about this. Many people around the world, Japan included, are completely openly racist: yelling at those with different skin tones, screaming slurs with offensive language, causing physical harm in the worst situations. Dave Chappelle explains it far better than I ever could (rated R by KPIJ):

More often than not, what we see in Japan is "closed" racism, occurring almost behind closed doors and making foreigners second guess what actually happened. When you feel like you're the victim of racial discrimination in Japan, Japanese don't outright say things like "I'm doing this because you're a foreigner." More often that not, we'd get a calm, rational explanation:

"From now on, we're going to take your fingerprints every time you cross our borders."

"May I ask why?"

"No, you may not. But if you must, it is because we fear terrorists may attempt to attack our beautiful Japanese cities."

"I see. Have any foreign terrorists ever attacked Japan?"


"Even if they did, wouldn't they be likely to not have their fingerprints on file?"

"Well... you see..."

"Isn't it true the only terrorist attacks in Japan have been committed by Japanese?"

"I don't believe so."

"So if you discover this to be true, you will be fingerprinting everyone, including Japanese?"

"Of course not. They are Japanese."

Or, in the work environment...
(approximation from Fear and Trembling, Amélie Nothomb)

"You served the tea as if you spoke perfect Japanese!"

"But, Saito-san, I do speak it reasonably well."

"Well, from now on, you no longer speak Japanese."


"You must forget Japanese!"

That's a rather extreme example, but still, it does describe the essence of "closed" racism; Amélie didn't have a problem at her company because she was foreign, or a woman (well, that may be debatable). She had a problem because, despite her best efforts, she was incapable of acting, thinking, and looking like a Japanese. Some people who read blogs on Japan hear stories about Japanese on trains moving to avoid sitting next to foreigners; overhearing Japanese coworkers at English schools speaking about foreign teachers in Japanese to their faces in the belief they won't be understood; being turned away at hot springs because it would make other people "feel uncomfortable" in the bath; policemen demanding to see gaijin cards after foreign residents innocently approach the box asking for directions; and the like. Rarely do we hear accounts of foreigners being beaten or verbally assaulted as African-Americans might in the American south (oh yes, plenty of open racism down there).

In this sense, closed racism is practically institutionalized in Japan by trying to make foreigners conform to the group (an impossible task when we can't "look Japanese"), but it is by no means a certainty. Nor is Japan limited to closed racism. The media does its part by focusing a great deal of attention on crimes committed by foreigners in Japan; the police by issuing media instructing the public that foreigners are the #1 cause of their problems (terrorism, crime, SARS, swine flu...); schools by not providing enough information and adopting more of an attitude like "foreigners are different from us and I find that funny, don't you?"

Maybe I'm wrong. Thoughts?

Thanks to Japan Probe for the video.

Rice Field Art

Old news, but still pretty cool. These rice field designs can be seen over Inakadate, Aomori.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Meet An Expert: Japan

Apparently, I've been declared an "expert" on Japan by the Matador Network. I respectfully disagree; so much more to learn.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Resolving Issues By Naming Restaurants

I love this. It's been months since I reported on a huge billboard the National Unification Advisory Council had placed in the Dallas/Fort Worth area concerning the island of Dokdo, east of Korea and west of Japan. Unsurprisingly, it is claimed by both nations in their attempts to prove their commitment to equal opportunity towards territories: "We don't discriminate; we'll lay claim to the most useless, non-strategic, barren piece of rock near our borders. Why would we want a nice tropical island like Fiji, when we can have Dokdo?"

Well, however you believe this should play out between Japan and Korea, I think I've seen the strangest PR tactic ever committed by a nation in an attempt to draw popular support: restaurant names. I've encountered two Korean restaurants (furthermore, sushi bars) named after this elusive territory: Dokdo Island Restaurant in Dallas and Dokdoya in Austin.

It appears that Koreans understand the American mentality better than most of the international community; the way to our blind-eye politics is through our stomachs...

"Dokdo... oooh, it must be Korean territory! I ate the sushi at a Dokdo restaurant and it was so good! The Japanese don't have a Dokdo restaurant!" [author's note: as far as I know]

Japan, I urge you: YOU MUST FIGHT THIS INJUSTICE. No, not with a strongly worded letter or an amendment to your pacifist constitution. You need to establish as many "Takeshima" name-based restaurants as you possibly can in the US. Only by having Americans associate "your" territory with a fine selection of fish and sake will you ensure international support and fervor. I'm waiting, Japan, chopsticks in hand.

The Territorial Dispute Over Dokdo
Dokdo Takeshima Island

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Thorn Tree Travel Forum

In addition to Japan Discovered's Tweetchat, Lonely Planet's own Thorn Tree Travel Forum is a great place to get quick Q&As on Japan.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Sino-Japanese Relations doesn't mean that China doesn't have an outlet to display some good, old-fashioned nationalist fervor. And the country that currently finds itself the target for this vehemence is Japan. It's an anger that the Chinese government has learned to finely calibrate. On most days, newspapers will carry stories highlighting the villainy and treacherousness of the Japanese. Indeed, these anti-Japanese stories can appear in some surprising. Waiting in line for the cable cat to see the Great Wall at Badaling? Bored? Looking for something to read while a hundred people cut in line in front of you? Well, the government has thoughtfully created a display highlighting Japanese wartime atrocities in the area. Now and then, such as when new history textbooks in Japan are issued sugarcoating the country's role in World War II, the Chinese government will allow the country to erupt in righteous indignation, then backpedal furiously when the protests threaten to spiral out of control.
- J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet China

Today marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and I thought it appropriate to shift my focus on relations between Japan and China. Although the two share strong economic ties, I have a feeling there's still plenty of hatred over the war, particularly Nanjing and the ways Japan downplays its involvement (e.g. referring to the entire affair as a mere "incident", a footnote). China does have a point - just ask a Japanese high school student about the war and see what he thinks; is Japan ashamed of its actions, or ashamed of losing?