Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Off To Tokyo!

Well, everyone, I'm off to Tokyo! That is, I will be on vacation from Friday until the beginning of January. Meaning this blog won't be updated for about two and a half weeks. You can expect to see another entry, detailing my trip, shortly before my birthday on January 12th. Until then, I wish you all a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, December 19, 2011


"My, you're looking quite dapper today!"
"Why, thank you!"

I have a habit of complimenting people, no matter where they are from. I've always perceived those little changes, like a new haircut or a new pair of shoes, and responded with approval to blast away self-conscious worries. But in Japan, sometimes I am at a loss. My experience with Japan is that while giving compliments is perfectly fine, accepting them is not.

In my Japanese language class, we studied the proper ways to accept a compliment from a peer or superior. Most of the responses were along the lines of "oh, that's not true," but my favorite and most often used one has to be "no, that kind of thing just isn't so." The Japanese language is built for talking down one's own accomplishments and strengths while praising someone else. It's a deflective mechanism I rarely witness in the United States; usually the recipient of a compliment will say "thank you" and move on.

An anecdote from when I lived with my host family: my host mother came home from the salon with a new hairstyle. My host brother and I were sitting at the table, eating lunch, when she came in. I immediately noticed and complimented her, but my host brother poked me in the ribs and said "Don't do that! Now I'll have to compliment her too!" I found that pretty funny.

Any time I complimented my host mother, whether on purpose or unintentionally, she would make a strange gesture with her hands that resembled churning butter, or perhaps stirring a big pot of soup with two hands. I believe this gesture is akin to calling someone out for "brown-nosing," as I have seen it employed many times by my other (older) Japanese friends.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Japanese ATMs

Coming from America, the land of the privileged, I was completely shocked to learn how restrictive Japanese banks and ATMs are. In a cash-based society, you would except ATMs to be available 365 days of the year. This, however, is not the case.

In Japan, most post offices have ATMs, and many people open bank accounts through their post offices (myself included). However, post offices are closed on weekends, meaning you must be certain to withdraw your money on Friday, enough to last until Monday.

Luckily, stores like 7/11 are open 24/7, and for a surcharge you can withdraw your money using their ATM. Unfortunately for me, my lackadaisical nature often results in me paying these surcharges to make it through the weekend.

Christmas is the biggest spending season of the year, isn't it? Well, you might be surprised to know that most banks close their doors and their ATMs from the 31st of December to the 4th of January, effectively cutting you off from your money for half a week. I have heard rumors that this does not apply to 7/11 ATMs, but I can't be sure. New Years is fast approaching, so we will see...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Blood. No, not the gross kind! Blood types. Whether you love them or hate them, you have one. Personally, I have no idea what my blood type is. I'm 99% sure it's not O, though. But if you ask a Japanese person, they will more than likely be able to tell you. Not just that, but they will be able to read your personality if you tell them your blood type.

In Japan and Korea, it is believed that a person's blood type can reveal many intimate details about their personalities and their compatability with other people, in the same way that Horoscopes in America try to offer vague insight about such things. Ultimately, though, this is just another stereotype perpetuated by scientific racism, similar to phrenology.

In Japan, blood type compatibility is often used in women's magazines, daily horoscopes, matchmaking, and celebrity profiles. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this, known as bura-hara (blood type harrassment). It can lead to profiling, bullying, and division of social groups. Imagine interviewing for a job and having your potential employer ask you "what is your blood type?"

In all honesty, I have never been intrigued enough by this nominal trend to identify my own blood type. Although Japanese natives tend to balk when I tell them I don't know, it's never made into a big deal with foreigners.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Friendly Neighborhood Bonenkai

The word bonenkai is represented by three well-known kanji: forget, year, and gathering. It is a ceremony held across Japan at the culmination of every year, meant to celebrate the completion of another successful orbital period.

These parties are held amongst coworkers, involving heavy drinking and overnight trips. This year, all of the teachers from one of my junior high schools are going to stay overnight at a ryokan, which is something akin to an old-fashioned Japanese hotel. I was invited, but I will be partying in Tokyo at that time. According to this very-hard-to-read Japanese website, bonenkai go as far back as 1400, the Muromachi Period of Japanese history.

Japanese parties are an opportunity for coworkers, who must always act formal around each other as dictated by the unspoken laws of society, to shed their business facades and commingle in a more informal manner. These types of parties are always organized with a set fee to cover expenses, ensuring that everyone pays the same and receives equal treatment. It is a serious attempt by colleagues to make sure everyone is included, one of the many things I appreciate about Japanese culture.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

People in the Streets

One thing that has been gradually annoying me more and more is the state of roads in Fukushima, along with the mindset of the people who drive upon them.

This is a picture of a typical road where I live. Note: lack of a railing on the side of the road. Lack of a pullover area on the side of the road. Lack of any lines denoting the middle of the road, or whether passing is permitted. Sharp turns without warning signs. A steep drop-off to your left, which would leave you in the middle of a rice field. No light fixtures whatsoever, whether they be traffic lights or street lights.

Yes, this represents an average commute for me. Now, imagine that the road is wet, slick with freshly fallen rain. It is pitch black outside, because after 5pm the sun is on its way to the good ol' USA. The driver coming the opposite direction thinks that his brights need to be turned on at all times, even when he is driving toward another motorist. This represents an average evening commute for me.

As you might imagine, it gets frustrating after a while. It is much more dangerous than driving in my hometown, I assure you. But the dangers don't stop here! Plenty can also be attributed to the other motorists themselves, and their disregard for even a semblance of safe driving. Driving twice the posted speed limit. Passing cars on two lane highways in no passing zones. Tail-gating through winding mountain roads. Driving through stop signs. Breaking suddenly to make a sharp turn. Turning from a parking lot into traffic without regard for said traffic. Turning on their hazards, in the middle of their lane, and exiting their vehicle to buy a soda from a convenience store. Yes, this happens.

I wish I could say these are not indicative of the drivers where I live, but it is. More often than not, drivers in my village will pull these stunts, putting both me and other drivers at risk. It makes me wonder what sorts of things they teach at driving school in Japan. Do they teach you how to brake? It's true that every country with roads has its share of bad drivers. But I believe my little Japanese village of 7,000 people has a much higher percentage of bad drivers than my hometown in Oregon of 36,000.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cool Japanese Thing #56: Tokyo Up, Down

So, an amusing anecdote for all of you.

My friend Yuiichi was helping me buy a bus ticket to Tokyo today. As we were trying to decide, I noticed the "Engrish" version of the website had buttons saying "Seat UP" and "Seat DOWN."

"Hey, Yuiichi, what do those buttons mean?"

According to him, "Seat UP" refers to any bus going to Tokyo, while "Seat DOWN" refers to buses coming from Tokyo. During the feudal era, lords would often have to go to Tokyo for a few years and live there. In a way, they were like hostages, kept there to ensure that their fiefdoms did not rebel. Whenever someone would go to Tokyo, they would go up to Tokyo, and when they would return, they would come down from Tokyo.

The Japanese equivalent for these English terms are nobori and kudari, which mean "climb" and "descend." I take that to mean that, as the capitol of Japan, Tokyo was seen as an important place, technically "above" other parts of Japan. What I find most interesting about this exchange is that these types of phrases are still used even today. I'm sure American English also has unique quirks like this, though I can't immediately bring any to mind.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pic of the Day: Santa Claus

Well, there was already plenty of Christmas stuff lining store walls in November, but now the season has come out in full force! Because Japan doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving (and why would they), there is no holiday buffer between Halloween and Christmas. This means that as soon as November 1st rolls around, Santa and his friends are already taking up shelf space. Today is December 1st, and my local market has kicked it up a notch with a giant inflatable Santa Claus, surrounded by all sorts of cute, cheap, and expensive holiday trinkets.

Merry Xmas!