Saturday, October 29, 2011

Insulation in Japan

It's November in Japan, and it's finally starting to get very, very cold. On average, the weather in my village is somewhere between 10 and 15C (remember, 0C is freezing). I'm going to school wearing heavy coats and underarmor. The heater in my car is always running.

Unfortunately, my schools have neither air conditioning nor central heating, meaning that it's very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Last week, one of my vice-principals brought in a couple of gas -powered stoves to try and warm up the teachers' room. In Japanese the word "stove" does not refer specifically to cooking appliances, but also to heaters. Gas stoves are cheaper than electric stoves. Though I use an electric one, my school uses a gas-powered one.

The biggest problem is my apartment. Most old Japanese homes to not have insulation. As you know, thermal insulation is used to keep the inside of buildings at reasonable temperatures. This type of insulation is meant to increase energy efficiency and save money. However, most Japanese homes are still made without insulation and without double-pane, glazed-glass for windows and patio doors. This means the flow of air between inside and outside is unimpeded. Still, you will find insulation in homes farther north, like Hokkaido, where insulation is mandatory for surviving the sub-zero winters.

Instead of using central heating, Japanese make due with all manner of electric and gas devices. They prefer to heat the rooms they are using instead of the entire house. Perhaps this is because in the feudal era Japanese homes were heated by fires in the middle of the home, using a square in the ceiling to release smoke. In the modern age, it seems impractical to suffer the cold and ignore central heating when it and insulation are such viable and cheap options.

The reason my schools tell me they do not cool in the summer nor heat in the winter is that the cost is too high. Yet another reason to insulate these buildings! My own apartment is only ever about 5 degrees warmer than the outside. I've heard the average lifespan of a house in Tokyo is 30 years. After that, it starts "dying." If this is true, then maybe that's another reason for no insulation.

I guess I'll just keep freezing until I find an answer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Unique Japanese Grammar

I just learned this from my vice-principal, who was telling me about how kanji are necessary for understanding Japanese. The example he gave was 貴社の記者が汽車で帰社した, which (without kanji) looks like きしゃのきしゃがきしゃできしゃした.

It is pronounced [kisha no kisha ga kisha de kisha shita] and means something along the lines of [this newspaper company used to be a train company]. It's similar to saying "I will be present to present you with a present in the present."

I agree with him, kanji is interesting and useful. But it's still tough!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


I have edited the "comments" for my blog. If it worked, anyone should be able to post a comment to any post. Give it a shot!

Workin' Overtime

In Japan, a major part of business culture is unpaid overtime. Japanese business culture is very different from American business culture. In Japan, upward mobility in a company is more often related to seniority than skill. A substandard employee who has been working at the company for ten years will be promoted long before an employee of exceptional skill who has only worked there for five. After graduating from high school or college, employees often stay with their first companies until they retire.

Japanese jobs can be very stressful for newcomers because they demand the most from young employees. There is a Japanese term, Karōshi, which literally means [death from overwork]. Usually, this type of death is a direct result of overwork, stress, and unpaid overttime. The Japanese government will often award money to the families of victims. Though I'm not sure how the Japanese government diagnoses victims, statistics indicate that hundreds of employees are afflicted every year.

The Japanese Labor Standards Law states that [employees are to be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours per week and any work above that should be paid 25% more than usual rates]. Unfortunately, in many cases this law is blatantly ignored. In some nursing homes, employees worked from 50~100 hours per week. At my own school, the teachers will often stay hours after their shifts have ended. No one goes home until after the principal leaves. I know this because the principal lives right above me, in the upstairs apartment. My principal will be at work from 7am to 7pm. My vice-principal, often much later. I know this because my vice-principal is my next-door neighbor.

As a foreigner, I am not expected to adhere to these unspoken rules. I put in 30 hours a week and never stay later than I need to. This is not a part of American culture, and I doubt I would be able to perform this job if I was expected to meet the same strenuous expectations.

Needless Surgery

Cold weather is on its way. By November, it will be dropping down to freezing in my village. In Japan, the winter weather brings out surgical masks in droves, strapped on the faces of men, women, and children. It can be a hassle, especially when I am asking a child a question and they respond with "mffmmfbbfmfm."
As I'm sure you know, surgical masks can be beneficial when trying to avoid getting sick. They prevent bodily fluids from entering your mouth, provide a barrier to reduce the spread of germs expelled by coughing and sneezing, and prevent people from touching their mouths after touching a potentially disease-ridden surface.
You can find surgical masks in any drugstore. They also sometimes come with patterns like the ones in the picture above. While it may seem like the only reason to wear one of these masks is to stay healthy, that is only half of the reason. In Japanese culture, it is expected that a citizen would show consideration for their peers by preventing the spread of disease. More than staying healthy, it is a way of demonstrating you possess a sense of social responsibility.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Japanese Country Roads

As an American driving in rural Japan, I've had to adjust to many new rules and regulations. No turns on red lights, one-lane highways, motorbikes skirting the median line, etc. Like the idea of a "common speed" in America, Japan also has many unspoken motor quirks. I can live with most of them, but the one that causes me frustration is the one pictured above. Japanese drivers will often park in the street if they are making a short stop. The picture above is a one-lane road, meaning that I would have to drive in the opposite lane to pass this car. Not only that, but the store where I took this picture actually has a parking lot. The driver is simply too lazy to park his/her car.

It may seem like a small thing, but the fact is that this style of negligent parking comes at the expense of other drivers' safety. Last night, I was driving down a rural road with no light save my headlights. A driver had parked their car in the road, and if I hadn't been as focused as I was, there may have been an accident. To park your car in the road, for any length of time and without even using the hazard lights, is a dangerous decision that you may one day regret.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two of a Kind

I know I've discussed counters on this blog, but I can't remember if I've discussed plural form. Well, it never hurts to enjoy a refresher, does it?

In English, plural form is shown by tacking the letter S on to the end of words. In Japanese, this is not the case. Japanese plural form, known as fukusuu, is incredibly complicated because it relies on context. In fact, at first glance it might seem that Japanese does not have a plural form! For example:

my book - watashi no hon
my books - watashi no hon

Notice a difference? No? That's because there is no difference. The only way to tell singular and plural apart in Japanese is context. Is the speaker holding one book or two books? Does the speaker own one dog or five dogs? Is the speaker introducing you to their daughter or their daughters?

The best solution to this confusing grammatical form is to be specific when describing amounts. Instead of watashi no hon, say watashi wa hon ga isatsu (I have one book). By using specific amounts, I've been able to avoid many misunderstandings. This lesson directly relates back to my previous language post, regarding counters, because knowing how to use counters in Japanese will make plural form significantly easier.

Obviously, this is not a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn Japanese as a second language. It is simply meant to illustrate one of the many quirks between English and Japanese. Learning how to use plural form is a first-year lesson, but usually comes after sentence structure and verb forms have been learned.

Host Clubs

Host Clubs, part of the "Water Trade" in Japan, are clubs that cater to those who seek companionship on lonely nights. These clubs represent a type of nightlife that is rare in Western culture. Their target demographic is lonely, single women. For this reason, the clubs are staffed exclusively by attractive young men. What these young men (hosts) offer is an attentive ear and drinking conversation. It wouldn't be far-fetched to refer to the trade as "emotional prostitution."

Host Clubs are found mostly in Tokyo and patrons can easily run up bills of over a thousand dollars in a single night. These clubs often serve very expensive alcohol, like champagne, that female customers are pressured into purchasing by their male companions. Hosts are paid to flirt, entertain, and converse, but never to engage in anything physical. Many young men flock to this type of job because the prospect of high commissions seems enticing to someone with no special job skills.

Female customers select their hosts from a menu that contains pictures and short biographies. While patrons are free to choose any host they like, they are expected to eventually settle upon a single host to "keep" as their personal favorite. Ultimately, the business strategy of these clubs is to satisfy their clients emotionally, without resorting to sex. Hosts will often contact their preferred clients outside of business hours and entice them to return, becoming frequent customers.

Hostess Clubs also exist, and in fact Host Clubs rose in response to their popularity. To learn more, I recommend watching the short documentary "The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief." It is a very interesting look at a part of Asian culture that is not well known amongst foreigners.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Village Tour

I spent some of my free time this weekend strolling through my village, attempting to see if I'd missed anything interesting. I took some pictures along the way, so that I'd be able to show you the village's most famous assets. Prepare to be amazed?

 First on our tour. The only clothing store in my village. Which only stocks women's clothing. If you're a man, you're either naked or you're taking a one-hour trip to the nearest city.
 One of the half dozen restaurants in my village. I rarely eat out because most of these restaurants serve food that I can make myself. Why pay eight dollars for curry rice when I can cook it myself for a fraction of the price (and cook it better, in my opinion). I do like the architecture of this place, though.
 The Home Depot of Fukushima, Komeri. This is where you shop for anything you can't buy in a grocery store. They sell kitchenware, bathroom supplies, even furniture! The parking lot is often crowded by construction vehicles, since half the store is full of hardware (I never go to that side).
One of the two grocery stores in my village. Of the two, this one has a better selection. It's not a great selection, but it has almost everything I want. One thing you'll notice if you shop in Japanese grocerie stores is that their food appears to expire very quickly. For example, they'll sell loaves of bread that expire on the same day. The food is always good for a couple weeks longer than advertised, but it's strange that they label them as such.
 My "office" isn't in the village center, so I have to drive a mile or so away to get there. There are also a couple of flower gardens nearby that I hear are beautiful; this isn't the weather for flower viewing.
 This is one of the only bars in my village, but it's been closed since I arrived. Who knows how long it's been out of business?
 Too bad, because it looks like a fun place.
 Most of the village looks like this. Farmlands full of delapidated buildings and trees.
 Random statues on the side of the road.
 The "Buckle Your Seatbelt" Turtle! Right now, he's saying "Drive slowly."
This business provides box lunches to the whole of my village. Here, it's common for employees to order these box lunches (bento) and eat them at their offices, instead of going out for lunch or bringing a sack lunch.
 One of the twelve barbershops in my village. Twelve barbershops in a village of 7,000 people. It sounds like a waste of resources, doesn't it?
 This is the entrance to my village's welcome center. I don't think I've ever seen it staffed before. It's pretty small, and is just a room with some brochures, next to a bike rack and a set of public bathrooms. Pretty dreary way to say "welcome."
 The stationary store / makeup store. You can buy a pencil for your homework and a pencil for your eye at the same time!
 Family photography studio. I came here to get a photo taken for one of my junior high schools.
 There are three post offices in my village, but this is the only one where I can do wire transfers from Japan to America. The other ones are both really small. This one at least looks important.
 I believe this is a senior center of some sort. I'm not really sure.
 I have no idea what this place is. It was tacked on to the senior center.
 Even though my village is small, Highway 49 runs straight through it. You can take 49 all the way to the ocean, where the radiation is, or you can take it in the opposite direction, to Koriyama, a normal city where even men are allowed to purchase clothing.
 One of those boxes you see on the streets with monthly events. It looks disused, and there is only one event per month, since this appears to be an annual or bi-annual calender. Also, notice the heart on the left. In Fukushima, we see these everywhere. It says "Good Luck, Fukushima!" You will see variations of this, such as "Good Luck, Koriyama" or "Good Luck, Japan!" They are just supportive posters made in the wake of the nuclear problem.
 I guess they're doing some construction on the village hospital. Whoa! A new thing!
 One of the few bars in my village. I've never been here because I obviously can't drink and then drive home. Although we do have a taxi service.
 Another restaurant. It doesn't look too appetizing from the outside...
 My village's hospital. I came here about a month ago. The place is nice-looking on the inside, and most of the customers are elderly. I estimate about 70% of the population in my village is over 40.
 The rehabilitation center.
 The second of two grocery stores in my village. It has a really weird parking lot, so I don't go there too often. Also, the selection is smaller than the one I showed before.
 I think this is a bar?
 Here's my problem with Japanese business: often, they don't look like businesses. They look like the outside of someone's house. So how do you know if you're walking into a business or walking into some guy's living room? I play it safe and just avoid these places.
 Wow! I actually didn't know our village had a cab company. I learned one new thing about my village today.
"Island Taxi. Because Japan is an island but you're still drunk."
 I can't remember what this is.
 A ramen joint, "Miracle." Pretty good ramen.
 Kitchen Marufuku. I came here once for a drinking party, but I don't know what sort of cuisine they actually serve. They are usually closed.
 The village bakery. Has some tasty little cakes, but honestly the selection is very limited.
Finally, what village in Japan would be complete without a casino? This casino was so cheap that it used graffiti for its sign. "Slot Whatever." The parking lot has about half a dozen cars at any given time, so I don't imagine they're doing much business.

That's my village. Sorry that it's so small! Maybe one day they'll build a Walmart.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Hate Japanese Toilets

99% of you will probably never have to use one of the toilets pictured above, but look closely anyway. This is a Japanese toilet. It also goes by the names washiki toilet (meaning Japanese-style), Asian toilet, and squat toilet. They are made of porcelain or stainless steel and resemble a urinal, set into the floor. Foreigners (like myself) are not accustomed to using this kind of toilet, and it proves to be quite a hassle in execution.

Some Japanese doctors say that using a squat toilet provides all manner of medical benefit. Still, in this scenario I would gladly sacrifice any medical benefit in exchange for convenience. A Japanese toilet can be frustrating to use, especially for beginners and foreigners. While all of my elementary schools have wisely made the switch to Western toilets, my junior high schools still use squat toilets. Also, you will usually find this type of toilet in train stations, usually the older ones.

In conclusion, I hate Japanese toilets.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Holidays: Health and Sports Day

So... yesterday was Health and Sports Day, a national holiday here in good ol' Japan. The kanji for this holiday, 体育の日, literally translates to "physical education day."

As a result, I got a three-day weekend and so did everyone else in the nation. To celebrate the occasion, my village held an athletics tournament (or marathon, triathlon, whatever). Students and their parents came to the BOE's second branch to participate in events and trials in order to test their general health and fitness. Some of these events were: grip testing, jogging, sit-ups, and curling. Yes, curling, if you can believe that. I guess you could call the tournament the "mini olympics."

I was able to meet several of my students' parents, and hopefully impressed them by showing that their children knew how to say more than just "hello" in English. I also tallied each student's results, so they could compare with each other. Everyone who participated received a sankasho, which according to my coworker means "participation gift." The gift was a monogrammed towel and a bottle of green tea.

Health and Sports Day is usually one of the fairest days of the year weather-wise, and began in 1966 as a result of the 1964 Summer Olympics being held in Japan. Though it was originally held on October tenth of every year, the Happy Monday System used by Japan has changed. Now Health and Sports Day falls on the second Monday of every October, in order to grant hard-working individuals (like me) a three-day weekend. Other national holidays that have been moved to Mondays as a result of the Happy Monday System include: Coming of Age Day, Respect for the Aged Day, and Marine Day.

Although the athletic tournament was held on Saturday, my coworker told me most people do not actually celebrate the holiday on its chosen date. No one goes to the gym, or jogs ten miles, or anything like that. Mostly, it's simply another day to relax. Much in the same way that no one visits a president's grave on President's Day.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Movie Review: Yatterman (2009)

I guess I haven't reviewed any movies for a while. In order to improve my listening skills, I sometimes watch Japanese films with subtitles and try to translater what they're saying as I watch. Often, the subtitles don't quite match up with how I think they should read, so I'm always learning something.

The most recent movie I watched was Yatterman, directed by one of my all-time favorite directors, Takashi Miike. It's strange to watch his movies when they're based on well-known intellectual properties, because the first films of his that I watched were low-budget horror and gangster films. He is the director of such films as Full Metal Yakuza, Audition, Dead or Alive, MPD Psycho, Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer, and Thirteen Assassins. With films like these, one wouldn't expect him to take on a film based on a children's franchise. Yet he has made many children's movies in the past--The Great Yokai War, Zebraman, Ninja Kids, etc. To me, he seems to be very capable of adapting for his audience.

Yatterman revolves around a fighting duo named Yatter 1 and Yatter 2, a boyfriend and girlfriend who own a toy store and build robots. They have a small yellow robot companion named Omotchama (part of the name means 'toy'), and a giant robot dog named Yatter-wan (wan is the onomatopeia for 'woof' in Japanese). Their mission is to stop their enemies from collecting the mysterious 'Skull Stones.' In the cartoon, the stones led to a stockpile of gold, but in the film they serve a much more sinister purpose.

Their enemies are the Doronbo Gang, composed of (left to right): Tonzra, Doronjo, and Bojacky. They serve a mysterious master named Skull-Obey, who typically gives them orders using strange means of communication, such as a talking hamburger.

The movie is a gigantic parody of the typical style of Yatterman episodes. In the beginning, we see a  battle between the heroes and the villains. After Yatter 1 and 2 defeat the Doronbo Gang in combat, the villains resort to using a giant robot shaped like a short-order cook. It fights Yatter-wan until the villains are forced to flee. In the aftermath of the battle, the heroes discover that the gang's target was a young woman who possesses one of the four skull stones.

Throughout the rest of the movie, each team hurries to be the first to collect the stones. The Doronbo Gang uses scams like cheap wedding dresses and expensive sushi to make money and build new robots, while the heroes spy on them in hopes of learning the location of more skull stones. There is also some romantic tension between the female villain lead and the male hero lead.

True to Miike's form with blockbuster films, he uses a great deal of blatant CGI to mimick the original anime style of the cartoon. Since it is a comedy, the characters often act in peculiar ways and break the fourth wall to address the audience. Also, since it's a Miike film, there are strong sexual undertones throughout the movie. In the same way that adult humor is worked into American children's movies so parents don't get bored, Miike adds sexual tension and toilet humor. Though it may be standard in Japanese entertainment, it might seem odd to American viewers.

The actors go through the motions, but no one's trying to win an award here. The lead male is played by Sho Sakurai, a member of the popular boy band Arashi; Doronjo is played by Kyoko Fukada, a cast member of the Japanese Ring 2 film. Also, in an homage to the original show, the voice actors from the 1970's cartoon make an appearance as customers of the villains' sushi bar.

This was a fun movie. I think Japanese children would like it, but that there's not enough substance for American audiences, similar to most of Takashi Miike's mainstream films.