Monthly Archives: July 2014

Questioning the Nature of Personal Questions

Since yesterday I mentioned how the Japanese have no problem announcing the personal to the public, today I thought I’d talk about the personal nature of the questions people are often asked prior to the personal being made public.

The first question I always get is “How tall are you?” My first reaction is “Why the hell do you need to know that?” but then I realize such questions are possible back home and in Japan I used to be freakishly tall compared to most Japanese–that’s slowly changing–and I decide to answer. But that leaves me with a problem: Do I tell them I’m 6’2″ and shrinking knowing it will be lost on them or do I spend a minute doing metric conversions and tell them I’m 188 centimeters tall?

The second question is “What is your shoe size?” Again, I have a problem. It’s not that one foot is a 12 and the other foot is a 12.5, it’s that I don’t actually know my shoe size in Japan as the stores rarely have shoes that fit and I’m forced to import. I think I’m a 31 but I can also wear a 29 in some brands. This question is so popular I’ve had naked guys in saunas stick their feet next to mine in order to compare foot size. This usually triggers a response along the lines of “What the hell are you doing? Do you know how gay that is?” (Because, going to a bathhouse and getting naked with your male friends once a week is totally not gay, right?)

The third question is the Japanese equivalent of “What is your sign?” The problem here is they don’t understand “Scorpio” they want to know if I’m a tiger, snake, dragon, rat or any of the other eight signs in the Chinese zodiac. The answer is “I’m a horse.” (And by the way, 2014 is the Year of the Horse so #$%^ you, rats, sheep, roosters and pigs.)

The fourth, and most important question, though is “What is your blood type?” Here, positive and negative variations are unimportant, all that matters is A, B, O or AB. In my case I tell them “I’m A.” As soon as I do this people typically go “oooh” and their smiles become more forced and they look around to make sure they know where their children are (even if they don’t have kids).  A’s are considered calm, patient, sensitive, responsible, overcautious, stubborn, and unable to relax. (Pay no attention to those contradictions behind the curtain…) It’s also interesting to note that famous A’s include Adolph Hitler, Ringo Starr and Britney Spears. (I think it’s that last one that worries them the most.)

There are other random questions about income and weight but they aren’t that important.  The best question is reserved for women: “What is your BWH?” (Meaning Bust, Waist, Hips.) It’s a terrible thing for someone to ask, but it is fun to watch a Western woman get asked it.


The Madness of Minding Another’s Trash

Right around this time 15 years ago I left Nou-machi for a return to the US. My last day was spent assisting a team of city office folk in the stripping down and cleansing of my apartment (which, technically, was THEIR apartment).

It was bad enough having people around at a stressful time, but I also ran headlong into the way Japanese recycling law meets personal privacy. Except for a final polish on the kitchen and some final packing of boxes, my apartment was in decent shape. I’d even bagged the garbage and tied the bags shut. As soon as the team arrived, they broke open the bags and started sorting the paper garbage in to various types of recyclables. As I’ve mentioned before, to me, what makes something burnable garbage is the ability to burn. If it burns it is not necessary to consult a checklist and or book of rules especially when it leads to a privacy busting conversation.

I then had to explain 1) why I had a large collection of Psychometrer Eiji comic books and 2) why I was throwing them out and 3) was okay if one of the staff took them. (It was an awesome comic and good language study material; they were too heavy to move; yes, by all means now stop picking through my trash!)

My stress level was pretty high when I was driven to the post office to ship some stuff.

My employment status was vaguely uncertain and the people I was dealing with in what is still the company I work for (sort of) weren’t being helpful and I wasn’t sure if I had a job or when I’d start. I also didn’t have a place for my stuff.  Because of this, I didn’t know how long I’d be in the USA and I sent a bunch of stuff home the expensive way. This was annoying enough, but when I got back to the apartment, the worker who’d driven me to the post office immediately announced to everyone present how much I’d spent.

An observer at that moment would have seen my head fly up off my body, spin around a few times and land back on my head at a slightly crooked angle. I was so angry I could barely speak English. Japanese was right out.

The infuriating thing was that none of them thought anything special about it at all until my head flew off. I’d made the big deal out of it; for them it was natural to know everything about everyone. It was like being in an especially small town.

After all these years, I still haven’t got used to having my trash exposed to the world. (Except via blogging, of course.)

The Boilerplate and The Tears

Yesterday I mentioned a trip to a Renewers’ Conference and the ticket hi jinx that ensued thanks to the people who helped us without telling us. Today I thought I’d focus on people who told us but didn’t help us.

At least once a year JET Programme members assemble for various conferences where we were expected to suffer through, um, I mean experience and learn from various presentations. One of the regular occurrences was what I like to call the Robot Reads Boilerplate.

Basically, a spokesman for some part of the JET Programme would gather us all in one room and then answer our questions. The questions, of course, had to have been submitted in writing something like seven years in advance in order to be read. The problem with the answer guy we got was he wasn’t even trying to pretend that he cared about our questions or that he wasn’t giving us answers we already knew. He also told us he would not accept any follow up questions sooner than five years from now. (Something like that.)

For example, if a person submitted a question like “I live in Niigata City and it’s fairly expensive. Since the JET Programme considers cultural sensitivity to be vital to our jobs, why doesn’t the JET Programme pay for our Japanese lessons?” (Note: This used to be true; I don’t know if it is now.) The answer guy would read word for word, in an emotionless robotic monotone, a paragraph from the guidelines we already had: “JET Programme members are more than adequately compensated for their efforts and should have little difficulty affording a local tutor to help them improve their language abilities.” This is the bureaucratic way of saying “Paragraph 37, subsection 2, caveat 3, bitches. Read it. Know it. Live it.”.

It didn’t matter what the question was, there was always a boilerplate response. “My school principal splashes gasoline on me and tries to set me on fire by tossing lit matches at me. What can the JET Programme do to help me?” The emotionless robotic response was something like “Cultural sensitivity is a vital part of the ALT experience in JET and a part of the ALT’s job. ALT’s are encouraged to tolerate and be patient with different teaching techniques and different ways of interacting with colleagues.” (Translation: Shut up, slaves.)

This is how it went until one of my last conferences. At the final assembly, which is traditionally sparsely attended and/or full of hungover slobs, Robot answer guy criticized those of us were there because of the people who weren’t there. Robot answer guy followed that with his usual reading of the boilerplate and then read a series of announcements.

One of the announcements was about a JET Programme member who had recently died while rock climbing. Suddenly, the robot’s voice cracked and he cried and struggled to get through the announcement. Then, his voice full of tears, he asked for a minute of silence. He got it because most of us were stunned speechless, and more than a bit creeped out, by what we’d just witnessed. It’s sad but true that we gave more attention to that than to the death of one of our own.

Those of us who’d witnessed what happened then spent the rest of our time in JET trying to convince those who’d skipped out that it had actually happened.

Help Without Awareness is Not Helpful

I’ve mentioned before about how complicated the Japanese train ticket system can be. However, I did once learn that the train staff being too subtle can also be some danger. Well, especially if you’re dealing with people who believe that you didn’t believe everything you said and acted accordingly but didn’t bother telling you and thus left you believing that they believed you.

Confused? Well, let me try to explain. At the end of our first year in Japan, the group in my area decided to head down to Kobe for the annual Renewers’ Conference. This is a time of great seriousness where those who’ve decided to commit to another year in the J.E.T. Programme gather to enjoy a series of lectures and presentations by those who’ve been there and done that and then enjoy a pleasant time in the evenings with new and interesting people. (Translation: it’s one giant festival of bacchanalia interrupted by boring lectures and one of the world’s most boring dinner parties.)

Because the party, er, conference starts on a Thursday, it is a renewers’ tradition that people heading to the conference take Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off and do some traveling on the five day weekend. In our case, we decided to pass Kobe and go to Hiroshima and then work our way back toward Kobe. Because we had a lot of time and masochistic streaks the size of, um, well, a bullwhip, we decided to take an express train to Kyoto and then save money by taking slower local trains from Kyoto to Hiroshima. I bought my tickets in Nou-machi, some bought their tickets in Itoigawa whilst at least one person bought his tickets in Toyama.

When we were in Kyoto trying to figure out which platform our train departed from, I showed my ticket to one of the JR employees. He said something in lightning fast Japanese and pointed toward the bullet train platforms. I decided I’d misunderstood and we boarded our local train and took our slow ride to Hiroshima.

Towards the end of the long ride I, bothered by the JR employee’s reaction, took a good look at my tickets. I realized I did, in fact, have a bullet train ticket from Kyoto to Hiroshima. The others mocked my mistake for a minute before realizing they also had bullet train tickets. It turned out that there was a special package deal. If we took the express to Kyoto, there was a discount on the bullet train.

What surprised us was 1) that even though we’d purchased our tickets in different stations in different cities and had all carefully asked for local trains, we’d all received the package deal and 2) that no one had bothered to tell us that we didn’t have the tickets we thought we had.

We then spent the rest of the ride and 25 minutes in Hiroshima trying to get a refund for the difference between what we’d bought and what we thought we’d bought.

In the end, the difference was only about $18 each, making us wish we’d actually taken the bullet train and/or had bothered to look at our tickets.



A Great Feeling of Dread and Despair

For various complicated reasons that prove that 1) God has a sense of humor and 2) my karma sucks, I will be solely responsible for the care and feeding of teenaged girl for a good portion of the summer.

This is because Mother of She Who Must Be Obeyed is going into surgery and She Who Must be Obeyed is taking our youngest and heading off to Niigata to look after her. However, because Japan is run by sadists who do not understand the meaning of the phrase “summer vacation” our oldest has several club practices and will be staying home with me.

This poses a few interesting dilemmas.

First, it makes it difficult for me to recharge my batteries as I will now have people around (well, at teenager anyway). Do I simply encourage her to surf the net and text her friends via her Nintendo 3DS constantly or do I make an effort to encourage her to study constantly?

Second, this means I am required to “set an example” and “be responsible” which means my usual regression into a kind of prehistoric beast will not be possible. (Well, it’s possible, just not recommended.) Do I simply encourage her to live life one step above the garbage houses in Hoarders with the understanding that we have to clean everything before She Who Must Be Obeyed gets home or do I give her more daily chores?

Third, do I bribe her to skip club and just go to Niigata where she will be spoiled blind by the family members there? (With the understanding that she will have to be reprogrammed to her regular life of scarcity once she gets back.)

Fourth, do I pull the Bill Cosby “dad’s are the smartest people in the house because only a genius could act that dumb” card and make it appear that I plan to do things in the worse possible way imaginable so that She Who Must Be Obeyed insists our oldest go to Niigata with her? Examples: Don’t worry, dear. We’ll eat well. McDonalds is up by the station and we can always order pizza. There’s lots of good, just expired food thrown out on burnable trash day, too. If you cook it thoroughly it’s just fine. Got me through graduate school. Or: I’m going to teach our oldest how to use and sharpen knives. Or: I’m going to get my driver’s license and start driving us around everywhere.

Fifth, should I speak to her or pretend she’s not there?

Sixth, do I just have fun and try to make some positive memories? Sure. But she has club almost everyday. We’ll have to pencil in the memories. Sigh.

Short Tempers and First Impressioned Meetings

短気は損気 Tanki wa sonki A short temper is a disadvantage. Japanese Proverb

Since yesterday I talked about the night before I started dating She Who Must Be Obeyed, today I thought I’d talk about the first time we met. It was less than impressive, or at least I was. She was going to Hong Kong. I was having a temper tantrum in a train station.

To understand why, you first have to understand that because I am prone to periodic fits of brain lock, I’m also prone to periodic bursts of anger during those fits of brain lock. You also have to understand that, despite all its apparent modernity, Japan retains certain odd early 20th century quirks. This is especially true with its trains and its train ticketing system. To go from point A to point B often requires three or more individual tickets.

For example, to get to my in-laws’ house via Japan Rail requires a base ticket from Kawagoe to Nou-Machi; a super express (bullet train) ticket from Omiya to Echigo-Yuzawa; and an express ticket from Echigo-Yuzawa to Naoetsu. Each has a different value and are all added together to determine the cost of the trip. At various stages during the trip the individual tickets are swallowed up by various ticket gates but you often have to put all three tickets in the gate at the same time and then pick up the two that are rejected. The system is so confusing, even to Japanese, it requires diagrams on the tickets gates and several JR staff members hollering about which tickets to insert in the gates.

However, back in February 1997 I didn’t fully realize all this when I bought a ticket from Nou-Machi to Osaka en route to visit my sister and husband in Guam. I was happy because I’d paid much less for the train ticket than I was expecting, even though I hadn’t been able to buy the leg from Osaka Station to Kansai Airport. When I got to Itoigawa Station to wait for my red eye train to Osaka, I inquired about purchasing that last leg of the trip. The ticket man muttered something and then started playing around on a computer. In about 30 seconds my cheap ticket had more than doubled in price and because my Japanese wasn’t yet good enough to understand what was going on, I responded by going in full brain lock anger.

As it turned out, She Who Must Be Obeyed was there with some of my adult students, who also happened to be her friends. They were on their way to Hong Kong, which required they catch a red eye heading in the opposite direction. My students introduced me to She Who Must Be Obeyed and although I thought she was cute, it wasn’t love at first sight, but at that point I was only interested in tickets and money.

My student explained all the ticket madness and I’m sure I said something positive about Japan (ahem) and handed over some cash and everything was finally resolved. it wasn’t the best first meeting, but it worked out in the end. Eventually. About a year later.


Singing the Empty Orchestra Blues

Despite all my years in Japan, I still do not understand the Japanese love of karaoke. Not only is it a popular “why don’t we get drunk and sing?” activity but it’s popular enough that there are annual shows where celebrities take turns singing songs for cash. (If they can sing the song without making a mistake, their team wins money.)

My first taste of karaoke was with the teachers at my smallest school. They took turns belting out Japanese hits with surprising skill (and a little help from autotune) whilst I scanned the catalog for a song in English that both of us knew and which didn’t give me a headache. It quickly became clear, though, that the songs I knew they didn’t know and the songs they knew I didn’t like. They kept suggesting songs and I kept rejecting their ideas as I tried to explain some of my axioms of karaoke:

1–Just because I like a song doesn’t mean I know all the words.
2–Just because I know all the words doesn’t mean I want to sing the song.
3–I’m not a big fan of post “I Want To Hold Your Hand” Beatles so stop suggesting it.
4–“Let it Be,” “Yesterday” and “Imagine” are overrated.

In the end I settled on the Shocking Blue version of “Venus” which left all of us underwhelmed but guaranteed I wouldn’t have to sing again and, by extrapolation, meant I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. The next time I sang was with my then boss and involved “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” but I’ll have to save discussion of that one until the New Year season.

Sometime after that I sang “Saturday Night” by the Bay City Rollers with She Who Must Be Obeyed back when she was known as She Whose Friend Was Really Cute aka She Who Helped Sabotage My Chances With the Really Cute Friend.

The big karaoke moment though came in 1998 when for reasons I still don’t fully understand but which involved my having visited London on three occasions, I was invited to join She Who Would Eventually Be Obeyed and her friends at a party celebrating the one year (or so) reunion of their trip to London. I was not only the only foreigner and the only one present who hadn’t been on their trip, I was the only male. As such, I was expected to sing because, well, because. Quite frankly, if I’d left them with the impression that “foreign men are boring” that would have been fine with me.

Instead, I was asked if I knew the song “California Dreamin'” I said “of course” and was suddenly scheduled to sing the song. I pointed out that although I knew the song, I only really new the chorus. The person who scheduled me was like “Yeah, how about that.”

To make matters worse, it wasn’t a private karaoke room, it was a stage in the bar. This meant that when a Japanese was singing no one noticed, but when a large foreigner got up there, the entire place would shut down to watch (had been there; had done that; more on that another day).

To make worse matters worse, about the time my song was scheduled to scroll up, one of my party colleagues belted out a version of a Japanese song in a near perfect Mariah Carey multi-octave impersonation.

I was, of course, no fool, and stated how I didn’t follow Mariah Carey. This turned my song into a duet that went something like:

All the leaves are brown (the leaves are brown) and the sky is gray (and the sky is gray).
Something something something (something something) on a winter’s day.
Something something something (something something) something something L.A.;
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.

I got through it and on the ride home I accidentally asked out She Who Would Eventually Be Obeyed and she quickly accepted. The next day we went out and never stopped dating.

So not everything about karaoke is bad; just that singing part.

Tales of Skinned Knees and Broken Hearts

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” ― Gwendolen, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Fewer things horrify me more than looking back through my diary. This is partly because it’s pretty horrifying to look back over your life and think “Lacks action” and “needs a plot with more direction.”

Looking back over mine, even with two years in Albania and several years in Japan, I’m always shocked at all the wasted time and all the whining over skinned knees and broken hearts. Even worse is the horrifying sameness. There’s a long period after I got settled into Japan where all the daily posts started with either “Ordinary day” or “Okay day.” Those went on so long that I pretty much stopped recording anything. Mind, you this means that my time in Japan was ordinary but safe and I was protected from living in “interesting times”.

This is also because, as I’ve mentioned before, I find diaries to be largely a waste of time. It’s lots of time and energy spent sending daily letters to yourself. (Unlike blogs which are time and energy spent on sending letters to yourself and a few other people and the kind bots that keep your inbox filled with semi-coherent spam so you know that at least something cares.)

On the other hand, when interesting things do happen in my life, I tend not to write about them for a long time. This means my diaries have long blank periods often spanning years. Although I have an entry on proposing to She Who Must Be Obeyed, I don’t have an entry about any of our three wedding ceremonies. I also don’t have entries on the births of either daughter. I didn’t write one about my father’s death until two months after he was buried and even then it was part of a “Wow, a lot of stuff has happened” entry.

For the most part, anything I have resembling a diary falls under the category of what I call a “confusion journal”. Periodically, usually several months apart, when events and emotions swirl, I’ll sit down and vent with pen and ink and that can usually calm me down and give me some perspective.

One time I realized how boring my complaints were and actually fell asleep whilst writing about them. That’s right, I’m so boring some times I can cure my own insomnia.



Hanging Out With Fat People Doesn’t Make You Thin

One of my guilty pleasures is the TV show Hoarders. One of the problems of living in Japan is I only recently discovered it. I remember hearing about it when I was in the USA several years ago, but never had a chance to watch it until recently. It hasn’t had the effect I thought it would.

To explain this, you also have to know that one of my other guilty pleasures is the Rodney Dangerfield movie “Back to School.” This is mostly for it’s great lines “Bring us a pitcher of beer every seven minutes until somebody passes out; and then bring one every ten minutes.” and a terrific cameo by Kurt Vonnegut. The line that’s applicable this time, though, is “if you want to look thin, you hang out with fat people”.

I expected hoarders to be like that; no matter how bad the “variety room” is, it’s not as bad some of the places on Hoarders. In comparison my home is rather clean. What I saw, though, was the places that were a bit too close to home. We have a small apartment and a lot of stuff and one room that serves as our storage room. The rest of the apartment is clean (except two cluttered bookshelves) but the variety room triples as an office for two, overflow storage and, no joke, temporary trash storage. The latter is a result of Japan’s goofy recycling laws and a difference in philosophy between myself and She Who Must Be Obeyed.

SWMBO is the conscientious Japanese lady following the rules and trying to neither cause trouble nor give the appearance of being a rule breaker. I’m the guy who likes to point out that while cardboard is, technically, recyclable garbage, it is also burnable garbage. I’m also the guy willing to argue with the lady serving as the trash police (until I remember that, this year, SWMBO IS the trash police).

That said, I believe the recyclables should be stored outside on the balcony until it’s time to put them in the trash area. (Japan has areas for trash, not dumpsters. Long story.) That, however, is not done with all recyclable trash as the city doesn’t want it water damaged and moldy.

The result is piles of cardboard, card stock, paper and old bags taking up space on the floor and on a shelf in the variety room. It doesn’t take up that much space, but the psychological effect is surprising. It gets in the way of our real storage and the sense of disorder makes it very easy to add just one more bit of trash, or to start just one more pile next to it. That’s especially true since one of the office mates is a teenager.

The most disturbing part is how easy it is to get used to it. After a while you don’t even really see it. It’s just part of the furniture. That’s the effect watching Hoarders has had on me. I actually understand the Hoarders more than I should.

Faster in Circles and With Turns

At a young age I started building model airplanes and then model cars and, for a while, it was probably my main hobby as it gives the satisfaction of making something without having to put in much strenuous effort. Oddly, that interest in model cars didn’t translate to an interest in cars. Although I can see how it would be useful to know more about how cars work, I’ve never been particularly interested in pulling cars apart and putting them back together the way some of my friends have.

Cars to me are simply forms of transportation that are either cool or uncool. Discussion of parts and internals is as interesting to me as hearing Salma Hayek describe her liver and gall bladder. (Actually, for Salma Hayek, I might actually put up with that and feign interest.)

I bring this up because I just watch Senna, a documentary about Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna and this has me thinking about racing and cars. I grew up watching NASCAR and Indy Car and am one of the few people in Japan who managed to convert an Englishman into enjoying NASCAR. I’m also one of the few Americans I know who enjoys Formula 1 and Super GT and understands the differences:

NASCAR–Good Ol’ Boys playing really fast chess.
Indy Car–Good Ol’ Boys with delusions of grandeur.
Super GT–Japanese Good Ol’ Boys driving almost real cars under too many equality rules.
F1–Pompous Europeans (mostly) driving turbo-charged (this season anyway) computers.

They all have their flaws and I admit that I’m partial to races that feature more than left turns. With NASCAR that means Watkins Glen and Sonoma (although I’m also partial to Pocono Raceway which has three corners and each is a different size and angle). That said, it is impressive to see a dozen cars squeezed together at 220 miles per hour (354 kmh) on an oval track.

I find Formula 1 to be too computerized and shrieky a lot of the time, and that’s just the drivers, but I still enjoy watching it.

My favorite, right now, is Super GT, mostly because that’s all Japanese TV tends to show. I also like that the two different flavors (GT300 and GT500) race at the same time on the same track in different races. It’s common to hear GT300 drivers comment about how fast and cool the GT500 cars are during the race. I do find the parity rules, which punish race winners with “success ballast” to ensure exciting racing, to be a bit annoying, but seeing one team dominate Formula 1 all season is also annoying.

Someday I’d like to go to a race but, quite frankly, I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much. It’s a TV sport for me. Something to look at, kind of like the model cars I used to build.