Archive for the ‘Focus on Japan 2003’ Category

The Gaijin Tax?

April 19th, 2015 4 comments

A few years ago, I went to Akihabara and tried to buy some cables at a shop there. The four cables I got were in boxes with prices clearly marked; the total was ¥500 ($4.20). The guy at the counter tried to charge me ¥1380 ($11.60). I later realized that my dress was different—I probably looked more like a tourist, so they probably figured that I would pay without question.

At the time, I was pretty shocked; this really had not happened to me much in Japan. It happened in Europe when I visited, like the bakery counter lady in Athens who crassly gave me way too little in change, and when I complained, she took it back and gave me even less. I never imagined that happening in Japan.

However, I have noticed that recently, clerks “accidentally” make “mistakes” with me quite often.

Just the other day, Sachi and I went to a local burger joint, and got a standard lunch set each. There was nothing on the menu more than a thousand yen (less than ten bucks). Even the beer I ordered only cost a few dollars when swapped out for the drink that came with the lunch set. So, for two people, the total should never be more than, say, ¥3000. Even that’s a bit high.

So when I went to pay, I was rather shocked that the total was more than ¥5500 (about $50). The restaurant guy, who had served us and knew that there was only the two of us and we had not ordered anything special, had rung up the total, announced it to me, and then stood there waiting for me to pay.

The thing is, the amount was so far off it stood out like a sore thumb—like going to McDonald’s, ordering two Big Macs, and getting asked to pay $25.

This guy was not a newbie, we’ve seen him since last year; he maybe even owns the place. The total should have immediately stood out to him as incorrect, more than it did to me. But it took me to give him a puzzled expression—for several seconds, no less—before he caught the “mistake.” I put that in quotes because, frankly, I don’t think it was a mistake.

The thing is, after this happened, I began to recall other similar incidents over the past few years. I always just discounted them as errors, and maybe in fact they were—but the thing is, they are happening with increasing frequency, and are typically not minor overcharges. Several times, mostly at restaurants but also at other shops, I have had to check the tally carefully when I am given a total that seems suspiciously high. So much so that I now almost reflexively check my receipts, even when the total doesn’t seem unusually high.

Generally, I am beginning to get the feeling that this is a “gaijin” thing—something that’s happening because I’m a foreigner here. If so, it is relatively new; this never happened with such frequency before. (Although I would be interested to hear if Japanese people get the same thing as often as I do.)

I’m not counting the trivial stuff, like the conbini that gave me a 100-won coin instead of a 100-yen coin in my change (the Korean coin is worth 1/10th the Japanese currency), or whoever it was at McDonald’s giving me a single patty in a double burger. Just the times when the amount I am asked for is significantly over the total I am supposed to pay.

In Japan, when they give you change, it is (or at least used to be) customary for them to politely ask you to check the change to make sure it is accurate. I never really used to do that because it was always right. Now, I don’t hear them saying that as much—and I’m checking the change a lot more now.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2014 Tags:


March 11th, 2015 Comments off

It has been four years now.

Carrier Nonsense

November 2nd, 2014 3 comments

Usually I get new iPhones as soon as they come out, but my carrier kinda screwed me on that; somehow, over time, they added a few months to my contracts, and I couldn’t get out of it until November 1st. That, and a bunch of other stuff has me good and tired of SoftBank. For example, they offer “points” with your service, but after three years (after which the points expire) I had a grand total of ¥1090 (about $10) after about $5000 worth of bills for myself and Sachi over that time. To add insult to injury, you can’t buy squat with that at their store, which means you can only do so at the online store. And their online store is so convoluted that after 20 minutes, the staff member there couldn’t figure it out either, and started to give me a phone number which I am sure would have inevitably been staffed by a teineigo operator who would use such obscure vocabulary that they would only confuse me more.

I changed to a new carrier, Au, for a couple of different reasons. First, switching carriers means you get a discount in the first two years just for that. Au’s prices in general were already a bit lower than Softbank’s, and that was further sweetened by an additional $15 a month discount (each) because our home Internet connection is with KDDI, which is the same company as Au. Au was also much more accessible and open about the terms; for example, I had never known that the “unlimited” data plans get severely throttled after 5 or 7 GB of use in one month; Softbank’s people never mentioned that over the years, but Au was very upfront about it.

In addition, Au did me a solid on timing. While some orders can take a month, and commonly two weeks to fulfill—a problem with me because I had a short window in which to switch carriers else suffer a $100 penalty—Au happened to have an extra iPhone 6 the color and capacity I wanted, and decided kindly to hang onto it for me for 10 days after I signed up, so I could pick it up immediately as soon as my shackles to Softbank evaporated.

On top of that, KDDI (and, it seems, Au) have English support—if not total, they do try their best, and it’s appreciated.

Long story short, instead of paying about $75 apiece per month to Softbank, our contracts are now for about $55 for each of us. Over two years, that saves a lot of money (almost a thousand dollars over our first two years). We lose about $10 a month on each contract after that, as the switching discount is not renewed and the home-Internet discount is cut to $10 a month instead of $15—but even then it’s still better.

Not to mention I was getting the Worst Sales Rep Ever at Softbank every time I went, who was royally pissing me off. Glad to be rid of them.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2014, iPhone Tags:

Microsoft Bing: Small Tsu = Porn?

May 3rd, 2014 1 comment

I am on Facebook a lot now, and try to read some Japanese-language posts, especially ones written by my wife. They have the “See Translation” option, provided by Microsoft’s Bing, which supposedly translates the Japanese text into English.

The problem is, it often translates like it was written by a deranged screenwriter specializing in bad porn. Seriously, it’s like one of those Chinese dictionaries that resulted in obscene English labels in Chinese supermarkets.

Now I know that machine translation between European and East Asian languages is spotty at best, but one would think that certain words would simply not be in the translation matrix, or whatever it’s called.

However, it seems to be mostly related to a single Japanese character.

Take this sentence in Japanese:

フィギュア男子素晴らしい演技でしたね。 すごいっ!ステキっ!

A fair translation would be, “It was a wonderful performance in the men’s figure skating. Wow! Great!”

On Facebook, it was translated as:

Figure men’s amazing performance was … wow.! Nice boobs!

I tried going to Bing translation directly, pasted the sentence there—and it was even worse:

It was the figure men’s great acting. Amazing boobs! Nice boobs!

Seriously? “Boobs”?

Turns out that the “boobs” comes whenever a small “tsu” () appears out of place, used often in Japanese to create a sudden stop, acting kind of like an emphasis for the exclamation point. On Google translate, it comes out as “tsu” or (strangely) “LI.”

But “boobs”?

Here is a Bing translation of a single Facebook post:

In less than two hours March! (early!) fliped over my private calendar is out! (did buy a desk calendar “Hoshino Chan” thanks for accepted calendar for a super House by mistake, I have is and & my husband face big boobs a March to forgive.) was indeed warm day, so it was just a happy. Mood shop & cold hardens me you cum Sasha! I’ll do it! (what? for) of switch “chubby!”, I feel that it was. (Lol) weekend winter mode is, but another relapse is also no sense.

Seriously? “Big boobs,” and “cold hardens me you cum”? I’ve been getting questions from my family as to what exactly Sachi is writing in Japanese.

When I put the text into Bing’s official page, again it identified the small “tsu” () as the part translated as “boobs”—but it also translated the exact same character into “cum” in another sentence! What the…?

This is what you get if the exact same message in Japanese is put into Google Translate:

March in less than 2 hours to go! (Ll soon) Tsu was turning a private calendar of my home!
(And me accepted me to buy a desk calendar calendar super home for you’ve had “Hoshi-chan” by mistake and … face Deka-tsuna March excuse of & husband thanks) Today is because it was a warm day, I was happy with it. For me, that hardens and cold moody & was the day that was popular, the feeling that “Pochi” was the switch “Yaruzo pretensions” of (what for) … (laughs) The weekend seems to winter mode, but there is no sense going back.

As you can see, the translation as a whole is better on Google. It’s still mangled, but much more clear, and no porn terminology.

The thing is, it’s not just the two strange “tsu” related hiccups I found—strange words find their way into the text fairly commonly. Here’s a collection of sentences that I have strung together from various sources, to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Gaping! I always do you have weed… Hand fetish with me! Will drink your father who ate and I’m sure. Walk to him cum ♪ suffice in the exercise of said. I was the time you pack. Also to go out, when combined in the dog ultra-most fortunately I’m a boobs. Requests off my husband cum!

So, was Microsoft’s software intentionally sabotaged, and after months or years nobody at Microsoft noticed? What the hell is going on there?

Not Impressed by Tsukuba

April 10th, 2014 1 comment

We’re on an overnight stay in Tsukuba, visiting friends in a nearby town. We booked a room in the only accommodation we could find in the region which accepts pets. We got here early yesterday evening.

Tsukuba is in Ibaraki Prefecture, about 60km northeast of Tokyo; it is a planned city based on the theme of scientific research, first conceived in the 1960’s, and really built up in the boom years of the late 70’s and 80’s. However, walking through its streets now, I get a strong vibe along the lines I got in Shanghai: a city where a lot of initial investment was made, but was then neglected. The streets are wide with huge, impressively tree-lined sidewalks–but look closely enough and you’ll see creeping neglect. Playgrounds overgrown with weeds, buildings clearly not tended to for years, plots of real estate which should be prime left empty.

The accommodations have been bad as well. We may have just stumbled into the worst of the services, however. The izakaya we went to last night was horrible—half the things we ordered did not come until we pestered them about it, and one plate of sashimi never did come—we left after it had been waiting an hour or so. One of the dishes had a hair in it. We were just as happy not to have eaten their raw fish.

Our hotel is similarly awful. It’s one of those places that both allows smoking and has an interconnected ventilation system, so our room smelled like a chain smoker was in there with us most of the time. The refrigerator still had half-consumed drinks left by the previous guests, and the shoji screens were full of holes. The bathroom is big enough—if you happen to be a slender four-foot-ten. They forgot the towels, and we almost went without, believing they simply were not included. I found a common toilet on the first floor which had a warmed seat and bidet; I used it, but discovered that the bidet’s “off” switch was broken. When the water started to run cold, I finally risked getting off, and discovered that the weight sensor would turn off the water stream. They could have posted a sign to tell users about that, but they didn’t.

What’s stranger is that the hotel claims that only one room in the whole place can accept pets. However, once we got to the room, we found it has zero amenities for pets. Nothing that sets it apart from any other room we’ve stayed in. So, why is this room okay and others not? I have a feeling it’s just a marketing thing, or perhaps some way of avoiding city ordinances.

We probably have just had the worst luck here… but nothing about this town makes me feel like I want to come back.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2014 Tags:

The Risk of Using Amazon Third-Party Sellers (Or, “Beauty GardenSG” Sucks)

March 1st, 2014 4 comments

At the beginning of February, I decided that I wanted to get some sunflower seeds. Not the kind where it’s just kernels, but the kind roasted and salted in the shell. Yum. However, you can’t get those in Japan. Even the kernels are rare to find (though they can be ordered). But seeds in the shell? That’s considered bird food here. You have to order the roasted & salted in the shell type from overseas.

Normally, I would use the Foreign Buyer’s Club. They offer a box of twenty-four 1.75 oz. bags for ¥2,485. Unfortunately, they charge ¥990 for shipping and customs, and if I haven’t ordered from them for a while, add another ¥1,000 for the membership fee. Even without the membership cost, the total for a box is ¥3,475, or ¥145 per bag. If I order three boxes, that’s cheaper—the shipping is the same, so the total would be ¥8,445, or ¥117 per bag.

The problem: they take more than a month to deliver. FBC quotes a delivery time frame of 39-43 days (if you place the order on the right day). I didn’t want to wait that long.

So I went to Amazon, where I had ordered successfully before. The problem was that the seller I had used before, something called “LA Celeb Style” (um, okay) no longer offered the item. Instead, it was only available through “Beauty GardenSG.” I didn’t care about the name, really. But they offered a 60-pack bucket for a total of ¥8,000. Not a great price point—133 per bag—but they promised a delivery within 17-25 days. That, to me, was worth the extra ¥16 per bag. So I ordered.

Two weeks later, I get a cryptic email from the seller, claiming some sort of unspecified delay. Two days after that, they email me again: they cannot get the item for me, but will ship three of the 24-count boxes at the same price. OK, I think, that brings the price down to even a little under FBC. But then I read on: it will require another 2-3 weeks shipping.

Needless to say, I was kind of pissed. The time frame was the only reason I ordered from them. Had they told me straight off that they could not deliver the item, I would have been fine with that. But wait two weeks and a bit, when the order was supposed to be delivered already, and then say you can’t deliver? Like I said, that pissed me off.

The problem is, these people can more or less abuse you at will. I complained to Amazon, and their policy turns out to be: too bad. They will do nothing at all. You go with third-party sellers at your risk.

So I contact the seller and say that I am very disappointed, but go ahead and ship the item.

Two days after that, they email back: we canceled your order.

Needless to say, I was way more pissed. Hold me back a full three weeks and then cancel my order on me?

Most likely, they did that because they could see I was upset and knew that if they canceled the order, it would cut off any easy way to give them a bad seller review. Fortunately, by doing some research, I was able to find a way to bring up the canceled order and navigate to a page where I could enter a review and a seller rating.

Nevertheless, it was three weeks after my order and I was back to square one.

Fortunately, I found an alternative: The Flying Pig. They’re a firm a little similar to Foreign Buyer’s Club, but are Costco-centric. That is, they will go to a Costco in Japan and buy stuff you want and ship it to you. The cost is higher than going to Costco yourself, and with a Costco not too far from me, I never used them before. Some items, however, they will ship from Hawaii, as “Personal Imports.” I didn’t use that before because the shipping per item is almost ¥2,000.

However, if you order five items or more, the shipping becomes free. In addition, they had a different item I have been longing to get (boneless & skinless flaked salmon, great for a salmon casserole dish I like to make). If I ordered the three boxes of sunflower seeds with the other items, the total for the seeds would be ¥8,694, or about ¥120 per bag.

But their shipping is great: five to eight days. I ordered them last Tuesday, and the takkyubin guy is delivering them in the next hour or so. Excellent.

Had the Amazon seller not canceled, I would still be waiting another week or two for them to deliver.

Needless to say, not all Amazon third-party sellers are such slimeballs. But you take your chances.

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Insane Amounts of Snow

February 15th, 2014 3 comments

Last week, Tokyo was hit by what was described as the biggest snowstorm to hit the metropolis in 45 years. It was crazy—snow piled higher than I have ever seen it in Tokyo (natch), rivaling even what I remember in Toyama, which had tons of snow.

Tonight, there’s an even bigger one. School was canceled, possibly saving me hours of waiting for trains on the way home.

I couldn’t take photos staged well enough to do it justice, but here are a few small examples:


What you see above is the street. Hard to see from this how deep the snow is, but it’s deep. Here is the view from the porch; keep in mind that the bicycle seen here is not resting at street level, but on ground about 10 inches higher than that—and the snow on the street has almost caught up with it.



In the image below, see all that snow on my scooter? I cleared that off earlier in the evening. The street in front of it we spent a half hour clearing maybe six hours earlier, but when I stepped into it, my leg went down enough so the snow was practically up to my knee.



Tomorrow, the temp is predicted to rise to 10° C (50° F) and there’s going to be heavy rain. I have no idea if that will be enough to help clear the snow, or if it will just turn everything to ice.

We’ll have to see.

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This Ain’t 12 Centimeters…

February 8th, 2014 1 comment

According to the newscasts:

As much as 12 centimeters of snow was recorded Saturday afternoon in Tokyo…

I just measured 30 cm (1 foot) on to of our car, and that’s in a shielded area. I am pretty sure that we’re getting a good 18 inches at least, with another 6-8 hours of storm left to go.

Img 0044

This image was of our car at maybe two in the afternoon. This is one hell of a big snowstorm, maybe the biggest I’ve seen in Tokyo.

Ponta, on the other hand, loves it.

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Christmas in Nagoya

December 25th, 2003 Comments off

A 26-year-old Gifu man who made more than half a million dollars playing the stock market earlier this month went to the observation deck of Nagoya TV Tower and threw a million yen’s worth (about $10,000) of paper money to the street below late Tuesday afternoon. The money was in one-dollar U.S. currency and old 100-yen bills. The 100 yen bills have been out of circulation for decades and is no longer legal tender; the man apparently bought them off the Internet.

“I have too much money. I don’t need it,” the man said. “I wanted to give some back to the world.” The gesture of generosity was not against the law, but police did take him in for questioning. He was able to throw most of the money through the metal grates on the tower, but left a good amount on the observation deck floor as well. About $1,000 was returned by passers-by, and the police gave it back to the man.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2003 Tags:

Mad About Cows

December 24th, 2003 1 comment

Well, the first mad cow disease case has been reported in the U.S., and Japan, within hours, slammed the doors and immediately instituted an effective ban of U.S. beef imports–not a small deal as Japan is America’s biggest importer “by value”–meaning that expensive beef products are more often imported. Most of that is likely for restaurants, because U.S. beef is for darned sure not prominently featured in Japanese supermarkets.

The supermarkets I have shopped at over the years feature Japanese beef, with Aussie beef coming in second. American beef, when it shows up, is usually a lower-grade and therefore no threat to domestic beef. This echoes the rice market, which, when forced to import rice several years ago due to a poor domestic crop, made certain that almost every bag of cheap, high-quality American rice sold in the country was mixed with a low-quality Thai rice (with some Thai commentators reporting that it was animal-feed quality), a long-grained version very much disliked in Japan–needless to say, Japanese consumers didn’t like it.

The closure of such imports is likely to last for a while, and may very well be as much motivated by protectionism as by health; a single case of mad cow disease was found in Canada in May, and though the U.S. has started lifting imports, Japan is keeping its market shut tight–even to the point of threatening reprisals against countries who do not provide guarantees that Canadian beef isn’t coming through them.

The problem with Japan’s attitude is that it is hardly one to throw stones: Japan has had nine cases of the disease in a bit more than two years, and not all at once, and has handled its own house very sloppily. The first case was on September 10, 2001 (the day before the 9/11 attacks). The most recent cases have been in the past few months. Furthermore, Japan’s handling of the disease outbreak has been dismal. European experts hired by the Japanese government in 1998 warned Japan that its beef industry regulations were insufficient before the first case was reported; the government not only ignored the warning, but it also quashed the publication of the warning.

When the first outbreak did occur, not only did the Japanese government fail to adequately warn people about the dangers, not only did they refuse to ban MBM (meat and bone meal) feed that is a likely cause of the disease until fully a month later, but–get this–they actually allowed the diseased cow to be sent to a plant to be converted into MBM!

When I heard that, I decided I would not eat any more domestic beef in Japan–a decision well-founded, it seems, from Japan’s unsurprisingly consistently botched handling and continuing outbreaks of the disease. Since U.S. beef in supermarkets is rare and not very good, I usually get Aussie stuff (McDonald’s in Japan also uses Aussie beef).

So it is a bit much for Japan to be so drastic with other countries when a single case is reported–especially since the U.S. has not used MBM produced from cow offal in feeding cattle for some time. I would expect the ban to be continued for quite some time, no matter what the determination in the case.

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Another Graduation

December 8th, 2003 1 comment

Well, we do have two of them every year. This was what kept me busy yesterday (today it was grading, and I just finished). This ceremony was a very good one. As of the past few years, we’ve moved up and into the Century Hyatt for our ceremonies; we used to do it in local hotels (the first I presided over myself had all of two graduates!), but our graduating classes have grown to a size that cannot be hosted by the other hotels. And the Hyatt is a classy place.

Machiko Wada, one of our senior students, and one of our very best at that, gave the valedictorian address, and moved everyone to tears; many of the students, both young women and me, were openly crying, and I definitely heard a lot of sniffling behind me.

Afterwards, we moved up to the 27th floor and a very nice new room for the Graduation/Christmas party. For me, as kind of an unofficial photographer (as always), it was great because the light was perfect for taking photos–I got nearly 200 of them, so maybe a few dozen are good enough to print. Here are a few.

Machiko giving her address.

Many of the students wore traditional outfits, including these students’ kimonos.

As always at the Hyatt, the food was first-rate.

Then came the perennial Bingo game. Machiko’s lovely grandchildren were rapt players.

A graduating student, accompanied by a parent and a former graduate.

Yoshi, one of our hardworking office staff.

And Masako, who made my job so much easier when I was coordinator, winning first prize in Bingo: two passports for Tokyo Disneyland. It would be hard to think of someone who deserves them more–and she has two daughters who’d love to go, too.

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NTT Doesn’t Make It Easy

December 4th, 2003 Comments off

As part of trying to make my Internet connection better, I am trying to switch to another DSL provider.

My ISP has been AT&T, and they have been very good–they have been my ISP since I was on a dial-up connection back in ’98. Up until now, I have used NTT Flets for the DSL connection, primarily because they were first into my area (I live in a relatively unknown town next to Tama), and I wanted to get away from ISDN as quickly as I could. But that also caused a problem.

NTT has always, or at least is seems, managed to jigger the setting up of systems so as to benefit themselves most, taking advantage of their position of advantage as the primary telephone company. When the new “MYLINE” service was set up, it was billed as a way of making things simpler–but to me, it seemed like it just made things more complex, and if one did not go through the process, NTT would collect you up as their customer by default. I am not certain of that, but that was my impression.

It is certainly my impression as far as DSL services are concerned. I have wanted to change DSL providers for some time, for several reasons. First, Flets does not provide some services as part of their overall package, such as IP Telephony. Also, I currently pay two fees, one to NTT, and one to AT&T; it would be substantially cheaper for me to consolidate those services and pay one company one fee.

So some time ago, almost one year before now, I started asking–and learned a disturbing fact. I could not switch DSL providers without having three weeks or more of interrupted service. The way NTT has set things up, I have to first end my service with them–and only after the service has ended may I apply for the new service (I have chosen KDDi for their English-language services). And it takes around three weeks, possibly a bit more, possibly a bit less, for the new service to be established.

The only logical reason for this gap is to assure that two companies do not provide DSL service at the same time. Even assuming that this is absolutely necessary, three weeks is an absurd length of time to require between services; most people would not wish to be relegated to dial-up service for the interval, and so would stay with NTT, which always has enjoyed the advantage of getting all the early adopters. Which, I presume, is NTT’s intention.

I personally know someone who simply misled the providers, telling the new one that the prior DSL connection had been terminated when it had not been–and that person enjoyed only a day or two of broken service between them. So it is clearly possible, and the three weeks clearly not necessary. I wanted to follow this friend’s example, but KDDi made it clear that they would have to actively check to see that the prior service had ended.

As it happens, I will be going back to the U.S. for almost three weeks this month, so that provides me with just the break I need. Still, I may have trouble getting reconnected when I come back–late on December 30th–with the holidays so close. But the service people at KDDi have been very good, the rep I spoke to spent a couple hours today helping me plan a way to set things up so there was the greatest chance of things running smoothly; he really went out of his way to help, which made me feel even better about going with that company–how a firm treats its clients has always been a big consideration for me in choosing whom to do business with.

So, with luck, I will not be cut off from high-speed service for long.

I should note here that DSL is improving here in Japan yet again: the old system of 1.5 Mbps, 8 Mbps and 12 Mbps that so far outstripped services in the U.S. is already outdated here. KDDi had even stopped giving their 24 Mbps service because now they have something faster. They offer two speeds: 26 Mbps, and 40 Mbps. Rather impressive speeds. I chose the 26 Mbps package for two reasons: first, as I live about 3 km (2 miles) from the telephone switching station, all speeds come out to about the same for me, just a few megabits per second. But more importantly, the 26 Mbps package provides a fixed IP Address (rather than a global one), making it easier for me to improve my chances at achieving easy voice chat with others. Both speeds have a total cost of about $35 per month, including DSL, ISP and modem/router rental.

Still waiting for vDSL so I can get higher speeds, but for the time being, this will do. Just hope it goes smoothly, and NTT doesn’t find a way to muck things up….

Categories: Focus on Japan 2003 Tags:

Japan Christmas Past

November 28th, 2003 Comments off

Speaking of Christmas in Japan, I recalled this photo taken many years ago–1989, if I am not mistaken–of my workaround for the Christmas Tree problem. Since full-sized trees are so expensive, and I am not too fond of fake ones, I compromised and got a bonsai. It was affordable because it was already on its way out, not having been well-maintained at the garden shop I bought it from. But it made a quite nice tree, matching my apartment at the time in size, no less. I even made a popcorn-and-cranberry wrap for it, though I do not clearly recall what I used for cranberries, as they aren’t sold here in Japan, at least not that I was able to find.

Anyway, I thought this made a very charming compromise between Japan and America during the holidays.

Come to think of it, it was ’89–that’s a trans-bay world series cap I got as a gift, sitting under the tree (next to it, really), and the Loma Prieta of ’89 interrupted the series.

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Christmas in Japan

November 25th, 2003 10 comments

Well, it is exactly a month before Christmas, and I’ve noticed people putting up their Christmas decorations recently; scattered apartments and houses around Tokyo putting up lights, stores with the usual displays, playing Christmas carols for store music. Even though Japan is predominantly Shinto and Buddhist, with Christians forming a minority 1% or so, Christmas is nonetheless a middlin’-to-big thing over here, for much the same reason it is in the U.S.: commercialism. But with a Japanese twist.

The traditions in Japan are different, however; first of all, almost nobody has an actual Christmas tree. Trees in Japan are way too expensive, and there are no Douglas Fir farms in the hills that I know about. If anyone has a Christmas tree in Japan, it will be made of metal and plastic, readily stowed away in a closet from January, waiting for the next holiday season. And, to the best of my knowledge, even if a Japanese family has a tree, presents don’t get put under it; it is simply a decoration. No cranberry-and-popcorn strings, either (I always loved making those with the family), rather just some ordinary store-bought garnishes. I’ve never seen tinsel here.

Presents are exchanged, though Christmas is not exactly the reason: it is bonus season. In Japanese employment, one’s meager salary is usually bolstered by bonuses, traditionally given out twice a year–once in summer, once in winter. The summer bonus marks the Chugen season, the winter one is called Seibo. Each one is marked by a special gift section created in stores across the country, sometimes taking up as much as half of a floor of a department store. In such gift areas you’ll find a plethora of items, popular ones including small rolled hams, and a wide variety of product packs–a 20-piece soap package, a 15-can beer package, packages with assortments of cookies, coffees, salad oils, fruit juices, canned seafood, and countless other consumer items. One buys gifts here and either gives them or has them delivered to the recipients. The Seibo gift centers are already open for business.

Next is a tradition also made in Japan: Christmas Cake. Don’t ask me why, probably a confectioner thought it up, just like they thought up White Day for bakers (White Day comes a month after Valentine’s Day–Valentine’s is for chocolate, which women give to men; White Day is for men to give cookies or other treats to women, and is supposed to have been created simply as a way to sell sweets). At Christmas time, people who choose to celebrate have a Christmas Cake. It even became a metaphor in the 80’s–women who had not married by age 26 were rather callously called “Christmas Cake,” meaning that nobody wants to buy the old cakes after the 25th of December. That attitude has changed, by the way, and most young people today have never even heard of the expression.

And for some reason, Chicken is the meal of choice. Turkey just isn’t popular here, I suppose, and ham isn’t exactly the same, either. I found out early on that if you want KFC on the 24th of December, you’d better make a reservation (yes, you heard me) if you don’t want to wait two hours for your order to be filled, or better, just go another day. KFC is swamped on Christmas Eve. Good thing I always vacation in the U.S. every Christmas (coming back to Japan before New Year’s–I like that holiday here). Not that I eat at KFC anymore–they usually refuse to let you choose which pieces you’re going to get.

One other Christmas tradition in Japan: romantic evenings at a romantic restaurant, followed by a visit to a love hotel (or perhaps any nice hotel would do). Again, I don’t really know why, but having a date on Christmas Day is considered a must for young couples. This article refers to a love hotel in Kanagawa which has permanent Christmas decorations in order to attract visitors. Some say there is an urban legend that if you confess your love to your special someone on Christmas Eve, your wish will come true.

But to many in Japan, Christmas is simply a secular affair, if an affair at all. Some make something of it, others do not. Here is an interesting sampling of responses in a kind of “man-on-the-street” survey in Tokyo. And here is an interesting article from the Japan Times last year about Christmas in Japan, including some history behind it.

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Rain Geta

November 21st, 2003 1 comment

Spotted these on the platform while waiting for the train–rain geta. Geta are the traditional Japanese clog shoes, basic wooden platforms atop two wood blocks, with a thong on top. This is the first time I recall seeing a pair covered in clear plastic for rainy weather. They were worn by an elderly lady in a classic dark-tone kimono. An interesting modern touch on a traditional costume.

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Arts Festival

November 15th, 2003 Comments off

Well, the school had its Arts Festival yesterday, and it was amazing to see the talent so many of our students have. Not just your usual skits at the talent show–we have some serious composers, musicians, singers… One student, for example, played original piano compositions that were astounding. I was in back when another started singing “The Heart Must Go On,” and I swore that I was listening to a recording of Celine Dion. Paintings by some of the students I honestly mistook for art that the live house had purchased, and there was a fantastic brass section that performed “In the Mood.” Seven students made up a punk rock band, playing a popular Japanese song called “Train, Train” that had many of the students in the audience acting like groupies at a concert. And one of my former students, who I knew was talented, surprised me in showing an array of talents I never expected, from keyboard artist to trumpeter to half a dozen other talents.

Even a few teachers took the stage, including one that recited comic poetry and sang a great a cappella piece, and another who played solo electric guitar and composed a hilarious blues piece based on his classes. And my own contribution–a 17-minute video I edited from footage some students and I shot–went over very well, starting off the show.

Find below some photos of a few of the acts with the audience.

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That’s The Ticket

November 12th, 2003 1 comment

In the United States, speed traps are usually cops on motorcycles or in patrol cars, hiding around a corner or behind bushes or other cover–usually a one-man operation. In Japan, they work in teams. I was able to observe one in action today, not too far from a station I use.

Here’s how it works: one cop, in this case, shown in the photo at top, finds a spot–usually behind signposts and/or telephone poles–and sets up shop. The radar detector goes out front, and the policeman, working with the control gear out of a metal suitcase, hides crouching on a chair behind his cover. He is in radio contact with a team of fellow officers about two blocks away. The team is located strategically so that a speeder cannot turn off somewhere or otherwise get by. A motorcycle cop stands ready to pursue anyone who tries to get away.

The cop in the chair detects someone going too fast. His gear displays the speed, and it radios the signal to the first guy’s counterpart (see bottom photo, guy sitting on a similar chair). The team gets a warning shout over radio from the guy up front, telling them that a speeder has just passed by. The team dispatches a pair of policemen–one regular cop, and one motorcycle cop–into the street to flag down the driver, and pull them into a nearby parking area (I caught the tail end of this in the photo at middle right). The driver is then taken to a folding table with chairs set up where seated officers get their information, give them a lecture, and write out the citations.

In the times I have seen this setup, I have noted that it is never in a place where speeding might be a problem. I know of many streets–a few right in front of police stations, no less–where the hazards are great: speeding cars, blind corners, pedestrians crossing at all places, the works–and there is never a speed trap or even an officer on patrol. In the places where they could do the most good. Instead, the traps are set up on long, wide straightaways with absurdly low speed limits. The street pictured here is a wide (for Japan) two-lane boulevard with little foot traffic (it’s an industrial area). I walked its length and maybe saw one or two pedestrians in total. Very little cross traffic. In other words, probably the place one would least have to worry about accidents happening.

And the speed limit is 40 kph, or 25 mph. This kind of street would be at least a 45 mph (70 kph) zone in the U.S. For the type of street it is, the speed limit is ridiculous. And so, naturally, everyone speeds. I believe that this is called “shooting fish in a barrel.”

The few other times I have witnessed speed traps in Japan, they have always been like this. Not for safety, not for public service. But for the sole purpose of writing out tickets. If this were a sometimes thing, like in the U.S., it wouldn’t be so bad. But from what I have witnessed, traffic cops never give out tickets for the purpose of safety. Just for revenue. And that’s completely wrong. These police should be at the dangerous locations, making the streets safer. I covered this in a previous entry, “Seasonal Fair-Weather Daylight Enforcers,” though I did not have artwork on the speed traps at the time. But the criticism still stands. It is almost emblematic of Japanese police, traffic or otherwise, to make more of a show than to actually keep the peace. They can do much better than this.

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Crime and Foreigners in Japan

October 28th, 2003 3 comments

Life in Japan as a foreign resident is much better today than it was back in the 80’s. The creature comforts, imported goods and so forth are better, as I have commented on before. But more than that, in the 80’s there was a notable racial component to things as well; foreigners were sometimes seen as a source of crime and disease; police often stopped foreigners for no immediate reason other than that they were foreign. That happened to me many times, usually riding my bicycle; the police would accuse you of having stolen it. In those days, with so much antipathy focused on foreigners, the bad news accentuated and the good news muted, you were sensitive to such things. I recall one day I was stopped near Musashi-Sakai Station for “bicycling while foreign,” and was actually surrounded by four or five cops. I remember seeing passers-by shooting glances at me, and guessed what they were thinking, that this scene confirmed the fears stoked by newspaper bias and politicians’ speeches shouted from the tops of loudspeaker trucks.

This happens a lot less today.

There are, however, some remainders from that time, and this week a few of them have popped up. One of them was an editorial from the Japan Times that was very reminiscent of the 80’s; in fact, it could be an exact clone of an editorial from that time. It comments on high crime rates of foreigners in Japan, but like so many similar reports in past years, it exaggerates quite a bit. It mentions high numbers of crimes, but it does not mention crime rates; and if one calculates the crime rates, one finds what has always been true: crime rates of non-Japanese in Japan have always been lower than that of the native population.

Another facet of the problem has been how the Japanese media gives weight to some stories and less so to others. I commented on the story of Yoshi Hattori, the young boy who was shot to death in the U.S., and how this was amazingly over-reported in Japan, the story dragging on for much longer than a year, while a story about an elderly Japanese woman shot in Japan was virtually ignored despite the unusual nature of the shooting.

Yesterday, a similar example of bias appeared in the news when an American sailor was shot on the streets of Hiroshima. Initial reports here in Japan not only failed to identify the assailant as Japanese, but omitted certain details–his basic description, along with the language he spoke, all information available from the start–details that would have suggested that he was Japanese, thus giving the impression (by local standards) that the shooter was probably another American serviceman. The story was given short thrift in the papers yesterday, and today’s Yomiuri has nothing about it at all. Only subsequent on-line articles reveal that the man spoke Japanese, and still fail to identify him as a national. Foreign publications, like this Stars and Stripes issue, give a more detailed accounting. Japanese newspapers, it should be noted, seldom fail to identify a suspect as a foreigner even if it was only a suspicion of such.

One thing that is clear: if the races had been reversed, and it was an American who had shot a Japanese, there would be no other news story for this day or any other for weeks; it would make international headlines, and Japan would be rife with protest and anger.

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Fall View

October 26th, 2003 Comments off

Had a busy day today, not much time to blog. Had the chance to visit the tower atop the local hill (the one that blocks my view of Shinjuku!), and found that not only had I picked a very nice day to climb, but that it also happened to be the last day the tower is open this year. The tower is usually closed and locked, open only on Sundays during about 4 hours in the afternoon–and even then, only for a few months. For the first few years I lived here, I didn’t even think it opened at all.

But I got a good view today; below is a panorama (click it to see the larger image, about 1000 x 300 pixels). The fall colors are turning, and they’re just going to get better.

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Mmmmmmaahhhh…. Suuuuushiiiii…..

October 25th, 2003 Comments off

When I tried to find a decent, cheap sushi place in the U.S., it was very hard to do. Most places charge several dollars per plate, a lot more than the dollar-a-plate I’ve become used to in Japan. The best I could scrape up was a few all-you-can-eat places in San Francisco, and they were still more expensive, in the end, than the Japan dives (even if I starved myself prior), and the quality just didn’t match up.

Before I came to Japan, I thought as many Americans do–that I would really hate it. Raw fish? Come on. And you know what? I still do, much of it. Sorry. Especially the maki-sushi (rolled sushi) or any other kind with seaweed. Never got used to that stuff. But there is one kind that I do like, and I like a lot: tuna. That’s either in the standard form–red tuna, or maguro–or in the high end menu selection, fatty tuna, called toro.

Toro, when you get good stuff, is heavenly. Tastes like butter, almost. I get it whenever it is priced reasonably at the supermarket. It comes in slabs; I chill it while I cook rice, then as the rice cooker indicates that the rice is done, I take it out, slice it (you need a really sharp knife), and eat it as sashimi, the rice on the side. Of course, I can’t afford to get what is called “oo-toro,” the highest-quality toro, but “chu-toro” (literally “medium fatty tuna”) is often available and I get that every few weeks.

Strangely, the toro available at the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi joints is, almost uniformly, not very good. I’ve never ordered the 6-dollar-a-plate variety, but the 3- or 4-dollar varieties never have the right taste. A friend of mine who lived in Osaka once treated me to toro at a good sushi place near where he lived, and that was great–but the conveyer-belt places can’t seem to get it right.

But they do the regular tuna just great, and so that’s what I usually load up on when I stop by the place, every week or so on the way back from work. They know me there now, just like the folks at Akiyoshi yakitori-ya do. I’ll come in, order two plates right off the bat. They combine the two into one plate, putting the four sushi together, and the two plates one on top of the other. If the first set tastes good, I’ll order another four to six plates. I’ve come to notice, however, that they give me the best sushi first….

When you’re finished, they tally up the plates you’ve left stacked; price per plate is determined by the color and pattern on each plate. Since maguro is the cheapest, the tab usually comes out to a bit more than 6 or 8 dollars. Not bad.

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