Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to Spend New Year's in Japan 2017

This is about New Year's as I experienced it this year in Japan. Again. It was my fifth time being here for it, I think? Every year except the very first one I've spent with Yuya's family in Shizuoka. This post goes more into New Year's in Japan in general, but for now I'm talking specifics, more like a diary.

The New Year's season (called 年末 nenmatsu up until midnight on New Year's Eve and お正月 oshogatsu thereafter) has always been an awkward, funky one for me. It's the most important holiday on the Japanese calendar so one can't help but get sucked into it, a holiday that's like all of Japanese culture concentrated into a few short days, much of it quite pagan. While I'm just about ready for a week off and eating way too much food, I'm also missing Christmas and my family in the U.S., and going to church. This year though, I think I had the most fun yet. Here's how it all went down:

December 28th 
The last day of work in 2016 for both of us. I turn down an invitation to a last-minute bounenkai (corporate end of the year party) to rush home and start cleaning and packing to spend 5 days at Yuya's folks' house. The cleaning never happened. I'm busy measuring out and bagging up cookie ingredients to make at Yuya's house. They always treat me to such good food and I never cook there (not since a traumatizing experience when Yuya and I were dating) so I thought this time I'd just do cookies, with real American chocolate chips. It wasn't such a great idea in the end. 

December 29th
We sleep in and I go out to get お年賀 onenga, a New Year's gift (usually nicely-packaged little confections) for Yuya's folks. I have to get five: for his parents, his sister K and her husband A-kun, his grandparents, and two sets of aunts/uncles. I grumble. I'm no good at this traditional stuff, I tell him. Better than me, he replies. I can't argue with that (this is is the person who frequently mistakes his own name's kanji when writing formally) so off I go. The basement of the Isetan department store where such things may be bought is an absolute zoo. There are too many people milling around so girls in aprons color-coded to each shop mix in the crowd to take orders and payment methods right there, and then yell the names of the customers while holding aloft the neatly-wrapped packages. "Last year was kind of a failure, so get something good, spend about $20 on each one," Yuya told me. In this situation however, I have no chance to walk around Isetan slowly and pick something out. Luckily, customers at my workplace often give us sweets when their children pass tests, so I know a few that I like. I just go with my own favorite, five boxes of it, and even better, they were $16 a piece. The apron girl asks my name. "Baba." She doesn't miss a beat. "The kanji are 'horse' and 'place' right?" she confirms. I'm grateful. She could've gotten confused, or tried to write katakana (the script for foreign words) especially since it's not such an obviously Japanese-sounding last name. Whoop-di-doo, I'm like one of them! I think, one of these Japanese wives buying onenga! My boxes get wrapped with the requisite onenga paper (if it's onenga, you can't give it until January 1st) and to my consternation, my last name is also written in lovely calligraphy on the paper. Oh dear. I'd forgotten about that. Is that ok, or was I supposed to have the names of the recipients written on it? Oh well. The majority of the onenga would go to Babas anyway (it turns out it was ok, the name of the giver is all that is written). The wrapping/calligraphy man holds up the giant bag of onenga and scans the crowd (skipping me) "Baba-sama!!" "Right here!" an apron girl rescues me. Ah, it's all so much fun.
We finally get on the train around 4pm. The bullet train takes a little over an hour but costs about $300 for the two us round trip, so this year we get the wonderful Seishun 18 kippu, a discount ticket for unlimited fares on JR local and rapid trains in a 5-day period for a flat $100 (pro tip: within the time period it can be resold and you can get money back for the days unused). What that means is our journey takes close to 4 hours and we don't get to sit down for a leg of it. At one point we had 10 minutes to make a transfer, but everyone dashed out like the train was on fire. The river of frantic people sweeps up across the station and down another platform, ignoring the shouts of station staff that running is very dangerous and please walk. I lose Yuya in the crowd. I see our train, and realize why everyone is running. It's to get seats. No one really gets off this one until its last stop 2 hours away. I know Yuya wouldn't dart into the first car; it's already filling up. I keep running to the end of the platform to the last car--and there's Yuya guarding two seats with his manspread and backpack. Safe! We eat some candy Justin sent Yuya for Christmas. It's Sour Patch Kids and I spill sugar all over my purse and Yuya's laptop. We meet Yuya's family at our final stop and go out for dinner.

December 30th
Yummy
My mother-in-law (okaa-san) treats me and K to haircuts at her favorite salon. The owner has won competitions or some such but it's all wasted on my hair, since I never get more than a tiny trim. The first time I went there (and the last time I'd cut my hair) I was super nervous for some reason and I don't think I said a word. The owner says my Japanese has really improved. "Did I speak at all last time?" I wonder. Japanese haircuts are a whole new level of haircut experience by the way. Shampooing is typically included and so is a head, neck, and shoulder massage. No tips needed and the price is high. Afterwards K and I get dropped off home to make cookies. I measured out and brought a lot of the ingredients, assuming Okaa-san would have flour and eggs (she did) but what she didn't have were the American measuring cups I use with American recipes. Measurements are different and Japanese usually measure by weight using kitchen scales. The result is too much flour and cake-y cookies. Oh well, A-kun eats a lot of them which surprises me, since he is very much a "rice and miso for breakfast" kind of person. Inwardly I give up on cooking at the Baba house. It's just impossible to make something well in a strange kitchen.
Dinner is at an amazing izakaya (bar?) in a private room. Everything's delicious, and everyone's in a good mood. Yuya and A-kun keep up a lively conversation about their jobs.


December 31st 
We all get up early and bundle into the rental car for the six of us for a day trip to see Mt. Fuji. At least, that was what I thought it was about. I should know by now most traveling in Japan by Japanese people is for the purpose of eating. It started the evening we arrived, really, it "snowed food and rained drink" as a hobbit might say. This year I wised up and attempted normalcy by refusing food except during the three daily mealtimes. My stomach thanked me! 30 minutes into our roadtrip (and an hour after a substantial breakfast) A-kun announces he's hungry (how??) so we stop at a conbini for nikuman meat buns and corndogs. I'm getting carsick with rental-car-smell and now corndog-smell, but I'm glad I was forthright enough to decline any food. We run into trouble. Okaa-san and Otou-san fight about the map and directions. The map's batteries meanwhile run out (it's an iPad). I'm worried because in the distance, clouds are steadily moving up Mt. Fuji's slopes and it's looking like it'll be blocked from view. We finally arrive at our destination however, a giant pedestrian suspension bridge with an uninterrupted view of The Mountain (Japan ver.). I notice there are only Japanese people there. I'm used to Kyoto where you can see all kinds of nationalities at the main tourist spots. I get stared at more in Yuya's countryside hometown, hear comments like "there's something you don't see every day!" In Kyoto people glance, and then immediately lose interest, but here the stares are long and follow my movements. We enjoy the bridge and the brilliant blue sky and Fuji who decided to come out and play after all. Yuya's dad disappears mysteriously as is his wont, to reappear in time for dango (rice balls on a stick) and ice-cream. I decline the latter. Yuya is less than impressed with the bridge. "So tourist trappy!"

Mishima Skywalk

Finally we get to our foodie destination, Numazu market on the coast. The market is dark, smelly, noisy, and closing. We sign our names at a very busy restaurant and wait to be called in. A bossy, hoarse old lady uses a megaphone to call guests and give orders to the kitchen. It's chaos inside, but I can almost imagine the fishing boats pulling up in the back to deliver still-wriggling menu items. We all get big bowls of seafood including sea urchin, roe, shrimp. It's all delicious and melts in my mouth like butter. We can't get good seafood to eat raw in land-bound Kyoto so it's a once-a-year treat.

We feel really full now, but Okaa-san, K and A-kun say they want to explore the market. The smelly market isn't so appealing to Otou-san, Yuya, and I, so we say we'll wait in the car and head in that direction. Yuya gets in right away but I notice beyond the cement blocks in front of our car is a little marina filled with adorable fishing boats, Mt. Fuji floating above in the background. "Can we go over there?" I ask Otou-san. "There's people walking there who don't look like fishermen," he says, "let's go!" We leave Yuya and head towards the water. I realize I'm off with Otou-san on one of his mysterious jaunts. I snap a few photos of Mt. Fuji when something catches Otou-san's eye. A little crowd of people gathered around a...tall ship?? It's a very small one, or perhaps just a sailboat outfitted with three tiny masts, but anyway, we can't resist getting a closer look. Captain looks the part with a pea coat and grey whiskers framing a sea-browned face. Otou-san finds out it's running little sunset tours daily, and just now they're late to depart but still missing one passenger. The captain manages to hand up a business card to us. Otou-san really seems interested, and chuckles when it turns out the missing passsenger's last name is Baba. "Otou-san, don't get any ideas," I say playfully, "you can't say 'that's me!' and get on the ship." He laughed. "I wonder where I'd end up!" The missing Baba turns up at last and we wave goodbye to the little schooner as it melts into the setting sun.

When we return home, we decide to skip New Year's Eve dinner. We're all too stuffed. That doesn't mean Okaa-san stops bringing out snacks and Shizuoka mikan (mandarin oranges). We settle down to watch the Red and White Singing Contest--an annual singing competition by the Red (female) most popular singers of the year, and White (male). Viewers can vote red or white with their TV remotes. We comment on who has or hasn't aged well and who wasn't invited back and who was on too much (PPAP), and ring in the New Year. Actually, we watch a little clock countdown on TV, and then everyone bows solemnly to each other あけましておめでとうございます Happy New Year Year, and 今年もよろしくおねがいします Looking forward to your continued support this year too. Here it is January 7th and I'm still hearing those greetings exchanged at work as our customers come in for the first time in 2017. Finally, we go to bed around 2am.

January 1st 
We're rudely awakened at 5:30 am to somehow bundle on layers of clothes and coats, hats and mittens to get in the car and catch the first sunrise of the year. It's a Japanese custom, many clap their hands in prayer for health in the new year. Yuya and I don't pray to the sun but we go along. The sunrise from the Pacific Ocean, with nothing between us and the sun, as it were, is really dramatic. Yuya knows participation is not optional here and gets up without complaint. The sky is getting lighter and by time we get to the beach, it's a clear white color. We grab some free cups of 甘酒 amazake , slightly alcoholic fermented rice drink like watery oatmeal and served full of sugar and piping hot. It's actually not half bad. We run for the beach, hampered by our steaming cups. The beach is crowded with people out to see the sun, especially where we can see the sky reddening between peoples' legs. And then, there it is! Suddenly, the sun is up! With no low clouds to hide it this year, it came up unexpectedly quickly. The cold grey beach and our pale faces turn brilliant red and gold in a matter of seconds, the wet sand and waves sparkle so hard my eyes hurt. It's early and no one slept much, but somehow I never mind coming to see the sunrise here.
We sleep in the car on the way home and go back to bed until 12:30 or so, waking up to eat osechi, special pickled and salted New Year's dishes served only this time of year. Most of it at Yuya's is handmade and saran-wrapped to be snacked on for the next day or so. We spend the day in pajamas while K and A-kun must go to Yuya's grandmother's house (a few houses down) for New Year's greetings before setting off to see A-kun's side of the family. A new bride is busy at New Year's. She has to greet and spend time with two families. She seems reluctant to go, but A-kun's grandmother is waiting too. We exchange onenga and say goodbye. K and A-kun's onenga is small and handmade. "Yuya!" I yell later, "Why didn't you let me give them cute little Christmas presents instead of onenga like I originally wanted to?! Theirs isn't traditional at all, and we gave them a big ol' traditional thing, like from a grandma!"

First sunrise of 2017
That night, Yuya and I visit his grandma and grandpa for the New Year's greeting and onenga exchange. His grandma is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. She doesn't make eye-contact anymore, and apparently didn't recognize K this year unfortunately, though she talked about her afterwards. This time she knows Yuya, and me. She acts shy about coming into the living room with Grandpa and Otou-san and Yuya and I, so we go back to the kitchen to see her. She's fumbling in a drawer. "What are you looking for?" asks Okaa-san. "I'm gonna give it to her," says Grandma, and says "Yuya's wife must be lonely living so far away from her home during New Year's." "Don't worry" I say, "New Year's here is very fun. I just want you to be healthy and happy!" but just like that, she pops a silver necklace with a single grey pearl on it into my hand. "Oh, Mom," says Okaa-san, but Grandma says, "Well I feel much better now. That's a load off my mind." Later I try to give the necklace--perhaps something Grandma had when she was young, back to Okaa-san--but she says, "Oh keep it. Grandma said she felt better giving it, and she worries about you. She's been saying she wanted to give you something. She chose a funny little thing, though, haha!"
Later thinking about it, I almost cry. I'll definitely treasure the necklace. All the silly dumb things I complain about here that every gaijin complains about, the other things I have to keep bottled inside, the loneliness at Christmastime...when it comes up I'll look at the necklace and hope Yuya's grandma isn't worrying about me anymore.

January 2nd
We get up slowly and get ready for our own departure back to Kyoto in the evening. I'm not looking forward to another uncomfortable, crowded, hectic 3.5 hours back ala Seishun 18, so I drag my feet packing a bit. Okaa-san tries to load us up with chocolates and mikan and for some reason a giant pooh-bear of honey to take home, but I make her keep half the mikans. It's not easy to run and transfer crowded trains loaded down with stuff. I was glad to get rid of our cumbersome bag of onenga but ended up having to carry the same amount home again anyway. Yuya with his incessant sweet tooth will be happy.
We talk about the New Year on the train. "This time, you seemed to have a lot of fun, more relaxed," says Yuya. "Yeah, I was more comfortable, I said 'no' more," I laugh, "But did you notice? A big reason I could relax is because A-kun did too." A-kun comes from a wonderful Tokyo family and that prestigious university. His family probably eat osechi properly in lacquered boxes, Grandma might even wear a kimono for the day, his dad definitely doesn't wander off mysteriously by himself during family outings. A-kun had visited Yuya's house before he and K got married, and then he was pretty formal, and never made clear his own preferences, but just went along with the majority opinion. This year though, he said "I'm hungry!" from the back of the car, went to bed instead of staying up to drink with Yuya and Otou-san, and laughingly showed off his round belly after eating one of our bigger meals. Yuya had noticed the change too, and we reflect that photogenic Tokyo families must be awful sticklers for ceremony, to the point that even a really weird family like Yuya's becomes a place to relax.
It is the first time I've ever really been able to relax there, I think. I'm more sure of myself. I know his family a bit better. K is married, we have all grown up one more year. This was an Oshogatsu to come home and find refuge from the outside world, to be selfish and free and to let each other be selfish and free, together.
When we arrive home late at night, the first thing on my mind is our mailbox. "Yuya, let's get the mail now! What if we got nengajou??" Nengajou are New Year's greeting postcards you write to every person you know. We don't, which is hardly civilized, but it's even less civilized to not return nengajou to someone who has sent you one. Last year Yuya painstakingly wrote 2 or 3 to people at work. This year he's in a new division, so I worry that all 20 people there sent him one...we open the mailbox, and out tumbles the rubber-banded stack of nengajou. My heart sinks. Yuya frantically shuffles through them...they are all fake! All advertisements, except for one from K and A-kun, and one from an uncle. Phew.....we dodged a bullet this year. Relieved from the burden of duty to tradition and the expectations of people we don't even like, we collapse in our bed. Selfish and free. "Happy New Year."

Family shadows at the beach

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Awkwardness Ahead: Did I Just Gaijin Smash?!

"Gaijin Smash" "Gaijin Card" "Gaijin Privilege"--when pushy foreigners get special services or break rules without repercussions simply by virtue of being giant pushy foreigner-san. Not nice, but common enough to make regular appearances in the expat blogs and forums.

However, I wonder if most often the Gaijin Smash is done completely unintentionally and therefore goes unrecorded. For example, a foreigner tries to get some service that is perfectly routine in their own country, and simply don't know that it's not done here, so you end up with the American saying "No pickles or tomatoes please!" in the foodcourt hamburger place while the poor little baito highschool kid behind the counter flusters with the manager about whether a pickle and tomato-less order can possibly be served, the manager sighs but comes out and makes the hamburger himself--a disruption of the hamburger-building line which will make the next 5 orders a minute late each--smiling as if nothing is amiss. The blissfully unaware American customer accepts his custom order as a matter of course.

It just (maybe??) happened to me, for the nth time.

I went into a bakery to get a stollen for a friend. Stollen are German fruit breads eaten during the Christmas season (not to be confused with fruitcake; stollen are quite delicious), and for some reason a staple in Japanese bakeries this time of year, but for a high price--perhaps because of the amount of butter and marzipan used. They're a little fancy and make good Christmas/end of the year gifts. Anyway, I went into the shop, and there were baskets of stollen in all sizes, some the size of Baby Jesus boxed up and sporting price tags over $50. That's not quite appropriate so I go for the smallest unboxed stollen for $10, and right next to it is a sign that says, WE'LL WRAP YOUR STOLLEN IN THIS CUTE GIFT BAG FOR ONLY 50 CENTS MORE!! Great! Wrapping cuteness all taken care of. I get my stollen and get in line. When it's my turn, I say in Japanese, "I'll have it gift-wrapped, please." And then it happens. The little baito girl makes the batsu X sign with her arms and shouts in English, "NO WRAPPING!"
What?? Did I misunderstand the sign? But it was right on the basket of mini stollen. I read it like 4 times to make sure, because I always want to avoid these kinds of situations. Then I see it, on the counter, right next to me, another basket of the mini stollen with the same sign. So I do it, the Gaijin Smash. I persist. I'm no good at wrapping baked goods to look cute by Japanese standards. I need this wrapped! I point to the sign in desperation, "Can't I get it wrapped like this?" The poor girl disappears to the back of the shop to confer with manager. Manager appears, smiling angelically while she digs around in some drawers and finally produces the little bag identical to the one on the sign. I stare at the bag. I know how things are typically done here. It is definitely a mini stollen-sized bag. It could have no other purpose...right? I felt hot color rising from my neck into my cheeks and ears. I must have read the sign wrong. I must have missed some fine print, like "when combined with a Snowman Bun" or "after December 15th." If so, why wouldn't they explain it to me? Why just awkward smiles while fumblingly fulfilling my request?

Perhaps the girl simply didn't know about the shop's stollen campaign. Perhaps she showed up from classes 2 minutes before her shift began and manager had no time to explain about the bags. Perhaps no one was buying mini stollen and asking for them wrapped, and it was their first time. The thing is, service is usually so good in Japan, so smooth and polished, that instances like these always make me doubt my Japanese skills and wonder if I'm in the midst of committing another unintentional Gaijin Smash.

In this case, like most others, I'll never know if the problem was mine or theirs. But at least I got my stollen, wrapped.

And that's how the awkwardness goes most days, of trying to feel like a functioning adult in this society, and being reminded otherwise more often than I'd like.

Monday, November 21, 2016

No Photos, Please: The Shots in Japan That Got Me a Scolding



I like taking pictures. It's kind of addicting: I see a situation that would make a nice photo, do my best to capture it...but maybe the angle or lighting wasn't right, the moment passed, the elusive great shot slipped from my grasp again. Next time, next time, I'll get it! Playing around on Instagram, I see so many great photographers and try to learn little tricks from them. I've never taken a photography class nor do I own a camera that cost more than three figures (in dollars). I've also outgrown the "snap a photo of everything because it's all so new and funny" stage I was in when I first came here, but I still enjoy taking photos of things and places that catch my eye.

It's not all flowers and sausages though, because as touristy as Kyoto and other parts of Japan are, there are still many places where photography isn't allowed or where people don't appreciate being photographed.

Here are my naughty shots that got me verbal warnings:

The sacrilegious photo. *don't try this at home
1. The altar area of temples 
This is a photo I took at one of my favorite temples, Sanzen-in in northern Kyoto. Before I took the photo, I looked around for No Photos signs and finding none, aimed my camera. Suddenly a monk appeared out of nowhere and barked "Photography is not allowed!" Sorry. I sometimes forget these are actual places of worship, and in Japan the altar area and areas where old statues/artifacts are stored are off-limits to cameras, in principle.
My friend and I sheepishly continued our tour of the temple, but I noticed that the monk was watching us from afar, to make sure we didn't start climbing the trees in the garden or something else horrible, I guess.


Sorry, sir. 
2. Food stalls in marketplaces
This is was taken at the famous seafood marketplace in Tokyo, Tsukiji. There have been complaints that tourists block operations and wander in places where it's not safe for them to be, but I wasn't in those places. The shopkeeper (guy in the green) scolded me in English "It's rude to take photos! Ask first!!" Perhaps they don't want images of their prices going online? I'm not sure. In Kyoto's famous Nishiki marketplace, it seems like shopkeepers have given up, and either allow photos or post conspicuous signs prohibiting them, but in Tsukiji I was made to feel the market had its own laws I must abide by, though they were posted nowhere.
Some shops in Japan have amazingly eye-catching, colorful displays and then there's the whole fake food thing going on, but as a general rule it's not kosher to take photos of shops or inside stores.


During the nightly light-up cherry blossom season, this angle was roped off to guests from April 2015 (I took this photo in 2014).

During the month of November when the leaves are red this shot is technically prohibited.
3. Places were photography is seasonly prohibited
Tourism to Japan is booming, and almost everyone visits Kyoto. During special times like the autumn maple leaf and spring cherry blossom seasons, Japanese tourists flock to Kyoto as well to visit places famous for great seasonal views. Since many temples are not equipped to handle thousands of tourists every day, some areas are prohibiting photography in an attempt to keep crowds moving. A certain angle of Toji Temple where the pagoda is reflected in the garden pond was prohibited during cherry blossom season. Just a week ago when I visited Tofukuji, famous for its valley of maple leaves that flame red in the fall, many visitors were shocked to learn photography of this view was prohibited starting this year. However, perhaps because I went in the morning when there were comparatively fewer people, the security guards on the bridge said nothing while a lot of people aimed their cameras over the bridge for shots of the valley. I took this forbidden shot myself. But, once people started to slow down and pile up, the guards started yelling, "Please refrain from taking photos!" again, so I think the key was simply to keep moving as much as possible and not cause safety concerns.


Kimonos look pretty from all angles and distances, happily.
4. Bonus: ladies in kimono
I've never been told to my face that my camera wasn't appreciated, but a casual perusal of Japanese Instagram reveals that ladies who wear kimono around Kyoto sometimes get harassed for photos by tourists. Some complain about not being able to enjoy their trip because they were either getting their photos taken sneakily, or stopped and asked every few minutes to pose. Some complain about foreign tourists doing this, others complain about Japanese men with their giant cameras snapping away as if the woman and her friends were some rare species.
Back in the day, I asked for photos, and everyone seemed happy to oblige. Now I'm more likely to take photos from the back sneakily. It's good to keep in mind many women in kimono you'll see around Kyoto are tourists themselves (Japanese or not) wanting to have a good time in Kyoto, and some enjoy the celebrity feeling, but others don't.
In general, Japanese people worry about online privacy and I think more than Americans take care to hide their faces and avoid using real names online when it comes to SNS and photo sharing. So it might be a good idea when taking candid photos to avoid clear facial shots, and ask permission if you want to take a close-up.

I admit, I had to snicker a bit reading the complaints of these ladies, because at least they can take their kimono off. I on the other hand, being a blonde foreigner, stick out wherever I go. I have had my photo taken without my permission more times than I can count on two hands. I dread visiting places like Fushimi Inari or Kiyomizu these days because I'll get assaulted by groups of junior high school kids on field trips whose homework is to go to Kyoto and take surveys of foreigners "what do you like about Japan?" It's cute the first couple times, but what happens is if you say yes to an interview with one group of painfully shy teenagers, others will notice and say "look there's a friendly one!" and before you know it you have to answer 30 questions from 30 different mumbling students and pose with each group while their teacher snaps a photo, and there goes your quiet afternoon at the shrine.

**A side note, when it comes to maiko and geiko (geisha) in Kyoto, a rule of thumb seems to be if you catch them standing still (such as at a crosswalk or an event), show your camera and ask permission to take a photo. You might not understand their uber-polite replies in geiko-dialect, but if they face your camera, that means "yes" you may take a photo. If they are dashing to work through the streets or from a taxi into a teahouse, just give them their space and don't impede them; it's ok to snap away without calling out and asking for a photo then and there (you'll be refused anyway since they're obviously busy). A funny thing, in the Gion area of Kyoto there are shops were people can do "maiko makeover" and get dressed up as geisha. Some foreigners and visiting students from out of town don't know the difference and upload "I met a geisha!!1!" photos of these cosplayers on Instagram. Real maiko/geiko are pretty elusive unless you have connections or pay a lot of money. They avoid the main streets, they don't use cellphones or selfie sticks, nor do they usually oblige passersby and stop to pose for photos. In my 6 years in Kyoto, I've only spotted the real deal 3 times, and was able to get photos only once.

There's a reason a lot of non-professional photos of maiko are from behind

In the end, it's good to be aware of these situations, and at least always check for "no photos" signs (撮影禁止 さつえいきんし in Japanese), or ask permission, before snapping away.
In addition, there are many places where photos are allowed but tripods, selfie-sticks, and drones are not, so I recommend checking and looking for specific signage beforehand if you want to avoid the embarrassment of being verbally told off in public for taking photos. Derp.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Is Wearing Kimono in Japan Cultural Appropriation?


Me in kimono for a family wedding

Short answer: no, probably not.

Long answer: readers may recall the kerfuffle over the Boston Museum of Fine Art's "Kimono Wednesdays" exhibition that allowed visitors to try on a formal uchikake kimono (provided by NHK, the Japanese government's public broadcaster) mimicking Monet's painting of his wife doing similar. The exhibition enraged Asian-American social justice groups, which confused NHK and the Japanese media and art world.

The problem was, both the protesters and the Japanese behind the exhibition are hugely out of touch with each other. The exhibit, a success in Japan, was in hindsight not appropriate for politically correct America, with the racial and social justice tensions typical of a country made up largely of immigrants, a culture very foreign to the Japanese. On the other hand, the protesters took on what was seen in Japan as an issue of Japanese culture and turned it into an "Asian culture" issue. Most Japanese living in Japan are unaware of how their expats are treated in other countries when they become immigrants and minorities, but if there's anything that offends Japanese people it's being lumped in with other Asian nationalities. Naturally. The category "Asian" is much too broad and slap-dash. There's also a whole can of worms' worth of unique historical and political reasons why the Japanese don't like being put in this category along with other nationalities. This blog goes into the complications a bit, from a non-Japanese perspective. But it would seem to me as an outsider that the Japanese organizers of this event and the American protesters who tried to speak for them are worlds apart in their experiences and thinking.

However, the issue has brought up over the past year much discussion on the question "is it always cultural appropriation for a non-Japanese to wear kimono? How about when visiting Japan?" Though I'll leave the Kimono Wednesdays problem for others to discuss, here are some reasons why I think the answer is "no it's not cultural appropriation" for foreigners to wear kimono in Japan:

1. It's part of Japanese おもてなし omotenashi hospitality culture
The truth is, foreign visitors to Japan of all nationalities do often wear kimono and informal summer wear, yukata. In Kyoto, especially in the Higashiyama and Arashiyama temple areas, rental kimono shops do a booming business. I have also rented kimono with some friends and strolled around Gion in them myself. Dressing visitors in kimono is a part of the Japanese tourism industry, a part of "entertaining the guests." To put it bluntly, the whole existence and purpose of visiting foreigners to Japan is to be entertained, and in turn supply entertainment (that needs another blog post!) as per TV shows like YOUは何し日本へ.
Most Japanese people think kindly of (most) foreign tourists. They want to help visitors enjoy Japan, and are happy when such visitors do have a good time. They are also not displeased when a foreigner shows interest in or studies a Japanese traditional art or craft. People in the know will happily coach and advise you (I know, I got instructed by an old lady when I went out in kimono on a more lady-like way of reaching for something). I don't think this culture of "entertaining/teaching the foreign guest" exists much in America.
Guests don't have to be foreign to enjoy kimono in touristy areas, either. Most of the young Japanese women you will see wandering around in kimono in such places are wearing rentals as well, and it's not something they normally wear in everyday life.

2. Japanese in Japan do not see themselves as a minority or oppressed people 
Most sources on cultural appropriation make references to these two things. Inherent in the misuse of another's cultural property is a power imbalance. Yes, Japan opened to foreign trade after being threatened by Matthew Perry in his black ships. Yes, it lost a war with America and yes had its constitution redrawn by the same, and a fair number of American military bases still exist on its soil. But the country was not colonized or enslaved en masse like other POC groups extant in America were. There are no bitter collective memories of oppression stirred up by seeing a white, black, or Chinese woman in a kimono. The Japanese were colonizers themselves and at the time, fought with America as an equal (though the rabid nationalism of the time of course cast Japan as America's superior, and vice versa in America). Many Japanese are now proud of their branding as a country that produces top-quality services, goods, and technology, equal if not superior in some ways to the strongest countries in the world, so I suppose they feel in control of doling out their culture as they see fit.

3. Kimono and yukata are not religious objects or a certain character
No one likes it when someone takes religious symbolism or objects used in one's worship and turns it into a fashion accessory. But kimono, literally, "thing for wearing" are just clothes. It's not like foreigners are trying to wear miko (Shinto shrine maiden) robes. Japanese hospitality does not extend to allowing foreigners to do that, and you won't find a place renting those anywhere. Since kimono and yukata are clothes, they are not a character or Halloween costume either. It's not like by wearing one, you are pretending to be Japanese or some such nonsense. In most Japanese lives, kimono are reserved for special occasions like weddings or formal family photos. Accordingly, the cosplay convention I attended in America discouraged people from simply wearing kimono or yukata to the event, because they are clothes--not a character or costume.

4. You'll be hard-pressed to find a Japanese person who finds foreigners in their national clothes to be racist or offensive
This video showcases reactions to a question posed an American girl, "is it rude to wear a yukata to a festival in Japan?" though the comments are not all from Japanese people, there is not a single one that denounces the kimono as cultural appropriation. This Japanese Yahoo answers question about a foreign friend wearing kimono to a tea ceremony is also similar. No one says the very act of donning a kimono is wrong, but overwhelmingly in both cases people do point out the context and appropriateness of the kimono. "If everyone else is wearing kimono, then it's much more proper for the situation than Western clothes" "Make sure she wears proper tabi and zori." "A festival is a great place to wear yukata!" "It might not look good on a fat broad-shouldered person or someone with corn rows or dyed hair." This last is something that comes up every now and again. For all the dressing-the-foreigner rental shops, outside of the touristy old towns not many people are used to seeing bodies other than Japanese ones in kimono. And the ideal woman who looks best in kimono is rectangular and small, with pale skin and proper straight black hair, no tattoos or piercings visible. It is interesting to me that the aesthetics of how one looks in kimono is an important factor in whether it's appropriate to wear one or not. I know both links are not the best sources of information, but if even the dregs of the Japanese Internet are not offended, I'm pretty sure it's safe to say wearing a kimono is not considered racist.

5. Context is key
Continuing from above, most Japanese comments on the issue of foreigners in kimono seem more concerned with appropriateness than appropriation. Like a tuxedo or a bikini, there is a time and a place for kimono and yukata, and times where socially they would not be appropriate. It would be better to show up to the formal tea ceremony in a pantsuit than in a yukata, for example. On the other hand, no one wears a formal kimono to a summer festival. Kimono are actually encouraged in touristy places in Kyoto, and some cafes and events will give discounts to guests in kimono. More people walking around in kimono=a more interesting, special atmosphere that fits well with the cobbled streets, rickshaws, and the five-storied pagoda silhouetted in the sky.
On the occasion of my sister-in-law's wedding, I'd at first said I'd wear a dress. But then the wedding was going to be held at a shrine, where a dress would stand out oddly in a traditional Japanese ceremony. "All the women of the families are going to wear kimono, so you will too," said my mother-in-law. So I did. More important than my improper broad shoulders and blonde hair was the nature of the situation that made my wearing a kimono the most socially acceptable choice (did you notice? There is another interesting aspect of modern Japanese culture: in the most formal occasions, women wear kimono but men may wear Western-style suits).

6. No one here sees themselves as the cultural gate-keeper
Also interesting to note in the above link are the comments comparing foreigners and the way they wear kimono to "young people these days" and their disregard for the old traditions: "I wish young Japanese people would care as much about how they wear kimono!" laments one comment. For every Chinese girl clod-hopping in wide steps in her kimono, there's a group of
Japanese girls stretching their arms out of their kimono sleeves to take a group photo with a selfie-stick. For every tattooed white girl who puts on a yukata, there's a bleach-blonde Japanese chick with her obi tied backwards and her collar pulled down to her shoulders at the same festival. The Japanese are always in a state of becoming, while some are intentionally rebelling. There is always more to learn, a more correct way to be, a more graceful way to use a cellphone or get yourself into a taxi while wearing kimono (I spent an afternoon watching Youtube videos on these subjects in preparation for my sister-in-law's wedding). I don't think many Japanese people would say they have it all together. Yes, the older ones laugh at and judge the foreigners and young people who get it wrong. But it would seem they take less umbrage at the fact that a foreigner is wearing a yukata than that he is wearing it the wrong way, or at the wrong place and time. 


***

In conclusion, given all that I know about foreigners in Japan and wearing kimono, if you want to wear kimono or yukata here, why not? Pay someone to dress you (either at a kimono rental shop or a beauty salon) and help keep alive knowledge, skills, and traditions that have sadly lost footing over the years. Wear the garment the way the dresser recommends. Ask questions. Learn. There are many people here who will be happy to teach you. Make sure you know what you're doing, whether your choice is appropriate for the situation/place you're going into or not. There will always be someone--foreign or Japanese--who'll think "it looks funny on you" due to your body or hair-type, but that's part of the deal, isn't it? Foreigners in kimono in Japan is a time-honored tradition in touristy areas, and in some occasions in Japanese daily life it's the most fitting garment, funny-looking or not. Foreigners wearing kimono in Japan may be a lot of things, but I think it's going a bit too far to say it's cultural appropriation.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Going "Home": 10 Things that Surprised Us in America

I meant to publish this post back in May shortly after we returned to Japan from a 10-day trip to my PNW hometown. I'm publishing it now with some added reflections.

There's a fancy-pants word for expats (we're never mere immigrants are we?) who go home after a while abroad and experience uncomfortable things: "reverse culture shock" or "re-entry shock". I haven't experienced either since coming back from study abroad years ago, because I've only had short trips back and haven't yet tried rebuilding daily life in my home country.

At least, the word shock is a bit much. My home country doesn't shock me as much as make me realize "wow, I've gotten used to doing things differently, and living in a society with very different values."

Here are ten things Yuya and I noticed about my little corner of America on our trip:

Everything is big. From towels and cups to cars and streets, space is used extravagantly. People have big bodies. Perhaps humans are bit like goldfish, and we grow to fit the size of our tank? Americans also have larger personal-space bubbles. In a tight crowded spot my mom bumped into a lady who seemed offended by the encounter. I thought her reaction was over-the-top, but then I remembered a lot of Americans probably aren't used to tight crowded spots. Hah, I thought, that lady couldn't live in Asia; she'd go nuts.

Relaxation is a thing. Yuya exclaimed more than once, "Americans really know how to relax!" The organic, informal, off-time gathering around a campfire in (large) comfy lawn chairs, or on cushions at the lakeside with an alcoholic drink in hand, where some of the most refreshing and restorative moments of our trip. There is no pressure to do or be anything special. There is no need to check one's watch. There is no need to stand up, bow, make polite nothings every time someone older than you shifts their weight. We can all talk about whatever, or say nothing and doze to the sound of the gentle lake waves lapping.

People don't take many pains to look nice in public. I like fashion and sometimes read blogs that mourn the decline of good dressing and polished looks in American culture. I finally noticed what they are all talking about. There just seems to be a lot of skin and stray hairs hanging out of half-hearted clothes, and no pantyhose to be seen. We went to a baseball game and took selfies while sitting in the stands, and were a bit surprised by all the bare human limbs that also made it into the photo. Oh well!

People don't use cash as much. I'd gotten used to Japan's cash-based society. I was very confused when I tried to deposit cash in an ATM and found no place to put in my bills to be automatically scanned and counted by the machine, but instead had to put the cash in an envelope and manually type in the amount myself. We ended up not using the ATM for that because of the insecurity. A completely different system!

People don't care who's around. In America you will overhear loud conversations in public places. Loud phone conversations in public places. Just put your life on air or talk about private things in an outside voice; who cares if someone overhears that Dennis failed his drug test again or that you have an appointment tomorrow to get a weird spot on your butt checked.

Somewhat related, even adults say exactly what they think or feel about things. People complain like children about things that can't be helped and air personal views readily. A young employee at a store we visited sighed heavily and informed us he was "finally off work in 13 more minutes." Yuya and I chuckled about it later, at how unthinkable such a comment to a customer would be in Japan. I realized I'd gotten used to the Japanese way of tailoring conversation depending on who you're speaking to. If you communicate the same way in Japan, it will remind listeners of children or of a mental disability.

Phones in business places don't ring very often. This is something Yuya noticed and still talks about. People in the office don't run around either but walk slowly. It looked quite different from both of our work environments. Customer service is also of course not up to the Japanese standard. Employees chat amongst themselves in front of customers, don't hesitate to show displeasure on their faces, or like when I had trouble with the ferry ticket machine in Seattle, shrug and say "that's not my job, sorry can't help you." In the end it made us laugh. The environment is definitely more comfortable for the workers, we thought.

Our 10-day trip was "short" by American standards, "long" by Japanese.
We went during Golden Week, a string of 5 or so national holidays in Japan, and tacked on an extra week of paid leave days we'd saved up. "Wow, nice, a whole 2 weeks off!" were what Japanese friends and co-workers said. Most people make do with one week. This is a population used to taking overseas trips to Korea, Bali, Guam, even Paris in only 3-5 days. We were very happy we finagled the longer vacation from both our jobs until we got to my hometown and everyone said, "Aww that's so short!" about our trip. It was a bit deflating. Tourism is one thing, but we weren't leaving Japan just for fun--time for meeting family and old friends is always too short.

Recreational marijuana has been legalized, and I spotted a gender-neutral bathroom. Times they be a-changin'. In Japan, getting caught with any kind of drug effectively ruins your chances of a career and a normal social life. Even popular musicians who get caught have their CDs pulled from the shelves of music stores. Drugs are very taboo. Gender questions are just starting to become public discussion here, but it's usually more questions about gender roles in society rather than trans issues.

Most people I saw around town were white like me, for a change. I'd forgotten what it was like to not look obviously different from the majority around me. I saw Yuya get the foreigner treatment more than once. There will always be at least one of us at the receiving end of that.

In the end, since our standard of living in both countries is not so different, there is not so much to really shock, at least not from what we ran into on a short trip. Some things are more comfortable than in Japan, some things are much less convenient. Personally I find it thought-provoking to be able to see my own culture from "outside," and realize just how much I've been influenced by my new country. Perhaps that is the most shocking thing of all about living abroad...