Monday, December 21, 2015

A Merry Little Christmas...in Japan

Have yourself a merry little Christmas 
Let your heart be light 
Next year all our troubles will be
Out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yule-tide gay
Next year all our troubles will be
Miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon, we all will be together
If the Fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.



As cheesy as it is, this one Christmas song never fails to give me "the feels" as kids say these days...especially this (original?) version, which I don't hear very often--the lyrics have been changed to include less muddling. But sometimes, we really do just have to muddle through. That's how this holiday season felt to me this year.

Christmas cake--nearly too cute to eat. Strawberries are a winter food here.
It's my 5th Christmas in Japan now. Every year has served to complicate my thoughts about it. To start with, Christmas is a relatively recent import to Japan. There are a few "traditions" (going on a date with your lover, eating KFC chicken, and Christmas cake) but since it's not a native Japanese holiday, I find there's very little substance. Japan has imported the commercial trappings--that we all love and love to hate--only. It makes sense. The biggest holiday in Japan is oshougatsu, the New Year, and a lot of the fall and winter revolve around preparations for it. So Christmas is kind of a commercial afterthought, meant to appeal to children and college students with dates. I have a different reference for Christmas though. Christmas is supposed to mean warmth, cheer, gathering with loved ones and eating good food, singing all the old carols in church with a candlelight service to bring to mind the Light of the World. 

The first year I was here, Christmas was a ton of fun. I was an exchange student with time on my hands; we all got together and had a Christmas party, and I could participate in a Christmas program at church. Then my husband and I became shakaijin , employed members of Japanese society (cue ominous organ music). Suddenly Decembers became very different, and we entered the world of nenmatsu end-of-the-year sales campaigns, several company bounenkai (end-of-year parties, a phenomenon that deserves its own post), the 24th, 25th, and Sunday before as normal working days, company and church oosouji ("big cleaning" like spring cleaning but done before the new year), worrying about how to return oseibo, traditional year-end gifts, and nengajou, new year's greeting cards. Whew! I feel worn-out just listing it all. It's insane. Everyone plugs through December just hoping to make it to the New Year's holiday (generally 4-5 days off when pretty much the entire country shuts down) in one piece. As you can imagine in this society, Christmas is an attraction for non-shakaijin folks, a blip on the screen for us. Our house is too small for even a tiny Christmas tree, our December too packed for any celebration. 

Doesn't it help to be Christian and part of a church? Well, yes and no. I can't always get the right days off work to enjoy it. And then one year I spent at a church that didn't celebrate Christmas so as to stick to Scripture and get away from the Catholic church calendar. That made me question Christmas a lot. I don't really need it, or any of the trappings. The things we enjoy at Christmas, we can and should enjoy any time of the year. Why make Christmas, a completely man-made holiday, so special? What's so Christian about a Christmas tree or presents or good food?

So the next two Christmasses after that, I was fine. Don't need no Christmas. I'm a Christian all year 'round. I give presents and charity to folks anytime. I'm one of the good cool integrated gaijin who don't complain about that kind of obvious cultural difference. I enjoyed the "couples" Japanese-style Christmas and went on dates to light-up events with Yuya. Last year, our first married Christmas together, we stayed home because we were too tired. I made burritos and we listened to records. It was alright. 
Usually all I see of Christmas in Japan. No one here really knows about the origins of Christmas or cares about political correctness. 
But this year is a little different somehow. Maybe all the trappings of Christmas I notice makes me homesick a bit. Maybe I miss my family gathering around and going to church together. Maybe I'm awakening to the irony of working on Christmas Day so as to provide a "foreign country's Christmas" campaign to our customers. Maybe I'm losing my interest in the oshougatsu warm family time because of the demands on shakaijin and my faith which says no to a lot of the Shinto/Buddhist traditions of the season. But to be honest, I miss Christmas. It makes me feel like a bad gaijin, moping about why my second country doesn't have the same stuff going on as my home country. 

Then yesterday, a lightbulb came on. The talk at church was about how Christmas is about waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting. How much was just muddling through? Going through the motions? Rinse and repeat? Dealing with hollowness, feeling lonely? Dissatisfied with the lack of substance in celebrations? The faithful must have experienced all of it waiting for the One to redeem them from the empty ways of life handed down from generation to generation. "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Christmas, in all its glory, is only a tiny passing shadow. In Japan, I hardly get even the shadow I'm used to. And it's enough, because it teaches me something. The gift and the lesson is priceless. 

"Mewwy Chwismas!" said the 3-year-old at church who handed these to me. BEST PRESENT EVER.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Best Newlywed Recipes: Winter

In our house, I do the cooking. I didn't really start cooking until we got married, because before then I had very simple tastes. And by simple I mean things like rice topped with a fried egg and soy sauce (still pretty much the best lunch!) but it turns out my husband is not so easily satisfied. And we have been a lot healthier since I've tried to cook every day and do as much as I can from scratch. It's been a little difficult learning how to cook in Japan, where foods are priced differently and there are different things available that I'm not used to cooking with--and at least when it comes to veggies, I think Japanese supermarkets have more variety than U.S. ones! The problem is learning how to use them. 

In this post, I list some favorite summer recipes. Now it's at least 20C cooler outside than when I wrote that post, and different foods are in season. Colder temps are for snuggling up with root vegetables! Here are some of my favorite go-to recipes:


This recipe forever changed the way I make chicken soup. I don't know if I've made it exactly like the recipe says except for the first time I tried it (I like to use chicken drummies for soup because I think the bones make it taste richer) and it works great of course with any soup-ish veggies you may have on hand, but now I never make a chicken soup without the secret ingredient: a squeeze of fresh lemon juice! So good. And I love any recipe that gets me eating citrus in winter. 

Tonjiru (Pork Miso Soup) Now for a soup of root veggies, Japanese-style! This recipe uses winter vegetables like daikon (giant white radish), gobo (burdock root), and hakusai (Chinese white cabbage), all of which are so cheap this time of year! The thin-cut pork cooked in sesame oil and ginger beforehand is just melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I must admit konnyaku never finds its way into my version of this soup; that's like the one Japanese food I really don't like.  


Japan has a thing for this kind of white, creamy Western-style stew. You can get the instant bouillon sauce mix for it at any supermarket (just add water!) but in my efforts to make things from scratch, I found this perfect recipe. I like it because it's light on dairy (no cream and only a little butter) which is pretty expensive here. The cream sauce is so easy to make and doesn't really require any more effort or time than the instant version. I often spice it up a bit with paprika and pepper. The photo shows the time I got some round rolls and made us bread bowls! 

Beef and Bok-Choy Stir-Fry Now finally one that's not a soup. I've been making a lot of stir-fries these days, because they're so easy and flexible, and with bowls of steaming rice the meal is complete. I don't think I've used beef in this recipe yet (in case you've not picked up on it yet, I'm pinching pennies where I can) but bok-choy is a great veggie and also very cheap in the winter season, and the sauce became my base for all stir-fries. I like to use soy sauce, an alcohol--usually sake--dried jalapenos cut up, and honey for sweetener instead of sugar. It's great! 

I think I enjoy eating in winter more than in the summer. I'm a fan of quick, easy, warming recipes that get me eating winter superfoods like lemon, garlic and ginger. Do you know any good winter recipes?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Baggage and Other Surprising Things We Brought into Marriage

The record collection
Before we got married, I read up on the topic of marriage a lot. Articles, books, blogs, etc. And there was often mentioned the topic of baggage. The idea is that people come into marriages already weighed down with the personal problems
they've accumulated over time, and the interaction of two peoples' baggage can obviously have a big effect on the marriage. I'm not sure exactly why this topic comes up a lot in connection with marriage when it should come up in dating as well. I think your partner's baggage shouldn't be a surprise to you by time you're getting married.

The non-physical baggage wasn't a surprise to me when we got married. My could-be-better money-managing skills, his slightly hairy relations with his parents...we'd bumped into those already numerous times while dating. As I noted in this post on our first year of marriage, nothing really changed about our basic relationship. What surprised me was the things my husband came with!

Here comes an interesting fact: I never saw nor entered my husband's bedroom before we got married. If it sounds like some extreme version of the purity movement, it wasn't really. Simply because of his living situation (in a men's dorm hard to get to by public transportation) I never set foot in it. It was also probably a bit by Yuya's design. I heard the rumors. And not the "he's a neat freak" kind of rumors, but the opposite. I know some of you reading this are wanting to yell at me, "How could you marry someone without seeing their living conditions first??" I don't know. It just happened that way. Maybe it was stupid of us, but so far, a year and a half in, Clutter Armageddon has yet to break loose. I won't take credit for it because I don't want to be that naggy wife who takes charge of "fixing" her husband. I think he's trying his best by himself. Anyway.

When we prepared to move in together, I "came with" very little. The result of moving across the ocean and then again within the country, and living in house-share situations was that I had two suitcases of clothes, a few books, a hot-water kettle, a mug or two, and one little floor rug. That was it! So I was glad when Yuya brought to our house a bit more. Bookcases. Hangers. Seasonally appropriate bedding.

He also brought some things that pleasantly surprised me:

1. A full-length mirror
I'd gone several years without one, and was happy to say goodbye to making strange poses in a tiny bathroom mirror or sneaking glances at myself in shiny store windows.

2. Delicates bags
You know, those gauzy little zippered bags for washing delicate clothes. I suppose he had some nice silk shirts or something to wash? He doesn't use them now, but I do!

3. A blow-dryer
I rarely blow-dry my hair. It makes the fluffy even more fluffy! But spiky Japanese hair gets blow-dried.

4. Hoodies galore
Yuya came with more hoodies (parkers in Japanese-English) than 6 American college students put together, I feel like! Apparently when his parents lived in America for a few years, they regularly sent him hoodies, of all colors and thicknesses. He regularly wears about 4 out of the 24.

5. High-end clothes
Tucked away in the closet under layers of diaphanous plastic were a few interesting pieces of clothing. Not cheap clothing. In Japan, where parents often support children through college, many college students get part-time jobs and spend the extra on looking good. Especially if they spent their primary education in uniforms, college is their chance to find their own style. Some dye their hair: Yuya had long brown Beatles hair I've only seen in pictures. He also wore nice clothes, but "They're from my non-Christian days" and they don't get worn so often anymore.

5. Records and a record-player
The week we moved in to our new house, I was completely out of it with influenza. When I woke up out of my stupor, he and his mom had arranged and put together our little room and there was nary a cardboard box in sight. Our living room space however was taken up with a large cabinet-like structure. The last two shelves of the bookcase were filled with records. "What's all this?" "It's a record player and records." "Does it work?" "No. Well yes, I just don't have speakers for it." "It takes up an awful lot of room considering we're not even going to use it." The next week he had two speakers hooked up to it and we enjoyed a glass of good stuff and some jams. It was the first time I'd heard vinyl and now I'm hooked. The quality is so different from digital and it doesn't tire the ears. Now it's something we enjoy together from time to time, and when guests come over. Yay for finding new hobbies to enjoy together!

How about you? Did your spouse bring anything that surprised you?

Monday, November 9, 2015

8 Little Things I Love About Kyoto


A walk through old Kyoto in kimono

This is not actually a post about Kyoto City’s long history as Japan’s ancient capital, dotted with many temples, shrines, geisha, and architecture. We enjoy those things sometimes, and there are innumerable guide books detailing them, but there are more factors that make Kyoto a lovely city to call home that don't often make it into the guidebooks. Here are some not so well-known things about Kyoto that make it a pretty comfortable place for gaijin me to live in:

1. Streets that have names and run on a neat grid of North-South and East-West
If you look at a map of most Japanese cities, the streets will remind you of a plate of spaghetti. City blocks are all shapes and sizes! But Kyoto is a reassuring grid pattern. When it was founded, Kyoto the imperial city was modeled after Chinese cities, which were built along principles of what we would call feng-shui or the good luck/bad luck involved in compass directions. The city is divided in rectangular blocks and nearly all streets have names. Many have not changed location for a thousand years! Everyone knows the names of the larger ones, and the North-South subway line stops and many bus stops are named after intersections, so it’s very easy to find your way around. It’s easy and quick to travel North-South or East-West; the downside is, if you want to travel diagonally (say, from the north part of Sakyo Ward to Arashiyama) there is no public transportation that cuts through the city that way, which makes the trip a little long and complicated.
On large and small scale, most streets are straight!


2. Few natural disasters to worry about 
The ancient emperors chose wisely in their search for the ideal capital city. Especially since the 3/11 Tohoku disaster in Northeastern Japan, people ask me if I experience many earthquakes, but the year I studied abroad in Kyoto, I never felt a single one. Perhaps a little ominously, I've been feeling tiny ones about once a month or so in the past year. But historically, Kyoto has been quite safe from natural disasters. A ring of mountains act as a buffer from the high winds of typhoons, and Kyoto is so far inland, a tsunami is not a possibility, unless the whole country sinks. In the mountains there is the danger of flooding rivers and landslides, but not so much in the city itself. The only destruction this city has suffered is from fires started by humans. Most temples and buildings have been repaired and rebuilt many times (the famous Golden Temple Kinkakuji was most recently burned down in 1950 by a Buddhist monk of all people). Byodoin Temple in Uji is one famous temple that has been preserved burned-out as it is.

3. A populace that's used to foreigners
In Kyoto, I can walk around town without being stared at or approached by strangers. Little schoolchildren do not yell “Haro!” (hello) at me as some other expats complain. This is huge. When I lived in a small town outside of Kobe, there were vulnerable days where I would just hole up in my room rather than go out, because the staring was so relentless. Each glance, each comment from a passerby, each child’s pointed finger felt like a needle in my skin reminding me I didn't belong there. When I stay with my in-laws in their small town in Shizuoka, I feel the same. But Kyoto people are so used to tourists, a pointy nose and blonde hair aren't anything to write home about. I can breathe and relax more in Kyoto. A different story if I visit a tourist attraction during major busy seasons (cherry blossom season in spring and maple-leaf season in the fall) and then the out-of-town Japanese tourists comment, in my hearing "So many foreigners in Kyoto! Is this Japan??"

4. The city is pretty clean
Perhaps because many tourists visit, and it IS after all the ancient miyako (capital), there is a lot of effort put in to maintaining a city free from litter and bad smells. It is much pleasanter to walk around downtown for this reasons than say, Tokyo or Osaka. This cleanliness extends to the many rivers and streams that flow through the city, which are quite clean considering the amount of urban landscape they meander through. A few streams are clean enough that fireflies can be seen around them on June nights—and fireflies, apparently, need water free from garbage and chemical contaminates. Many little streets around town also have a distinct smell of incense about them, especially in the part of the city where I live with many artisans selling goods for Buddhist temples and services.

5. The abundance of cafés
I don’t think I need a long explanation for why this is a good thing. But in Kyoto, the coffee is GOOD. There are a few famous chains like Ogawa and Inoda here, and many many privately-owned little cafes that roast and grind their own beans. I learned to drink and love black coffee in Kyoto. A lot of cafes are renovated old machiya houses with a great Kyoto-esque atmosphere. As far as food goes, traditional kaiseki (course) meals are something visitors should try once...I did...and honestly haven't felt the need to eat it again. Kyoto is far from the ocean so it's not the best place for sushi or seafood. But the cafe food, and western-style food, is very good! It's often a unique fusion style of Western dishes with Japanese, Indian, or Korean touches. Here's a post on some of my favorite cafes.

6. A liberal atmosphere
Kyoto with its Buddhism and ancient arts may seem very rigid, but in my experience it is actually—in certain ways—one of the most open-minded cities in Japan. Since it is no longer the seat of politics, Kyoto has been free for a few hundred years to be the capital city of artists, poets, and philosophers—not all the most staunchly conservative types! It is also the home of one of the most prestigious universities in Japan, Kyoto University, famous for turning out thinkers a little different from the majority. One of my favorite memories is visiting Yoshida Dormitory, a community of students with their own system of government (sometimes to the dismay of Kyoto police) who charge members 500 yen (about $5) a month for rent to live in extremely dilapidated ancient buildings. There was a rare air of student idealism and gentle rebellion there that was in stark contrast to the relentless materialism of mainstream society.
The liberalism in Kyoto means that during election season, the radical right wing's black vans spewing vitriol from megaphones are a rare sight indeed. (The far right in Japan, by the way, wants to reestablish the modern version of "revere the emperor, expel the barbarian"--not friendly to Christians or foreigners of the wrong race). It also means there are many churches here to choose from. There is no need to make a day-trip of going to church like many people have to do in this country where fewer than 1% are Christian.

7. Maps--and English--everywhere
Sometimes I'm annoyed at this because I can get by without ever reading Japanese, which means I get lazy and I don't! But it is reassuring especially when navigating buses and trains. As an exchange student I really appreciated the abundance of maps posted around the city...at that time I had no internet access on my phone, so whenever I went somewhere I printed out a ton of Google maps! But I found maps posted at intersections and near historical places so I rarely got lost. Many areas of Kyoto are engineered with tourists in mind, and it's very helpful.

8. Bicycles
I have always loved riding bikes. Time was when my siblings and I used to get on our bikes and not come home until the streetlights came on. As an exchange student, I got to relive the feeling many times in Kyoto! I bought a used commuter bike (they come equipped with a basket, a light that uses electricity generated from friction with the front wheel, a bell, and a hobble-style lock for about $60) the day after I arrived in Kyoto and it was my main transportation to and from class, rain or shine--so much cheaper than the subway or bus! Kyoto city is flat with few hills and the sidewalks are usually wide enough to accommodate bikes (no one rides on the road) making it ideal for long days touring around by bicycle. I remember I took a walk with some friends and it felt weird to go slowly on my own two feet after always going out on my bike. The only problem is, there are few (free) places to park your bike without fear of it getting impounded. In general you can park it in little side-streets and sneak off (shh don't tell anyone I told you to do that, and don't leave your bike somewhere overnight).

Every time I visit another city in Japan, I'm always glad to come back to Kyoto. I'm thankful we can live here during our time in Japan.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Good, the Beautiful, and the Ugly: Parity Across Countries

Or, why I'm with a man who doesn't look like no movie star.

It's surprising to some people here, when we're introduced and it comes out that we're a married couple. Cue the Japanese exclamation of surprise: heeeeh?!?! When we were first dating, it was the same. One good friend thought it was all a big joke for several weeks! 

I realize there are three assumptions at work: 1) of parity, that is a dating couple will have similar levels of attractiveness 2) that I was gorgeous 3) that my guy was not gorgeous.

Of course, these assumptions are not true all the time and in all places. But the idea of parity I think has some truth in it in the way it's an out-working of our self image and self-esteem. Perhaps people who throughout their lives have received little looks-based attention are less likely to require looks in a partner? We are realists: all through our awkward ugly teenage and young adult years of never being called beautiful except by family members we were given the cold comfort that "it's what's on the inside that counts." After a while, one realizes it's true. Not just in a platitudinal way or to make oneself feel better, but true.

Some might disagree with me, but (now please don't comment "but you're so pretty!!1!" I am gorgeous, beautiful, I know. I'm not fishing for those kind of comments): I was not one of the "pretty people" so I don't exactly know how it is for someone who has grown up being photogenic, admired, and beautiful. Just anecdotally, they seem to take longer to find good partners. Maybe because they didn't get the "it's the inside that counts" education so often, so they wait out for someone who shares the way their looks influence their social life. Or maybe since they are like a candle glowing they have a lot of bothersome moths to sort through. But anyway, parity I think has to do with how you see yourself rather than how beautiful you are objectively (if there can even be an objective scale for beauty). 

So are my husband and I at opposing ends of a beauty scale? Or have we achieved parity? 

In Japan at least, most people wouldn't put us together. You have to remember that in Japan, thin white girls are seen as automatically gorgeous. All you need is a "small" face and big eyes and a pointy nose. You don't even need good fashion or the perfect bubbly personality. It's funny to see the Western celebrities Japanese choose to pay attention to. As popular as they are in the U.S., Beyoncé rarely comes up in the media here and no one knows who Kim Kardashian is. Taylor Swift and Emma Watson, however, have a substantial following. A big butt, boobs, and an even bigger personality are actually not attractive here. They are just "fat" and "scary"--it makes me chuckle to remember those words from a student who saw a video of Kim! You would be correct in guessing that "bubbly" personalities aren't ideal here. Such people are called "high-tension" and are handled rather gingerly by others around them, because you know, they might explode or turn inside out at any given moment. So, oddly enough, having neither a bubbly nether end nor personality, I found myself fitting the mold as a pretty person in Japan. Mostly. This post goes more into how I fail at that. 

But it hasn't really sunk in, because growing up I was not a pretty person. I was the typical badly-dressed awkward homeschooler who had little interest in or knowledge of makeup and hair styling. Heck, I wore buttoned-all-the-way-up collared shirts and sweater vests in community college. In 2008. I finally discovered makeup in college and tried it maybe once or twice. I finally ditched the button-down shirts (now rediscovering them and loving how classy they can be) but I never seemed to have jeans that fit and I plucked my eyebrows into tadpoles. Mmhmm. I must say I don't think it was because I was homeschooled. My just-as-homeschooled younger siblings started paying attention to fashion sooner than I did and were better at it. I think I just didn't have the knack for it.
I could have made up for this--yes, even tadpole eyebrows--with the Great Personality. But by typical American standards I again seemed to fall short. I didn't need people, or conversation, and it showed. I had a few close friends, and I was content with them. I wasn't very interested in the others I came across day by day. In other words, I did a lot of sitting quietly by myself. In America, that's ok to do in your room but not in public. Such behavior is weird or sad and definitely not pretty, but I didn't really care. See this diagram of what I was doing with my Saturday nights in college vs. what a pretty girl's Saturday should look like: 


There were times I had no cellphone or laptop but one good friend always knew which computer lab to find me in on weekend nights when she wanted to invite me to events and be social (thanks dear you know who you are!) 

I never thought of myself as or was treated as a Pretty Person, until I came to Japan. And then it didn't really change me, because my identity as non-pretty had been established long beforehand. So there I am, in Japanese eyes looking as flawless as Taylor Swift and with a Japan-approved reserved personality, dating my now husband. Only everyone seemed to think that someone who looks on par with T ought to date someone with the same Hollywood looks. "Normal-faced Japanese guy" didn't fit the bill. So we became a "surprising" mismatched couple. But only to those with that kind of typical beauty standard. To me, my husband's face/bod is my favorite in the whole world. And that's all that really matters.

It is very funny to look at the #amwf (Asian Male, White Female)tag on instagram...Yuya chuckles and says most of the girls are gorgeous but the guys are just "average" by Japanese standards--nary an ikemen to be found. We white girls look for different things in our men than the Japanese girls do, I guess.

Does that mean I initially dated my husband because I had a low estimation of myself? I don't think so...just to me we seemed to be a good match and a good match now was better than a gorgeous match who knows when. And he was bold and made plans but didn't let his man-pride ruin things. Besides, I was a foreigner to both American and Japanese beauty standards and was just operating on my own.

So no, I do not find us mismatched at all and it's actually kind of hurtful when people act surprised that we're together. After all, it's what's on the inside that counts. When someone makes a comment that suggests our outsides don't match, all that does is shows that person's insides aren't very attractive. Best beauty advice: don't pluck and primp all over your face and forget your heart, the source of it all.

Friday, October 16, 2015

We're All Mad Here: Is Japan Really So Weird?

It's all over the internet on sites like WTF Japan and the tumblr Meanwhile in Japan...bizarre costumes, naughty vending machines, incomprehensible anime .gif images, over-the-top cuteness, tentacles in places there shouldn't be tentacles, etc. The Japanese government has been trying to promote the country's brand as a producer of sophisticated, high-quality, impressive things and experiences with the phrase "Cool Japan". Unfortunately in the young Internet community "Weird Japan" is probably more accurate.

But is Japan really so weird? If so, what makes it weird, and if not, why does it continue to put out a "weird" image? One has to keep in mind that the bizarre images you can find online under the wtfjapan tag are mostly stills from Japanese TV shows. Comedy shows. They are designed to be shocking or to make people laugh, and in a country untouched by Christianity, the outworking of that is a bit different from what Western people are used to. In the same vein, anime conventions, cosplay, and the otaku district of Akihabara are definitely deviations from the mainstream here. Not very many Japanese people watch only anime or wear maid costumes or buy used panties from vending machines. Most Japanese people join you in thinking it's weird. But weirdness can be entertainment gold, so it's often on TV as the object of ridicule. Japanese pop culture seems to be about entertaining the majority with some odd thing rather than reflecting what the majority is really like. There is an interesting theory I read about current Japanese pop culture and the tyranny of the minority--since only otaku (geeky fans) spend money on music and pop culture, they get to dictate what's popular. So we end up with idol groups like AKB on the TV 24/7.

In reality, city-dwelling Japanese lives are, on average I'd say, extremely mundane. Routine, convenience, obligation, sterility, common sense. A young Japanese pop-culture fan from overseas might be disappointed at how plain and conservative real Japanese life is. In daily life, in the activities people engage in, the conversations they have, the clothes they wear, the city streets they walk in, there is very little to jar the senses. Every morning, put on the same business attire as 80% of the population, leave your tiny nondescript apartment in your nondescript neighborhood and catch the crowded commuter train to work. After work, head to a bar with coworkers to complain about your job. Go back to your apartment for 6 hours of sleep. Rinse and repeat. Non-confrontational and harmonious. To Japanese people, the very opposite of weird. But for me...

Sometimes, when I'm particularly bitter or culture-shocked about working life here, I think of words like cult, anthill, hive-mind. Sameness and not stepping out of line, not offending anyone, finding comfort and meaning in being a useful cog in the machine--all things Americans were taught to fear and hate during the Cold War era and into the social rebellions of the 1970s and 80s. The mistrust of government and large organizations, of unity and basic mainstream-ness is still going strong in our culture. So the harmony of Japan is weird: mind-numbingly boring at best and dangerously soul-sucking at worst. The tumblr threads about "weird Japan" are completely missing the real weirdness.

Where did it all come from? How did Japan get to be this way? Who'd have guessed, a lot of the things I think are weird are actually from...America! That's right. After the war, Japan implemented (or was made to implement) many of the business practices and social norms of 1940s-50s America. And a lot of it has stuck to this day. Filtered and modified through Japanese group-oriented culture the society presents itself in a unique but not wholly unfamiliar shape. Like looking through time at an older, dear departed America in one of those fun mirrors at the fair. Think Mad Men with the tempering influence of Confucianism, a communal mindset, and risk aversion; add smartphones. When you copy and paste something, what you end up with is the content from that point in time. If the original document undergoes changes, what you pasted doesn't automatically change unless you make sure to update and paste the new parts in. Japan was extremely successful with the first material it copied and pasted from Western countries. The success is starting to run thin, so it will be interesting to see the route Japan takes into the future.

It still weirds me out that to find the weirdest thing about Japan, this American has to look in the mirror at her own culture. Perhaps the Cheshire cat was right, the problem is we're all mad here.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Fun with the Internet in Two Languages

As a Japanese language learner and English teacher, I know how often language learners try to speak by translating their thoughts. 
It's the default way we process a new language, but trying to directly translate your thoughts can result in misunderstandings and miscommunication. We learn starting so simply, "Apple" =りんご , but actually "equivalent" words each language produce different meanings in peoples' minds. Language is a tool for navigating life, so it follows that even simple words may not have an equivalent translatation in a culture with a different history and lifestyle. 
To truly use another language well, you have to figure out what your words in that language really mean to the people listening. Here is where Google comes in. It allows me to put words in the search bar and see the images (meanings) people most often associate with that word. Now I know this has its limitations; I'm not a Google analyst or a linguist so I don't have the tools to research or make good conclusions, so for me it's nothing more than a bit of fun. And it is funny to compare Google image search results in two languages! 

For example let's start with the most important meal of the day, breakfast vs. 朝ごはん!Which one has more calories?

How about people? It would seem "cute" is a word English speakers use more for things and animals, but 可愛い is sure used with young women a lot!

Blonde brought up images of (white) women first but 金髪 was (Asian) men first. Your guess is as good as mine.

Handsome men need a bit of facial hair, イケメン must be smooth as baby's bottoms:

When the two meet and things go well...English romance features more touch all over the body but 恋愛 brings up many images of just hands touching. PDA is not ok in Japan. 

Make a mistake? English seems to make light of it and emphasize correction/doing over. In Japanese, the exact opposite "success" also comes up but...

Now this gets personal, haha. When we got engaged I never once considered a Japanese wedding dress. There's little to choose from apart from "big ball gown with alllll the textures! + a GIANT RIBBON!!!1!" and most results had all the accessories like gloves, hat, tiara, jewelry etc. No modern sleek silhouettes. Really overdone in my opinion but that's how it is here!

"Family" and 家族 was really interesting. For once the first English result wasn't white people. In general the results showed nuclear families with up to four kids. 家族 gives you less kids (in the first page of results no images showed more than two) and a whole lot more Grandma and Grandpa.

Now a current favorite topic of mine, work! Job search vs. 就職活動。the employment system is probably the most bizarre and culture-shock inducing part of life here for me.

"Corrupt company" connects more to an unrelated proverb and overseas companies than does ブラック企業、the results of which were just frightening!

Let's end with a day off! Japanese 休日 focuses on release, freedom and a lot more laying in bed. Apparently English speakers need a tropical location to make a proper holiday. 

So that's one of the nerdy things I do with my free time. Try it and draw your own conclusions!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Onsen without Fear: How to Bathe Publicly

For the first 20 years of my life I would never have thought I'd say this, but now I can't imagine differently--public bathing is my favorite thing about Japan. 

Onsen are baths that use natural mineral water from hot springs. Sento use just heated tap water with or without added minerals. Onsen are more expensive and usually offer nicer facilities with outdoor baths 露天風呂 rotenburo, often with great views of the ocean, mountains, or a garden. Sento have their own local charm--I remember one I visited in Kobe, its tiled wall still with a floor-to-ceiling crack in it from the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Apparently I've picked up the Kansai (western Japan) custom of calling all bathing facilities onsen, the ones with hot-spring water we say are 天然温泉 ten-nen onsen, natural onsen. So in this article I mostly just use "onsen"!

Public bathing is an old custom in Japan, brought originally from India as a Buddhist religious rite in the early 700s. Hot baths gradually became accessible to the general public for a fee (sento are about 400 yen or $4 everywhere in Japan), and after more than a thousand years of evolution in design and custom, they are still around today for those of us gaijin courageous enough to give it a try. 

It takes a bit of courage to go into an onsen because not only is everyone naked and bathing in front of each other, but onsen are just so Japanese. There was nothing in my culture at least that prepared me for what to do when I first entered a a tiny sento near my dormitory in Kyoto. No instructions posted in English anywhere, no one except my Finnish friend Jenni (and at least she had her country's sauna culture to fall back on) to show me what to do.

To start off, the whole nakedness thing I got over pretty quickly. There's this post about how much we Westerners have been influenced by Christianity; I'm pretty sure if Christianity had the same influence in Japan onsen would not exist anymore, though now mixed bathing is very rare and hard to find (not that I'd go looking). So not to worry, onsen are separated by gender and you never have to see/be seen by anyone of the opposite sex, except young children in with a parent ( Japanese custom again: families bathe together when children are small). When I first entered that sento in Kyoto, I couldn't decide which was worse--that I was naked with complete strangers or that I was naked with a friend. In the end, neither mattered. No one in the onsen cares or notices "we are all naked here". No one tries to have an "onsen-ready" body and who was I to be ashamed of my shape when women three times my age with amazing amounts of bags, sags, and scars were enjoying the hot water without a second thought? After a while I stopped noticing too. 

There's one thing about onsen I've never had to worry about: tattoos. Most public baths have signage denying entry to those with tattoos. The taboo against tattoos seems to go back as far as public bathing itself in Japan, but actually it's meant to keep out yakuza, Japanese organized crime. I always wonder at the logic of this because yakuza tattoos have a very distinctive style (and are BIG for one thing) and what does a white girl's butterfly on her bum have anything to do with a crime syndicate? But it seems pointless to argue. If you have a tattoo, try taping or bandaging it before going in, if it's small it probably won't be a problem. That said, not many Japanese are used to seeing people with tattoos. It's "scary". Some old lady might grumble about you to management, and you could be asked to leave. I've not heard of it happening really, but I'm sure it's a possibility. 

Anyway, how does one try to look like they know what they're doing in an onsen? Yuya loves onsen but when we go, we enter seperately, so I'm always on my own and very often the only non-Japanese there. I always have to figure things out for myself. Luckily, most onsen have a lot of the same features and require the same etiquette. Normally, no one's allowed to take pictures in an onsen. Naturally. But this time, I was completely alone in this little hotel onsen, so I grabbed the chance to get a few photos for this blog! So here we go:

Before you set off for the onsen, remember what to bring. For a small local sento, think showering at the gym. You will need a towel to dry with, any clean clothes/makeup you need, a small towel to wash with, a hair tie (if you have long hair) and shampoo/body soap. For onsen, the shampoo and soap is provided. We always bring a plastic baggy to put our wet towels/dirty clothes in afterwards. 

The first thing you do when you walk into an onsen, before you even pay the fee, is take off your shoes. Near the shoe-removal area there will either be lockers or a shelf for leaving your shoes. If there are slippers provided, put them on. Then look for a desk with people behind it to pay the bathing fee. Onsen can range anywhere from $4 to $25 (the most we ever paid, anyway). Sometimes at the desk you exchange your little shoe-locker key for a bigger key with a stretchy ring on it. Keep it around your wrist, even when you go into the bath. Then look for a set of red and blue noren curtains (on very small sento they may be hung outside the building). Red is always the entrance to the women's changing rooms and baths, and blue is always the men's, marked with the kanji 女 and 男 respectively. Don't mix them up! Yuya and I always have to part ways here and agree on a time to leave.


After ducking through your curtain, the first thing you should look for is...more lockers! If your key has a number on it, find the locker with that number. If you weren't given a key, choose any open locker. Some little old sento have no lockers but baskets to put your things in. This onsen in Wakayama I visited recently had a fun mix of both:



Once you've got your space for your stuff, undress. All of it comes off! Don't forget jewelry. I also brush out my hair, and make sure not to forget a hair tie. In this little changing room you'll find things like a bathroom, sinks for washing off makeup. Larger facilities have full-on powder rooms with free blow-dryers and samples of all kinds of beauty products, and random things like massage chairs and vending machines for toiletries. Once you're good and naked, head towards the steamy sliding glass doors. Go through and find something like this:

 

Grab a plastic bowl and a stool and set yourself down in front of a showerhead. Take your time washing yourself. After all, when was the last time you really took time make a lather, to wash each toe carefully and individually? 
After I wash my hair, I wring it out and put it up with the hair tie I DIDN'T forget in my locker. It's rude to let your hair down in the bath. Once you've finished washing, make sure you are rinsed and free of soap. Take a minute to wash your station and stool with the showerhead or bowl and put it back the way you found it. If you brought your own body wash or something other than the washcloth, you should put it back in your locker (and dry off a bit so you're not dripping wet in the changing room) and not leave it at the bathing station.
And now, finally, comes the best part...


The bath!! A lot of onsen have signs or posters telling you the mineral makeup of the water and all the ailments it's good for. Newer places have digital displays with the water temp (in Celsius of course). 
You can enjoy the bath however you like, provided you are clean and quiet, and don't let your wash towel touch the bath water. Some women put it on their heads or on the side of the tub. I like to rinse it in cold water from the washing station (never wring it into the bath water) and keep it handy for when I feel too hot, or to cover myself a bit when walking between baths. 
I like to soak and stretch, and sit on the side for a bit when I get too hot, and soak some more. A lot of onsen and sento have jaccuzzi or jetted tubs, some have different baths with herbal essences. Old sento sometimes have "denki buro" or electric baths--yup, imagine jolts of electricity tingling your skin as you bathe. Only once I had the misfortune of putting my legs in one before I realized what it was. And then there are "water baths" of just cold water to dip in if you get too hot! I'll never forget Jenni sitting up to her neck in the water bath saying "it's just like Finland's sea in summer!" --this meant it was so cold it made my bones ache.  
My favorite bath of all is the rotenburo, open-air bath. Don't worry, they're screened from the outside world, and some offer beautiful views and gardens. This one was quite small but in the shape of a boat, how cute is that? It was nighttime so I didn't have much of a view, but I could hear the waves on the beach nearby. Once in Nikko I spent an afternoon in an open-air bath in the middle of a pine forest as snow fell. I'll never forget that experience. 



After you've enjoyed the baths to your heart's content and you're ready get out, head back to the locker room after dabbing yourself off and and do what you need to do to leave. Success! 

In the four years I've been here, I've been to so many different kinds of public bath. Some "super-sento" like Spa World in Osaka or Oedo Onsen in Minoo are like theme parks: there are pools that require a bathing suit (and then it's mixed gender), all kinds of spa treatments (for extra fees), ganban-nyoku (hot rock bathing? You just lie in a dark, heated/scented room on hot rocks) massages, etc. Once I bathed in a wine bath the steam of which I swear made me feel tipsy, another time in a sulfur-water bath straight from the source underground that had me smelling funny for days afterwards. 

Onsen are good for the soul and skin, and they are just the thing after a long day of travel, hiking, sports, or just a stressful day at work. They're affordable and always clean. I still always have a bit of anxiety going into a new onsen by myself, but since I've figured out the above etiquette, I can just let myself enjoy the experience. I highly recommend you at least try onsen if you visit Japan!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Favorite Untranslatable Words

Untranslatable words are the best. They are there to remind me that I'm not in Kansas anymore (I've actually never been to Kansas but you know what I mean) and that the Japanese experience of life and society, values and meanings--reality--is different from an American English speaker's. In that sense, I'm willing to bet there are many, many more "untranslatable" words between two given languages than there are words that translate well.

My husband and I speak both Japanese and English together. This month, we'd decided to speak English, but sometimes we put in a Japanese word or phrase here and there. I paid attention to those words and thoughts we don't bother to translate into English, most often because it take too many words in English to describe what we mean when there's one very convenient Japanese word for the subject. Here are some of them:

社会人 shakaijin (noun) literally "society person" it means a full-fledged contributing member of adult society. You become one not by getting to a certain birthday, but by finishing your education and getting full-time work. Part-time workers, freelancers, students, stay-at-home moms are not usually considered shakaijin. There really isn't an English word that fits: "adult" has to do with age and maturity and not job status like this word does.

サラリーマン sararii-man (noun) just the English words "salary man", it means a male shakaijin who is working for a monthly salary in a company. It seems to imply your average white-collar businessman, of which there are for some reason a great many in Japan. It's given rise to some other funny words like 脱サラ dassara, to quit being a salaryman and set up your own business/freelance or something. Yuya's dream!

先輩 後輩 senpai, kouhai (noun) as I talked about in the relationships part of this post, there are few Japanese relationships where partners are on equal planes. It's a very hierarchical society. Senpai you might know from anime or a martial art, it's usually translated like "senior member"--someone who has been doing something for longer than you. Kouhai then is the opposite, your newer members you as senpai have to care for. In America ain't nobody got time for that so we don't have a good English translation for those kind of relationships.

やっぱり yappari (adverb...I think?) this can mean so many things! "I thought so!" "after all..." "I knew it!" "nope I changed my mind..." I like to use it in the latter sense a lot. You know the feeling, when choosing between a red blouse and a blue blouse at the store, you initially choose the red one and get to the register when やっぱり、you want the blue one and go back to get it. It just encapsulates that feeling and experience so neatly in one word!

雰囲気 funiki (noun, sometimes pronounced fuinki) atmosphere. As in, "wow this cafe has great atmosphere!" but this is Japan, a high-context culture where 雰囲気 is also a regulator of behavior. Example: my husband had to stay late at work "Sorry, there was definitely a 'no one goes home on time today' 雰囲気" or at church "So-and-so really wanted to talk about______but there was no breaking that 'be quiet' 雰囲気!” This brings me to the next word...

空気読めない kuuki yomenai (adjective) literally "unable to read the air" it means a person who is unable to sense the previous word 雰囲気 and regulate their behavior accordingly. The Japanese put fewer things into words than Americans do, or words are assigned less value/truth; "actions speak louder" is the rule of the day. Japanese who can't or won't deduce from other peoples' actions what they are supposed to do are 空気読めない。It goes without saying that unless you've spent some time in Japan and have a good ability to read people, foreigners are pretty much 空気読めない。There's a fun slang version: KY. Like "Oh he's so KY".

適当   tekitou (noun...ish?) it means kind of haphazard, sloppy, done without thinking too carefully. It can be negative like that, or neutral/positive like in the cooking shows where they say dab cream on tekitou ni.

真面目 majime (adjective) it's usually only applied to people. It means a serious person, although in English "serious" sounds like you have no humor or are a bit gloomy, while 真面目just means like a "Type A" kind of person who is organized, motivated, gets things done, not at all silly or given to playing around, who concentrates well and is thorough, and takes things seriously. It has a good meaning and is not at all used for "anal retentive" or "OCD" for which there are Japanese equivalents.

心の余裕 kokoro no yoyuu (noun) this is a difficult one. 心 is "heart" (as in the seat of emotions, not the physical organ) and 余裕 is slack, leeway, something to spare, to have room for something. So 心の余裕 is room in your heart for something. It means you have the emotional reserves to deal with something, it's being emotionally flexible and accepting. I like my current job because it allows me to work and come home still with 心の余裕 intact to spend on my husband/private life. It's the opposite of being stressed?

まさか masaka (adverb, adjective, exclamation) this one is not so much untranslatable as much as it's fun to say, because it can mean so many things: "Really?" "No way!" "Seriously?" "Whoa!" or as the seriously in "You don't seriously expect me to..." or the sense of an unexpected result, like "don't tell me you actually..." "I had no clue this would turn out like this" Sometimes it just really fits a certain feeling, all in one little convenient word, better than English!

懐かしい natsukashii (adjective) often translated horribly as "nostalgic". But what English speaker goes around exclaiming "This is SO nostalgic!"? Nobody! It's often used as an exclamation and I think it's better to translate, "Wow that takes me back!" "Blast from the past!" etc. although it's not very slang-y and has more of a warm, home-y nuance. Like smelling a smell that suddenly takes you back to your childhood. Or seeing on TV something like Pogs. Anyone remember those? Natsukashii!

アホ aho (noun) ok, this is Kansai (western Japan) dialect. Most anyone who's spent time on the internet probably knows "baka" (idiot/dummy); アホ is our regional equivalent. Except it's not equivalent. アホ cannot be as confrontational, mean, aggressive or dismissive as "baka" can be. In Kanto (Eastern Japan, Tokyo area), "baka" can be used both affectionately and angrily, but Kansai people only use "baka" to express anger and animosity. アホ is always affectionate; the only English that comes close that I can think of is, "you silly goose!" but who says that anymore? In any case,  my husband and I don't really use either baka or アホ、but I find it a funny word. And I'm partial to our Kansai dialect! 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Work, Money, Sex, and Relationships in Japan vs. America: Observations from an American Christian

A church and cherry blossoms in Japan. Fewer than 1% of the population identify as Christian.
There's nothing like living abroad for teaching me about my own culture, which in turn teaches me about the new culture. The comparisons ricochet back and forth, opening my eyes to new facts about both. One thing life in Japan has brought to my attention is the manifold ways Christianity has shaped and influenced my own culture. American culture these days, while still more conservative than other European cultures, seems to be pulling away from Christian roots day by day. There is not such a social expectation to go to church every Sunday anymore, Christianity is not so fashionable now thanks to controversies about social justice issues and the rise of humanism as the standard of socially acceptable behavior. But even in American humanism, Christian thought has left its mark. I don't think its founders and supporters came up with their ideas in a vacuum. Life in Japan has made it clear to me: they stand on the shoulders of giants--the Christian philosophies of Western cultures.

A lot of the things a Western person, even the most progressive non-religious Westerner, will find "weird" or "old-fashioned" about Japanese culture can be attributed to this fact: Japanese culture developed without Christian influence, in contrast to Western culture which has been steeped in it for nearly 2000 years.

Here are some ways the lack of Christian influence shows itself in Japan. By thinking of the mirror-image of these concepts, I can see how my own culture and values are much indebted to Christianity.

Labor and Workers

Even if you're a staunch capitalist and don't subscribe to Marxist doctrine, if you're a Westerner I think you'll expect to be compensated for every hour of work, and that your employer will honor the contract between you. The push for fair labor practices and unions, giving more power to employees through labor rights, came about rather "late" towards the end of the Industrial Revolution, but its seeds were there in Western culture in the many, many biblical laws about giving workers fair wages and God's judgement of oppressive employers. There is also the Christian idea that no matter your occupation, family status, or position in life, all humans are equally valuable in the eyes of a higher power.

In contrast, Japanese culture does not have any room for a higher power. The standard for behavior and the dispenser of basic rights is not a god but the rulers over you. Therefore, depending on the ordering of society, you may be born either in a "low" or "high" position and will be expected to behave accordingly. Japan has been heavily influenced by American business culture and practices, but the humanistic idea of "rights" has yet to take serious hold. The culture of many companies divides its workers into hierarchies based on seniority and social status, and more than individual rights, commitment to the hierarchy's success is emphasized. Unions and contracts and labor laws exist in Japan, but in many cases a Westerner may be disappointed to find much of it is たてまえ tatemae, for show on paper, and that in practice the powerlessness of the employee, the emphasis on abstract (not quantifiable) emotional concepts like loyalty and harmony, and lack of commitment to human rights is quite common.

Money, Investment, and Charity

Related to the above, a culture's thoughts about money can tell us a lot about what that culture values. In the West, money is a resource and a key part of it is investment. In Japan, money is what you get in exchange for something else. If I give you money, I expect you will give me something just as valuable/tangible in return. I think Japanese people seem to really care about the "tangibility" part. Many Japanese are mistrustful of things like online payments, credit cards, charitable giving, and crowd-funding concepts for new businesses like Kickstarter and Go Fund Me (pretty much foreign concepts here). When it comes to money I think the Japanese like to hold real solid things in their hands--hence a cash-based society that eschews credit card use and likes to see a very material return on investment. We have noticed this unfortunately even in our church--in a meeting some members made it clear they thought the pastor's authority came from the amount of money being entrusted to him. The fact that the "goods" (spiritual leadership and counseling) he gives "in return" are not clearly quantifiable is cause for controversy in the church. Yuya was also surprised to learn that the average American gives 10 times more to charitable causes than the average Japanese. In America, charity may be seen either as Christian/religious duty to follow Scripture's example in caring for "the least of these" (sometimes twisted into a strange guilt for being "privileged") or a humanistic investment in a better (more educated, peaceful) society, which would benefit every member. Neither concept is a part of Japanese culture. Those who have not, were probably unfortunately born into it, and those who have, are less apt to be satisfied with an intangible return on investment.

Sex

Though it's a private thing in both cultures carrying varying degrees of "shame", it's right up there with money in the way it illustrates different values. In America, shaped by centuries of Christian thought and a population of Puritans in its early stages, sex is acceptable only in certain parameters, and is pretty black-and-white: there is a repugnance of associating children with sex and acceptable sex is between consenting adults. Notice the assumption of human rights in the idea of consent. In the West, it is a disgusting thing to associate children with sex. Even in biblical times, though the "age of majority" was younger than in many cultures these days, sex was associated with marriage, and marriage with the creation of children and family, so a pre-pubescent person was not an eligible partner. Though childless married women appear in Scripture many times, it was never because they were too young or not of child-bearing age. Thanks to Gnostic heresies that have plagued Christian culture for centuries, enjoyment of sex has been twisted and buried, but is nonetheless present. The pleasure is "fruitful" and "blessed" when children are the result, and the source of fertility is not the sex act or sex organs, but God Himself.

Japanese culture has been untouched by all of it--by the Ancient Near East customs of marriage and inheritance, by the Gnostic division of the material as dirty and the spiritual as pure, by the Victorian commitment to appearing as far removed from sex as possible (thanks to Gnosticism?), by the Puritan commitment to follow Scriptural rules about sex. Traditionally, like in many ancient non-Christian cultures, sex was all about fertility and was intertwined with agriculture, with the rhythms and human interactions with nature and the seasons. The source of fertility is human organs and superstition. This is still evident in things like the fertility festivals held in some areas of Japan where yes, giant replicas of the male organ are paraded through the streets, and guests can enjoy eating phallic festival food like chocolate-covered bananas. It seems so primal to an American because we have to go soooo far back in our history, before Christianity, to find something similar in our culture. Time and religion have erased the memory of it.

In Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) the family registry system (koseki) was implemented, mainly to keep track of the population, and for tax and inheritance purposes. A man was allowed to have only one legal wife, and illegitimate children born from another woman could appear on the registry but as a kind of footnote, if the man had "adopted" them as dependents. The standard for sexual behavior then was not a religious code or god, but government and social systems. This is still evident today in that the shame of wrongful sex is not guilt before a higher power, but the embarrassment of having your secret outed in public. Sex for money and the oldest profession thrive in Japan, where what your wife doesn't know won't hurt her, and use of modern protection guarantees little risk of meiwaku (bother) from disease or illegitimate children. Westerners might also be shocked by lax child porn laws (though this changing) and the lack of stigma surrounding the literary genre of "loli-con" or fetishes of pre-pubescent girls, and the fact that children's school uniforms are a popular sex symbol. Ambiguous words like kawaii (cute) are used to describe members of the "junior idol" (teen pop star) industry; Japanese people use the same word to describe anything from Hello Kitty to a pretty lady, allowing the line between child and adult in the realm of sexiness to be quite blurry. I think perhaps, children are not thought of as innocent pure blank slates when it comes to sex but rather as explorers. It's considered just a part of human life to explore one's body as a child and be the object of adult fantasies, softened by the word "cute". It's not really either about sin or human rights. There also seems to be less fixation on explicit penetration in Japanese culture, and sexual enjoyment can take many forms, in suggestion and ambiguity, and can even be innocent and "cute".

Given all this, some Westerners also get puzzled as to why the Japanese are relatively closed-minded and unsupportive of gay rights and lifestyles, though most are not religious. It's all about society as regulator of behavior. In the past and now, homosexual acts are categorized as entertainment and private self-expression. It was something rich people, who could afford to not be spending every day of their lives ensuring the survival of the next generation, engaged in from time to time, still apparent in the abundance of "gay" gags and comedians on TV. However since homosexuality cannot contribute to the biological continuation of family bloodlines, and is therefore separate from duty to parents and society, it has never been embraced as a legitimate lifestyle.

Human Relationships

上下関係、jouge-kankei, "hierarchical relationships." This underpins every aspect of Japanese culture and provides the guidelines for interactions in every human relationship you can think of, from employer-employee, spouse, sibling, lover, friend. It's alive and well not just where you'd expect to find it in the workplace but also in the elementary school baseball team, at church, at the community center flower-arranging class, in the education of older siblings vs. younger ones. In Confucianism, a great shaper of many Asian cultures, there is only one truly equal relationship, where the line connecting them is flat instead of vertical: the peer, someone who is your same age and has gone through life at the same pace as you who therefore has the same amount of life experience, encapsulated in the Japanese word 同級生 doukyuusei, literally "same-level person." There are many words for human relationships in Japan that are nearly untranslatable because the concept does not exist in Western thought and is therefore hard to explain in our language: 先輩、後輩。Sempai, kouhai. 目上の人、上司。Meue no hito, joushi. 部下。Buka. お姉さん、お兄さん、妹、弟。Onee-san, onii-san, imouto, otouto. We use "senior member" or "junior member", "superior" or "subordinate", "older sister/brother" and "younger sister/brother" but the working out of those relationships is fundamentally different from equivalent Western ones. A junior or subordinate member has duties to follow orders from above and show respect. A senior or superior member has duties to guide and protect the lower folks. Real trouble comes when either party fails to do what's expected based on their position in the hierarchy. One year in age difference is enough to demand a degree of respect from the younger person to the elder; they can never be considered as having the equal doukyuusei relationship. Even at my workplace at a kids' English school, I see every day how older siblings are explicitly taught to look out for younger ones and are praised for doing so, while there is little responsibility expected from the younger sibling. They are not and will never be on equal planes.

In America, we all have bosses, teachers, and people we respect as having more qualifications or life experience than us. But in most cases, the "superior/subordinate" positions are simply roles we take on for a little while, and thanks to--you guessed it, Christian thought--at the end of the day we are all created equal and are equally valuable in the eyes of a higher power. It is our basic humanity, not our position in life, that makes us equal. In the American workplace, yes, we listen to and follow the orders of our bosses, but there is still in the background the idea that that is the boss's role he has taken on, and that fundamentally his voice is not any more or less valuable than ours. In fact, we may think we have a better idea and tell the boss about it. He may happily implement it, and then we expect to get credit for it and are angry if we don't. Behind our anger is the assumption that both ourselves and the boss are individuals and fundamentally equals. In families, there is cultural pressure for husbands and wives to be equal partners who may at different stages in married life take on different roles. Children are not taught to be so aware of their birth order all that much. When talking about our families, I think we use just "sister" or "brother" quite often, but in Japan it's impossible to talk about siblings without including older or younger. Among adult friends, a few years in age difference doesn't usually influence the relationship. At the gym, you don't interrupt your workout and let another person use the machine simply because they have been coming there for longer than you. You can tell the person who wants to use the machine, "hold on, I'll be done with this in 5" and the other person most likely won't take offense, especially if you give them a time frame and stick to it. It is just completely different in Japan. The implications of this fundamental arrangement of human relationships are very interesting, and sometimes, for this American living here, downright frustrating.

・ ・ ・

In all these categories, what stands out to me as the pattern and standard for behavior is what the majority, or what the people around you, are doing, as well as a commitment to harmony and group flourishing. The Joneses are the standard and you've got to compare yourself to them to behave well. It goes without saying that having your own concrete values and acting on them, doing your own thing as opposed to hiding your values and acting otherwise for the sake of a superior, is frowned upon as selfishness. Thinking of these things, it makes sense to me that Christianity is slow to take root here and is still considered a foreign concept. I can also understand why Japanese people are quick to point out the bits and pieces of Christian culture that remain strong in the West, as much as some of us are loath to admit. For better or for worse and in both America and Japan, it's not easy to erase or reshape a culture that has thousands of years of history and such deep roots.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Best Newlywed Recipes: Summer

It was about 2 months before our wedding that the thought came to me, "Hm, I might want to learn how to cook" --and that I'd probably be doing a lot more of it than when I was single! I was correct. As a single girl I didn't cook for myself very much, between living with cramped/shared kitchen spaces and being content with plain rice and a piece of fruit for dinners, it was hard to find the motivation. Oddly enough, men are not so easily satisfied! I also got tired of eating bentos (boxed lunches) from the supermarket--the processed food that really messed with my gut after a while.

So this year of being married I've had to start learning a new skill and cook dinner nearly every day. We don't really follow any particular regimen or diet, and my favorite recipes are ones that take no more than half an hour with a minimum of ingredients and dishes to wash up later. When people ask whether I cook Japanese or American dishes at home, I'm not really sure, though according to Yuya it's mostly Western dishes. I do try to use cheaper Japanese ingredients and steer away from recipes that use dairy or cheese (so expensive here!) and I try to make sauces and condiments from scratch as much as possible, in an effort to not depend too much on pre-packaged/processed stuff.

The other day I realized I don't own a single cookbook, and that all my go-to recipes are online. I don't know what I'd do without Pinterest and Cookpad! So here are some of my favorite online recipes in our summer rotation. What makes for a good summer recipe? In my mind, a) something that doesn't heat up the house too much b) something that needn't be served piping hot and c) something that makes use of the delicious summer foods available here. As I mentioned in this post about Japanese customs I like, in general the Japanese pay attention to eating foods in season, and some are not available at all out of season. Here are our favorites, click the titles for the recipes:

Tuna Poke


Yuya LOVES this dish and we've had it so many times this summer, but he assures me he won't get tired of it! I like it as well because it's so quick and easy to put together, and uses no heat or electronics except the rice cooker since we like to eat it over rice. To be honest, I've actually never made it with tuna as per the recipe--it's expensive, and in June young katsuo (bonito) comes into in season and is sooo good. Braised bonito gives the dish a smoky flavor we love. I've also tried it with hamachi (amberjack?) and I want to try it with salmon sometime too. I've substituted the red peppers with wasabi paste a few times for a more Japanese taste. I highly recommend trying this recipe if you can handle raw/braised fish. For us it's good enough for when guests come over!

This littlejapanmama blog is great for all kinds of Japanese recipes in English, and I really like this recipe because I can make the tare (sauce) from scratch! I use raw handmade ramen noodles for this and for toppings I like summer veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers, and okra. Instead of ham I use what's called 生ハム here, probably prosciutto in English? So good! 


This is an Okinawan dish I first had in Okinawa, and loved it! Goya (nigauri in mainland Japan) is a very bitter summer gourd but one I look forward to eating every year. I love that this recipe is packed with protein (pork, egg, and tofu!)  though any of those could be left out depending your diet. Blanching the goya really helps tone down the bitterness; what's left is a stimulating zippy flavor that coaxes along a reluctant summer appetite. 

There's nothing like summer tomatoes, and this recipe uses as many I can fit in the oven! It does have a long roasting time so it heats up the kitchen, but it's so good I can't resist it when tomatoes are on sale. I'll never buy store-bought tomato sauce again. This is great just over spaghetti noodles, or as a base for tomato soup. I've noticed if I have a little scratchy throat and I eat this, I feel better almost instantly. Packed with vitamins! 

This is another favorite of ours Yuya doesn't seem to get tired of! It's so simple and the grated daikon (Japanese giant radish)  adds a hint of cool spiciness perfect for these hot muggy days. The recipe is in Japanese and it only says "stir-fry the eggplant" with no details on how; I found out using a tablespoon or so of sesame oil to stir-fry the eggplant really makes this dish sing. I've yet to try it with shiso actually as per the recipe since it's not Yuya's favorite herb :(

Here is my translation of the recipe: 

-eggplant (about one per person; the sauce makes four servings I think) chopped into bite-size pieces
-chopped green onions (a handful) 
-two inches of a daikon, grated
-one shiso leaf, cut in strips
-spaghetti noodles (up to four servings) 
-1 tablespoon of sesame oil 
• 1 cup of mentsuyu (I use the brand pictured here, but this link also includes a recipe on how to make it yourself!)
• 1/2 cup of water
• 1 tablespoon of cornstarch 

Mix the • ingredients together and refrigerate. Stir-fry the eggplant in the sesame oil, and boil the water for the spaghetti noodles. When the noodles are al dente, strain them and rinse with cold water to cool them. Dish them out on plates for each person and top with the eggplant, daikon, green onions, and shiso. Pour the • sauce over it all and you're ready to eat! 

Of these summer favorites I probably make two every week! I plan to write at least three more recipe posts for each season, stay tuned for more good simple recipes. Of course, if you know of any good summer recipes, send me a link! I'm always looking for new favorites to add to my little repertoire.