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. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

What I Learned from a Chikan (Groper)

An anti-chikan poster I found in the subway: "Groping is a crime!"
with a phone number for consultation with a female police officer.
Depending on which statistics you look at, Japan is a pretty safe country when it comes to violent crime. I do feel safer walking alone at night even in places and situations I'd think twice about at home in the U.S.

As a woman in Japan, I'm much less likely to be cat-called or whistled at in public, and I'm probably less likely to be raped or otherwise violently assaulted than in other countries, but I think I'm much more likely to get harassed or groped by 痴漢 chikan (pervert, molester, literally "stupid jerk"). It would seem, anyway, that such perverted people in Japan have stranger goals than in America. We're used to thinking such people simply want sex, but in Japan, the creativity of both methods and goals knows no bounds. In my case, the guy's goal was putting his fingers in women's mouths. Luckily I realized something was wrong before he got to that point, and got away after he'd only touched my face with a very foul-smelling hand. However there are some common patterns to be aware of.

A lot of chikan-ery happens on trains. Many city-dwellers rely on public transportation and it can get very crowded. It can be too tempting a situation for twisted folks: smashed up against strangers they can safely assume they will never meet again. Three common crimes you hear about are groping, taking photos up women's skirts, and cutting, damaging or otherwise forcefully removing women's clothing. Campaigns against chikan are happening more frequently in recent years, resulting in things like "women only" cars on certain lines during peak use times, and advice that men keep their hands visible and above their heads (i.e., hanging onto the ceiling straps) as much as possible when the train is crowded. Being wrongly accused of chikan crimes happens and it can ruin a man's career and social life.

Other kinds of harassment that happen outside public transportation includes stealing underwear from clotheslines (most Japanese don't own dryers so they hang laundry outside to dry) and collecting and pouring bodily fluids on women (for some reason it's usually pee). The sad thing is it happens not only to grown women but to school-age children as well.

The one time I had the misfortune of running into a chikan was not on a train, but on my bicycle, on a well-lit and well-traveled street I used every day. The experience was terrifying and disgusting but I learned some valuable things I think:

1. It will feel like your fault
Chikan are very good at twisting situations to make it feel like you walked into it consenting and of your own free will. I chose to talk to the guy instead of walking away, and I beat myself up for it for days afterwards, even though HE was the one who did the wrong thing!

2. Evil people prey on the senses and logic of decent people
Related to #1, this goes for any kind of scammer, really. They will often create a situation predicting and utilizing the behavior of a logical, decent person to realize their goal/cover their butts. The chikan I met purposely crashed into my bike while making it look like an accident and also faked injury. A decent person, if they hit someone, stops to apologize and see if the person is hurt, right? That was my mistake. On the train, it is common courtesy to be as quiet as possible. This social rule decent folks follow "I can't raise my voice here" keeps some women on the train from "making a scene" even when groped.

3. Chikan thrive in the zone of "that was awkward, what just happened?"
They love confusion and doing things subtly or slowly, or just enough and in such a way that it takes a long time for victims to realize something is not right. Often what they do is so "small" the victim decides it's not worth going to the police about, giving more chances for the chikan to get off without any consequences.

4. Panicked people don't always make the best choices
When I finally realized something was very wrong, I panicked. I sped home on my bike as fast as I could. After I locked myself in my room and cried for a few minutes, I called my boyfriend (now husband) and cried some more. My boyfriend suggested I go to the police, and before that moment, I hadn't even thought of the police. On my panicked flight home I had even passed two police boxes and one large police station.
You hear about the "fight or flight" response and mine was definitely "flight", but another common response is just to freeze up and not be able to react at all, until too late. It doesn't matter what you know, how educated you are, or how close you are to a police station when fear takes over.

5. The police are professionals and are on your side against criminals
They should have been my first resource (not my boyfriend) but unfortunately they didn't even cross my mind! When we did get to the police I was immediately whisked into a private office with two female officers to explain what happened. A female officer was by my side at all times, and they drove me home in a patrol car. They even asked me about Yuya, if I was truly comfortable having him there or not. In American pop culture the police are comical blunderers or evil stooges of secret totalitarian systems. In Japan too, especially in the expat community, there is so much dissatisfaction with the "J-police" as little cogs in a corrupt justice system, racist and discriminatory.  One can find so many anecdotes like that, and I can't say they don't happen, but I did want to put one good anecdote about the Japanese police out there. In my experience they made me feel protected and listened to.

6. Petty criminals love the rifts between citizens and police, and they also love "oh well it happens to everyone" kind of dismissive thinking
The police explained they had gotten a few reports about this guy but that they assumed he was doing many more unreported crimes. He was good at creating just enough uncertainty in his victims about whether the crime was serious enough to go to the police or not that many chose not to report him. Some victims don't want to come to the police because they are understandably reluctant to explain in detail what happened (always more than once), or they buy the lie the chikan created and think it was their own fault, or they don't want any annoying paperwork and time out of their day at the police station, or they assume it's just a part of female life in a big city and brush it off. An officer told me these problems allow chikans to flourish and go without consequences for years and years sometimes, and thanked me for coming to them with the report.

7. It may change your life
After the incident, I avoided commuting by bicycle to work and took the bus instead for a while. Then when I did go back to riding my bike, I changed my route. I found myself noticing every human being in my view and analyzing them as to how much of a threat they appeared to be. Riding the train, I was acutely aware of each person around me: where and how they were situated, what they were doing, how they looked. All through the lenses of suspicion and fear. I resolved I would never talk to a stranger or stop my bicycle if I hit someone, ever again. It was an exhausting couple of weeks because I felt anxiety every time I left the house or my workplace. Time passed and life became normal again, but I still don't smile at or talk to strangers--especially male ones--as much as I used to before the incident. Perhaps that's unfortunate, perhaps it will keep me more safe...I do think it is good to look up from my smartphone when on the train and be aware of what's going on around me in a healthy way.

Chikan are kind of a funny breed of criminal, categorized and behaving slightly differently than back home, that law-abiding citizens (especially women) in Japan have to deal with. I hope in the event I have a brush with a chikan again, I'll remember the above things and react better than before, and justice will be served. Next time I hope, it will be the chikan's turn to learn a thing or two!