Thursday, August 26, 2010

Americans and Their Guns

One thing Japanese cannot understand about Americans is their fascination with guns. Why do Americans feel everyone needs a gun, they ask, what purpose does it serve? If they are hunters, like the hunters of black bears here, they would understand, but only criminals have handguns in Japan. Gotta admit, I wonder about that myself, sometimes.

Why is a 7-day cooling-off period such a big deal to some people? Do most people who have a pistol really need it (or even know how to use it correctly)? Do you really need that Uzi, AK-47 or M-16? Would requiring gun-safety licenses of new owners really be so hard?

Now, before you go all Charlton Heston and NRA my ass, I grew up with guns. We had BB and pellet guns, several 22s, a 20-gauge, my father’s 38. We practiced with them, played with them, killed porcupines with them, took them camping in case the coyotes came into camp after our dogs. We had them in case that baby-black-bear-on-my-deck-at-2am‘s mama bear decided to come inside for a snack. My friend and I used to carry his father’s Colts when riding on his ranch, in case we ever got tossed and dragged by our horses. We had them on hand should we ever actually need them (and to play Billy the Kid meets Jesse James - our history was a little fuzzy when we were 11).

So I’m not against guns in and of themselves: when in experienced, trained hands, they are a tool like any other. But I also had a friend kill himself rather spectacularly with a rifle, had another friend with no experience with guns kill his little brother by mistake with a pistol he thought was empty. A friend’s father was killed in a bar fight. A police SWAT officer friend of mine told me that half of people killed in home invasions are killed by their own weapons. The criminal finds it in their bedside table, for example, the homeowner wakes up and startles said criminal, and BANG, BANG, bye-bye! Not to mention the morons who have an argument, and decide to win the argument permanently…

Then there are the truly dumb:
*Some idiot in Lakewood, Colorado ‘inadvertently’ left their handgun in their kindergarten child’s backpack this past Wednesday, which the child then took to school. -- ‘Inadvertently’? Why the hell would you put a gun in your 5-yr-old kid’s backpack in the first place?
*Same day, a 10-yr-old boy in Seattle tried to rob a 17-yr-old on the bus, of all things, and was shot by his own gun when the older boy grabbed him -- OK, OK, poetic justice. But still… On the bus? And how did a 10-yr-old walk out the door with a 22-pistol in the first place?
*A 72-yr-old Melbourne, Florida woman was shot by her husband during a “robbery drill” the couple was staging. They had “little experience with guns”. -- No, really?

Early in my life here, I had to try to explain to my students why “Rodney, get your gun!” Peairs could kill Japanese student Yoshihiro Hattori, dressed up like John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and be acquitted of even manslaughter. A 44 with laser sights? What, does he think the zombies will be coming soon?

It’s no wonder the Japanese are convinced the US is dangerous.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mosquitoes from Hell

God, I hate mosquitoes! Not dislike, not can't stand; I loathe the little f---ers.

It was bad enough in the mountains of Colorado, where you'd spend half the night fruitlessly hunting that endless whine near your ear, and end up nearly knocking yourself senseless, flailing away at the little brown beastie. Wussies, I tell you!

Now I live in the land of the Asian Tiger. You thought they named their economies that because it was a cool animal, right? Bzzz! Wrong-o! They named them after their mosquito, surely the Arnold of mosquitoes. No stealth attacks here, just, "Swing at me, I don't care. I'll be back!" They don't just whine; they sound like the mother of all dentist drills running in your ear. Like a whole squadron of Mitsubishi Zeros, just bent upon ruining your sleep. They're black, with white speed striping, like color-blind bee wanna-bes (wanna-bees?).

These are the same breed that carry West Nile Disease in the States, black with two or three thin white bands around the body; it's hard to tell after you've squashed the little shit. I bought a cool little battery-operated tennis racket; just push the button and swing - ZAP! Sometimes they even smoke and burn. Cool...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

School Cleaning

Well, summer vacation is on its way out now. The cicadas are starting to head to that big bug ranch in the sky, and walking in the park is beginning to get crunchy. It doesn't rain anymore, it just hovers in the mid-90s at 90%+ humidity (although my shirt and head look like I'm raining - "Gross!" my youngest squeals).

And one end-of-summer ritual is the annual school-ground cleaning. Japanese schools don't have janitors or grounds staff. During the school-year, students have to put everything away at the end of the day, and clean their own classrooms weekly. But in summer, say hello to your parent 'volunteer'.

At least one parent of every student comes to school, and we pull weeds, clean out storm drains, repaint horizontal bars and tires. The kids go to their classrooms to drop off homework, then join us for 30 minutes or so. Then they go back to their classrooms while we put in another half hour.

Here's my youngest at work...

Now, if only I could him to do the same thing at home!!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Is Japanese Culture Group Oriented?

OK, this is in answer to Joe's question...

Is Japanese culture as group oriented as shown in popular media?

In a word: YES

The group is god here. They even have a proverb for it: "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down." Whenever I teach adjectives such as 'Outstanding', I have to explain that it is not a negative word. Students always assume it's bad.

The group hive mind can lead to some serious problems, too. Bullying here isn't one maladjusted jerk with two or three toerag sycophants; it's a whole class chanting insults and saying things like "Die, moron!" to whichever kid has been picked as an outsider this week. Stay-at-homes, kids who refuse to attend school, are rampant here.

Bill Gates/Steve Jobs-style successful mavericks are rare. While Masayoshi Song of Softbank, Takahumi Horie of LiveDoor, and Hiroshi Mikitani of Rakuten are celebrated in the media and respected by many for pushing the envelope, they are rare exceptions. Even promotion is still primarily seniority based, with little recruiting from outside or diagonal job movement (this, however, has been changing quickly in recent years).

But one thing I find really hilarious is how all the rebels dress exactly the same. They rebel together, you see, finding a group with similar mindset, which takes them from outsider to insider.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Re:A Traditional Japanese meal

I'm on vacation now with my in-laws - all of them. It's a good thing my wife's family are good people.

We're staying at a hot-springs hotel, a nice one ;-), and last night's dinner was simply a-ma-zing! Eleven courses of traditional Japanese food, some of which I couldn't even identify. But being the gastronomical explorer I am (ie, hungry!), I 'et i' all!

There were raw fish, a sad little exoskeleton-less raw shrimp staring at me ("no-o-o, don't eat m~" burp!), okra jelly (can you believe it?), eggplant surprise, poached beef, pickled beef, pickled egg yolk, and many others.

But since pictures do speak louder than words...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What is "Horse-oil Soap"?

What on Godzilla's green Earth is "Horse-oil Soap"?

I just took a bath in the hot spring in the hotel and there was 'ba-yu' (horse-oil) soap. The soap was OK, not really foamy but it worked. The shampoo, though, smelled like what I imagined.
And how exactly do they make the stuff, anyways? "Hi-ho, Silver, and away to the soap factory!"

Summer holidays

This week is Obon, a time when most Japanese return to their hometowns to visit family, clean the family graves and pay their respects.

This is one of three times per year when the whole damn country goes on vacation, and traffic is horrendous! Airports are packed, the bullet trains are standing-room only, and traffic jams during the "U-Turn Rush" will be an average 30-40 miles long on highways into Tokyo. Airline tickets more than double their regular May or November rates - adult tickets to Denver jump from about 65,000 yen to 165,000.

Tickets home to Colorado for my whole family would run $11,500 for airfare alone! (now do you understand why I don't make it Stateside very often?)

The only way we'll be doing that right now is if I hit the lottery. [In a fit of bad math, I bought some tickets this time around]

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Communication Errors and Marketing Blunders, 1

Living in a foreign country and teaching English can lead to some riotous language mistakes. Like when my student pronounced A as in 'father' and forgot the 's' sound in X, and "faxed my daughter". Got a real double-take out of me. Or like the time when I added an 'm' sound to the Japanese word for sweetened bean paste and told my wife in the middle of a crowded train station that I'd just eaten her cousin's, well, bean paste.... Heads turned!

But some of my favorite lessons are when we take a look at international business blunders made by companies that drop the ball and either don't bother to research any possible cultural and slang meanings of products they hope to sell in new markets, or have paid a fair chunk of change to translators (in-house or out) that claim to speak the language but don't make the cultural connections.

Without further ado, let's look at some more blunders like the Matsushita Electric/Panasonic "Touch Woody - The Internet Pecker" of my last post:

Anyone remember Swedish vacuum cleaner maker Electrolux's '70s advertising campaign slogan, "Nothing Sucks Like an Electrolux!"

Swedish company locum sent out Christmas cards to their customers in 1991 to which they decided to add a little holiday cheer by replacing the 'O' in the company name with a heart - I(heart)cum Talk about holiday cheer! - see above

Gerber products aren't carried in French-speaking countries, because gerber is the French word for "vomiting". And when their baby-food bottles were introduced in some African countries, which traditionally put pictures of the product on packaging for those who can't read, it led to quite a bit of confusion... What's in there?

Wang Computers found its British distributors refusing to use its latest motto: "Wang Cares", which sounds just too close to "wankers" for comfort. And then we have the American meaning of "wang"...

There is a massage stand in the local mall here which has the following in 12-inch letters on the mall-facing glass wall: "Hand Care, Foot Care, Horny Care" I think they'll need curtains for that one...

Honda introduced a new model car, the "Fitta" into Nordic countries in 2001, but had to rename it the "Jazz" when they learned that the word 'fitta' is a vulgur word for a woman's genitals in Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. Wow, what a ride!

Mitsubishi's Pajero had to be renamed for Latin American markets, since 'pajero' means 'wanker' in many Spanish dialects, and which, according to Urban Dictionary, also carries the added meaning of "one who plays with himself". Not exactly a chick magnet

Coors' slogan, "Turn it Loose!" was translated into Spanish as "Suffer from Diarrhea". Sounds about right.

And a detour sign found in Kyushu, Japan: "Stop! Drive sideways."

Don't worry, I've got lots of these - more later...

Friday, August 6, 2010

Land of High Tech, 2

Now, as you can tell from my previous post, I wasn't really happy with daily life here in Japan, technology-wise. ATMs had limited access and hours, and extra fees to use them. People didn't have computers at home, and neither did almost any business. Internet dialups were glacial. My kitchen felt like something out of an Iron Curtain satellite country, with the water heater on the wall, gas range sitting on the counter and no remaining counter space. And my credit card was a useless hunk of plastic taking up space in my wallet.

Wow, what a difference a few years make...

Now ATMs are open 15 hours/day, and convenience store ATMs allow access to multiple banks 24 hours. All-electric houses are being encouraged through tax breaks and incentives, with large, efficient water heaters, solar water and solar electricity panels on roofs, and underfloor heating that keeps you warm from the feet up becoming commonplace.

One thing they do extremely well, I mean seriously cool sh-tuff, are today's cell phones and portable music players. I can text for free with any other client on the same network, email, surf the 'net, transfer files by infrared, listen to music, watch TV, run numerous applications, even walking navigation, and have a 12-megapixel camera with video. Pretty much anything I can do on my PC, really, for about $20/month basic, or $60 unlimited packets. Many Japanese have stopped buying new computers altogether, using their cells for all their internet and communication needs. My son's phone takes studio-quality pics. My daughter's Walkman is so much easier to use than my IPod, requiring no special software, just drag-and-drop. A former student now works for Sony's International Division - she showed me the newest Cybershot, and I'm in love... (with the camera, yo!)

Maybe Dick Tracy's finger-phone isn't too far away after all...

But nowhere is the change more apparent than in internet access. When then-Prime Minister Mori announced the new "e-Japan Strategy" in January of 2001, with a target of becoming the most advanced IT state in the world in 5 years, and of having at least 30 million households within reach of high-speed 'net access, I scoffed. Actually, I snorted my Coke (aCola), coughed a lot, and brayed like a jackass. No Friggin' Way!. [I had just upgraded to a 56K modem, and Japanese computers were good, but nothing special.]

Just goes to show: bray like a jackass, become a jackass. I mean, "Ooops!"

"Broadband service here is eight to 30 times as fast as in the United States -- and considerably cheaper. Japan has the world's fastest Internet connections, delivering more data at a lower cost than anywhere else, recent studies show" - says this 2007 article from the Washington Post

I now have dedicated fiber-optic access with an advertised rate of 100 MBps, and peak rates of up to 1GBps. 1 Gigabyte. Per second. I have clocked it at over 130 MBps, and this afternoon just clocked downloads of 55MBps and uploads of 62. That's right, 62MBps up. I pay $50/month for this access, including 2 VoIP phones for my home and business, and have Internet TV with about 100 HD-quality channels for an additional $35. That's only 60% the rate of traditional cable TV here.

Credit cards, however, are one area where things still have a long way to go. Most restaurants still don't take plastic, and smaller stores and supermarkets usually don't either. And those that do, do so in bizarre ways. 7-ll Japan will take VISA cards, it says so on the front of the register. Phhht! I tried and they refused. You see, they only take VISA cards issued through 7-11, otherwise you're SOL. My wife has 7 credit cards which she only occasionally uses, and which she leaves at home when we travel, using only one account overseas.

Oh, here's an amusing computer-company awkward-growing-pains story. Matsushita Electric company (National) was introducing a new computer with proprietary web browser as an attempt to challenge Internet Explorer's domination of the market. They purchased the rights to American cartoon character Woody Woodpecker as a friendly alternative to MS's irritating little floating paper clip thingy. Unfortunately, they had to pull the entire line the day before the marketing campaign was scheduled to begin, when an embarrassed American employee who had just seen the campaign explained to them that the slogan could be misinterpreted -

"Touch Woody - The Internet Pecker"

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Japan, Land of Ninja & Robots

When I came to Japan, I have to admit to being woefully unprepared. I landed a teaching job while knowing only basic, stereotypical things about the land, and PBS’s “Japan Now” really didn’t help me correct those impressions.

In my mind, I pictured Richard Chamberlain running around in his kimono and horrible accent, saying “Hai, Toranaga-sama!” (it’s really funny to me, but most Japanese have seen that miniseries - why would they bother?). I thought there were still places where one could learn Ninja skills, and that I’d see real people walking down the streets with the Samurai shaved heads, ladies in their kimonos with daggers hidden in the sash (so watch your step, Mr. Touchy-Feely). “Haya!" Slash, plop, the offending member is flopping around on the floor….

Hey, I meant his hand! What are you thinking about, dirty mind!

I also thought these Ninjas and Geishas would be talking to each other through their Dick Tracy walkie-talkie rings, with hidden magic compass and secret decoder function. They must have houses that talk to them like HAL9000 or NightRider’s Kitt, but with prissy little-girl voices. Their cars would drive themselves. It would be high-tech heaven, making my life in Colorado look like 10,000 BC.

Boy, what a bunch of bull-pucky!

Nary a kimono or yukata (the lightweight cotton summer kimono) to be seen, except at summer festivals or weddings, or maybe a collection of foreign tourists trying for the “Japan experience” (just see my profile pic from Okinawa… I’m so embarrassed!!). While some of my students do have numerous kimono and study the art very hard, the vast majority have to rent one when necessary, but much prefer to wear dresses and gowns to weddings or graduation. Many ladies, I would guess-timate more than half, can’t put the damn things on by themselves (it’s a lot harder than you’d imagine), and have to have a pro help them on the occasions when they need it

You know, it’s like a New Yawker or Shy-towner wearing a cowboy hat and shit-kickers. It just don’t look right! [Although, the first time I saw a Japanese Country-Western band just blew my mind… “Ya' peekku-da fain taimu tsu leebu mee Lusheeru!”]*

And high-tech? In 1990? Only in the factories. Swear to God.

When I came here, only 5% of homes had a PC or Apple, and $3000 would have been bargain basement. And dialup was slower than a Pepto-Bismol bowel movement (poetic, aren’t I?). Lots of houses still had little gas water heaters hanging from the wall above the kitchen sink that you had to flip on and off every time you wanted to wash the dishes (and if you were too tall, you might singe your eyebrows doing so - I did mention that they were gas heaters, right?), with a second, slightly larger model hanging off the outside wall to heat the bath water.

ATMs were a brand-new technology, only at banks, and were only open 9-3, M-F (I spent a very hungry first weekend, when I discovered that little fact…). Any transaction performed at the teller window involved several sheets of paper, which were processed by the teller, then hand carried to the management types for approval, adding several extra steps and 5-10 minutes to everything. Even today, when bank transfers and automatic deposits and payments have become a fact of life, all transactions at the teller are on paper. Oh, and almost nowhere took plastic (that was another interesting restaurant experience I'll explain at another time).

Central Heating/Air are still virtually unknown at the consumer level. When planning my house, I was told I’d have to import it and that it would add over $50K to the price - now every room in my house has its own electric space heater/air conditioner (at an average $1K a pop for the smaller rooms) mounted on the wall (except the toilet, which is cold enough in the winter to actually need that heated seat - something they’ve definitely gotten right! - and hot enough in summer to, well, let’s just say that a toilet room which is 110 degrees induces sweating, and it’s like trying to use a waxed teflon toilet seat!). “Slip-sliding away”

Next time: Today's Land of Robots and High-Tech

*"Lucille" - 1977
"You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille."

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fireworks Season

The Japanese love their fireworks. I'm sitting on a hillside right now, waiting for Kakogawa's annual fireworks festival: 75 minutes of major, eardrum-busting, incandescent "Flowers of Fire"! They really pull out all the stops, too - 3 stages, 2 hours entertainment before the show, television stars, great fireworks. A few years ago, an old student, a City Hall worker, told me the fireworks alone (only 3000 shells this year) ran over $100K. During the mid-show and finale, it can make you feel like an extra in Tom Cruise's "War of the Worlds", hoping for earplugs. At least the weeds are green, and the only bloodsuckers are mosquitoes and taxmen!

We've always gotten a place as close to the action as possible, on the western riverbank opposite the stages. We usually meet friends there 3 or more hours early, stake out our claim, then wander around the stalls and nearby stores. By the time dusk approaches, our tarp is an island in the midst of about 3000 of our closest 'friends', the only empty space on the upper riverbank is around the PortaPotty (don't want to sit downwind of that, uh-uh, no way, no how!), and you can barely walk (no, these last 2 aren't connected!). As many as 30,000 pack the east bank, with most of the young ladies in colorful floral-patterned yukatas (summer kimonos), and the young dudes in yukata or with their "pants on the ground".
--love that song!--

Since the 3 oldest kids now go with their friends, and don't even want to see us ol' folks (or be seen with us), we decided to take the youngest and find a less crowded place this year. We're sitting next to a lovely shrine half a mile away, and as you can see in the videos, the view is fine!

Well, the view may be fine, but my video sure sucks. Oh, well.