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."

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