Sunday, December 25, 2011

"Spinning Bird Kick!"

Had my mother-in-law over for Christmas Eve dinner last night, and introduced her to the wonderful world of turkey dinner with all the fixin's. Dinner was a success, the turkey was a beautiful caramel brown, the casserole looked good, the taters were fluffy. Until...

We were watching the All-Japan Figure Skating championships while eating, and the announcers were explaining some of the moves during the down time while awaiting individual's scores, and started on a move called the "Flying Sit Spin". Now, I should explain that Japanese doesn't have a 'si:' sound. It has a 'shi:' sound. I heard the announcer say the move's name, looked at the skater revolving in circles in a one-legged squat, and brayed like a jackass. My wife cracked up at the same time (see why I married her?), and we laughed till we cried.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Merry Christmas! And a Happy New Ear!

I finally got around to putting up my Christmas lights today. Spent a couple of hours climbing up and down the ladder, hanging lights, and finally reached the last step, hanging the flashing "Merry Christmas" light rope.

Now people had been walking by all afternoon, looking at me hanging the lights and saying things like: "Wow!" "Beautiful!" "Spectacular!" And their comments about the lights were even more effusive!

Then a group of Southeast Asian workers came by as I was hanging the last light, and were giggling and talking together. One guy wanted to be friendly, I guess - I heard him say something about the lights in Japanese, then he decided to sing an appropriate song instead:

"Happy Birthday to You!"...

Laughed so hard, I almost fell off the ladder

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


So, you've gone out and done the dirty dance with the devil. You've wheedled, bargained, stormed out, and finally settled on a price for your soul. Congratulations! You are a new car owner.

Just wait - there's another whammy coming!

After 3 years of ownership, it's time to get your safety inspection, or sha-ken. "No big deal," you think, "my car's still in good shape." It's only 3-years old, no major faults. Change out the engine and transmission oils, put in new filters while you're at it, check the brake pads and spark plugs. "What can it cost? Maybe $50 bucks?"

Ehh-hh-hh-hh! (insert raucous buzzer noise here)

Nope. Mine was an ass-biting $1500 US. No, I didn't type an extra zero, didn't make a conversion mistake. And at today's exchange of less than ¥80/$1, my 5-yr check just cost me a coronary-inducing $2000.

Back when Colorado still had a safety inspection, it cost $25/year. The emissions inspection used now runs less than a hundred. WTF?

Do the math. I managed to talk a salesman with a rapidly-approaching quota down to $22,000 for a black 1st-gen Alphard, a true beast on Japan's little roads with mini-cars zipping all about. But with sha-ken at 3-, 5-, 7-, 9- and 11-yrs, and every year thereafter, I will be spending an additional $9000 over the first 11 years. That's 41% of the purchase price, and only if there are no problems. And if I try to keep the car running for 20 years, I'll pay more than the purchase price of the car...

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Look

As, I'm sure I've mentioned before... maybe once or twice... in almost every post... gaijin are stared at. I'm sitting in a large hospital now (just getting a checkup, thank you for your concern), and getting my fair share of looks.

Walk down the street, people look out their car windows as they go by. Sit on your front stoop and watch old fellas run into cyclists as they stare unblinkingly until they are 20 feet beyond you. Go to the store, and there will be a kid running down the aisle, yelling, "Mama, fo-o-reigne-e-er!" (although there was that one time when a boy yelled "Fat man!" - - little shit!).

But you get used to it. Nowadays I only notice it when they don't stare. I've become an attention-addicted narcissist. Guess I'll just have to control myself...

Hope you won't see any paparazzi shots of me climbing mini-skirted and no pants into an SUV any time soon.*

*How's that for a gross image - hope you weren't eating when you read that

Saturday, October 15, 2011

College Entrance Exams

It's 9:30, and I'm waiting outside my elder daughter's cram school (she's coming home early today, she usually finishes at 11:00). She has university entrance exams coming up in a few months, and has been cramming for several months, 6 days/week, 5-6 hours/day after school.

In the States, many students take prep courses to do better on the ACT or SAT, hoping to increase their chance of getting into a university, but it's not the same thing. The SAT or ACT, while undeniably important, are not the only criteria for admission. Your high school grades, extra-curricular activities, references and even volunteer work are taken into consideration. And if you bomb either of those tests, you have the opportunity to take them again, and again, and again if needed.

Not here in Japan. Your entrance test is the only thing that will get you into college. The only thing. Bomb this puppy, and you'll be "Ronin", a masterless samurai in search of a school, and spend the next year in prep school before trying again. Your high school grades don't count for jack-shitt, other than your homeroom teacher's determination of which school you should test for. Several of my students spent junior high asleep in the back of the class, then played with themselves in a lower high school for the first (Sophomore) year, before finally buckling down, studying and becoming the #1 student in their graduating class.

Oh, and each college has its own entrance exam. College A has this exam, College B made that one; hopefully they aren't on the same day, or your options just got cut in half. Just pay your $250-500 per test and go. A standardized "Center Test" came out a few years ago which is supposed to serve the purpose of the ACT and allow students to take one test for multiple schools, but it hasn't worked out that way. The schools need that test fee, what with Japan's declining birth rate and resulting declines in attendance rates, so they look at your Center Test, say "How nice!", then make you take their test anyways.

Meanwhile high school seniors like my daughter continue to spend as many as 8 hours after school, and 14 hours each on Saturday and Sunday, hoping to cram in as much information as possible that may appear on the test. They aren't really required to make grades at school any more, and during the last 2-3 months, many don't listen in class; they just openly do their cram school homework or sleep, soaking up energy for tonight's lesson.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Now's the time!

So, you've always wanted to go to Japan, but couldn't dig up the moola? Have you wanted to start a blog, but couldn't think of anything to say (brainfart, anyone)?

Well, now might be the time to do both. The Japan Tourism Agency has announced plans to give away free round-trip airfare in an advertising campaign to draw back tourists who are, what with the East Japan quake & tsunami, nuclear meltdown and generally crappy economy, staying away in droves. The only catch, and it's an easy one, is that you have to be willing to write a review of your trip and post it online. Precedence will be given to bloggers who have more than 12 followers (damn, I can't get tickets... oh, yeah... I already live here...). And if you head to west Japan, you have no worries about glow-in-the-dark foods, either.

You'll still have to pay your in-country expenses, but cutting out that nasty international fare (doesn't look so bad, until they add in the $500 fuel surcharge!) certainly makes it easier. If you stay at cheaper ryokan (inns) or minshuku (like a samurai B&B), you could probably get by for $100+/night hotel for a couple; it's about half that if you look for hostels. Food can be cheap or expensive, but a general rule of thumb is that if you can't read the price on the menu (ie, it isn't in Arabic numerals), you can't afford to eat there.

And if you are the sister or brother, niece or nephew of someone who lives convenient to Himeji, Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto (hmm, hmm, hmmm!), you don't need to shell out for the hotel, either.

So if you have a yen to visit Japan ;-) , read this ABC News blog, and keep your ears open.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Typhoon Season

The US has hurricane season, Japan has its typhoons.

What's the difference, you ask? F~ if I know... Names only, actually, although hurricanes pack higher winds due to the warmer Caribbean waters, and typhoons dump piss-loads of rain. We name hurricanes after our mothers-in-law, the Japanese just give the typhoons numbers: "Ho-hum, here comes Number Nineteen..."

Our local river is at normal times just a trickle that barely qualifies as a "crick" back home. A concrete-sided, 20 ft wide, 12 ft deep bed with a stream 2 ft wide in the bottom is a subject for drunken deliberation and derision (say that after a couple of beers!).
-- "Whaz thish? Widdle baby wivulet wif wet dweams..."
-- "Jeezh, put a Depends on that and it'd dry right up!"

And then the typhoon hits, and it's like John Holmes decided to play the sorceror's apprentice in Fantasia - the buckets keep coming and coming...


72 hours of rain* that averages 2 inches/hour, and that pissant little stream discovers the Arnold Swarzeneggar fountain of steroids and "bulks up". It fills that 20 ft bed from side-to-side, then deepens, turning into a roiling mass of ochre mud and foam. Soon it's halfway up the banks' walls , and starting to look like a fast-moving deep-fat fryer.

Then the torrents increase to a quick 6" per hour, and the river starts lapping at the bridge. This last typhoon, it almost made it over the bridge.

If you live in the mountains or hills, you get the added joy of possibly seeing the mind-boggling sight of a whole hillside of trees, still upright and in serried rows, sliding past you, across the road and down the hill. And if you're really lucky, you're house goes splat (insert sarcastic smile/grimace here...).

Yep, I'll take Colorado's thunderstorms and occasional tornado any time!

* in Colorado, get 72 hours of rain and the suicide rate spikes...

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Would you eat this?

I found an online review of vanilla ice cream brands available in your local supermarket in the US, ranked both by taste and by nutrition. Not sure if I'd eat this one, though...

#2 Stonyfield Organic Gotta Have Vanilla Tuna in Spring Water

Nutrition: One serving (1/2 cup) = 250 calories, 16g total fat, 10g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 60mg cholesterol, 45g sodium, 21g total carbs, 20g sugars, 3g protein.

Ingredients: Organic Cream, Organic Whole Milk, Naturally Milled Organic Sugar, Organic Vanilla Flavor, Organic Carob Bean Gum, Organic Guar Gum.

Cost: $2.99 for a pint at Fairway Market in New York City.

Our Assessment: This was our #2 pick for flavor, and it's available across the country, so it's a good bet on all fronts.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tails, You Lose...

Imagine all the doom-sayers were right, and the US economy tanked, the dollar becoming expensive toilet paper like in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. You realize that another country, one of the AAA-rated ones, perhaps, offers you and your children the possibility of a better life (I'm not talking about England, Canada or Australia here, either, but a non-English speaking land). You will probably have to take a low-level, low-paying job, even though you may be a university professor, doctor or engineer back home, since all of your certifications are useless and you don't speak the language well or perhaps even at all.

When you get there, you'll have to jump through hoops just to get and then keep your visa, filling out numerous applications, sitting in offices and standing in lines for hours at a time. You will be profiled as one of those "dan-jer-us furriners", and police will be able to pull you over at any time to see your registration card.

Of course, you won't be able to actually read any of the forms you are filling out, and you'll be working 10-14 hrs or more per day, probably at 2 jobs, just trying to make ends meet and give your kids what they need to learn and thrive. You won't have time to study the language, but if you're lucky, your kids will learn the language quickly and be able to help you fill out the forms, acting as unofficial translators whenever you have problems. People will assume you are either mentally defective or plain ol' lazy. And even getting around will be tough at first, since every sign is of course only written in that country's native lingo.

Think you could hack it? Are you flexible enough, do you have the cojones?

I came to Japan in 1990, mentally woefully unprepared for such an existence. Good thing I came to Japan, I guess, because I didn't even have most of the above problems. Signs in train stations are also printed in English lettering, for example, and most people at least speak a smattering of English (some speak better than I did in junior high, where "ain't" was the main word in my vocabulary). My immigration forms are all bilingual.

So, what's my point? Immigrants to the US live this every single day. So think next time you want to bitch about the immigrant who doesn't speak fluently or who has a thick accent; put yourself in his shoes.

I dare you.

Heads, You Win...

Imagine you live in a land where corruption is rampant. I'm not talking about someone 'forgetting' to report a small present they may have received from a supporter, inappropriate campaign donations or another NCAA booster gone wild.

I'm talking about politicians who plunder their nations' coffers, putting millions of dollars in their own off-shore accounts. Rulers who treat entire nations as their own petty cash fund, and the citizens as slave labor at best. Places where people starve to death because all the food aid is being taken by the military or whichever faction/warlord currently controls their area.

I'm talking about police forces who will torture or kill you at the whim of the rich and powerful (because you belong to a different religion/political party/tribe); where the only surety is that if the cops come a-knockin', you'd better have a hidey-hole or escape route. Places where the military, an organization intended and organized to wage war, is used as a police force (something they are singularly unsuccessful at).

In such places as these, the US is seen as the land of opportunity, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the land of freedom. And despite whatever faults it may have, for many immigrants it is just that.

Many people have come from other countries and built good lives for themselves; in many cases, lives a quantum leap better than anything possible in their homelands. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's family fled Czechoslovakia after the communist takeover. Einstein left Germany after fellow scientists expressed fears for his safety from the burgeoning Nazi movement. US Congressman Tom Lantos escaped a forced-labor camp in Hungary.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!...
...Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Monday, August 8, 2011

This Senate has Real Balls

I'm talking about clankin', ringing, giant orbs of brass.

I've been watching the congressional debates over the debt with a certain amount of bemusement (disbelief, actually), wondering just what they were doing. I understand that the Democrats have their agenda, the Republicans have theirs, and the Tea Party is running around, tipping cows because they can.

Don't get me wrong, I agree that something has to be done about the mess in Washington, the bottomless purse. When I came to Japan in 1990, the budget deficit was at around $150 billion, dropping to $290 billion in '92. But by 2000 it was a $236 billion surplus. Not enough to erase the national debt, but a fair chunk of change.

Then came 9-11, sweeping tax cuts in 2002, and 2 horrendously expensive wars. By 2004, the deficit was back to $490 billion, yoyoed a little, and by the time Obama took office, our yearly deficit was once again running at $407 billion.* Then came the Fanni Mae meltdown and the banking/mortgage crisis.

With me so far?

Now the Senate decides to play idiot and accomplish nothing over weeks of debate. Defend your position and try to get as good a deal as possible, I understand. That's what you're paid for. But not even attempt to deal, to negotiate a least detestable option for both sides, basically to not do their damn jobs? And to ignore all the advice from economists, even warnings from S&P itself?

"Gee, why did big, bad S&P downgrade our credit rating?" Besides the obvious factor of the debt being roughly 6 times this years revenues (think the banks would give me a loan, if I owed six times what I can make, and with no hope of paying it off?), S&P stated in their report that the political climate was a major factor in their decision:

"We lowered our long-term rating on the U.S. because we believe that the prolonged controversy over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues is less likely than we previously assumed and will remain a contentious and fitful process. We also believe that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration agreed to this week falls short of the amount that we believe is necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade.
Our lowering of the rating was prompted by our view on the rising public debt burden and our perception of greater policymaking uncertainty, consistent with our criteria. Nevertheless, we view the U.S. federal government's other economic, external, and monetary credit attributes, which form the basis for the sovereign rating, as broadly unchanged.

"The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year's wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently."

And now, the Senate announces that it will be holding hearings over S&P's downgrade of the US's credit rating?

Big brass clankers, indeed.

* all numbers from the FactChecker website, with forays on Wikipedia for budget info

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Power of Words

Words don't just have different meanings... They have different power.
An 11-yr-old student is sitting in front of me right now, proudly wearing the new trucker hat his mom bought for him.
In black letters on a white field:
Fuck the World
and facing the wearer on the underside of the brim:
Encouragement from mom? Or just a lack of power in the only word that ever got my mouth washed out with soap?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Unfortunate Choice of Words

99 out of 100 Japanese schools require students to wear uniforms. As I have stated in an earlier post, girls wear sailor uniforms or blazers and skirts.

As a father, I like the sailor uniforms. They tend to conceal physical features: Tall or short, wide or not, it isn't readily obvious.

Now that students are on summer break, I'm seeing some of my students in regular clothes for the first time.

One young lady came to class the other day in a tank top, and to my surprise she turns out to be quite buxom. Then I read what was printed on her shirt, and had to stick my fist in my mouth and bite my knuckles to keep me from braying like a jackass.

It said, "Boing, BOING!!"

Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Where's the beef?"

Ah, the adventure continues.

Now we have 'blue' steaks which you can find even in the black of midnight under the new moon, even when the power goes out in the middle of a storm; just follow the blue radiance in the freezer. Who needs candlelight? Don't you envy our wee little radioactive beasties who glow in the dark?*

Beef cattle have been found to have 73 times the acceptable national standard of radioactive cesium (who thinks up these standards, anyways? Need to thank that anal-retentive character).

What does this mean to the consumer? Well, radioactive meat has been found in more than 10 prefectures, sent to at least 43 different outlets and restaurants. And in a few cases, served and eaten at "discount restaurants". How'd you like to wake up to that little bit of news: "Today will be partly cloudy, muggy as hell. Oh, and btw, the restaurant you ate at last night gave you the equivalent of 20 CT scans in your beef bowl."

Mmmm, now the beef's bad, fish in the east swim in radioactive goo and eat soylent green, the spinach has powers Popeye certainly never gained, and the water in the east is 'unacceptable for babies and pregnant women'. Combine that with all the tainted foods that have come in from China over the last 2 years, and it's getting hard to shop.

Can't wait until the new CostCo opens!

*too bad radioactive goods don't really glow. Just go shopping in the dark, you know your food's clean.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Parents Revolt

Read this article about the radiation level changes in Fukushima Prefecture. As a parent, wouldn't you just be looking for any way out of the area?

Fukushima children

It's the water.... again

Well, summer is here. We're hitting the low 90's with humidity in the low 90s as well. Tokyo and east Japan are even hotter. Makes you crave big glasses of ice cold water, pitchers of tea. Good thing the water's safe!

"Step right up, get'chur water here. Certified safe by the central government. Don't worry about those pesky little DNA encryption errors, your grandkids'll be perfectly happy looking like hairy octopi."

Areas outside the Fukushima evacuation zone have been certified safe for children, with radiation within all limits. "Damn!", you say. "How did they take care of that so fast? How'd they clean up hotspots so strong that they were frying the robots designed for highly-radioactive environments?"

Well, I'm glad you asked. It was really quite simple. They looked at the allowable radiation levels in the drinking water and in the soil on school grounds, then compared them to the legal limits.

Then they raised the limits TWENTY-FOLD. (2)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Team-Sport Spirit

Is Japan a group-oriented society? Does a bear shit in the woods? Eh-hm, sorry...

Judge for yourself. They have taken a "character building" free-for-all where "big kiDs knOck other kiDs silly in a GamE of Be ALL you can be", - you know, DODGEBALL (or "school-SPOnsoRed Terrorism", as the smaller kids called it), and made a team sport of it.

I gotta confess. As a runty 7th grader, I hated the game. Then in 8th or 9th grade, the teenager's love of stupid risk came to my aid, and I learned to revel in dodging near misses moving at light speed, and wanted to brain the bigger guys who'd kick my scrawny little ass if I had ever done such a thing out in the real world, but offered me grudging respect as they writhed on the ground from a well-placed (aka lucky) groin shot. In other words, I embraced sado-masochism. We should have all been wearing spray-on latex, we were such sadists.

And rules? 'We don' need no stinkin' rules!" If you get hit, you're out. If you catch the ball, the other guy's out. If you could draw blood, like Mr. Hokanson sometimes did, leaving little red bloody welts on someone's leg or chest, you scored "man points". Add anything to that and you take away from the Cro-Magnonism of it all.

But in Japan, dodgeball is a whole 'nuther critter.

Take a volleyball court (remove the net, please, before someone sections their face into little bloody squares, skittering across the floor). Now put 7 members of each team inside their respective sides. Then take the remaining 3 members of each team and put them outside the other three lines of the opponents court (draw another line 10 ft behind them - this is the out-zone). This game just became a lot more complex. Toss the ball to another player on a different sideline, and watch the whole team pivot in response. Do this a few times, then nail the one who turns slowest. Oh, and if you are a center player who has been knocked out, you can get back in by knocking someone out from the sidelines. Only the 3 original 'out' players can't get back in. Catching someone's throw, while ensuring that you aren't out, doesn't knock out the thrower.

This makes for a game which needs an Ender Wiggin to plan properly. Neighborhood teams practice for months before our town tourney, then meet in May at each elementary school to pick the school champions. Elementary school, guys, when we could barely handle our rules in junior high!

Then last weekend was the town championship. The top 3 teams in each age group (1st-2nd grade, 3rd-4th grade, 5th-6th grade) from each school met at the town gymnasium and duked it out. My son's team (5th-6th) took 3rd prize.

Check out a few photos:

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Retail Aromatherapy

During my recent trip Stateside, I found myself ecstatic whenever I encountered familiar smells.

-sniff- "Ooh, what's that? Aah, cinnamon rolls. Green chilies. Bleu cheese. Zest!"

Maybe that's why I got so full so easily. I was already sated by the virtual smorgasbord of scents around me (or maybe it had to do with the gi-normous American-sized portions* - whaddaya think?")

So I've decided to engage in what I've named "Retail Aromatherapy" (can I copyright stupid names? Why not - someone copyrighted "teabaggers"...).

I went out and bought soaps, shampoos and deodorants with scents I remember from my pre-Japan life. You know, manly scents like Irish Spring, Zest, Dial for Men (if I bought the ladies', would it give me an identity crisis?). Got me some Right Guard, too!
--No, I'm not receiving any compensation from these brands - more's the pity. [If you would like shameless product placement in exchange for indecent sums of money, give me a call. Please!]

Now every shower is like a blast from the past. I even catch myself sniffing my arm throughout the day (I said arm; stop at the 'm').

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the Japanese smell; quite the contrary, actually. I'm just saying that the scents used in many of their toiletries are different. Milder, for one. Flowery. Even the men's.

*more on that in a later post

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"I don't think that means what you think it means..."

Check out the spam from an online pharmacy which I found waiting in my inbox when I got home from the States last night (seems like the sender has used too much of his own merchandise...):

Appel's oriented, Klab, of to mcuh are proiritize, Some spoke custmoers professor Ira at wihch of USC "erluctance" of they how clinical technically thsee effcet ebmrace VaAnmburg moer lot has compaines. the of taht on marketing well-regarded said approach the may

A that orienetd School than sizbale Bsuiness.

to a csutomer to Mrashall roots donw cmoe

The Long Voyage Home

Well, I'm on the way home... again. Talk about a short trip - 5 days in Denver, with a full day of travel pasted on each end.

I can gladly say that Denver's security went smoothly and professionally. It probably helped that it was before 6am, so the staff was rested and not yet pissed off at the world. Got through in less than 5 minutes at the head of the early-flight crowds.

San Fran was socked in with fog, so we were delayed in Denver for 30 odd minutes before loading and pushing away from the gate to wait 20 more in what the pilot called "The Penalty Box". The only hitch was when I boarded late and had to check my carryon at the aircraft doors. Thankfully, the new quilt my sister gave me was in my hand.

I still had enough time to walk quickly to my next gate without running and directly board, then back in the air.

I gotta say, Thank God for Economy Plus! If you fly international, sitting for 10-12 hours at a stretch, spring for the extra $80-100. Don't spend hours as Spam-in-the-can when the person in front of you reclines and falls asleep 10 minutes into the flight. (Hint: if you fly across multiple time zones and aren't going directly into meetings upon arrival, sleep as little as possible on the flight. It will help lessen the time/jet lag.)

After an additional 11 and a half hours, we finally hit Kansai. Had a bit of a scare when the drug-sniffing dog took an interest in my leg, sniffing me from ankle to crotch, before I realized his tail was wagging and he was probably smelling my sister's and mom's dogs and welcoming me to the pack. Gotta tell you, the TSA has nothing on a curious dog when it comes to handling your junk!

2 more hours on the train, then I'll be home.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Driving in America

I'm back in the US for the 1st time in a few years and the reverse culture shock is negligible this time. But now I'm doing something fraught with fear and danger... I'm (cue Vincent Price voice) Driving In America.

What's the big deal, you say. You do it all the time. Well, so do I. I drive nearly every day in Japan. On the other side of the road! It can be quite hard when you instinctively pull into the same lane as always, and realize rather abruptly that you're driving against traffic right outside the Santa Monica mall (1995), up County Line Road in Denver (1997) or on the wrong side of the aisle in the parking lot (every f---ing time!).

Time to turn left, flip the switch. wee-wah-wee-wah, the wipers skitter across the windshield, hissing in their high-pitched little plastic voices, "Hey, Ahsehole, wrong switch. Ahse...hole. Wrong switch. Wrong switch. Ahse-HOLE."

It's starting to rain? "Left turn, get it right. Left turn, get it right."
Sigh again.

And every time I park the stupid car, I set the hand brake and then find myself lifting my left leg (No, I'm not a dog!) and searching for the brake lever on the floor.

Thank God the pedals aren't reversed....

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Home again

Oh, boy...

I'm back in the US for the first time in 3 years, visiting family, and I've gotta tell 'ya, I was not looking forward to going through airport security in the States.

It's easy in Japan. They're invariably polite, quick, and speak at least 2 languages each. Show checks are conducted randomly, and they even let you go through domestic security with your drink bottles, which they just set on this special scanner to make sure it really is a drink, not another thing.

But I'd heard and read so many bad stories on the net about security in the US that I was really worried. I expected to have some gorilla with ham hands checking my junk, making sure there warn't nuttin' there that I warn't born with.

I came in to LAX at 11:00 in the morning, pretty much a peak time, on a plane half full of military (which made me feel particularly pear-shaped). Another plane came in from Sydney and God knows how many other planes came in at the same time. But the citizen line was busy.

Yet I was so pleasantly surprised: the CBP personnel were very polite, even more than shop clerks in the US. Then I had to recheck my bag and go back through security to reach my connection. The folks at the security line were very polite. They were actually much more polite than the folks going through security. The two blondes in front of me were really rude, actually, acting holier-than-thou and entitled, and the TSA personnel didn't even flinch. They just processed them through (although I did see a little grin on one lady's face when the metal detector went off on the second bitch, and she called another person to do a personal scan).

I just popped off my slip-on shoes (anyone who wears laceup shoes when flying is sputid), put my electronics and little bag with liquids in a tray, and stepped through. When I forgot to take the towel from around my neck, the lady processing asked me very nicely to put it on the x-ray machine belt, and sent me on my way.

Good job, TSA (no snarky comment here, I turned off my snarky smart-ass button this morning).

I just hope it's as easy when I head back out next week...

(turn snarky smart-ass back on now)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Driving in Japan

I had to renew my Japanese driver's license the other day. Went down to the bureau, stood in various lines for about an hour, got my picture taken, then had to sit through a 20 video on safety and following the rules. The video was very Japanese, with drivers debating whether to speed, or pass on a blind corner, run a stop; inevitably they decided to obey the rules, because they were rules. One lady finally decided to strap her kid into the child car seat, because it was the rule. She barely even considered fact that baby-becoming-ballistic-paintball-on-the-windshield was a great reason to use the damn belts.

But it got me thinking about driving here, and the differences. The most obvious one is that they drive on the left, like the Brits, with the steering wheel on the right. And the stick, if you have one (hee-hee) is on the left. Thank God the pedals aren't reversed. But it's the road size that will get you. Try driving 40mph on roads barely wider than your car, where you have to wait for other traffic before you can get around the telephone pole that was planted on the verge. 2-way roads barely one US-lane wide. I've been down lots of roads which were less than a foot wider than my car, and have even had to shut my mirrors to get between walls. Definitely a white-knuckle ride for any of my relatives or friends who comes to see me!

The drivers are actually very considerate, especially when you consider the number of cars on the road. If you need to turn across traffic, cars will often slow and flash their lights at you to cross ahead of them. Others will slow or even stop and beep their horns to let you into traffic from a side street. People actually watch out for bicycles, checking their blind spots before turning.

Of course, to make up for that, the cyclists are idiots! Bikes come shooting out of blind alleys at high speed, curving way out into traffic to make the turn, not even looking before they Evel-Knievel their way down the street. High school kids ride 2 and 3 abreast, blocking a 2-way street, assuming that cars will miss. I guess that bothers me the most. Yes, cars are legally supposed to yield the right of way to bikes, but the car driver gets a ticket if he gets it wrong - the cyclist gets a hospital stay or trip to the morgue!

Not to mention the numerous people (kids, students, mothers with kids in the child seat, men riding for the train), who ride against traffic, then glare at you if you can't move way out of their way because bikes are on both sides.

Makes me want to hook up a good set of air horns on my car. "Get the BWWAAAAAPAPPPAPPPPP out of the way!"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Japanese Junior High, pt 2

"Math and science offer the only common basis for comparing American schools to the rest of the world. Other subjects vary from one country to another… …tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By the same criteria used to say we were 'average' in elementary school, 'we appear to be "near the bottom" at the high school level…… Chances are, even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.' - excerpted from a speech by Pascal D. Forgione, Jr., Ph.D. U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics.

This is one of the most common comparisons between Japanese schooling and American, the consistently lower test scores achieved by American students. But it’s comparing apples and oranges, really.

In arithmetic, Japanese elementary students drill, drill, drill. The entire education system here is set up to enhance memorization, data acquisition. In arithmetic, this is ideal. 1st graders spend the entire year on variations of the addition/subtraction tables. 2nd graders do the same with the addition of some multiplication. 3rd grade is the multiplication tables.

“The US does the same”, you say? Does it, really? Yes, but not to the extent Japan does. You can take any average American elementary school student and put them into Kumon classes (a popular math and kanji drill school here in Japan), and their test scores will improve, often dramatically. About half, maybe more, of J. primary schoolers go to some sort of classes in the afternoon evening, usually math, Japanese or English cram schools.

This continues into junior high school, where all students will study algebra, geometry and algebra II. There is no splitting according to ability at the public schools, everyone studies the same material. Advantage? Students can’t be lazy and take an easier level just because they want don’t want to work. “I don’t need math!” Disadvantage? In any class, a fair number of kids who are having problems understanding will get left behind, and sometimes even become depressed and give up. And most will need to go to cram schools 3 or 4 nights per week to keep up at school during the day.

But Japanese junior high students study for the test, not the learning. The entire education system is aimed at one thing: passing entrance exams into high school, and then the all-important university entrance exam. [Kinda sounds like student assessment tests in the States, eh?] 9th graders only study for the test to enter high school. If it won’t be on that test, it isn’t important to them.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention: nobody goes to high school without passing that school’s entrance exam or a city-wide entrance exam with point preference. There is no local high school, high school’s serve the entire city or ward, and are split up according to level. You want to go to a particular school, study a particular level? That test is on Feb 25, for example. And the other school you like might be the same day, so choose which one to challenge.

In my school district, you are given 30 extra points for your first-choice school’s test. This would help you if everyone else didn’t get the same points, but they do, so no real edge there. Where it kicks you in the cahones is if you fail your first-choice school, and your test score has to compete at your second-choice school against other students who set their sights slightly lower than you did, and are using that school as their first choice, with the extra 30!

It's actually possible to miss out on all 3 of your choices in this way, and end up having to go to one of the low, unpopular private schools, where you pay4 times as much, but only get 1/2 the education. Kinda makes you understand why some students stress out and do the jin-shin-boogie, and splat themselves across the front windshields of passing trains.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Japanese Junior High, pt 1

So, what's junior high school like in Japan? Well, in a word, it's a bitch!

Nearly every junior high school has a uniform. Traditional uniforms are sailor suits for girls (where did you think Sailor Moon and friends got their names?) and black matrix-like pseudo-military uniforms for the boys.
Modern-styled uniforms have slacks and blazers for the boys and skirt and blazers for the girls. Other than sports uniforms and PE uniforms, this is pretty much the only piece of clothing these kids will wear on weekdays. The only one. And since they are horrendously expensive, most parents only buy the one, with 2 or 3 blouses to wash, drycleaning the uniform 3 or 4 times a year at the holidays.

Now, factor in the following: the Japanese humidity, the fact that most schools do not have locker rooms, students don't shower after PE or club, and schools are not air-conditioned. I'm damned glad most Asians don't have the enzyme that feeds body odor-producing bacteria!

Seriously. Could you imagine how an American school would smell if we had 2-a-day practice and PE in a humid summer with no showers or air-conditioning? Would you want to?

And no accessories allowed. You cannot pierce your ears, cannot wear jewelry, no makeup, no curling your hair (if you have naturally-curly hair, you will have to explain it to every new home-room teacher), and your hair has to be black. One of my students was taking a medicine that turned her hair dark red, and her school tried to force her to dye her hair black (her doctor came to the rescue on that one). Hair length is controlled; girls must wear their hair in ponytails or pigtails if it's over the shoulder, but can't wear it in a bun (apparently showing the nape of the neck is a huge turn-on for Japanese guys, because it's forbidden).

So the girls rebel by putting the ponytails at odd angles; by slowly shortening their skirts, until you wonder how they get on the bus without "flashing pan"; by buying huge "loose" socks that make it look like they have Uggs for legs.

Oh, and choose your club carefully. Because you will not be able to change into another for the entire 3 years you're here. There is no such thing as a 3-sport letterman in Japan, because it's impossible to play more than 1 sport for your school.

This club will become your junior high school life. You will practice 6 days a week for at least 3 hours a day. School vacations will be vacations from class time, but you'll still need to go to club. Nearly all your friends will come from here. Your social life will begin here. And end here, if you quit. Suddenly, your friends will be too busy to meet and you will be a pariah.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bigotry and Disappointment

The sheer ignorance of most bigots, not to mention their sanctimonious ravings, just pisses me off. I'm beyond frustration, beyond simple anger; I am livid, apoplectic.

Want a surprise? I'm not talking about Japan, here. I'm talking about a YouTube video which I was referred to today of a "Patriotic Rally" and protest from Orange County in March. "The Greater Los Angeles Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA)... ...released a video of a rally organized... protest a February fundraising event held by an American Muslim relief group for relief work and charity in the U.S."

The invective was truly distressing. Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly said, "I have a wonderful 19-year-old son who's a United States Marine. (Now, this is a good thing. But then she goes on...) As a matter of fact, I know quite a few Marines who will be happy to help these terrorists to an early meeting in paradise." Jesus! That is an inexcusable thing for a terrorist (excuse me, elected official) to say. Especially since the attendees at this dinner are themselves American. "I'm being told to go back home. I'm actually from Fullerton, so I don't know where back home is for me", said one attendee.

"You beat your women and you beat your children!" Sounds like any cracker to me. "Why don't you go beat up your wife, like you do every night? Why don't you go have sex with a 9-yr-old, marry her." Not only hateful, but unoriginal as well. Any of the kids I went to junior high with could have thought up better insults than that, insults that didn't make them sound like ignoramuses.

One lady (at the 4'21" mark) says, "We are patriotic Americans and we love our Constitution, and it's gonna stay that way. 'One nation under God', not Allah." I guess she loves the Constitution, even if she doesn't understand it. "One nation under God" comes from the Pledge of Allegiance, not the Constitution, and wasn't even added until 1954. The First Amendment of the Constitution specifically prohibits Congress from establishing a state religion, while guaranteeing freedom of all citizens to exercise whichever religion they find most comforting. So, both hateful and ignorant.

Truly shameful!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Boogeyman (or girl)

One cultural difference that still blows my mind is... blowing my mind, er, nose.

Kids twitter (not on the internet like Sarah Palin or Paris Hilton, but in the trees, like birds) whenever I blow my nose. Now, this could be because I sound like a bull moose in rutting season, but that's not the only reason. A large number of people refuse to blow their noses, preferring to Hoover it down like oysters (which is why I don't eat oysters). I mean, I have a box of tissues in my classroom, and maybe 5 students out of 90 will actually use one.

For the rest, it's sssnnnnSSSSNNNNNNGGGGGGGG! Gulp!

And I gag. Hell, I even gagged just writing this. And I truly despise allergy season...


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Oh, boy, soggy time begins. Like a toddler who just can't make it to the potty, I'm pretty much wet all the time. And, no, my name isn't Debbie, and I don't need my Depends.

It's rain time in Japan. Although rainy season doesn't actually begin until mid-June, I always consider May rainy season, since it rains a lot more than in June, when it never seems to actually rain....

But this year, we've got a nice twist. We're about to get hit by this year's first typhoon. The early typhoons usually stay much further south, maybe making it as far north as the Phillipines, since the northern Pacific is still too cold to provide any energy. An early typhoon, say #10 or so (they don't use names in Japan, just number them - makes sense to me, how would you like it if your name was Katrina?) would usually come sometime around early/mid July. But this time we've got Typhoon #1 doing the Pacific basin shuffle: it rode over the Philippines, toyed with the idea of heading to Taiwan, then turned and should reach Okinawa this afternoon. Early tomorrow it should make landfall in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's 4 main islands, and will either hit us or pass just south of us tomorrow afternoon. Then it'll head further east, probably passing just south of Tokyo, but possibly hitting the Tohoku earthquake zone (as if they don't have enough problems), and bringing massive amounts of rain to wash away the radiation.

All of the kids in this area are doing rain dances, of course, because typhoon means no school. And since they can't exactly play outside ("Let's tie Hiroshi to the flag pole and see how high he flies!"), their parents can't kick them out for playing too much video game.

"No Global Warming", my ass!

BTW, if you understood the "Debbie" crack, you should be ashamed of yourself! Go wash your mind out with soap!

Monday, April 25, 2011

School holidays

My son came down with a high fever last weekend, so today I dragged him to a doctor for a check. After waiting about an hour, he got the joy of having a really long Q-tip run up his nose, and the resulting goo tested (and you thought the strep check was gross?). Influenza B.

So, he has an automatic 5-day holiday, since children with the flu are required to stay home a minimum of 5 days before being checked again and certified able to attend. And in an interesting twist: if 7 or more students in any 1 class are out with the flu at the same time, that class gets the week off. The whole class, even the healthy ones, can't come to school, and really aren't even supposed to go outside for the week. The teacher doesn't really benefit from it (other than much lower decibel levels), since they have to call the students' houses every day to make sure they're staying home.

It's pretty tough for families with 2 working parents. Lucky my English school is attached to my home, huh?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

School in Japan, pt 1

Well, a new school year has started here in Japan. Elementary school students line up every morning, laughing and shouting (sometimes crying...) for the walk to school.

So, how is elementary school different here in Japan than in the States, you ask? Well, let's see... Classes are all conducted in Japanese, of course. Duh! And English is a furrin' language which has from this year become a required subject from the 5th grade. No grades, mind you, just comments from the homeroom teacher - but many of the teachers hate that they must teach it, since they sometimes speak even less than their students...

Well, let's look at a typical day in my kids' public school. They all walk to school, since public schools don't have buses (unless you live in BFE, like I did, where there may be a bus... One.), wearing their uniforms and with big leather satchels across their backs with all their books and materials. When I was a kid, only girls had them, but here, everyone has a pencil case, whether it be "Hello, Kitty", "Pocket Monsters" or "Puma". Even high school toughs carry them, it's like "To Sir, with Pencil Case". Everyone also has a little bag hanging from their packs, with a pair of plastic chopsticks in them for lunch. Not to eat, you wiener, to eat with!

But they eat lunch in their classrooms. Not in the cafeteria; if their school was even built with a cafeteria, it's probably been converted to a computer lab or storage. Every day, the school cooks leave carts with that class' lunch in the hallway outside the room, and 6 kids have to bring it into the classroom and serve it out. In aprons. That they bring from home.

And no pizza, hamburger or chef salad menu, either. Usually rice with mystery fish or meat in an unidentifiable sauce (some things are the same as at home, you see). Milk several days a week, sometimes barley tea (tastes like the inside of an ashtray to me...). Occasionally a bun of some kind, like sweetened soy flour on sticky buns; in which case, the bun is the main dish. In elementary school. Jr High hot lunches just began this January in my town, and high school students take boxed lunch sets in little plastic boxes which their mothers make fresh every morning.

Study is similar to Stateside, with the obvious substitution of Japanese instead of English, and kanji practice instead of penmanship. Everyone takes Home Ec and Shop in both elementary and junior high school. And all students are required to learn the recorder and the kenba pianica (like a bastard child of a harmonica and a piano - Beethoven's kazoo!), and participate in music day concerts every autumn. The level of their concerts by the time they reach 6th grade is pretty incredible, really.

This is only the first post in a series that will discuss Japanese schools over the next few weeks, so check back often!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Interesting Commercials

After the March 11 earthquake, when every TV channel was 24/7 scenes of death and destruction, advertisers pulled all their commercials, so as not to be perceived as trying to make a profit off other people's suffering. Instead, commercials by the Advertising Council, Japan, aired with public service messages urging people to be kind, polite, considerate.

Good messages in themselves, and pretty well presented, actually. For example, one shows a high school student on the train with friends, looking at a pregnant woman and wanting to offer her his seat but not doing so, stating that people can't see what you feel in your heart, only the things those feelings cause you to do. Later he follows his impulse and helps an elderly woman climb a staircase. These messages lose effectiveness, however, when the same 4 commercials are shown every 5-10 minutes until the shrill sign off of "A-C--! (or "A-shee! in Japanese pronunciation)" sets your teeth on edge (just what does that idiom mean, anyways?).

But one very popular commercial has cartoon characters using polite phrases like 'hello', 'thank you' in a jingle that is really quite addictive. Take a look. Now take a look at what some inventive soul has done to that commercial to symbolize the power and rebirth of Japan and the Tohoku region.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Another Fox Pas

One thing I have watched with bemusement over the last decade or so is the marginalization of conservative America. I'm not knocking those with conservative views; I think a balance of conservative and liberal agendas, and certainly the give and take such differences bring to the political arena, are vital to a healthy, functioning democracy. But the increasing demonization of anyone not sharing said conservative views, especially as represented by Fox News, really bothers me. As I said a few weeks ago, accuracy is certainly not a concern there.

Their latest screwup, trying to link a GWU student's suicide with Obama's speech last Wednesday, doesn't even count as an error, just as an agenda.
George Washington University students in Washington, D.C. learned of a tragic coincidence of timing on their campus Wednesday. As President Obama delivered a speech on deficit reduction in the Jack Morton Auditorium, university officials were learning one of their students had committed suicide in his dorm room across campus...

...GWU officials tell Fox that police were notified about the incident around 2pm, which happens to be at the same time that President Obama was speaking. A source tells Fox that the incident may have occurred earlier, noting that police went knocking on the student's door at 1:30pm. As of this writing, Fox has not been able to obtain reaction from the White House.

All factually accurate. Really, read every sentence individually and you'll see that every one is 100% true. But put them together like this, and you're left with a spin that would make a bowling ball jump 4 lanes to the left. "Fox has not been able to obtain reaction from the White House"? Are you kidding me? This person's death, while tragic, certainly wouldn't be something the White House need concern itself with unless it were someone the President or his family personally knew, or it happened in his presence.

I mean really, c'mon. Does this really not bother anyone?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Language Barriers

There are many barriers to communication when you live cross-culturally, of course, and language is only the most obvious. There are also physical cues, cultural cues and curly cues.

I've been in this country for 21 years, and speak the language reasonably well. I may not be an accomplished writer/poet like Lafcadio Hearn, or a translator, but I get by. But no matter how well you speak, you'll never get by the verbal cock-block of someone who is convinced foreigners can't speak the language and therefore won't listen. This is the Coach-Beast-in-a-tutu of communication.

I've been putting off getting new rear tires for the car, because they're horrendously expensive. But I finally decided I couldn't wait any longer (the belt was poking through the rubber), and found the best deal at a local gas station.

So I go in and ask them to do it, and this one guy is talking to me with his hands a lot, and seeming to have speech problems. But his coworker talks to me normally, we get things set up, and I sit down to wait while they get to work. A few minutes later the first guy comes in with one of my tires to show me the wear on the radials. It's pretty bad, but his speaking is worse. Once again, he's trying to wave and point my eyes and not finishing sentences.

After he goes back out to finish the work, I finally realize the problem. Despite the fact that I'm answering his every question in Japanese, he's convinced I don't speak or understand, and is trying to use gestures to 'help' me. When he comes back in to ring things up, it just gets worse. He refuses to say how much it costs, but writes it down instead. Then when I read the amount out to him he says "Yes", then writes down how much change I'll be getting.

But the ringer is when he hands me this little card and tries to explain in pidgin Japanese:
"100 km, you ka-chin! Ka-chin, kachin, 100"

Now, I have no fucking clue what this numb-nut is trying to say, so I look at the card. It says (in Japanese, of course) to bring the car back when I reach 100 km, and they'll retighten the lug nuts. Why couldn't he just say that? Especially since "nut" is the same word in both languages, and is written on the card in the characters reserved for foreign loan words. Where do you get "tighten lugnut" from "ka-chin"?

I'm going back in tomorrow to get "ka-chin"ed. I think I'll pull the reverse-gaijin trick, and resolutely misunderstand anything not said in normal Japanese. Then ask him to re-explain and pester him for details until he finally either gives up and explains in normal Japanese, or realizes I'm pestering him in Japanese.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ikanago Season

Well, although recovery in the Tohoku district of Japan is just beginning, and will be ongoing for the next five years, and the nuclear situation is festering, in other areas of Japan, life goes on.

It's 'Ikanago' season in Japan now. What does ikanago mean? Well, 'ikanago' is Japanese for "stinky little fish". Makes more sense than the real name: Sand Lance fry or minnows (What can I say - I don't know fish. I'm from the North Fork of the South Platte River, where we only have 2 kinds of fish: rainbow trout and sucker fish. Oh, and canned tuna).

Every spring, ladies throughout Japan buy pounds of these small fry (hee-hee), then boil them in a pot with soy sauce, mirin and sugar (many people add fresh ground ginger, as well), and send them to friends and family throughout Japan. A few ladies I know buy as much as 15 pounds, which they post through the mail in 1- and 2-lb packets. We've received 3 packs so far, and my kids are ecstatic (and I'm in another room...) eating them with rice for breakfast, late night snack, pretty much any old time.

This year there is a bumper catch, and people are buying and cooking more than usual and sending them to friends and relatives throughout the Tohoku region as well.