The long Japan essay
When I came to Japan in 1989 there was no Costco, the Internet did not exit, and cell phones, which were just being introduced then, were so big that they were carried around in shoulder bags. Really. Now with the Internet shopping, communication and entertainment are so much easier than in the old days. Like everyone else I have internet access at home, but I still rely on the American Armed Forces Far East Network (radio) and the English-language daily newspapers, The Japan Times and The Daily Yomiuri. Plus I buy books at the big Kinokuniya Bookstore in Tokyo and I rent DVDs at a rental shop. I’m old fashioned.
Tokyo is such a large, concentrated area of population, business and government that living here is very convenient for me. It’s clean, everything works. Everything is punctual and reliably on schedule. Shopping and transportation are all connected up the wazoo so you can go everywhere, comfortably and quickly. And the city - and the rest of the country, too - is wired with technology. If you want to imagine what the city of the future is then forget about New York and think about places like Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai. But the summer time here is hot and humid like you can’t imagine, though.
Tokyo sits on a bit of flat land called the Kanto Plain, along with other large cities like Yokohama and Kawasaki. The Kanto Plain is about the size of south western Ontario from London to Windsor, but the population is about 41 million. So imagine all of Canada squeezed into London-to-Windsor and then throw in seven million more people. If you go up to the observation deck of a tower or tall skyscraper and look out then basically you are looking at all of Canada spread out at your feet. Cool.
Right now the Canadian population increases by about a thousand people per day, and Japan - due to its low birth rate and aging population - is declining by about 100 people per day. Even at those rates Japan should still be more than twice Canada’s population after a century. But think about it - 100 people, or an entire neighbourhood gone every day! Wow.
In order for Japan to stabilize its population, its old age pension scheme and socialized medical system, its workforce, the competitiveness of its economy and a strong consumer base it has to start growing by hundreds of thousands per year immediately. The only way to do that is through mass immigration, but that will never happen. Japan is not an immigration society and the Japanese are perfectly willing to let their numbers decline and sacrifice their place as a major world economy and to slowly retreat into renewed isolation than to allow its largely homogenous identity to be diluted by mass immigration of foreigners. It’s already happening. There is an expression for it, called the Galapagos Effect, describing the death of “internationalization”and the retreat into a new tortoise shell of isolation. Of course, I hope I am dead wrong. But I’m not.
Japan currently has over 50,000 centenarians. They are quite proud of it - especially at Respect for the Elderly Day (“keiro no hi”) which comes around every September - as a sign of the success of their health care system, the health of their native diet, the efficacy of their social organization and the all-round superiority of Japan over the rest of the world. The dark side of it is a lot more elderly abuse, many more elderly dying alone (found later half eaten by their pet Alsatians). It also means many more elderly resorting to theft to make ends meet. The inmate population of Japanese prisons is rising just as quickly as the age of the society at large.
1) The number 4 - “shi” - sounds like the word for “death.” So the number four is often shunned like 13 in the West.
2) Salt is used to chase away demons and bad luck. Sumo wrestlers throw salt before a bout in order to exorcise the ring. Some businesses put dishes of salt outside their doors to ward off evil.
3) Pillows are never placed pointing towards the north. At funerals dead bodies are always arranged with the head pointing north.
4) It is unlucky to cut fingernails at night. Cut them during the daylight.
5) When a child’s milk teeth fall out the teeth are thrown onto the roof of the house for good luck. I don’t know what apartment dwellers do. Throw them in the trash, maybe.
6) For good luck close your fists over your thumbs. Among other things it helps protect elderly relatives from evil
Mt. Fuji is in a national park. There is an official climbing season - in the summer - during which more than a quarter of a million climbers ascend each year. I haven’t climbed it, although I came close once. Most climbers start from the Fifth Station, about half way up the slope. There are Japanese and American military bases around the base of the mountain where they practice howitzer and tank canon shooting. Even old people climb the mountain. Many people start in the evening and climb all night in order to see the sun rise from the rim of the crater at the top. The paths can get so crowded that it’s sometimes like an assembly line. The climb requires proper hiking, warm weather and wet weather gear.
Mt. Fuji is a volcano. It last erupted almost exactly 300 years ago. It still rumbles and spits gas occasionally. If it erupts again in today’s world it will screw the nation pretty bad because the mountain is adjacent to so much industry and transportation infrastructure. And Japan is such a large and important economy that disruptions here - earthquake, tsunami, volcano - will set off instant global ripples. I’m more concerned with earthquakes than volcanoes, though.
Form over content
In Japanese culture how things look is far more important than how they actually are. Similarly, form is more important than content. Hence you find martial arts students endlessly practicing the ‘kata’ or stylized fighting stances and positions of their art just as much as actually fighting. It is not uncommon to see middle aged men standing on crowded train platforms practicing golf swings with imaginary clubs in their hands, oblivious to surrounding people. They are concentrating on mastering proper form in the belief that success naturally extends from master of the form.
There is always a better than 50% chance that whatever you are told is wrong since the people have a propensity to say “yes” to any inquiry just to keep things smooth. And because the Japanese idea of what constitutes Truth is flexible, whenever I am given information or instructions I habitually echo the information back to the speaker by re-phrasing it half a dozen ways. My aim is to compare the various responses to the various questions to see if the information is consistent and so, I hope, reliable. But many times over the years I have been angry to discover that Japanese give me wrong information and then repeatedly confirm the wrong information. It has created a few severe f----ing cock-ups that I blame them for.
At work it is more important to look busy than to actually be productive. Effort - which is largely a cosmetic appearance - is confused with achievement, or accepted as a substitute. Hence Japan’s traditional high employment rate can equally be interpreted as under-employment: too many people working and not accomplishing enough. Despite their reputation for hard work and perseverance, statistically Japanese workers have long been less productive than Americans and many Europeans.
Daylight Saving Time and telephone numbers
Japan doesn’t use Daylight Saving Time. It was introduced and briefly used during the American Occupation (1945-1952). But it ended with the Occupation. Today it is periodically debated, especially during the summer time when it is almost broad daylight at 4:30 a.m. It means that the time difference between Japan and Ontario varies from 12- to 13-hours depending on the season. Currently Japan is 13-hours ahead of Toronto.
“0120” is the toll free prefix for Japanese telephone numbers. Land line numbers have eight digits. Cell phone numbers have 11 digits beginning either with “080” or “090.” “080” numbers are really old.
The 2 worst things you can do
1) The worst thing you can do in Japanese culture is to say what you really think. Especially if what you think goes against the grain. They do not like confrontation, which is why there is no debate in their political culture, why students do not question their teachers or patients their doctors, and why students are not taught presentation skills. People are polite and they smile and defer to authority. Even if they hate your guts they won’t let on.
And it is a very terrible thing to be considered ‘strange,’ which is nuts for me because I am naturally strange anyway. I remember a case years ago. I was teaching English at a private boys school with a young American guy, about my age. There was this boy in his senior year who was pretty obviously gay. But we didn’t care. Anyway, one day the head English teacher was talking with this boy in our presence - the American and I - in the part time teachers room, and speaking to us the teacher said, “He is strange.” The American and I, thinking that strangeness is a virtue of individuality said, “Yeah, okay! Strange. Way to go!” It was only years later that I realized what it meant to be called strange. To me it was a compliment, but that wasn’t the Japanese teacher’s intention, I think.
2) The second worst thing you can do in Japanese culture is to be late. Never, never, never be late!
Garbage in Japan is separated according to Burnable, Non-burnable, and Recyclable. There are two or three garbage pick-ups in each neighbourhood every week for the different categories of trash. Contrary to common public opinion, though, Japan actually does not recycle much of its refuse. By the government’s own account the purpose of garbage separation is to maximize incineration efficiency. Recycling for environmentalism has become such a popular fad these days that people have thoroughly fictionalized their behavior. They sincerely think they are great recyclers when they aren’t, and when I point it out they say “You are wrong. You don’t understand because you’re a foreigner.” Yeah, right.
Stealing umbrellas and other things
People here have a cultural disposition to steal umbrellas and bicycles, drive their cars through red lights, and spit everywhere. “Tachishoben,” or urinating in the streets in broad daylight by men answering the call of nature anywhere, anytime used to be a much more common sight than it is now, but I still see it sometimes.
Human rights in Japan are reserved for citizens. In the 1950s the National Diet (legislature) amended the language of the McArthur-era constitution to replace the words “people” with “citizen.”
Compared to Canada Japan is much more of a cash society. I have never seen or heard of debit cards here. Credit cards are everywhere but they are not used as much as in Canada. Large purchases are done variously in cash, by credit card, by bank transfer or Post Office money order. There a re lots of pre-paid cards for trains, and lots of point cards for shopping at various places. Every time I go shopping the clerks ask if I have a point card. I say no and I regularly decline the offer of a new one. My wallet is full enough of junk already. There is no problem at all going into a convenience store with the equivalent of a $100 bill - that’s a 10,000-yen note - to buy a one dollar chocolate bar. No problem at all.
- 1,000 yen
- 2,000 yen
- 5,000 yen
- 10,000 yen
- 1 yen
- 5 yen
- 10 yen
- 50 yen
- 100 yen
- 500 yen
The 500-yen coin was introduced in 1988 or so. When I arrived in 1989 the old, blue, square-shaped 500-yen note was still circulating and ticket vending machines would still accept them. But they were phased out quickly. Now a collector’s item. I have a couple saved in Guelph.
I prefer carrying larger denomination bills because a pocket full of 1,000-yen notes is a bit bothersome. Of course the larger denomination bills are rendered into small ones once change is made, but I don’t like to habitually go around like that.
The 2,000 yen bill was introduced by former PM Keizo Obuchi about a decade ago but it has never been popular. I can’t remember when I saw one last. Years ago, I guess.
Here’s one very interesting thing about Japanese and money that you are unlikely to read in any book. When they make change they count backwards from the amount you give to the cashier. Let’s say my charge is ¥105 for a candy bar. I pay with a ¥10,000 note (the equivalent of a hundred dollar bill). First, the cashier will orally confirm the amount of money I gave. “You have given me 10,00-yen.” Literally what they say is, “ichi man yen kara,” or “from 10,000-yen.” They subtract “from”whatever amount of money I hand over.
Then she will count backwards - subtracting - from the ten thousand according to the denominations of bills and coins.
And she will orally confirm the change she is giving you as she gives it:
“I am giving you five thousand, four thousand, three thousand, two thousand, one thousand, five hundred, four hundred, three hundred, two hundred, fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, ten, five.”
By comparison, change is made in Canada by counting up, or adding the amount of change to the initial cost until the sum is equal to the same amount that I hand over. If my charge is $7.85 and I pay with a $10 bill the change is made as follows:
“Here’s your change: ninety, eight dollars, nine dollars, ten dollars.”
In Canada it is increasingly common for businesses to refuse to accept large denomination bills - like $50 and $100 - partly in fear of accidentally accepting counterfeit currency. In Japan the biggest counterfeit problem is with doctored Korean coins made to look like Japanese ¥500 ($5) coins.
Your Japanese is so good
If you say anything at all in Japanese - even just Good Morning - people are often likely to praise your excellent Japanese with words of gushing admiration. It’s a bit silly, really. They are only trying to be nice, and they probably don’t know what else to say to you. I wish I spoke more Japanese than I did when I first came not so much so that I could have conversation with people as simply to get along comfortably in everyday life. All adult Japanese have had six years of compulsory English at junior and senior high school, so there is a lot of listening comprehension out there. But the Japanese are notorious for their low English speaking proficiency.
When I first came I wished that I had brought more cash with me. Japan is expensive, but no more than Canada is, actually. When you land in a radically new environment like this you naturally want to maximize your sense of security, and cash goes a long way towards this. It’s like going off to college and living in a student dormitory away from Mommy for the first time. Stay calm and relax. My first morning in Tokyo I saw a man playing catch with his little boy on the road, just like in Guelph. I thought, “ It’s a small world after all.” I had culture shock bad when I first arrived. Even now, after all these years, I still sometimes have culture shock. But I have even worse reverse culture shock when I vacation in Guelph.
Here in the capital there are bilingual signs everywhere, and signs rendered into “Romaji,” or Roman / Latin letters make getting around so much easier.
I suggest pursuing spoken Japanese in favour of written or reading Japanese. Speaking proficiency naturally precedes the other skills and, in any event, the language is too difficult to learn casually. One reason why comic books are so popular here is that the language is so difficult that people are simply unable to read anything but comic books until the end of high school. You need a high school education just to read a newspaper, for example. Novels? I don’t know who is reading novels here. Maybe retirees.
There is an excess of synonyms which are needed to bridge the gaps caused by a paucity of vocabulary. This means there is a lot of vagueness in the language, I think purposefully. Japan boasts a high literacy rate, but my experience is that it is a vain boast and that people are not especially well educated. Your average Japanese does not know the difference - or even knows that there is a difference - between a virus and a bacteria, or a toad and a frog, or a turtle and a tortoise. Only an expert using a specialized vocabulary well beyond the common man in the street can talk about the differences and even then the common man in the street would not understand, just like how the language of plasma physics or molecular biology is beyond the average Canadian man in the street.
Some synonyms have hazardous implications. For example, the word for “private” and“secret” is often the same; not what most foreigners mean at all when they use the words.
In Japan, custom has the force of law. There are many examples of everyday customary or habitual activities that are technically illegal. If I point out to people that something is illegal they say, “No, it’s not. You’re a foreigner. You don’t understand.” Okay, I’m not going to argue even when I’m certain that I’m right. Arguing doesn’t help a foreigner’s reputation.
Taste buds - licorice, root beer and celery
Almost all Japanese hate the taste of licorice (especially black licorice, which they say tastes like medicine), root beer, and celery. But at the same time they consider Halls throat lozenges to be delicious candies. So go figure. One ten year old boy student told me (in Japanese), after tasting some black Twizzlers licorice that I had brought back from Canada as a treat, “It’s not to Japanese taste.” I thought that was very astute.
Beware Japanese rhetoric that describes conclusions as “natural.” My idea of what is natural is often at complete odds with what many Japanese seem to think.
About Japanese rhetoric, when it is necessary to advocate a position what they usually do is begin by stating their conclusion, label it “natural”and then instead of offering reasons in a logical, step-by-step argument to support the proposition they simply repeat their proposition again and again. It’s stupidly annoying, but it might be an effort to satisfy the regard given to appearance over substance. Some people even say that it demonstrates that Logic is an alien concept to Asian cultures. But I think what they are doing is using a Chinese poetic form in contemporary thought. Traditional Chinese poetry follows a certain, very prescribed format that continues to be manifest in contemporary rhetorical language.
Numbering in addresses runs in an opposite order. In English my Tokyo address looks like this:
But in Japanese the same address is written in this order:
In English we think that the individual is so important that the name comes first. Who is a piece of mail going to? But in a group culture like Japan’s the individual is the least important thing, and his/her name comes at the end.
“302” indicates my apartment number. The other numbers indicate how the neighborhood is sectioned. In North America a large address number, like“1500 Maple Street,” indicates a really long street. But in a Japanese address a large number indicates the degree of development of a neighborhood.
Instead of talking about what they “think” many Japanese are apt to talk about what they “feel.” I disagree that feelings are synonymous with thoughts. Japanese are not the only ones who make this confusion. By focusing on feelings I think Japanese are trying to avoid the confrontation of conflicting convictions and instead are seeking harmony in a shared emotive experience. I think it lends itself to a native conservatism.
Japanese are very emotional and full of feelings. They have a great sense of humour and of horror, too. Japanese horror is really creepy. In everyday life they do not express their feelings very much but are very reserved and keep everything in. So when they lose their cool in public they blow up big time - witness the Pacific War, or office workers suddenly breaking into fistfights on the crowded train station platforms.
Although I have access to and occasionally use a variety of information sources I still depend on daily physical newspapers for my news. Newspapers are fun to hold and to cut up and they give me something to hold onto and to occupy my hands, eyes and mind with when I am commuting. For some esoteric reason dating back to the 1950s many Japanese newspapers have a “newspaper holiday” on the second Monday of each month when no paper is printed. For people who are used to 24-hour non-stop information a day without news is difficult to digest. Some wonder derisively if Japanese think news stops for a day. Anyway, that’s the way it is.
Instability of foreign labor
Currently I teach English for the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education in various public high schools in Tokyo, and I perform Christian wedding ceremonies, and I play drums in a band. The Tokyo Board of Education pays good wages, but it only pays for lessons taught, so that income covers only about seven months of the year. I also currently work for three different English Conversation schools. That kind of work is good as piecemeal work, but if you depend on it as a full-time workers, as I have done in the past, it is an indentured existence. In the past I have also worked for so-called dispatch companies - companies that hire you and then then sub-contract you out to various private schools. That is also an indentured existence. Foreign labor is extremely disposable and even if you work your ass off for these companies doing good work, being successful and learning a good reputation you will be jettisoned and cast off without a thought if it serves the Japanese boss. No matter how amiable a Japanese boss seems don’t think otherwise for an instant. Teaching English is a business and the bottom line is what matters. No matter how long you live and work here - like 23 years for me - the Japanese still regard us as itinerant workers.
Infinite complexity and zero utility
My existence here is a patchwork of part-time jobs. I currently have about a dozen part time jobs, but the schedules are so irregular that it is very rare to have all the jobs going in a single week. There are advantages and disadvantages to this kind of life. The biggest advantage for me is that working for the Tokyo Board of Education leaves me with a lot of free time (unpaid time, unfortunately) to do what I want. After teaching at school I have absolutely no obligations: no teachers’ meetings, no parent meetings; no tests; no report cards; no need to attend school events no need to be on the premises for a certain number of hours, etc. Arguably the greatest disadvantage of working for a language school is that you are totally dependent on them for your visa and, in many cases, for your apartment as well. I live and work independently of any employer, however, because I have an independent visa. That level of freedom is magnificent. So I don’t need to put up with stupid middle aged Japanese bosses - and believe me, I’ve met a lot of that kind. I’ve met a lot of types - foreign types and Japanese types - and mu conclusions might make me sound unforgivably biased. Japanese companies like to tie you up with obligations and anally-retentive details. They excel at working protocols of almost infinite complexity and zero utility. They confuse the appearance of busy-ness with actual accomplishment, and managers are adept at throwing tantrums at the slightest mistake. I mean literal tantrums.
I think I have lasted here so long because my personality is somewhat passive and so congruent with this culture. I don’t mean that I am lazy, but I am less pro-active than many contemporary North Americans are, and my vision of the place and function of the Self in the world is not representative of my Canadian peers. I am less self-focused than many Western foreigners, something which my reverse-culture shock on visits home kind of validate. Widespread passivity and corporate group-ism are features of Asian cultures - often describes disparagingly as faults. It doesn’t mean that the people are incapable soulless robots or anything. Youth pop culture here is a hopping, vibrant thing. Traditional culture is 2,000 years old and intellectually deep and broad. Despite current and looming demographic and economic problems Japan is a huge and important economy, a large population base, a major world language, and the National Diet Library, one of the largest libraries in the world, is a major repository of human thought.
Negative questions confuse Japanese who are well known for offering up affirmative and negative answers that are diametrically opposed to what native English speakers expect. It’s a habit of foreign English language students, but Japanese excel at it.
“Don’t you like tomatoes?”
“Yes,” by which the speaker means, “Yes, I don’t like tomatoes.” The speaker is agreeing with my negative question. It’s confusing because in English we usually say “No,” as in “No, I don’t like tomatoes.” Similarly, we are likely to hear odd affirmative answers if the Japanese is disagreeing with a negative question.
“Don’t you like tomatoes?”
“Yes,” meaning, “Yes, I don’t like them.”
The point is that in English we often confirm by echoing, but in Japanese they confirm with straight affirmative or negative answers.
Negative comments are even more confusing. “It isn’t very hot today,” and I never use tag questions like, “It isn’t very hot today, is
it?” Sometimes I teach tag questions with advanced students, but the problems invited by speaking in negative sentences for emphasis, or using tag questions for confirmation are just too tedious. Therefore I usually speak and teach in direct, simple, short sentences that invite elementary “Yes/No” responses. I am conditioned to speaking so slowly and simply that when I am in Canada people react funny to me. They wonder why I speak so slowly, or why I repeat myself. In Canada I am often mistaken as a tourist. Well, I suppose I am, but not for the reasons people think.
Honorifics and Name Order
The Japanese language is well known for using honorifics in addressing people: different honorifics for different occasions and people of different social status. Most people are commonly called “san,” which suffices for both males and females. “Tanaka san” could be Mr. Tanaka or Miss Tanaka, or Mrs. Tanaka. Japanese commonly address people by their family name and reserve Given Names for much closer social circles. Then the honorific “sensei” could be a Teacher, a Doctor, a Professor, or some kind of master of a refined skill: a minister or priest, a professional in any field of endeavor, an artist, writer, an athlete. School students address their teachers by Family Name followed by the honorific “sensei,” as in “Tanaka sensei.” A common mistake is when high school students address their foreign English teacher by simply translating the Japanese address “Smith sensei”directly into English as “Smith teacher,” or “Teacher Smith.” Some Japanese English teachers make the mistake of correctly using the English titles “Mr.”, “Ms” etc. but then confuse First Name with Family name and end up saying something like “Mr. John.” Name order is reversed in Japanese and people are commonly called by Last Name first and First Name last. So in Japanese the female name “Suzuki Noriko” becomes “Noriko Suzuki” in English. The reason is that Japanese is a corporate, or groups society and the group that one belongs to - company, school, club, family, etc. - is more important that the person individually. No matter how much foreign English teachers teach Greetings and Introductions, Name Order and forms of address this confusion of our First Names with our Last Names and how to properly address us is persistent.
I don’t think that the contemporary American custom of almost indiscriminately calling everyone by their Given Name as a sign of democratic friendliness is a solution. It just sounds rude to me to call strangers, customers or teachers by their First Names.
Never, ever try to tell a joke. Students will not realize that you’re joking. They will take you seriously and spend enormous effort trying to decipher your meaning. Unless you are extremely fluent in a second language humor does not translate and the experience will earn you a reputation for strangeness, not affability, which is not what you want in Japan. Sometimes I like to teach tongue twisters just for fun. But the danger is that students here fret about what the tongue twisters mean which takes all the fun out of them.
Japanese have a great sense of humor, but it is quite different from North America. Television features slapstick and ridicule - by which I mean ridiculous characterization, not contemptuous mockery - more than parody or sarcasm. Well, maybe there is mockery also.
Japanese think bald men are exceedingly funny just because they’re bald. I don’t get it. Does it betray a retarded or maybe even entirely lacking sense of human dignity?
Gays and transsexuals are a common feature on Japanese television. Entertainment is a common way for them to make their way in society, like old-time Jewish or black entertainers in America. More like a freak show, I think. I suspect that ladyboys are like circus freaks to the Japanese imagination, like the bearded lady.
It’s best not to make jokes.
When Japanese count using their fingers as digits they always count off number 1 with their thumb, not their index finger.
Counting bank notes looks very interesting because they wrap the paper bills around the fingers of one hand and deftly flip the corners of the paper with the fingers of the other hand. It’s neat. It looks much faster than the way of counting bank notes in North America. It’s certainly more graceful
When indicating oneself Japanese point their index finger towards their nose, not towards their chest. Does it indicate a different culturally informed idea of where the seat of one’s essence and substance are? Beats me.
Japanese draw the heart shape with a single stroke of the pen or pencil, starting at the bottom of the figure where the lines converge in a point, sweeping up the left side and then down the right. There is always a lot of interest, especially among adults, when I demonstrate the North American way of drawing a heart, by drawing two separate downward strokes from the top. For Japanese English teachers who think they are fairly internationalized this art lesson is a great revelation. I can see the surprise and wonder in their faces.
Their ways of writing some English letters are also the opposite of what I learned in elementary school: “f,” and “t.” They write the cross stroke first and then the down stroke. I remember being taught the opposite.
Japanese student are so honest. I teach my teenaged students how to answer question-and-answer gambits and then do interview tests with them. I am looking for conversationally correct responses to questions not necessarily the actual true answer. However, students here struggle always to give an honest response. So if I ask a potentially embarrassing question like “Do you have a boyfriend?” I watch the girls squirm to tell me the honest answer. And they do. But I really don’t care if they have a boyfriend or not. I’m only looking for a grammatically appropriate response in full sentence form.
If a student asks to go to the toilet during class I tease them because I know they are so honest by asking “Why?” And they tell me! “I have to urinate.” “I want to have a bowel movement.” Holey moley!
In the warm spring, summer and fall months I surreptitiously observe my older high school boys in and out of school. They are tall, tanned, fit 17-year-olds horsing around with each other in that rough boyish way that teenage girls find both attractive and repelling. Anyway, I watch them and listen to them and think to myself, “It’s exactly these kinds of young men who made up Hirohito’s Imperial Navy and Army and who were persuaded/conscripted to fight to the death for their emperor in God forsaken jungles and fly kamikaze suicide missions into American battleships. Crikey! They’re just boys.” War is for young men. I’m too old for war, but war isn’t too old for me.
Most Japanese I have met cannot wink. It’s strange. Is it genetic? Conversely, they think it’s really strange that I can wink, like I’m performing a magic trick or a circus freak show.
One thing I quickly learned in Japanese high schools is that teenage girls are prone to walk around hand-in-hand with their female friends. It looked really strange to me at first, but it is really nothing more than a sign of friendship, similar to the custom among Arab men to walk hand-in-hand with their friends. I still cannot imagine Canadian teen girls doing the same without it being a deliberate and overt sexual declaration, but that’s not what it is here. It’s kind of cute.
Green is blue
Green is not the universal color for “Go” at pedestrian and traffic lights. To Japanese the color looks blue, and that’s what they call it. When I first learned this I felt incensed because I thought it was an assault on common sense. But since then I’ve come to think that that’s not a good enough reason to feel incensed. Also, I admit that the “Go” lights here are, in fact, kind of bluish-green. But they still look mostly green to me.
Similarly, a sick complexion in Japanese is described as “blue” whereas in Canada a sickly face is either pale, in the case of deathly sickness, or “green,” in the case of nauseous sickness.
It took 23 years for me to learn that the word “midori,” which is universally translated as “green” in Japanese-English dictionaries, actually means “jade,” the light green color of the stone popular in China. It does not mean the dark green color of leaves.
Foreigners in Japan typically are unfriendly towards each other. We habitually avoid eye contact, ignore each other on the streets and trains and don’t talk. Maybe it’s because we see each other as potential competitors for employment. Or, maybe that’s just me. We especially avoid interactions with opposite sex foreigners.
“Gaijin” is the word for foreigner. It literally means “outside person.” Mostly it is foreigners who refer to themselves as “gaijin.”Japanese usually use the more polite “gaikokujin”meaning “outside citizen person.”
In the West women’s breasts are overwhelmingly the traditional primary object of men’s sexual fascination. Not always large breasts, but breasts nonetheless. In Japan, however, that does not hold for breasts. Here it is the nape of the neck that has traditionally attracted the admiring man’s eyes, which helps explain why the neck of the traditional female garment, the kimono, is cut the way it is. The kimono exposes the nape of the neck to longing glances.
In Japan businessmen on the commuter trains openly read pornographic comic books featuring images of high school uniform clad girls. The Lolita Complex is big here. It is the display of public hair, not nudity or graphic images of sex that forms the definition of obscenity.
In North America lovers memorialize their affection by writing/drawing/painting/carving their initials inside a heart shape. Johnny loves Jane. Japanese do the same thing by writing their names beneath a stylized umbrella. Lovers share umbrellas.
It is a common sight among young children, and even teenagers, that when someone for some reason has a nosebleed - dry air in the winter, for example - they take some tissue, twist it up, shove it up their noses and then walk around like that, with a length of tissue hanging from their noses. I suppose it must be effective, otherwise why would they do it? But it sure looked strange when I first saw it. And the next time and the next time I saw it, too. The older the person is, the stranger it looks, so if it’s a young child it looks cutely weird, but if it’s a high school girl sitting at her desk with a wad of tissue hanging from her face … well it doesn’t look so appealing. Is that any way to find a husband?
The hilarity of pants
Whenever I teach Clothing as a theme and use the word “pants” - meaning long pants, or trousers - elementary and junior high school students here always giggle themselves silly, because“pants” in Japanese means only underpants. Trousers, or long pants are called “zubon.”
“Hoo-hoo, hee-hee. Teacher said pants!”
Of course, it’s a chance for me to teach them how the word “pants” is used in English. But over the years I have trained myself to avoid “pants” and say “long pants” instead. It just saves time.