Wednesday, June 30, 2010

JAL: How low can you go?

It's almost painful to watch. JAL's net worth just hit negative one trillion yen. That's ¥-1,000,000,000,000. It's gotten so bad that pilot trainees are being asked to work as ground staff or settle for retirement benefits (how's that for quick retirement - pilot school, then oops, time to call it quits).

I used to know a girl who went to work for JAL. When I read these articles, I something think about her and wonder if she still has a job. Tough times.

I'm usually pretty indifferent about companies struggling or going belly up, but I've had some good experiences with JAL (and ANA, too). Don't know how good their chances are of turning things around, but I wish them well.

Read more about this story over at the Japan Times.

J-Word Play #12

I'll leaf this one to you:


Email me your answers at

Monday, June 28, 2010

Racism, Part 2

Last week I talked about an encounter I had with the police, and my thoughts on how foreigners are treated in Japan. Since then I've done some more thinking and talked to several people (Japanese and NJ) about the situation. So today I'd like to follow up and perhaps stir up the hornet's nest, as well.

In Part 1, several commenters pointed out that Japan is not the only country to practice this kind of immigration enforcement - people are stopped and asked to show ID in other countries, as well. This is true, but it doesn't change the fact that the practice (at least in Japan's case) is arguably unjust and unwarranted. As Orchid pointed out, Japan is an island with few points of entry, and illegal immigration is hardly a pressing issue. Japanese police also often act on quotas (ID a certain number of foreigners today or no tea and Mr. Donut for you?), whereas I'm not so sure this is the case in many other countries.

Does this make Japan a racist country? Some might and do say so, but I wouldn't. I think it's important to realize that there can be a gap between the values of individual people and the policies that a government espouses. It may also be a generational thing. I've met (at least) hundreds of Japanese people, and I can honestly say that only a handful have struck me as racist (or more kindly "xenophobic"). After last week's encounter, I mentioned it to several teachers I work with. Two of them (English teachers), after confirming that everything was all right, simply said something to the effect of "Ah yeah, that happens sometimes..." and seemed a little too embarrassed to talk about it any further. Two others seemed genuinely surprised. The conversation started something like this:

Me: 先日は、警察に止まれた・・・外国人登録証明書を見せて欲しかった。
(So I was stopped by the police the other day...they wanted to see my foreign registration card.)

Them: えぇ?なんで?
(What? Why?)

Me: [Shrug] 外国人やから。
(I'm a foreigner.)

Them: えぇ?ほんまに?!
(Huh? You're kidding!)

I went on to explain that we foreigners have to always carry around our ID in case we are stopped by the police. These two teachers (Japanese and social studies) honestly seemed to have no idea. They went on to ask me about Japanese policies on naturalization, permanent residency, and the case that a foreigner wants to marry a Japanese citizen. I don't know if it's just the younger generation, but they seemed surprised and sympathetic.

I didn't talk about this as in-depthly with Yoshie, but she told me she doesn't associate foreigners with crime and doesn't think most Japanese people do either (I didn't push her on that, but I suspect it may just be that she hasn't spoken to many other people about the issue).

Talking with a lot of the Japanese people I know, especially those near my age, about the issue is encouraging. I don't mean that I have much hope for serious change, but I feel like it's the lesser of two evils for these xenophobic policies to survive because of ignorance and/or inaction than out of fear or hate.

Changing gears somewhat -- Oh, look, a can of worms!

In the comment section to Part 1, we also had a few mentions of the law recently passed in Arizona. While this doesn't directly relate to Japan, it does bear relation to the overarching topic of racism and racial profiling, so I think it's worth briefly discussing. I was talking with Dylan about this last week, and he put forward that the Japanese policy of randomly IDing foreigners is not that different from the Arizona law. We argued back and forth a bit, and then I suggested that we both read the actual law (something surprisingly few people with such strong opinions on either side have done). I told him that if I were wrong, I apologize and would not, in fact, support the law at all. So we read it. After having done so, he admitted that the law didn't do what he thought it did.

According to a recent poll, over 60% of Americans support the law. Some media are portraying these people as supporters of racial profiling or as racists. I think the problem here is a mistaken perception of what the law actually does. There are many people who seem to think that it allows police to randomly stop anyone suspected of being an illegal or looking as if they could be (a la Japan). Perhaps this is understandable - legislation is not always the easiest form of writing to understand. However if you read through the whole thing (it's not that long), I think it's fairly clear that police aren't allowed to indiscriminately stop anyone and ID them. They are only allowed to stop people who are suspected of committing a crime (other than being illegal).

So really I think it's more an issue of two sides largely agreeing but interpreting the law differently. I suppose what ultimately matters is how law enforcement officials and courts regard it. I don't think this kind of law is the best fix to the problem. But considering the American-Mexican border is largely unprotected, it does seem an understandable move for Arizona. Again, as Orchid pointed out - the situation in Japan is not the same as the situation in America.

Let the flame war begin?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Go to bed early" says Tokyo

An interesting article from the Telegraph:

The Japanese government has launched a campaign encouraging people to go to bed and get up extra early in order to reduce household carbon dioxide emissions.
The Morning Challenge campaign, unveiled by the Environment Ministry, is based on the premise that swapping late night electricity for an extra hour of morning sunlight could significantly cut the nation's carbon footprint.[...]
While this campaign doesn't surprise me, as Japan has for years been leading efforts to cut global CO2 emissions, it is a little strange how the government is prioritizing its initiatives. Sure, protecting the environment and conserving energy are important, but how about something that will help revitalize the Japanese economy or address the birth rate problem? Hey, why not piggyback the two issues? "Go to bed" an hour earlier, if you know what I mean. Ah well. T'is a brave new world we're living in.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Racism, Part 1

They say that when you're angry about something and you write a missive or email, you should wait about 20 minutes and then throw it away (or delete it, in this digital age). Does that hold true for blog entries, as well? Perhaps, but I'm going to write about this while it's fresh. This may get a little ranty, but I'll do my best to stay on course. I've decided to divide my thoughts into two parts. In Part 1, I'll focus on Japan in an international context. In Part 2 I want to talk more about the U.S., and Japan in comparison to my home country.

So today Brian and I were on our evening dinner break (we teach night classes on Mondays). We had a bit of extra time, so we went for a walk and decided to stop by Family Mart (a Japanese convenience store chain) on the way back to school. We both bought some tea, but as I had some bills to pay, Brian exited the store first. Once my business was concluded, I started to walk out, and noticed that Brian was talking to a couple of well-dressed, middle-aged gentlemen outside the store. Oh, that Brian - always making new friends. So I thought.

As I went outside and began to introduce myself to Brian's new friends, one of them greeted me with a "Konnichiwa" and a badge. I glanced at Brian and noticed that he was cooperatively but obviously unhappily engaged in conversation with the officer's partner. "May I see your...gaikokujin touroku shoumeishoumeisho, please?" he asked good-naturedly. Somewhat stunned, I nodded and with a "Hai," pulled out my Alien Registration Card. "あぁ、日本語大丈夫ですか?" (Ah, is Japanese okay?) he asked. I considered for a moment. I remembered having read about other foreigners' experiences with Japanese police, and a common piece of advice seems to have been to never admit to speaking Japanese. If you do, you may find that you may misunderstand something, but having said you speak Japanese you have waived your chance at the "stupid gainjin" card. Yeah, but we haven't done anything wrong, I thought. I don't want to make this harder than it has to be. "はい、大丈夫です," I answered. Yes, Japanese is fine.

As the detective examined my I.D. and took notes, he asked me stuff like where I live and where I work. As the shock wore off and began to be replaced by annoyance and indignation, I also began to direct my answers towards the other office who was talking to Brian. "Where do you work? Itami?" my guy asked in Japanese. "I looked at him and said yes, also in Japanese, then looked at his partner and added "But I work at two schools. Brian and I work together at the school near here."
"Ahhh, you two are friends?" one of them asked. We both nodded.

After a few minutes of this, I received my I.D. back and could tell this interview was wrapping up. "Is everything all right?" I asked. "Did something happen?" I wanted to add, "Do we look like criminals to you?" But I held my tongue. After all, this was almost over and we had to get back to work.

"Ah, no. We are police detectives and this area is in our jurisdiction. We are checking the touroku-shoumeisho of foreigners." Then they both smiled and thanked us. We nodded and walked away without saying anything.

Now I don't know if these two guys were just feeling like giving some foreigners a hard time, but I doubt it. They weren't rude. They seemed like they were trying to be nice. They were probably just following orders and maybe had some kind of quota to fill (hence the notes they took). But what an assignment for detectives. Don't they have some crime they could be investigating, rather than stopping well-dressed white guys to make sure they're not illegal aliens? I guess not.

I've been talking (or Facebook messaging) with a friend recently about immigration and role of foreigners in Japan. Basically, if you're a foreigner in Japan, you must always carry either your passport with visa or your Alien Registration Card, which is basically the equivalent of U.S. Green Card, except not for citizens. If you are stopped and fail to produce one of these forms of identification, you may be arrested. But I've never been stopped, I told him. Ironic - that was just last week I said that.

Now I bet a lot of Japanese people would defend this. I can hear it now - "But the officers didn't know that you were here legally. They were just checking. Sometimes there are illegal foreigners in Japan. Japan is an island." And besides, many foreigners commit crimes. They may not say this, but many Japanese probably think it. This is because the Japanese media and politicians often portray foreigners as dangerous or more likely to commit crime. Which is statistically not the case at all, at least not uniformly.

From Wa-Pedia:

If we concentrate on real crimes, we find a completely different ranking though. Iranians, Russians or Philippinos have been arrested for a much higher number of offences [visa-overstaying, speeding, ect] than crimes [theft, rape, murder, etc], for instance. We also see that Brazilians and Japanese were arrested for proportionally more crimes than offences. Here is the real crime rate :

  • Chinese (0.428%)

  • Brazilians (0.351%)

  • Japanese (0.291%)

  • Russians (0.271%)

  • Philippinos (0.101%)

  • Thais (0,051%)

  • Koreans (0.024%)

  • Britons (0.021%)

  • Americans (0.016%)

  • This portrayal of foreigners as more criminal than Japanese surely feeds the system by which Japan is seemingly destined to spiral, crash, and economically burn in a number of decades. Who wants criminals for neighbors? Hence the lack of serious opposition to draconian Japanese immigration policies.

    And then there is something else about the Japanese mentality that I find very ironic. As Will Ferguson observed in his recounting of his adventures hitchhiking across Japan, Japanese people are either very arrogant or very self-conscious. They care very much about promoting their country and accomplishments, and what other countries think of them. Just the other day in class, one of the teachers I work with was giving our students a lecture on the shinkansen and how some other countries (like Vietnam) are building their own. He concluded with an encouragement that if any of the students go abroad they should tell everyone about the  glorious shinkansen, a wonderful Japanese achievement.

    Well let me tell you what - as a JET, it's my job to be a cultural ambassador. I'm supposed to spread my country's culture, and when I eventually return home I am to recount my experiences in Japan. So yes, I will tell people about the amazing restaurants with conveyor-belts of sushi, and the beautiful Japanese hills, and hidden shrines and temples, and about the kindness I experienced in various parts of the country. But I will also tell how I was stopped and asked to explain myself because I was Caucasian. Does it matter that I could have potentially been a naturalized Japanese citizen? Nope.

    Sure, this is their country. They can make discriminatory laws and policies if they like. But in doing so, they do not foster international relations and cross-cultural understanding. They make a line, a division between them and us. And it isn't mutual understanding they are promoting, but this division.







    Sunday, June 20, 2010

    Thursday, June 17, 2010

    The color(s) of Hell

    Last month Yoshie and I took a drive to Beppu in Oita (大分県), home to some colorful hot springs, lovingly referred to as "the nine hells of Beppu." We arrived a bit late in the day, so we didn't have time to see all the hells, but we had a good time anyhow. The springs in this area are all colored, due to natural mineral deposits. None of the ones we saw are used for bathing, but one had some eggs in it.

    Yoshie and the Pond of Blood Hell. Looked more like steaming Tang.

    The Sea Hell, fiendishly boiling eggs.

    It was quite a nice trip. On the way back we stopped at some kind of, uh...leg sauna? And we ran into Frederic and his lovely friend (wife, girlfriend?). Always interesting to run into fellow foreigners in the middle of nowhere.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010

    Children Full of Life

    I wish I could remember who sent me the link to this so I could give them a hat-tip. Below are 5 parts of a documentary on a very unique fourth grade Japanese class. It's very touching stuff, I warn you. And the teacher...seems like the kind of guy there should be a movie about.


    Sunday, June 13, 2010

    This is how it's done

    There's this takeout sushi place in Takarazuka with the cheapest decent-quality rolls I've ever seen. Most are 150 yen each. It always makes me think - if this place can afford to churn out good sushi at such a low price, why is it so much more expensive most everywhere else? Riddle me that, laws of economics!

    750 yen worth of delicious rolls. 

    Saturday, June 12, 2010

    Hot water pit

    Sometimes I think these kinds of shows are too silly, but they can also be pretty funny.

    Friday, June 11, 2010

    IR and the island

    The differences in lifestyle and culture between people of different countries can be both frustrating and fascinating. If I were to go back to school for an advanced degree (in other words if I had a lot more money than do now), I would want to enroll in an International Relations program. This program at UC San Diego is right up my alley.

    Anyway, the frequent cultural exchanges that I engage in here with people of different national origins (not just Japanese) is one of the most rewarding parts of living abroad. For example, at my visit school I work with a very cool guy from Ireland. Not only does he have a sweet accent, but it's quite amusing to periodically run across words and pronunciations that differ between American and Her Majesty's English. Just the other day I learned that in Ireland there are no "juice boxes." I guess they're called cartons or something.

    Being that Yoshie is an intelligent and curious young lady, we've also had some conversations about cultural differences between Japan and America. The other day she asked me about a recent, somewhat angsty post of mine, which lead to a conversation about Japan's isolationist history and bleak future if it doesn't do something about its population problem, as well as the challenges facing foreigners here. Yoshie's account of the conversation, for those of you who can read Japanese, can be found here.

    It's interesting - whenever Japan's homogeneous nature comes up in conversation with a Japanese person, they inevitably mention that "Japan is an island." This is true, of course, but so is England, and look how cosmopolitan the U.K. has become. It's important to account for Japan's isolationist past - something I had read about and that Yoshie again explained when we talked about this. But further, Japan never really had an "empire" to speak of. France, England, Spain - colonies all over the world. Japan, not so much.

    Most recently, the other day at school one of the new social studies teachers (I believe she's fresh out of university), who happens to be part-time (I mention this because I sit near the part-time teachers) and also one of the shortest Japanese women I've met, asked me about my roots. This kind of surprised me, because I haven't really been asked very often about that over here. She said had learned that in America, people are a lot closer to their roots in that they often identify with their ethnic heritage and sometimes know the languages of the countries their ancestors came from. I told her that this is true, but my opinion is that it gets less and less true as more time passes. Sure - we talk about what ethnicities we are. For example, I told her I'm Polish, Irish, and Alsacian (we had a good conversation about that, too). But while my grandparents spoke Polish, my mom can only speak a few phrases, and my sister and I can only speak a couple words. The longer we live here, the more "American" we become, and although we may cherish our roots, our connection to "the old country" weakens. She seems fascinated, replying that Japan doesn't have anything like that.

    "Yeah, but," I said," Japan is an island."

    他の国の文化や生活の違いは興味深いでありながら難しいと思う。大学院に入ったら(つまりお金持ったら)国際関係を勉強したい。UC San DiegoのSchool of IR and PSは最適らしい。去年そこで勉強したらいいなぁと思ってたけどこの頃将来にチャンスがないと思う。

    とにかく、僕として海外に住んでいることは色んな国の人と話せるってはとてもやりがいある。例えば、一つの学校で、アイアランッド人の友達と一緒に働いてる。彼はカッコいいアクセントあって、よく会話するとアメリカの英語とイギリスの英語の違いを気がつく。例えば、(日本語で言葉あるかな?)"Juice box" というものある。イギリスも確かにあるけど"Juice box"と言われてない。






    Wednesday, June 9, 2010

    Let's enjoy Japanese: Nothing else you can do

    Here's a quick little grammar tidbit for you:

    When you want to express the idea that all you can do is X, just make X into dictionary form and add しかない. As しかない can be used in conjunction with nouns to indicate a scarcity of something, so too with verbs can it be used to show a lack of options.


    (If you don't understand Japanese, there's nothing else you can do but study, huh?)

    (You didn't study for the test? Well, I guess all you can do now is pray)

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    J-Word Play #11 (Answer)

    This one was a little trickier than I expected, but Joe, Yoshie, and Tokyo Five managed to pull it off. Once again:



    This riddle asks what food is made up of only numbers. Therefore, the answer must be expressible in terms of only number kanji, which have a variety of pronunciations. 一五 (いちご) means strawberry, and can be "spelled" with the kanji for 1 and 5. 八三つ (はちみつ) means honey, and in this case is written with the kanji for 8 and the kanji for 3 (plus counter for things). There may be other possible answers out there, too.











    Saturday, June 5, 2010

    Drifting, or finding a path...?

    This entry is more of a reflection, so a warning that there may not be much of substance here.

    I've been thinking a lot recently about life. Where will I be two or three years from now? Five? Ten? Of course it's impossible to know, so perhaps I've been thinking more about where I'd like to be, what I'd like to be doing, and whether or not I'll be alone. Hard to know. So much of our future depends on the people we meet, and many of the big decisions that we make are heavily influenced by the people who are important to us - our friends, our family, our special someones. I'm still young, but as my friends and peers begin getting engaged and married, I'm starting to think that sometime within the not-too-distant future it would be nice to begin a family of my own. No rush, but as I evaluate the things that are important to me, that goal emerges atop most others. Doing so before I hit my 30's would be nice, I think.

    My recent trip back to America also hit me with a somewhat bitter-sweet revelation. For quite a while I've been kind of proud of the fact that I've lived in Japan, become "internationalized." But everything is a trade-off. I've been back and forth a few times now, but reverse culture shock hit me particularly hard this time around. The weight of the average American compared to the average Japanese, the amount of delicious yet disgustingly unhealthy food offerings, the (lack of) manners of airport staff compared to the near impeccable presentation of almost any Japanese employee. And then there were the little things that almost make you question your sanity. I swear that on the way to the ATM, I asked my mom how much cash people usually take out in the States. In Japan, it's not uncommon to walk around with $200-$400 worth of cash, because people don't use credit here...but back home, I really couldn't remember how much is appropriate to keep on your person. 

    Of course many if not all of the things that hit me would eventually in time return to being "normal" if I returned to the States. But I realized that the longer I'm here, the farther and farther I drift away from "belonging" in the US (or feeling like I do, anyway)...and from Japan, as well. 

    The longer I remain here, the easier it becomes to just keep on remaining. The language gets easier, I become more and more familiar with the culture and adept at routine activities that were once a challenge. I make friends and grow to care about people here. But at the same time, I will never belong here. People from other countries move to the US all the time and become citizens. They cease to be "foreigners." But I will never be Japanese. I'll always be a foreigner, even if I lived here for the next 50 years. And if I have children here, there are those who would consider them non-Japanese, even if they were born and raised here. 

    There are many things I've learned to smile and nod at, but after having lived here for almost 2 years straight, and having studied Japan and Japanese for about 6 years now, I can't help but cringe inside whenever someone is surprised that I can use chopsticks, that I can eat Japanese food, that I can speak some Japanese. I've been to dozens of Japanese drinking parties, and yet sometimes people are still surprised that I know the custom of pouring drinks for those next to you but not for yourself.

    Sometimes I ask myself - how many years do I want to endure that? But then, is life so much easier back home? 

    Thursday, June 3, 2010

    What the...

    I feel like there is so much oddity to dissect in this 15 seconds of video, but I don't even know where to begin. I'll just start with: Why is there a random white, blonde guy hanging out?

    Edit: On second glance, they are a whole bunch of white people, aren't there? I guess they're uh...hanging out in London or something?

    Cell Phone Superiority

    This is what happens in Japan when you get a text message. Eat it, Blackberries.

    Wednesday, June 2, 2010

    Sports Day in Saga

    Last weekend I went to visit Yoshie in Saga and had an interesting experience. She's close to her boss, a single mother. Her boss' son, Ibuki, is a 3rd-year elementary school student who had his school's 運動会 (Sports Day) that Sunday. His mom was one of the PTA organizers and asked Yoshie if I wouldn't mind participating in one of the events for parents. So I did.

    Japanese school Sports Days have all kinds of interesting games and events, some of which are the kind of stuff you'd probably see at a company picnic in the States. Most of the day Yoshie and I watched from the comfort of a tent, with Ibuki and his mom and grandma coming and going periodically. When it came my time to join in, I didn't really know what I was doing until seconds before I had to do it. Not that it really mattered, I guess. Not a whole lot of pressure at an elementary school parents' relay race. But still.

    The relay race consisted of several stretches of a wacky course, and each team (divided into homerooms - I was one of those carrying the banner for Ibuki's) had about 8 or so members. Here I am at my segment's station. Can you find me? It's like Where's Waldo, but instead of a striped shirt and goofy hat, I'm not Japanese!

    When my turn came, I first had to stick my face in a basin of water,  and then...

    I had to orally retrieve a hard candy from a pan lined with flour, and run to the next checkpoint to pass the baton.

    ...And then sat in the sun and let my face bake like a pie until the race was over. Mmmm...face pie. Incidentally, our homeroom won.

    This here's the guy who (kind of) explained to me what I was supposed to do. Mainly it was "Just watch me first and you'll understand." So thanks, uh...Shintaro's dad!

    I think Yoshie was proud of me, but she didn't seem to want to kiss my crusty pie face.

    The day had plenty of other interesting stuff going on, too. Here's a picture of a game in which each of the three teams had a minute or two to throw these little bean bag things into their respective basket on a pole.

    There was also an event that translates to "Cheer War." There were three teams - Red, Yellow, and Green, and each one had to perform a kind of cheer routine. I think the red one was the cutest. Their team symbol was a flame, and there was this one part where about 8 of them lined up and in turn did a little dance move a shouted "Fire!" But because of their accents they were actually shouting "Fa-yah!" Here's the Yellow team's performance:

    Most Japanese high schools also have Sports Days, but it was different to experience it at the elementary school level. I feel like one can really learn a lot about about Japanese culture by observing and participating in these kinds of things. Was an experience I won't soon forget.