Tuesday, August 31, 2010

J-Music and Me: The Little Guys

Yoshie Hatano in Kyoto

First off, this post is a submission to September's Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted this month by Sen over at Nippon Ichigo. Thanks for hosting this month, Sen - give'em hell!

This is the third post I've written in this series, and I enjoy making these ones in particular because they feel rather personal to me. Although music begs to be shared, it also offers a very personal experience to each individual. Am I being vague enough? Good, let's move along. For this post, I've decided not to write about any big bands or artists, but about some people I know who are working hard to get there.

Throughout the last few years, I've noticed that I've become a lot more indirectly involved in the practical side of music, if that makes any sense.  I'll try to clarify that. I've played a few instruments over the years - clarinet, piano, guitar, to varying degrees of skill...but I never chose to pursue any of them beyond anything more than the level of hobby. But these days a lot of the people close to me are musicians; not in the sense of simply playing music, but in the sense of pursuing it professionally. Strangely, they are all connected to Japan.

Back in university, I was friends with this guy who I met in my Japanese class. He was an older fellow, late 20's, who had halted his college education some years back to try and make it big as a musician. When I met him, he was still with the band but was trying to reboot his education by enrolling in part-time studies. He was the first friend I ever had who was properly "in a band." I went to a couple of their shows - he was a guitarist for a Dream Theater-like progressive metal group. I imagine he's still with them, trying to make it big, but who knows? We had a falling out of sorts a few years ago and stopped talking.

Then there's our resident J-Girl Adventurist, Gobbler, another friend of mine from university (who was in the same Japanese class). We also studied together for a semester at Sophia University in Tokyo. These days Gobbler is bassist for a Philly-based Indie rock band.

When I came to Japan, I met Dylan, our resident vegetarian. Dylan was putting himself through grad-school in Osaka while trying to build a name for his band, Ihounokyaku. He still is, though now he's on scholarship. Through Dylan, I met and became friends with his bandmate, Sammy. Going to their shows over the past couple years, I've met a fair amount of musicians and gotten a closer look at the inside of the music scene.

Dylan and Sammy were featured a couple years ago on a TV show about new bands.

Last, but certainly the most impactful now, there's my girlfriend, Yoshie Hatano. We had our first date 6 months ago from Friday! Yoshie is a professional pianist. Talking to her everyday, being around her when I can, and going to some of her shows, I've seen how hard she works to improve and to get exposure. Gigs can be tough to get, so she plays piano at a club 6 nights a week, and additionally works at a cafe here and there...on top of doing shows, weddings, and whatever other work she can get. She's probably one of the hardest-working people I've met. But I suppose that's what it takes. Making it big as a musician is tough no matter where you live, but imagine living in a country roughly the size of California with a population about a third the size of that in the U.S.

Here's a show Yoshie played at this summer. She was asked to do a short solo session and played these songs off the cuff.

One of the biggest challenges I've observed for musicians in Japan is the fact that at most venues here musicians actually have to pay to play. Of course there are some paying gigs, but usually live houses and some bars will require musicians to pay a certain amount to perform. Then they can sell tickets to people to try and get some of that money back (or make a little profit if they can sell enough). I don't know if venues in other countries do the same thing, but it wasn't something I was familiar with until coming here and befriending several musicians.

I gotta say, it's a tough game - as a musician you need exposure to get shows. But in order to get exposure, you need to spend money, which you probably don't have if you're not playing shows. So a lot of musicians putter around at other jobs to make money to pay to play. You have to really love what you're doing to work so hard. You can be really talented and work really hard and never make it big - so much of it is luck and who you know. I have a lot of respect for these people.

If you live in the Kansai area and would like to check out Ihounokyoku, you can leave a comment or send us an email asking for more info. Likewise if you live in Kyushu and would like more information about Yoshie's performances, let us know!

Have you been to a live show in Japan? Are you an aspiring musician either in Japan or in another country? If you, please share your impressions and any interesting experiences or insights you've had!

A visit to the doctor

I don't know if it's the same in America; maybe it varies by school. But here in Japan, public school teachers must have a health check every year. Actually, it may be all public workers (or I may have made that up). Either way, usually some doctors and nurses come to the school and administer the checkups to the staff here all on one day. This year I was away on a business trip, so I was responsible for getting my own checkup. Only I was limited to one place - I had to be checked there. Why? I dunno - I'm sure there's some bureaucratic reason lurking somewhere.

So I made an appointment, which in and of itself was no easy task. Apparently they were all booked up for the next week or two. After I told them that I had to have this done by the end of August, they agreed to squeeze me in. In retrospect, I don't know what the big deal was...but I'll come back to that.

On Sunday morning I set out. This place was a bus and a train and a 15-minute walk away, so I was plenty hot and sticky by the time I arrived. This isn't the first time I've been to a medical institution in Japan. I've previously been to a hospital in Tokyo, as well as a couple clinics here in Kansai. This place was different, though.

As soon as I got to the reception desk, I noticed that about 2/3 of the people in the lobby waiting room were wearing some kind of blue pajama/scrub hybrid. Joe had mentioned this to me before - that patients at these health check centers have to wear some kind of hospital gown. Luckily, maybe because I had a limited checkup or because my school has a relationship with this center, I didn't have to don the pajama-scrubs.

The place was rather interesting, and different from any checkup I had ever had back in the States. Not necessarily bad different, but certainly different different. For one thing, there were about 20 gajillion nurses calling patients' names and herding them around. And when I say "herding," that's what I mean. Essentially, this place was broken down into at least a dozen different stations. Each station was a different part of the process. You'd sit in the lobby and wait for your name to be called. Then you'd go to some little cubicle in the hallway with the nurse and answer some questions, like when is the last time you ate (there's an X-ray, so you aren't supposed to eat  for like 12 hours prior) and if you've had any illnesses recently. Then you wait again. Then they x-ray your chest. Wait again. Then your name is called and you go pee in a cup (interestingly about that - you don't hand them the cup - there is a little window IN THE BATHROOM that I suppose borders on the lab, and you leave your cup there when you're done). Then you go sit down and wait again. Then you have your eyes checked and are weighed and measured. Wait some more. Then the doctor sees you for about 20 seconds to check your breathing. Then you bring your chart to the front and can leave.

It took me about an hour from the time I checked in to the time I left. I was surprised - although I've had quicker checkups back home, this place was pretty fast and efficient considering how many patients seemed to be flowing through. The only downside is that my overall impression was of cattle being herded around. The nurses and staff were friendly and polite enough (in typical Japanese fashion), so it wasn't so bad, but it wasn't personal at all. Then again I guess that's the nature of this kind of thing - it's not like you're going to see your doctor. Thus I was a little puzzled, in retrospect, that the woman on the phone had told me she could squeeze me in to see the doctor. I spent all of 20 seconds with him!

Probably the strangest part was that after I finished, the lady at the reception desk gave me this ticket to use the public pool in the building. Uh...ok? Let me just change into this swimsuit I brought along just in case.

Only one coupon use allowed per 6 months. Dang.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Natural Peanut Butter!

Kind of funny - the other day I was talking to some new ALTs and advised them that if they're looking for foreign imported food, liquor stores can sometimes be unexpectedly good places to check out. Well, today I swung by the Grande Marche and -- Ta-dah! I found some natural peanut butter (without sugar or salt). Been wanting to get some for a while, but haven't seen any at the normal supermarkets.

And it's creamy to boot - just the way I like it!

That's Life

Man. I have always intended to update this thing as close to daily as possible, but things have really gotten away from me this month. Yoshie visited for a couple weeks, I visited Saga after that, and then this past week was crazy with work. Sometimes we prefectural ALTs are asked to go on "business trips" for other schools, which usually means getting up early to go somewhere far away. Now I generally don't mind doing these things, as the students often are either of a higher ability level than my own and/or are at these special seminars or workshops voluntarily and so have good attitudes and are fun to teach. But 4 trips in 5 days is draining, especially when you have to get up an hour earlier than usual.

Anyway, now that's behind me. I'll do my best to clear out the cobwebs and get things back to the normal pace here. I've been wanting to invest more time writing about Japanese study, but the "Let's Enjoy Japanese" series is so here and there that I'm not quite sure if I should start a new one or what...I'll  give it some more thought.

Views this month have been low, which is understandable considering there haven't really been many updates, but please don't stop coming by! More to come, I promise.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Just another picture of the day 8/23/10

Check out those melons. They're 10,000 yen a pop, which is about $115 at the current exchange rate. Good to know there will always be people who will pay out the nose for a good piece of fruit.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Link Between Religion and National Pride?

Interesting in its own right, but the fact that the researcher was Japanese and his reasons for the study caught my eye. According to this article.

Background: Uemura was interested in conducting the study, "Minority Statuses and Positive National Attitude," because as a citizen of Japan, he said, he was used to people having a low level of national pride. In fact, there is an emerging concern about the low level of national pride among Japanese citizens. He wanted to find out what Americans think about the U.S. His study focused on nationality, religion and ethnicity. "What makes this study unique is that I focus on three demographic characteristics, while most of the research just studied ethnicity," Uemura said.

Wow, really? Japanese people have a low level of national pride? Seems to me that people over here are always bragging about Japanese athletes, Japanese inventions, Japanese food...Are they just over-compensating?


Behold your future

Just saw this post up at the Consumerist: Are Automated Kiosks The Future of Retail Shopping?

In recent years, vending machines have gone from lunch room relics intent on eating your quarters and holding onto your Sun Chips to high-tech automated kiosks that sell everything from DVDs to ice creamwine, beauty products, useless Farmville crap, electronics, designer bags and much more. But are they here to stay or is this just a trend?

Heh...Japan has been peddling all kinds of stuff in vendos for years and years. Gaze into your future and despair, America! But seriously, I think more vending machines (or automated kiosks) are a good idea. They save space and spare me from having to interact with actual human beings.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A whale of a controversy

A couple of recent Japan Times articles address the issue of whaling in Japan as relating to racism, cultural identity, and its neighboring countries. They can be read here and here.
Image Source: Japan Times
Both articles are interesting reading, and though the piece on racism focuses not on the arguments for or against whaling but instead on the way Japanese are portrayed by anti-whaling groups in Australia and New Zealand, both columns seem opposed to the practice. As this blog seems to be touching more and more upon sensitive issues, I just wanted to weigh in and also see what all you out there in Internet Land think.

A few months ago I posted about my experience eating horse meat, and as I recall there were one or two negative reactions to the fact that I also mentioned I have eaten whale meat. So yes, I've eaten whale, and yes I would eat it again. But I want to qualify my feelings on the issue.

I agree with Chris Burgess that eating whale meat isn't really a long-time cultural element of Japan. And as he admits, Japan is often unfairly singled out. Japan is not the only country that engages in whaling, and not all whale meat eaten in Japan is actually from Japanese whaling. Additionally, there are plenty of other countries and peoples that either find it morally objectionable to eat animals that many of us consume regularly, or that eat other animals we wouldn't eat. This includes other intelligent animals, and yet you don't hear much protest these days about people eating monkey. And you also don't hear of countries like India or Nepal protesting the fact that many other countries eat beef, despite the fact that most Hindus (in those countries anyway) respect and protect cows. I haven't heard many instances of Muslims or Jews decrying the eating or pork. So yes, I think Japan is treated unfairly, and I do think that Australia and New Zealand are whiners and are not approaching the issue the right away. Although many of Japan's social practices are driven by shame (or avoidance of it), demonizing the Japanese is not the way to change their minds.

I respect the views of those who are opposed to whaling and I understand where they're coming from, just as I respect vegetarianism. One of my best friends is a vegetarian. The difference between him and many of the anti-whaling proponents I've encountered both in real life and on the internet, is that he is tolerant and nonjudgemental of those who disagree with him. Just as I don't try to convince him to have a hamburger, he's never tried to make me feel guilty for eating meat or push his views on me. As a result, I unwittingly came to be interesting in his views on meat-eating and did some research of my own. Now I have a better understanding of the issue and even feel a desire to reduce the amount of meat I consume. 

As I said, I have eaten whale. Honestly, I haven't read anything to sway me into thinking that whales shouldn't be eaten because of their intelligence. I respect the view, I just don't happen to share it (at this point). I do draw a line, however, at eating a threatened species. The vast majority of whales hunted by Japanese whalers are Minkes, which are classified as Least Concern by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. This is the same category as mice, pigeons, and humans. I don't have any objection to people hunting or eating these (whales).

Source: Wikipedia
I do, however, find the hunting and eating of threatened and endangered species, like the Fin Whale and Sperm Whale, to be a problem. Even if you like the taste of whale, it's a hard sell to use it as a justification for wiping out an entire species.

I will probably take some flack for this post, but what do you all think? Do you find eating whale to be morally objectionable? Or have you yourself tried whale meat?


Those of you following my feed please excuse the last (deleted) post. For some reason I clicked to comment on another Blogger page and I somehow wound up making a post.

I swear I'm not trying to lead you on!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

Racism! Oops, wait, no...

Racism is a topic that's come up a few times the past couple months. When you're living as a minority in any place, especially one so homogeneous as Japan, it's easy to become more sensitive to being treated differently. I have another story.

Yoshie and I had a fight the other day. She was right. Not in the way that girlfriends/wives are always right, but, in fact, genuinely right.

She was set to play piano at this bar/live house in Kyoto on Tuesday. We get there and walk in together, and she walks inside while I stop at the entrance to pay the cover charge. The guy looks at me, looks at her, then glances at his boss at the bar, and then says something to her that I didn't catch. But I heard the word 外国人 (foreigner; note this is the more polite form of the word). Oh no, I thought. I could feel my blood starting to heat up. This was one of those places? Confused,Yoshie goes over to the bar to ask the manager what the problem is. Meanwhile I ask the guy in front of me "Wait, so I'm a foreigner...and?"

He squirms. 「外国人ですからチャージ取れません。」"I can't charge foreigners."

So they won't accept my money because I'm a foreigner? If I were alone I would have just left with maybe a choice word or two. But Yoshie had a show...I didn't want to ruin her night by going off on the bar staff.

I wait. After a minute, Yoshie and the manager come over. He nods at me and offers a quick すみません (sorry), says something to the guy at the front, and they take my money and give me a drink ticket.

Yoshie said something about how sometimes tourists come in and the staff don't speak any English, but I was too roiled up to understand all of her explanation. What I heard was "These people don't want to deal with foreigners because they don't speak English." Even if that had been the case, it wouldn't have been as bad if they had at least seen if I could speak Japanese before refusing me service. So the rest of the night I tried to calm down for her sake, but wasn't very successful, especially when I saw Yoshie being friendly with the staff. Being the insulted party, I felt kind of betrayed. When our friends came in, I shared the story with them and continued to brood. And in some meaningless protest, I refused to use my drink ticket. Every time Yoshie told me I should have a drink, I told her to use it. Petulant, I know. Not like I was going to hurt the bar by not ordering the drink I already paid for.

So we made it through the show, but I was still moody. On the way back to the station, Yoshie asked me what was wrong and I basically went off on her about how that asshole back there wasn't going to let me in because I'm a foreigner, and my girlfriend should be upset with them instead of chummy. And if it wasn't a big deal, as her behavior implied, they should have talked to me instead of assuming I'm too dumb to speak their language.

Yeah, I shouldn't have went off on her, especially in front of our friends. The next hour and a half of the trip home was quiet and uncomfortable for the most part. Finally we both admitted that we should have handled the situation differently. She agreed that they were rude for not explaining the situation to me and she should have stuck up more for me but didn't know what to do. I conceded that there wasn't much she could do and I shouldn't have yelled at her. And we let it go at that.

Not so bad, right? Well, the next day I was on Gchat telling Dylan about the incident. I went to go take a shower and Yoshie started talking to him. When I got back, Dylan told me that there had been a big misunderstanding. Apparently in my rage I hadn't understood everything that Yoshie had been trying to tell me about the situation. As it turns out, sometimes foreigners go into that live house just to drink at the bar. The staff feel bad because they can't speak much English and many of the tourists who come in can't speak any Japanese, so as a result they often don't charge foreigners the cover fee for the live show if they just come in to sit at the bar. I guess it's easier than trying to communicate the fact that they have to pay a fee because there's a band playing.

So really they weren't being racist at all. As a matter of fact, they were probably trying to be nice. In my defense, I wish they had explained this to me themselves. But ultimately I was the asshole in this story.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just another picture of the day 8/12/10: Sparx

Yup, a 9% alcohol チューハイ (with 70% less sugar!). Kicking it up a notch from Chu-hai Strong, I see. This was about as good as you'd expect, which is to say I winced with every sip. きつい!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Just another picture of the day 8/5/10: FRUNC'ed

I'm not sure if "f" is FRUNC or if this is someone or something named "fi"'s FRUNC. Either way I don't like the sound of it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

J-Word Play #13 (Answer) + Need your input!

Last week's riddle was:




"What insect is in the middle of (a) mirror?" Well, the correct approach here is to recognize that the question isn't asking what insect is in the middle of "a" mirror, but in the middle of "mirror." The Japanese word for mirror is 鏡(かみ). が means "moth."

Kudos for the correct answer go out to:

Tokyo Five


I'm considering offering a prize in the future, perhaps a chance to win a Japan iTunes gift card or something of that nature. However I'm unsure how much participation I'd get or what kind of prizes you folks might be interested in. If you have any suggestions or would probably give such a contest a shot, please sound off in the comments!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Working in Japan

There's an article up on the Japan Times about a Chinese worker who recently died of 過労死 (karoshi; death by overworking). If you're unfamiliar with the story, or interested in exploited foreign workers in Japan, feel free to go have a read. For now, I just wanted to highlight what I considered to be a very interesting, though perhaps somewhat tangential point:

Westerners tend to link Japan's workaholic society today to "typically Japanese" traits such as deference to authority and respect for hierarchy, but Kawahito believes this is not the root cause of the problem.
"Japan's current work system is not part of traditional Japanese culture, but a modern phenomenon which developed in order to catch up with Europe and the U.S.," he said.
The postwar mentality of the Japanese people was that they had to work harder than everyone else, he explained. "Japan was completely defeated in World War II by the United States, so maybe Japanese people are afraid Japan will be defeated again, not militarily but economically."

I'm not sure that the author is 100% correct on this point, as it seems to me to be a somewhat blurry and difficult to understand issue (as are many parts of Japanese culture, to me anyway). This "catch-up" mentality could account for part of the reason why so many Japanese people work so much, but there are other, fundamentally linked behavioral patterns that it doesn't explain. And I emphasis "much" because while many Japanese people do work very hard, there is also a tendency to work long hours without actually doing much of substance.

The other behavioral patterns I'm talking about are in fact linked to deference to authority and respect for hierarchy. From what I've heard first-hand, it seems that a lot of Japanese people tend to work less out of a desire to serve the country or be productive than because they feel compelled to. Why? Pressure - both lateral and downward. In many cases, there are certain things that are just expected of you. "Why" doesn't matter. If you go home on time at 5:00, your peers will think you're either lazy or selfish. Lateral pressure.

In Japan, there is something called the sempai-kouhai (先輩後輩) system. Schools, clubs, companies - basically anything with an organizational structure employs it. Essentially it means that senior members (sempai) act as mentors to junior members (kohai). In return, these junior members are expected to treat their mentors with respect and a degree of deference. In other words, if your sempai asks you to come in to work on Saturday to help them finish a project they're working on, you do it. You had a date planned for Saturday? Better reschedule. Downward pressure.

Probably the most common example of this is the Japanese drinking party or 宴会 (enkai).
Image from: Gourmet Walker Kobe
Enkais can be a lot of fun; loosening up with your fellow soldiers in the trench, having a few beers, and hopefully forming a more cohesive bond with the people you see almost every day. While an occasional drinking party with your boss and coworkers can be a good time, for most Japanese people these are not optional, recreational activities. They are after work, but they are obligatory. I've heard from a couple of overworked Japanese that many young people don't like it, but it's just the way it is. Even if you're tired or sick, if your sempai invites you go to drinking after work, you go. "But what happens if you don't?" I asked. Apparently you become ostracized and will likely never be invited to another work-related social function. Talk about harsh.

In other words, deference to authority and respect for hierarchy are exactly why a lot of Japanese people work as much as they do.

On a more personal level, I think Yoshie's job is pretty good about this. It hasn't seemed (to me anyway) like she's really been pressured to do a lot of work-related "group activities" or work more than she decides she needs to. She does have other kinds of pressure, though. For one thing I think she is pushed to do too much for her customers. But that, perhaps, is a story for another time.

最近日本にいた中国人は過労死した。上のJapan Timesのリンクはそれについて記事リンクしてるが、ある部分に興味深いと思った。



Working Japanese Moms

Apologies for the recent update drought. Joe's currently out visiting the Motherland, and Yoshie's in Kansai for a couple weeks, so I've been a bit busy preparing for her arrival and spending some time with her since she got in Sunday evening.

I noticed this recent survey over at What Japan Thinks (原因), asking mainly about the support that working mothers receive both at work and at home from their husbands. As you may already know, I have somewhat of an interest in the marital/breeding habits of the Japanese and their foreseeable social and economic consequences. Notably, I was a little surprised on two points.

First, that while 81% of women cited their reason for working as "To support the family budget for food, daily expenses, etc," only 33.3% chose "To advance my career, because I want to work." Perhaps the Japanese women I know aren't a legitimate statistical sampling, but I think many (or even most) of my younger female peers seem primarily driven right now by their careers. Thinking about it further, however, this statistic begins to make more sense. While I didn't see any percentage breakdown by age group of those surveyed, it may be safe to assume that 33.3% represents a majority of the younger women polled. Also, it's also extremely likely that those women who place a high priority on advancing their career either aren't married or don't have children.

Second, I was also surprised that a majority of working mothers surveyed are satisfied (at least to some degree) with the support/cooperation they receive from their husbands, considering how notorious Japanese men are for spending all day and night at the office and never seeing their families. Then again "support" and "cooperation", 「育児スサポート」and 「協力」 are vague terms in my mind. If I'm interpreting the Japanese data correctly, it looks like mothers from higher income households tended to be more satisfied with their husbands, so perhaps financial support as opposed to physically helping out with the kids is the key bit of information here.

I think it's important to understand and address the concerns of young Japanese women regarding motherhood. It seems to be a common conception (and of course not unique to Japan) that when women have children, their working lives are effectively over. I can see how that could be the case in many instances - after all, carrying a child to term takes a lot of time and energy, as does taking care of said child. I'm not of the mindset that women need to stay home with the children, though, although I don't see that social pattern changing here any time soon. When I was young, both my parents worked. For a while my sister and I had babysitters, and at times my parents would arrange their work schedules so that one of them would be home with us while the other was working. Then when my dad's health went into decline, he retired and stayed home with us while my mom worked during the day.

I'm not sure if many Japanese women don't want to have children (at a younger age, anyway) these days because of work concerns or just because they aren't that interested in having a family, but as the prior is more easily addressed, I hope it's something that will change in the coming years. While I think full-time child-rearing is a worthwhile calling for either a mother or a father, I can understand why many women would balk at the idea of having children if it means permanently passing up the chance at a meaningful career.

Raising a family isn't for everyone, but any society that boasts gender equality should encourage women to pursue both career and family if that's what they want.