Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Taking Leave

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So in a a matter of hours I'll be heading out to the airport. Time to go home for a while! It should be a pretty exciting trip - Yoshie's coming, too, and it's her first time out of Japan. She'll be meeting my family, and after Thanksgiving we'll be driving up to New York so she can take in the NYC music scene.

Incidentally, today is her birthday. I have a surprise for her...I'll let you know how it goes when I get a chance to update.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Protectionism

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This week high-ranking officials of the member countries of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) are meeting in Yokohama to discuss a free trade agreement that would eliminate the region's trade barriers, which artificially raise or lower prices in order to make domestic goods more appealing to consumers.

Recently there was a protest held in Tokyo against the FTA, which the Japanese government seems to be favoring. While it's quite natural for farmers and the agricultural lobby to resist such change, I think this would be a positive step forward for all countries involved. According to the Japan Times article I just linked, Japan's participation in this agreement would lower Japanese farm output by about 4.1 trillion yen and cut the nation's GDP by 7.9 trillion yen. That could hurt. Unfortunately, however, these numbers are being artificially propped up by tariffs. In a free market, Japanese consumers would be buying cheaper produce from other countries, so there's a good chance that such a change would make food even cheaper for most Japanese consumers. The downside is that farmers will have to either become more competitive or switch industries, which may not be possible for those who are advanced in years or heavily invested in agriculture. Still, in the long run, the principles of economics dictate that free trade is the most efficient and produces the most value for the consumer.

Who knows, though? While this FTA looks like it would eliminate tariffs, there's also the flip side of that coin. I don't know if it would impose any restrictions on subsidies, which the Japanese government could always sink more money into to keep farmers propped up. I guess we'll see.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Great Place to Live #1

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When living abroad, I think sometimes it's too easy to be critical of one's host country. But it's important to remember that every place has good points as well as bad points. I think perhaps I need to spend a little more time on the nice things about living here, lest I lapse into a world of bitterness and resentment. 

The other day I was reminded of one of the things I find quite nice about people here in general. In America when you have a party, you're lucky if some of your good friends stick around afterwards to help you clean up. Back in college, my housemates and I would usually just go to sleep and clean up the next day. 

My kind of party.
In Japan, however, when it's time to wind things down, most people will pitch in and make the cleaning process a whole lot smoother and quicker. This year Dylan and I held a Halloween party on the second floor of a cafe near Awaji (in Osaka). We expected to end the party around 8 or 9ish and stay an extra hour or so to clean up. When we gave everyone the cue to filter out, however, they started cleaning up! Brilliant. I think that's something I'll miss when I go back home (though not too much, as my party throwing days may be limited).

Japan's 3G's

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Sorry for all you technophiles - this isn't a post about internets or cellular networking or how many more G's America has than Japan or vice versa. I considered including this in my "Words I Dis/Like" series, but decided that this goes beyond mere "words" and into more conceptual and philosophical territory.

Now as I've stated before, I'm no Japan expert. I don't have a major in Asian or Japanese Cultural Studies, I don't have a Japanese spouse, and I haven't been living in Japan for as long as some other J Bloggers. Still, I think I have enough experience to give my opinions some degree of credibility. More, say, that many foreign journalists who write crappy articles about Japan as an exotic land of mystique where cars (and ninja) run on water and samurai-like sushi chefs can be found tending rustic restaurants on every major street corner.

Of course Japanese society, like any, is what it is because of any number of historical and cultural factors and influences. Generalizing can be dangerous, and I readily acknowledge this fact before someone points it out to me in the comments. However, there are three major social trends of modern Japan that I feel have played an important role in both its successes and its failings (and deterioration) as a country. I think of them as the three G's. Those of you who familiar with the language may see where I'm going with this. They are:

1. Genki
2. Gaman
3. Ganbaru

First, one of the first words that Japanese language neophytes learn - Genki (元気). Genki can be a little difficult to nail down precisely, but for our purposes genki means "energy," "drive," or "enthusiasm." From the time they're little, Japanese are encouraged to be genki. When my classes are too subdued, they are sometimes exhorted with the expression 「元気出して!」, literally something like "turn on the energy!" This genki is one of the main reasons Japan is so often lauded for its service and kindness. Genki isn't just an attitude, it's a policy. I saw a TV show once about how train station attendants must start off their day with 20 minutes of looking into a mirror and practicing ("exercising") their smile before beginning work. I'm not sure whether this was company wide or just one station's policy. But the longer you live here, it becomes more and more easy to believe this could be a widespread thing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - there have been studies that show that smiling or frowning can influence how you feel. So perhaps this forced smiling actually makes Japanese people happier! If that's the case, it doesn't sound so bad. The trouble comes when genki becomes a standard. Japan has one of the world's highest suicide rates, and in recent years depression has been the determined number one cause. This is in part because depression in Japan is less often acknowledged and treated than in the West. When one is supposed to be genki, depression becomes a social stigma to be largely ignored or hidden.

Second is Gaman (我慢), which means "tolerance" or "endurance." For all practical purposes, though, it means "shut up and deal with it." When it's about 40 degrees F in the classroom and there's no heat, the students (and teachers) are expected to practice a little gaman. Likewise, salarymen in the sweltering summer heat are allowed minimal reprieve with Cool Biz attire, and otherwise must sweat out the summer with gaman. Gaman can sometimes be a very positive quality, like when one needs to just buckle down and get something done, or hold one's tongue in a situation where losing one's cool would only exacerbate a situation. However too much gaman leads to resentment and/or fatigue. One example in my mind is how many people here will work later than they're supposed to, for free. Of course on occasion I'll stay later than usual to get some work done, but for some people it's a regular thing. At my girlfriend's work, everyone is supposed to finish at 12:30. But when they're done, they need to clean and lock up, so everyone stays an extra 30 or 45 minutes. She can't leave because everyone stays. But no one gets paid for it. I think this is also related to the fact that in Japan, work more often seems to spill over into one's personal life and time. I was talking to one of the English teachers at my part time school about this. I always enjoy talking to the English teachers about this kind of thing, because many of them are more...internationally minded? Their way of thinking often differs from what you might expect. Anyway, he told me "When I go home, I try to forget about work. My personal time is for me. I don't belong to the board of education, or to the principal, or to the school. I have a contract and that's it. I also take longer vacations than most Japanese. I think it's a problem here." He then told me that most Japanese people use less than half of their allowed vacation time. What a waste. Although an admirable quality when applied appropriated,  I think too much gaman is detrimental to the overall health of Japan.

Update: 11/10/10: Gaman makes a guest appearance in this article about the injustice of the Japanese government's refusal to deal with the problem of parental child abduction.

The last G is Ganbaru (頑張る). Ganbaru can be difficult to translate, as the nuance is lost in English, but it's often translated as "fight" or "do your best." There's an element of struggling to it, as in fighting against hardship. This one can be heard all the time, as it's used to encourage people to do their best. Sports, studying, love life, work - anything that requires effort can be ganbaru'ed. This G can also be pretty positive - after all, struggling against adversity is the foundation of a hardworking society. But again, when taken to excess, it leads to a people who focus too much on work and effort and ignore the other aspects of life. This could be why Japanese people seem to burn out younger these days. This one has gotten particularly irritating to me, because you hear it everywhere. And when I hear it, I can't help but think of the literal meaning - that call to try hard to the point of struggling. 

Because I think this was a bit more negative than positive, I just want to finish by saying that it's more easy (for most people, not those J-sycophants) to be overly critical of a foreign culture than one's own. I try to be mindful of that, and I realize that the "Japanese way" does have its merits. I just happen to think that Japan is running itself into the ground because some of its most prized attributes have been taken to the extreme and need to be adjusted. Hopefully the youth of Japan will try to affect a change before it's too late. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Kanji Cameo

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I just saw Scott Pilgrim vs the World  with Joe. It's a shame it didn't do better at the box office - though it wasn't perfect, it was jam-packed with nerdy references, had a good soundtrack, and was pretty funny (I thought) in its own right.

Anyhow, there's this one scene I wanted to point out to any of you who have seen or intent to see the movie - watch for this! During Scott's battle with two Japanese rockers, when it's time for them to get serious, they turn up the dial on their amps to 11. Great reference. Made even better by the fact that the dial's numerals are in kanji, so "11" is displayed as 十一.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Overworked, Yellow People

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(Apologies for the post title change - I am horribly impatient and don't take the proper time to review my posts before hitting "publish"...I'll work on that)

The ALT I'm working with now at my part-time school is a guy named Maia from New Zealand (the "from New Zealand" isn't part of his name). I'm learning all kinds of things about that country now unrelated to kiwis or Lord of the Rings! That's kind of neither here nor there, but I told him I'd mention him in this post instead of just stealing his anecdote.

The other day Maia shared with me an English riddle that one of his students constructed. I think the cultural awareness of this kid is brilliant! The riddle is:

I am never angry.
I am overworked.
I am yellow.
What am I?

Can you guess the answer? I'll give you a hint - it ain't Big Bird.

Marketing

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There are many clever marketers in Japan - this much I know.

I don't know if this is unique to here or is practiced in other countries, but this year some company gave our school a free copy machine for the staff room. They also provide ink, paper, and maintenance. What do they get in return? All of the copies include color ads at the bottom of the page that teachers must cut off and discard.
Don't know if that's cost effective (probably not) but seemed to me like a pretty cool idea.

Yup, my handouts are rocking out Spiderman and Mr. Lego.