19 March 2009

Things About Japan: Bathrooms

A Primer

With my parents impending arrival in Japan, I find myself constantly trying to think of things they need to know before they arrive. Bathrooms certainly fall under this category.

1. The Toilets
Unless you're in an urban area, the toilets will most likely be squat instead of "Western style." What does this mean? Well, basically, there's a porcelin-lined hole in the ground. 

They're easy to use, albeit slightly frightening at first. Straddle the porcelain, facing toward the deeper depression where the pool of water is - in the picture above, one would face toward the left side of the image. This is generally where the flushing pipes are, but the above is of a nice toilet that has a flush button on the wall. In any case, once you're properly oriented, you can drop your pants/lift your skirt, squat (don't sit!) down, and have at. 
While these bathrooms can be ... distasteful ... I can't help but prefer these to Western toilets when it comes to less-than-clean, public bathrooms, as there's no skin-to-toilet contact. 

2. Flushing
Japanese women are embarrassed by sounds made while in the bathroom (in short, the sound of pee). I really don't understand this. It's like being embarrassed that you can hear your footsteps while walking down the street; what other sounds would you expect? In any case, because of this embarrassment, Japanese women will flush while they're making use of bathroom facilities - one, two, sometimes even three times total. It's an awful waste of water.
In an effort to get women to stop wasting water, Japan did a wonderfully astute thing. Knowing that people are loathe to change their ways, they didn't encourage women to stop flushing. Instead, many places have installed motion-sensitive speakers in the bathrooms. When you sit down, these speakers automatically play a water-sound to cover up any noise you yourself might be making. Sometimes it's just white noise, but if you're lucky it's a flowing-river soundtrack, complete with the occasional bird chirp. These are usually to be found in more urban areas, of course - out in the boonies, expect to hear constant flushing. I find them hilarious and have a hard time not giggling whenever I come across them. 

3. Washing Up
Once you're done with the toilet, there's washing up to consider. Two things are inevitably missing from the sink area: something to dry your hands with and soap. There are exceptions, of course, but it's generally assumed one won't find these things. The Japanese tend to carry a small towel or handkerchief for drying purposes (a green practice that I hope will spread), but the absence of soap continues to confuse me. There seems to be an opinion that water is enough, which it isn't. Antibacterial hand gel, anyone?

And there you have it! The interesting life of Japanese-style bathrooms.

18 March 2009

Vision Test

Earlier this week, I was washing cups for the regular, afternoon cup of tea when one of my teachers approached the kitchen-nook. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, noticed the cup in his hand, and figured that he wanted to rinse out his cup.  Not wanting to make him wait through my washing 8 cups, I stepped back from the sink and gestured him forward, saying, "Please, go ahead." He laughed, began washing his cup, and commented that I "must have eyes in the back of [my] head to have noticed [him]."  When he first said this, I wondered if my peripheral vision has improved recently, but fairly quickly laughed this off. Visual acuity probably had little to do with it.

Sherlock Holmes says in "A Scandal in Bohemia" the following gem:
"You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear."
I feel that Japan has trained me to be more observant. I was so caught up in not making mistakes when I first arrived that I forced myself to attend to small details. Apparently, I've successfully accomplished this training of my attention. It wasn't the quality of my eyesight, but instead the attention to what I saw that was important in my kitchen-nook interaction. In the moments like this one where my work pays off, well ... I can't help but be a little proud of myself.

It's interesting that what we see seems more influenced by our attention to such details than the quality of our eyesight. Of course, several psychological studies have noted this trend; my own observations are hardly pioneering opinions. If you doubt me, visit this site and read the directions carefully. (It's important that you read the follow-up link.)  It just seems a greater reality now that I've experienced it so powerfully in my own little world.

17 March 2009

Traveling with the Teachers

AKA: Let's bonding more!

Now that we all know about group bonding experiences, let's talk specifics!

I have taken three trips with my teachers:

Version 1.0
The first was a day-trip shortly after I arrived, and I spent most of the time being confused and bored due to my lack of Japanese. I'm still not sure what the names of cities we visited are, but I did have fun. Nothing like being handed a beer at 8 in the morning to start off your cultural experience in Japan!

[Lavender ice-cream with Nagayama-sensei]

Version 2.0
The second trip was an overnight one with my 1st year/7th grade teachers (the teachers with whom I sat in the staffroom at the time). We went to Akita prefecture, the northernmost prefectures on the main island of Japan... in short, not Hokkaido. This was at the end of the school year last year, so mid- or late-March. It was my first time flying within Japan, which is hilariously different from flying domestic in America. Only checking ID at the ticketing counter? What a novel experience!
It was fun, but really exhausting. My Japanese was much higher than with the first trip, but being in Japanese-mode all day for two days took more out of me than I'd like to admit. I found myself avoiding conversation just because it took so much effort.

[A lake, possibly Lake Tazawa, in Akita with a golden girl statue]

[The view from our hotel]

Version 3.0
This year, I took another weekend trip with my teachers (mostly the same ones, though we're 2nd year teachers now) and, thanks to my higher level of Japanese, I was better able to understand more than just the conversation. We went to Ise and Nara, both places with lots of culture. Ise is where the main temple to the goddess Amaterasu can be found - she is arguably the most important goddess, having set the first Japanese emperor on the throne. Nara is, as I said in my "Travels with hannah" logs, the home of Daibutsu and deer.
It was a ridiculous amount of fun. On the one hand, I am better able to interact with my teachers and listen to Japanese for long periods of time. On the other, I liked the group more this year; the teachers who left were ones I had little relationship with, while the ones that stayed and the new ones are all a lot of fun. I also have stronger connections with these teachers due to the length of time I've been here and my greater ease with Japanese. Things just worked, and I was glad to be able to spend some out-of-school time with them.

[Outside of Ise's train station]

[Dinner at the ryokan (traditional Japanese-style hotel)]

Culture Backlash

It would seem my cultural experiences here may be more harmful than helpful...


If anyone needs me, I'll be humbly bowing out my apologies in Katherine's general direction.

(Sorry, I couldn't help myself...)

16 March 2009

Things about Japan: Enkai and Staff Trips

AKA: Let's Bonding!*

I spent my last post talking about collective vs. individualistic cultures. This is somewhat of a part 2 of that conversation, delving into various bonding activities done here. As a sidenote, I'll be sticking to what I know, that being, bonding in the workplace.

The group is important, as is thinking of the group - maintaining group harmony, strengthening group ties, and so forth. While "team-building" is an almost dirty term back in the States, in Japan it is a very strong, present, and accepted reality. The bonding activity that was hardest for me to swallow at first was the enkai, or drinking party. The basic thought process, as I've heard and experienced it, goes like this:
1. We should bond as a group.
2. In order to bond, we should have fun.
3. As superiors are around, it is hard to have fun.
4. Therefore, we drink alcohol - that way, everyone can relax, have fun, and bond properly.
[5. What happens at the enkai stays at the enkai. Yep, this is a rule, though the less drinking there is, the less important this rule becomes.]
In short, enkai are parties where everyone drinks, gets drunk, and "bonds." These parties are held in almost any workplace, from big businesses to factories to, yes, schools.

Now, this is the basic idea - reality has its own elaborations. My enkai tend to not be the drunken affairs I hear business-men enkai are. A large part of this is due to the lack of public transportation in my prefecture. There is zero tolerance for drinking and driving in Japan, so how one gets home becomes an important part of the planning for the night; most choose the easy way out in not drinking and just driving themselves. In addition, the women in my school tend to avoid drinking alcohol, opting instead for oolong tea or orange juice. When only half of the staff is imbibing, it's easy to prevent a frat-party enkai.

Enkai happen on various levels, depending on the definition of a group. At my school, for example, there are several formal enkai every year to which every teacher is invited; these tend to commemorate the end of a trimester or the start of a new school year. In addition to this, the teachers with whom I sit in the staff room also have enkai every month or two - these are informal and are just sort of an excuse to get together outside of school.

A clarification in terms: informal enkai are like going out to dinner with people who just-so-happen to be coworkers. Formal enkai, on the other hand, require business attire and have a set of behavioral rules. For example, one is not allowed to pour one's own drink. It sounds strange, but the logic is that, if you're pouring your own drinks, it's because no one else is around you to do it for you - in short, you're not socializing. The rule forces you to seek out others, not only for your own drinking needs but for theirs, too.
Also, it's common for formal enkai to be followed by one, two, or even three informal enkai, with fewer attendees with each successive party and none of the rules of the formal affairs.

Another way of encouraging workplace bonding is with trips. These generally involve sub-groups rather than the whole office; for example, at middle schools, there generally are three or four sub-groups, as dictated by the seating arrangements in the staff room. The desks are divided into four islands, generally speaking - 1st year (7th grade) teachers, 2nd year (8th grade) teachers, 3rd year (9th grade) teachers, and non-teaching staff. When I mentioned before that I have enkai with the teachers with whom I sit in the staff room, I meant that I am part of the 2nd year teachers sub-group, and as such I have informal enkai with them. Trips are the same - one goes with one's subgroup.
Back to the trips themselves. Money is collected in advance, usually in monthly installments, and one person is put in charge of planning the trip and handling the money. Guess who gets this fun role: the least-senior member of the group, as usual. In any case, this collected money covers all of the trip expenses, from transportation to hotels to meals to souvenirs for the rest of the staff. It seems that the hotel is also generally a ryokan, or traditional Japanese-style hotel with onsen, tatami floors in the rooms, and futon (which are not, by the way, the things you find in your average dorm room at college). These trips are a chance for everyone to relax, have fun, and go sightseeing with each other.

While attendance isn't required at these bonding activities, it is expected, especially for the formal enkai. One who always avoids these events is thought to be snooty or not a group player and is subject to comments in reference to this. For example, one of my coworkers rarely, if ever, attends enkai, and I have more than once heard other teachers say the Japanese equivalent of "we aren't good enough for him" in response to his absence.

In the end, how fun these parties and trips are depends greatly on the pre-existing relationship one has with the others attending and on one's own status. The lower the status, the more likely you are to be assigned some odious task. In addition, if you don't like your coworkers, spending two or three hours at a party with them can be painful, much less the two or three days of a trip. Still, as personal matters are worth less than group ones here, it seems a common fate that one will sacrifice one's own enjoyment, keeping up a good face**, in order to be a participating member of the group.

I'm fortunate in that I rarely have to wonder whether it's better to be a group player or to get out of a boring affair; my teachers are fun and I enjoy spending time with them. I'm also in the unique position of being foreign, and thus exempt from a lot of the things expected of the Japanese. It's as though being foreign is akin to being mentally handicapped or a young child: "She can't help it. She doesn't know any better. She couldn't possibly understand." Though annoying at times, I have to say that I find it a useful excuse when I don't want to spend $50 on dinner and a night of discussing work affairs in Japanese...

*The use of "let's" in Japanese is much more common than it is in English, and is thus overused when the Japanese speak in English. Also, there seems to be a misconception as to what the apostrophe is contracting, mistaking it for "is" instead of "us" (a fair mistake, in my mind). As such, the verb is usually conjugated in the gerund, as though to put the phrase in present progressive form, rather than the first person plural, present tense: "let is dancing" instead of "let us dance."
I've experienced everything from seeing "let's eating" written on menus to hearing "let's dancing" used as an opener to a dance party. It's both funny and cringe-worthy.

** Yet another aspect of Japan's group-oriented culture is the importance of having a face for the public and a face for in private; in other words, not letting your real emotions show unless you're with close friends. There are even words for these faces in Japanese: tatemae (your public face) and honne (your inner face). The Japanese are, to make a sweeping assumption, very well practiced at keeping their real thoughts to themselves.

13 March 2009

Things About Japan: Individualism

AKA: Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You...

You may have gleaned it from my entries or from your own past learning, but Japan is very much a collective culture. A great example of this is seen from a set of idioms. In America, we say:
"The squeaky wheel gets the grease."
If a wheel didn't squeak, we wouldn't think to grease it. In short, don't be afraid to speak out.
In Japan, however, it's this:
"The nail that sticks up will be hammered down."
A nail that sticks up out of the woodwork is a problem. If you stick out, you will be forcibly put back into place.  

I knew of these differences before I came and thought I was set - I knew that I should be careful to not appear proud or full of myself. What I didn't think of, however, was what this would mean for my classes.  Students are ridiculously unwilling to volunteer, for example. In elementary school, games that require choosing a side ("I like ~" vs. "I don't like ~," for example) usually involve students switching sides at least once, having originally gone with their opinion and then amended to fit better with the majority of their friends. Still, the worst experience I had with this, by far, was with one of my higher-level 3rd years (9th graders) last year.

Megumi was one of my speech contest girls - she lived in the States for 5 years (from age of 5 to 10), and her grasp on English is amazingly strong. As a 9th grader, she was testing in at a college level of English. Her accent was American and flawless. She was more than fluent and was striving to push her limits even further. Yet, in class, if Megumi was called upon to answer a question, she would answer (1) only after much protesting ["Me? Why me?"] and (2) with a very strong, Japanese accent ["Ai see za TEMpuru ovaa zeeaaa" instead of "I see the temple over there"]. Why? To keep from sticking out. Everyone knew that Megumi lived in the States for a long time, but so long as she kept up the act that she was just another 9th grader being forced to take English, it didn't matter.

While I consider these examples to be obvious problems, collectivism definitely has advantages over individualism. Japan is much cleaner than America, though there are fewer trash cans to be found - this is in large part, I feel, because there is greater respect for public property in a system that encourages one to think about others over one's own convenience. In classes, students rarely lie about having completed a goal/activity, even when a reward is involved, because betraying the group in order to further one's individual goals isn't worth it. Theft rarely seems to be a problem here, both for individuals and for stores. And these are only a few examples of how the collective attitude "wins" over its counterpart.

All and all, collectivism is an interesting study for a girl who was taught, both by family and society, the values of "standing on her own two feet."

10 March 2009


AKA: "Let's do our best."

Today is my second day at work after being gone for a week - I did some traveling, first with my teachers and then on my own, of which I'll be writing shortly. In any case, I'm still a little off of my regular schedule as far as sleep is concerned, my apartment is a mess for a variety of reasons, and I'm having trouble getting back into the work groove. My mind was so focused on first this vacation and secondly on the upcoming visit from my parents that I somewhat forgot I still have to teach 3 weeks of classes (including this one) until the school year is over, and then another 3.5 months of classes after that.

I was dragging my feet, feeling overworked and resentful, until I realized something: 
This is my job. My feelings don't come into play.
It wasn't a happy awakening, but it somehow helps. Travel is important to me, of course, but the priority right now is teaching classes. I may not want to, I may not enjoy it, but it's my job - will be until my contract ends in August - and thus must take top priority. 

I'm suffering from a variety of things, I think - the feelings of "senioritis" from the ending of a school year and from my own imminent departure; early onset of spring fever; a down-swing on the Culture Shock graph of my time here; looking so far in the future as far as my plans are concerned that I forget where I am in the present. It doesn't change the fact that I've 5 more months to live here and, though the time will fly as the end draws closer, it's still a sizable chunk of time.

I'm trying to set small goals: "get through the day" and "get to the weekend" rather than looking at the longer-term. I have things to look forward to. I just have to keep things manageable until then.

09 March 2009

Travels with hannah V

An Historic Day

On 20th January, all eyes seemed to be watching Washington D.C. As we were regularly reminded, it was "an historic day" (to steal from Jon Stewart) and marked the start of a new era of politics in America and, hopefully, around the world. Me? I wasn't watching TV; I wasn't even near one. Nor was I hovering at a computer or by a radio. I was spending my historic day in a once-in-a-lifetime way: I was celebrating hannah's birthday and the inauguration with her in Obama, Japan.

For those of you who haven't heard about or seen Obama, Japan in the news, the name "obama" in Japanese translates to "small harbor" - this makes it a rather common name, and there are at least three cities bearing it here. The biggest is in Fukui prefecture, near Kyoto. (For more information, you can read about Obama-shi on Wikipedia.)

The plans for visiting Obama began long before hannah arrived - I made a flip comment about visiting the city being a fun way to celebrate her birthday, as it was decently close to Kyoto, and hannah instantly jumped on it. Her energy spurred my energy and soon I found myself making as many arrangements as possible to allow us to be in Obama for the inauguration.

We set out from Kyoto early on the 20th, but various problems (mostly with my general ineptitude) had us arriving at Obama at around 2 or so in the afternoon. We were practically flying when we entered the town and started seeing the Obama paraphernalia.

We were given directions to the Obama store in town where we could satisfy our need to buy, buy, buy, and found that we weren't the only tourists in town. Aside from the bus or two of Japanese tourists, we met with two other Americans in the store - the only other foreigners we'd see while in the town. One was a professional photographer; the other was simply another person who couldn't resist being in Obama on Inauguration Day. We gushed, giggled, laughed, took our pictures with ridiculous Obama things, and in general had a good time.

The story behind this is that there is a comedian in Japan who is considered the "Japanese Obama" as he looks like the President. As far as I can tell, that means he has short hair and ears that stick out. In any case, the statue of Japanese-Obama was almost as frightening as their depictions of the Commander-in-Chief himself.

hannah and I decided to explore a little and get lunch, so we split off from the other two Americans and began walking, having been given a recommendation for a restaurant by an employee of the Obama store. It was at this point that things began to weigh in on us: the stares, few of which were merely curious; the look of complete and utter shock that met my every use of Japanese; the continual reappearance of certain faces that watched us intently as we walked around the town, waiting, it seemed, for us to commit some dastardly crime. When we had first entered the town, hannah and I regretted that we would be returning to Kyoto that night; by the time we found a place that was open for lunch, we were thanking God that we weren't compelled to stay. In all of my time in Japan, I've never felt so consistently and blatantly watched. It occurred to me then that the town only celebrated President Obama for his fame and name, and not for a single thing for which he stands. It was a sigh of relief rather than one of sadness that we gave as our train pulled away from the station and took us safely back on the long road toward Kyoto.

There was one thing to save the end of our visit, however - as we made our way to the train station again after lunch, a news team ran up to us and asked if they could interview us for the news on NHK, a rather large station here (on the level of Fox, TBS, or NBC). They asked us our thoughts on the city (we lied through our teeth) and our thoughts on our to-be president. I did the interview in Japanese, to my great pride. I'm not sure that the interview ever made it into the news, and I know that it didn't appear nationally even if it did, but it does at the very least provide us with a wonderful story. Of all the things I anticipated experiencing in Japan, I never expected being interviewed by a Japanese news station to be one of them!

In the end, Obama is a small, insular town and their reaction to foreigners is sad, but not unexpected. Still, it was frustrating to see that a place was so willing to celebrate the election of our president but was unwilling to understand what the election meant. While President Obama stands for change in a number of ways for Americans, he was merely a face and a name to use for the residents of Obama, and a way to bring tourists to their small town that, in the end, they didn't really want. I can't find it in myself to give the town much credit. Still, America has elected and sworn in a black president - even the most unexpected of changes can happen. Let's hope Obama, Japan will catch the bug.