Tofugu» Editorial http://www.tofugu.com A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 22 Aug 2014 22:38:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Gaming To Learn Japanese http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/19/gaming-to-learn-japanese/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/19/gaming-to-learn-japanese/#comments Tue, 19 Aug 2014 16:00:47 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41746 Teaching yourself Japanese isn’t easy, and let’s face it, it takes a large amount of time, effort, and dedication to make noticeable progress. After coming home from a long day of school or work, sometimes the last thing you want to do is sit down at a desk with another textbook. Wouldn’t it be more relaxing to just play some video games?

There are games out there designed to teach you Japanese. Most of those games only offer the basics of grammar and vocabulary, but they certainly aren’t the only games out there that can supplement your studying. Some of your favorite video games may hold within them the ability to become a teaching tool and can become a legitimately fun way to study.

Back in 2011 we made a list of the Top 5 Nintendo DS Games for Learning Japanese. A lot has changed since then, and some great new games have come out that you can use to your advantage. Most of these games are available in the US!

Games Made to Teach You

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First, I’d like to mention My Japanese Coach, a Japanese learning game released for the Nintendo DS in 2008. If you’re not familiar with the My Coach series, they are a bunch of self-learning and self-help games that range from learning languages to losing weight. There is even one that’s supposed to help you quit smoking.

The game starts off with a placement test, but don’t be fooled, this is definitely a game for beginners. It will teach you the basics: hiragana, kana, starting grammar, etc, but it only has about 100 lessons total and hasn’t really been updated since it’s release.

One of the major problems with this game is that some of the kanji require you to use the wrong stroke order to pass them. When the lead programmer’s response to this was, “With thousands of characters in the dictionary, there were bound to be some incorrect strokes that would get overlooked,” instead of suggesting a patch correcting the problem, they’ve chosen to ignore it. So, I can’t recommend it for advanced, or even intermediate members. And while stroke order mistakes may seem like a trivial matter, using correct stroke order is extremely important if you’re serious about learning Japanese. (You’ll have a horrible time using a traditional or electronic dictionary if you get them wrong.)

Otherwise, if you’re willing to double check the information you’re getting, this can be a decent way to start out. If you like word searches, matching, and multiple choice games, this may be a fun way to get you into Japanese, but can you really call this a game?

My Japanese Coach may call itself a game, but what I listed above can’t really be considered gameplay. Instead of more examples like this, the following are real games that you can play to learn but ALSO enjoy for the games that they are.

Listen While You Play

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Change the language settings! You may not know this but a lot of the games you’re already playing may have Japanese language options. Depending on the game, players can change the spoken language into Japanese with English subtitles, or even better, Japanese with Japanese subtitles. This is possible for quite a few modern JRPGs (for the non-game savvy: Japanese Role Playing Games).

One of the best examples of this is Ni No Kuni, which came out in the US in 2013 for the Playstation 3, and was developed by Studio Ghibli. You may know them from such classics as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and any of the other awesome movies they’ve been churning out since the 1980s.

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This whimsical and highly entertaining game offers English and Japanese voice tracks as well as English subtitles. (The only downside being the English subtitles are for the English version – but you can take advantage of that.) So while you’re enjoying this epic and colorful adventure with Oliver, Drippy the Lord of the Fairies, and all of their friends, you can also be brushing up on your Japanese skills. One of the best things about using this game in particular for study is that it is absolutely bursting with puns. Character, town, and creature names, not to mention good old jokes, are all chock-full of these eye-roll worthy play on words. They can really help you learn what’s malleable in the Japanese language. Not to mention there are fairy-tale references all over the place.

This may sound daunting, but don’t worry, these aren’t cryptic Japanese idioms like 猿も木から落ちる / Even monkeys fall from trees. No, it’s actually much easier than that. In the first area of the new world that Oliver is thrust into, the town is called Ding Dong Dell (ゴロネール王国) and the king is a giant cat names King Tom Tildrum XIV (ニャンダール), otherwise known as His Meowjesty, who speaks to himself in the third person.

Just reading the English names should give you an idea, but when you listen to the Japanese voice track you can hear what the Japanese equivalent to these puns are. It makes you think, helps you put things together, and really makes you laugh. Instead of just reading literal translations, you are able to see the connections the localization team was able to make. The game is seriously dialogue heavy too, meaning there is plenty of material available to you. This kind of studying is pretty hard to find in a book or in a classroom, but it can really open up your mind, so take the plunge!

Just don’t blame me when the game breaks your heart.

Similar Games: Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster (2014), Xenoblade Chronicles (2012). The Japanese Version of Persona 4 (2008) is also a great game for learning more natural Japanese but requires a Japanese game and a Japanese console.

Reading With The Nintendo 3DS

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Games that are not all about listening, but more about reading and doing things, can have the written language changed to Japanese as well. After all, we all have our favorite silent protagonists. One of these games that is still fairly new is Animal Crossing: New Leaf / とびだせ どうぶつの森, which came out in Japan in 2012 and America in 2013.

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This is a cute, and honestly, terribly addictive game that, if you buy the Japanese version for the Japanese Nintendo 3DS, can be a really great study tool. This is a laid back type of game in which you are suddenly tasked into being the mayor of a town. You interact with the animals that inhabit it, catch fish, bugs, and sea creatures, and do your best to improve the town until it’s the best it can be! (Which is really whatever you want it to be.) For those familiar with previous versions of the game, this latest installment has everything you love and more!

The great thing about using this game to learn Japanese is that it isn’t difficult. You play when you want, learn at your own pace, and take away from it what you put in. All of the bugs and fish you can catch are real creatures, this means you’ll be learning the actual Japanese names for them. You can also bring them to the museum where you can read a short description of each creature you catch.

The real benefit to playing this game in Japanese is the conversations you have with the animals in your town. Different animals have different personality types ranging from cranky, to snooty, to lazy, to uchi. That’s right, uchi, which is commonly translated as “big sister-type” in English, because that’s how they treat you, like they’re you’re older sister.

Like Ni No Kuni, ACNL has puns. These can be a bit more difficult because you don’t have any English subtitles, but they are still fairly simple.

For example, when you catch a nibble fish, you read this:

ドクターフィッシュを釣り上げた!
川のエステティシャン!

In Japanese a nibble fish is known as a “doctor fish” so this reads:

I caught a doctor fish!
A river esthetician!

This isn’t the same joke that’s made in English because, well, it just wouldn’t make any sense. In fact most of the jokes are different based on which language you’re playing in. So even if you’re familiar with the English version of the game, you’ll be able to have a fairly new experience in Japanese, and you’ll have to figure out the puns for yourself.

Similar games: Pokemon X & Y (2013), Bravely Default (2014). *These two games have Japanese language options in the NA versions, so you won’t need to worry about a Japanese game or 3DS for them.

PC Games Exist Too

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Photo by Webhamster

If you don’t have any new consoles, or you simply don’t feel like spending money, you can always hop on your computer and play Slime Forest Adventure. There are three different versions of this JRPG style game available and the demo version is absolutely free.

First, let me warn you, the art is pretty abysmal and there is no sound. However, this game does lend itself to the simple RPG style of fight monsters > save princess. You won’t be playing a variation on flash cards and calling it a game.

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In the game you fight through different areas, defeating slime monsters by typing in the readings of the hiragana, katakana, or kanji on the slimes. It’s simple, useful, and did I mention free? Of course you can choose to pay for an upgrade to the Gradeschool Kanji version or the Common Use Kanji version. Both of these offer sidequests and more vocabulary and kanji.

For those of you who aren’t fooled by the games that use matching and word searches (those aren’t real games!), this could be something to try.

Dating Sims for Your iPhone

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No modern game list would be complete without mentioning at least one phone app. Moe Academy is a dating sim-type gaming app available for free in the itunes app store. Though, a quick word of warning, this is very much a dating sim, so if you aren’t already a fan of those, you probably won’t like this game. It’s pretty directly targeting straight male players, and doesn’t really offer much for anyone else, unless you’re playing it ironically.

However, the game does give you lessons for vocabulary words and time based mini games that differ based on which girl you’re playing them with. While the lessons aren’t much more than a list of words with the Japanese and English equivalents, the games are pretty entertaining. Picking the right meaning for a word will let you shoot ghosts with arrows or enjoy festivals with girls, and if you get a high score you could get a love confession from the girl you played with. The higher lessons do cost money to unlock, so if you really like this style of game, there are currently twenty different courses with levels ranging from beginner to what they call advanced plus.

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The game also offers both Japanese and English text for all of the conversations you have with the characters, including your own thoughts. Sometimes the sentences in both languages can be a bit strange, the translations into English aren’t always the greatest, but they are there for people who want to use them as a study guide as well. The conversations are also skippable, so if they’re too corny for your liking, you can go straight to the lessons/reviews instead.

If you are going into this game without any prior Japanese knowledge you may be out of luck. It teaches you hiragana and katakana but uses kanji and no furigana (kana readings above the kanji) in all of the conversations, and the lessons/reviews seem to be more of a refresher than a real teaching tool, but that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have merit. The art and the music in the game is actually really well done, and it does feel like a real dating sim. But again, this game isn’t for everyone.

Learn Japanese with Koe (声)

Okay, so this game isn’t out yet, but bare with me on this one. Koe (声) is a game that was just recently backed on Kickstarter in March of this year. It is set up as a JRPG and is all about learning Japanese. They’re calling it communicative language learning and it looks really interesting. This means you’ll be hearing and reading Japanese, something that Slime Forest Adventure certainly doesn’t do.

One important aspect of this game is that they say they’re putting a focus on actual gameplay. That means it will be more than flashcards and multiple choice, unlike My Japanese Coach. Koe promises to contain all the traditional JRPG elements we know and love, like a story, random encounters, weapons, and a turn-based battle system. That’s more than any Japanese language focused game has been able to brag about before.

Koe looks promising and they’re aiming for a summer 2015 release. While the game does seem to be focused on completely new Japanese learners, there really isn’t any news about the learning level they go up to by the end game. There is talk of an editor, allowing the player to add new vocabulary to their in-game kit, but unfortunately, it’s too new to tell at this point. Hopefully this will be a great addition to the few Japanese learning games currently offered in the US.

To learn more about Koe, check out their Kickstarter page.

“Let’s Play” In Japanese

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For those of you who prefer to watch games being played for you, there is something out there for you too! While online streaming of games has been growing in popularity over the last few years, especially on sites like twitch.tv and youtube, more and more Let’s Plays have been coming out of Japan.

For those who don’t know, a Let’s Play or 実況プレイ in Japanese, is a video in which someone plays through a game with commentary. It’s not the same as a walkthrough, because the point of watching isn’t to help you get through the same game yourself, but to enjoy it and the personality of the person making and hosting the video. There are quite a few Japanese Let’s Players and watching them can give you both the joy of playing numerous video games and help you study and learn Japanese.

Watching Let’s Plays can be beneficial in a lot of ways. First, you can hear Japanese that isn’t scripted. This isn’t textbook Japanese, it’s how real people talk, and that’s an important thing to learn how to understand and do if you want to be able to use more than just polite and bland Japanese. If you don’t have a way to get to Japan to experience this type of banter for yourself, Let’s Plays are probably the closest thing you can get to a real, colorful conversation with friends. This is also a great alternative for people who aren’t fans of Japanese talk shows.

The next awesome thing is that you can pause, rewind, and relisten to the things you hear. Some Let’s Players even edit their videos to add in subtitles like you’d see in talk shows, which can help you be sure of what you just heard. While watching these videos you can pause when you hear something you don’t know, use an online dictionary to look it up, and then easily return to the video and completely get what’s going on.

There are literally hundreds of games to choose from! If you only like first person shooters, there is a Let’s Player for you. If you love hardcore action role playing games, there is a Let’s Player for you. What about games with friends like Mario Kart and Minecraft? Yup, they exit. There are so many different types of people, games, and experiences out there to help you with your Japanese.

Here are some great Let’s Players on youtube. Feel free to check them out!

Language Options Are Getting Better

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Over the last few years there have been some pretty great improvements to learning Japanese from games. With international editions of games coming out, like Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster, players outside of Japan are finally able to change their language settings to be in Japanese. Even some games not coined “international” like the new Pokemon games are having simultaneous release dates, and suddenly languages are an option, not a preset or region-locked to your console.

Hopefully with games like Koe coming out in the next year or so, more advanced games will follow their lead. If Koe does well, we might even see a sequel aimed at advanced language learners. Our future could see more interaction, more options, and better resources. Maybe in the near future we will see an MMORPG where you focus on speaking Japanese with other people to finish quests. Instead of killing spiders in caves, you have to talk your way through. You never know where the future of games will take us!

(If there are any game developers reading this, make me that MMO!)

Tips and Suggestions

  • Keep a notebook handy while you game. If you hear a new word or expression you don’t understand, pause, jot it down, and look it up when you’re done. Then you can add those words to the list of things you’re already studying.
  • Don’t just rely on subtitles. Paying attention to English subtitles while listening to a Japanese voice track can be really helpful, but try to wean yourself off of them. Subtitles should be a reference and if you catch yourself reading and thinking in English while you play a game, then it doesn’t really matter that the voice track is in Japanese.
  • Try to recognize the speech patterns and dialects different characters use while they speak to one another. You can do this whether you’re listening or reading in a game. Being able to recognize emotions and personality types from the way someone speaks is a great skill to have.
  • Repeat what the characters are saying aloud, or if you’re playing a game without sound, try to speak as you read. A major problem of self-taught language learners is in practicing verbal communication skills, and even students in a classroom may not be getting the enough time to practice speaking. Copy the inflection and tone of the characters you’re playing. Don’t worry about who can hear. They’ll be impressed by your mad Japanese skills!
  • Don’t make playing games too much of a chore! Remember, this is supposed to be a fun way to learn. An exercise for your brain. If you go at it too hard, you can tire yourself out quickly. Pace yourself. If you’re the kind of person who likes to marathon games, you may get overloaded and end up forgetting quite a bit of what you learn. Learning a language is going to take time, the more you cram, the more likely it is you’ll forget.

Above all, remember to have fun! And be sure to let us know if there are any other games you’ve used to study recently.

Bonus Wallpapers!


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Let’s All Get NAKED! Onsen and Body Image http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/14/lets-all-get-naked-onsen-and-body-image/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/14/lets-all-get-naked-onsen-and-body-image/#comments Thu, 14 Aug 2014 16:00:58 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41972 There’s nothing better than slipping into a hot bath. You feel your muscles relax. The cares of the day float away on a cloud of steam. A butt-naked Oba-chan (old woman) is staring at you… wait! What?!

Does that seem like one of those dreams that turns into a nightmare where you’ve forgotten your clothes? Well, you could see onsen, Japanese communal baths, that way, but you’d be missing out. Not only missing out on a relaxing experience, but also missing out on something that could profoundly change how you view yourself.

Before we plunge into the onsen, let me come clean about this article. What I’ve written here is based entirely on my own personal experience in onsen and of my own body. I’m not claiming any authority beyond that of personal experience. I recognize that who and what I am has influenced this. I’m a woman. From talking to guys, it seems that women can sometimes have more positive experiences in onsen than foreign men, who sometimes come under close scrutiny in one particular area.

This Towel Isn’t Big Enough For The One Of Me!

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The first time I went to an onsen I was terrified. A Japanese friend had suggested we go to an onsen hotel in the next town over. I agreed, but all the way there I was tense with fear. Would I disgust the other people in the baths with my terrible foreignness and cultural faux pas? I was also carrying all the baggage of my own culture’s attitude to nakedness. Like a lot of people, I had a lot of hang ups about getting naked in front of other people. These were twofold. First was a sort of general feeling that nakedness was wrong. This came from my primary school days, a time when all the girls herded into a changing room before swimming lessons and I perfected the “knicker-twist”. (This is a method of putting on a swimsuit over one’s underwear and then removing said underwear in one complicated twisty movement.) The aim was always to avoid having anyone, even our peers, see us naked for even a moment.

The second hang up was a sense that my own body was unacceptable. I was intimately familiar with my own body’s flaws; the orange peel cellulite, the width of my hips, the wobble of my upper arms, the way my hair either made me look like a member of a 90s boy band or a wet cat. That first time in the onsen, when I was handed a narrow towel, I thought, “There’s no way I can cover all my flaws up with this little thing.”

My friend was so excited though. She’d been looking forward to this trip for weeks. I didn’t want to let her down by refusing to go to the onsen. I gritted my teeth and undressed, putting my clothes in the basket provided. I tried to cover up as much of my front as I could. Through the door I found a steam filled room with set of individual showers. I followed my friend’s lead and settled myself on the short stool in front of one of the showers. With great reluctance I put my towel on the small shelf in front of me and began to wash myself. I kept my head down, not wanting to see anyone else’s nakedness or their reactions to mine.

Washed, I grabbed my towel again. I tried to shield myself with it as we headed to the onsen pools. Again, I had to let go of my precious modesty covering as I slipped into the water. I was so conscious of myself. I tried to angle my body so that nothing showed. My friend didn’t seem to notice. She floated with a peaceful expression. I tried to relax too, but it was difficult. Even the gloriously warm water and the beautiful view of stars overhead couldn’t free me from my own self consciousness.

Now contrast that description of visiting an onsen with this one, three years later. A couple of weeks ago I visited an onsen with a two of my friends. I stripped off and put my clothes into the basket, chatting as I did so. At the showers I grabbed soap and shampoo from my own little onsen basket, lathered myself up and rinsed myself clean. We headed for the pools. I had already used my towel to tie up my hair, making no effort to hide myself. In the rotemburo (outside bath) we chatted and laughed. It was a hot bath and at one point I sat on the edge, with just my legs in the water. I felt the cool night air on my skin. I felt happy.

What took me from a nervous, self-conscious girl to a relaxed, happy woman?
Oba-chan butts. Seeing so many Oba-chan butts.

OK, it’s a little more complicated than that. But after that first nerve wracking onsen experience I didn’t stop going to onsen. At first, there were times when visiting onsen was unavoidable, when it was the only bathing option at English camp, or to wash off sweat after snowboarding. But soon I actually started seeking out onsen. Each time I visited, I became more comfortable with my own and others’ nudity. Once I let my preconceptions about nakedness go, I realized what a rare and wonderful space the onsen is.

The Naked Truth

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We are constantly exposed to women’s bodies. But almost all of these bodies are ones that have been chosen by some arbiters of what is hot and what is not and then often retouched, creating impossible standards of beauty. At the opposite end of the spectrum, candid pictures of celebrities in magazines have every flaw ringed and pointed out. It’s not surprising that this affects women’s views of themselves.

Onsen were the first places where I saw actual women’s bodies without photoshopping or judgment. These were bodies that weren’t being displayed to sell me something or to titillate. They were just being people, relaxing and chatting as usual, except they were naked. All of the bodies had “flaws,” but only compared to the impossible perfection that exists in the media. There were broad women, skinny women, women whose bodies had cesarean scars, women who didn’t shave, women who did shave, women with large breasts, women with small breasts, women whose breasts showed the signs of nursing children, all kinds of women. But what they looked like didn’t matter. They weren’t there to be looked at or to look. They were there to enjoy the onsen. Once I realized that, I found that I could enjoy the onsen too.

I carried this positive thought out of the onsen and into my daily life. I began to think of my body in terms of “doing” things, not how it appeared. My body is my tool for doing what I want to do, from climbing a mountain to writing this article. My fingers are moving across the keyboard because I have a body that lets me type. I feel more connected and thankful for the body I have.

Only Oba-chans Know The Secret

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I was talking about this with a friend of mine the other day. Actually we were at the onsen. (After three years it doesn’t seem strange to have a chat while relaxing naked in a bath in the open air.) She is gorgeous in a totally unjapanese way, with many of the features that Japanese people associate with foreigners, blonde hair, blue eyes and curves. She was the one who made me realize about the “grass is always greener” aspect of onsen for both Japanese and Non-Japanese women. Japanese women told her how she was their ideal; while for many non-Japanese women Japanese women’s slenderness and elegance can seem like an ideal. We all want what we can’t have. Living in Japan as a non-Japanese woman sometimes made me feel like Godzilla lumbering through my city. This always hit me worst when I went shopping for clothes. Skirts that would be reasonable on a Japanese girl are scandalous on me. Someone once asked me if I’d ever bought a bra in Japan and I just laughed. But we have to recognize that the flipside exists too. Just the other day a female student said to me, “Sensei, give me your oppai (breasts).” If you take the lesson of the onsen in the wrong way, envying the way others look, it could make this “grass is always greener” thinking worse.

Because for all that I’ve found onsen liberating, they don’t seem to have solved the problems of body image in Japan for Japanese women. 29% of Japanese women in their 20s are underweight. This statistic is being blamed on Japanese media, with celebrities and models having increasingly slender frames. Women diet and skip meals to try to attain similar weights.

Perhaps this has something to do with the demographics that enjoy onsen. In my experience it’s rare to see young women in the onsen. The main groups who seem to visit are ladies of retirement age and mothers with young children. Young women most at risk of body image problems likely don’t have the time to spend at onsen as they are working the hours expected of Japanese workers. The young people who would, according to society’s expectations, have the least reason to worry about their bodies are too busy to enjoy the onsen, while the oba-chans have plenty of time to learn the secret that there’s nothing to worry about, no matter how wrinkly you get.

Let’s All Get Naked!

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Photo by Ben Beikse

I have a friend who lived in Japan for over a year, but never went to the onsen. Sometimes she would come with us, but she’d just sit in the changing room, fully clothed, while the rest of us enjoyed the hot water. She didn’t feel comfortable enough in herself to enter the onsen. It seemed like a tragic irony that going in the onsen would probably have helped her overcome the anxieties that kept her from going in the onsen in the first place. Don’t let yourself be kept from something so good for you!

There are so many wonderful onsen in Japan, from Dogo Onsen that the baths in Spirited Away are based on, to free onsen deep in the mountains, to the kitschy fun of Oodeo Onsen in Odaiba, Tokyo. I’d really recommend trying an onsen if you are visiting Japan. If you are lucky enough to be here for a long time, you can visit lots! Don’t let embarrassment hold you back from something wonderful that’s not only good for your skin, but good for your mind too!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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10 of Hello Kitty’s Most DISTANT Relatives http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/12/10-of-hello-kittys-most-distant-relatives/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/12/10-of-hello-kittys-most-distant-relatives/#comments Tue, 12 Aug 2014 16:00:40 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41918 There was a time when I hated Hello Kitty. But once I understood her complexity and accepted her into my life, a whole world opened up. Sanrio, not unlike Marvel or DC, is an entire universe of characters, and exploring a universe is half the fun of discovering nerdy things like this. When you first get into comics, you learn about your Spider-men, Wonder Women, and Wolverinis. After awhile though, you dig deep enough to find hilariously bizarre or mind-blowingly boring superheroes like “Matter Eater Lad” and “Captain Planet”.

The same is true with the Sanrio universe. Sanrio may push the puppies, kitties, and lambies to the forefront, but underneath there’s a lot of fun to be had with the outliers. Who created them? Why? I wouldn’t say any of them are necessarily “bad”, but some can be incredibly unimaginative while others are so imaginative as to be downright bizarre. It’s these characters that I’ll be extricating for this list: Hello Kitty’s distant relatives. When these dogs, elephants, and hamburgers roll up to the Sanrio family reunion, the other characters avoid eye contact.

These oddballs defy Sanrio’s image of polished cuteness and stand out as wonderfully strange or uncharacteristically dull. Fill up your plate with mash potatoes, because I’m sending you to sit and talk politely with the side of the family Hello Kitty tries to forget.

10. Peter Davis

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It’s a white dog named Peter Davis. This character at least gets points for being one of my favorite things: a dog with a bland first and last name. But the goodness stop there. Peter Davis was born in England and, what ho! Pip pip, old chap! According to his bio on sanrio.co.jp, he’s very proper, noble, fashionable, and clean. Well, well Peter Davis. You’re boring and stereotypical!

9. Dokidoki Yummychums

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Dokidoki Yummychums is almost Sanrio’s answer to Aqua Teen Hunger Force as they a group consisting of meat, fries and shakes. Though that’s not what makes them bizarre. It’s the idea of cute food. Linda touched on this a few months back, but what strikes me as odd about this concept is the way cuteness is tied to protection. Things that we find cute or adorable are often the things we naturally want to protect (small animals, babies, email passwords). Mixing that protection concept with food is incongruent. And hilarious.

It’s a small, but extant, mind-bender. “Me am want eat food. But me am want also protect food. Me not know what me want!”

This food-cuteness hits me in a different way as well. I love hamburgers. Definitely in my top three of favorite foods. But I never realized I wanted to hug a hamburger, until I saw Dokidoki Yummychums. And why not? Hamburgers have brought me so much joy! I can finally release my subconscious urge to hug an enbunned meat patty now that it has eyes and a face and looks like it wants a hug! And with that invitation, of course I would reciprocate. Thank you hamburger. Thank you for everything.

8. Zoujitensha

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Zoujitensha, or Elephant Bicycle, is an elephant riding a bicycle. According to his bio, he is an “urbanite with good taste”. At least his design matches his personality. Both are flat and unappealing.

7. Hangyodon

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Hangyodon (literally, “Mr. Half-fish”) is another example that showcases Sanrio’s ability to make anything cute. He is a monster, something traditionally created to scare and repulse us. So is he that weird? Not in and of himself. What’s weird is how popular he is.

Hangyodon has a large number of goods attributed to him. He’s high up on the second tier of the Sanrio roster, like the Aquaman of the Sanrio Justice League (pun intended?). But with such a long list of cute animal characters behind him, you would think he would get bumped farther down the popularity rankings.

Hangyodon is a smart character design because it plays on our pity for monsters. Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Shrek are all stories which exemplify this. These stories resonate because we all feel unattractive or clumsy or even monstrous at one time or another and we all hope someone will love us despite our unattractive qualities. We all want to be understood.

His official Sanrio bio says he is “a lonely romantic who wants to be a hero someday” but we don’t need words to tell us that. That’s the power of Hangyodon.

6. Country Fresh Veggies

countryfreshveggies

Country Fresh Veggies. Their name describes them, giving me literally nothing to write about. It’s a basket of damn vegetables. They have eyes and appendages, so they are slightly less boring than others on this list, but not by much. Even their bio on sanrio.co.jp merely says, “Today, the fields are full of just-harvested, fresh vegetables.” Nuff said, I guess.

5. Gudetamago

gudetama1

Gudetama is a lazy egg. His name comes from the words gudegude (lethargic) and tamago (egg). While most Sanrio characters have several hobbies and goals, Gudetama has none. He knows he’s going to be cooked and eaten and wants to get it over with.

As far as sub-characters go, Gudetama is given more attention than most. There are pictures, goods, and YouTube videos showing him sleeping…

sanrio-gudetama

Stretching…

gudetama-stretch

Whining…

gudetama-whine

And generally lazing about.

gudetama-lazy

This goes beyond relaxation. Gudetama is dead to the world. Is there any social commentary to be found in this? Does Gudetama reflect the attitude of Japanese young people reluctant to enter Japan’s notoriously stressful workforce? Probably not any more than Garfield reflected America’s love for lasagna in 1987. Either way, the egg laziness idea is a truly genius design choice.

Rilakkuma is a very popular lazy bear character, from Sanrio competitor San-X. But do you know what else can be lazy? A cat, a mouse, a badger, a panda, a shoe, anything! It’s easy to think of a noun and assign it the adjective “lazy” (Note to self: copyright “Cecil the Lazy Shoe”). But an egg yolk actually looks lazy! Someone at Sanrio looked deep into their breakfast and imbibed it with a personality that fit its shape. And that’s creativity- looking at something from an angle that everyone else is missing.

4. Geetown Special

geetownspecial

Geetown Special is a group of three alligators. Let’s go to the sanrio.co.jp bio for more insight:

“A group of three alligators.”

Was there any thought put into these three? They have no story, they’re nearly identical, and not even in color. I understand that some Sanrio characters are merely designs for cards and tote bags, but those that are should be categorized as such. Leave the charactering to anthropomorphic things with some appealing connection to offer the recipient. Later, gator.

3. Shiri Rappers

shirirapper

Hula-hooping, rapping butt vegetables.

I just wanted to make it clear from the outset what we’re dealing with. Shiri Rappers comes from the Japanese oshiri (butt) and the English “rappers” (rappers). According to sanrio.co.jp, the Shiri Rappers are human-friendly butt fairies who, upon hearing a human’s cry, will rush to their aid and begin hula hooping/rapping with all their might, thus dispelling the human’s sadness.

As delightfully bizarre as this sounds on its own, I’m afraid it refers to a smartphone game.

In the game, the Shiri Rappers pop out of the ground, doing their gyration dance until you tap them. And you get points. I don’t see this as helpful to mankind, unless they are serving the particular pocket of mankind that needs to poke butt vegetables in order to live.

So, my initial joy at discovering the absurdity of the Shiri Rappers was diminished slightly upon finding that their story was created to explain their actions in a smartphone game. But dammit, the Shiri Rappers are hula-hooping butt vegetables and no one can take that away from me. Thanks Sanrio!

2. Boy and Girl

boyandgirl

Welcome to the bottom of the boringness barrel. Boy and Girl. I used to think Patty and Jimmy were unimaginative, but Boy and Girl make Patty and Jimmy look like Ren and Stimpy. These two are like Hello Kitty clones turned human and sapped of all charm and style. The salt in the unimaginative wound is their name: Boy and Girl.

Let’s say you work for a creative company and your job is to creatively use your creativity to create creative characters. If your boss asks you, “What should we name this boy and girl?” and you answer, “Boy and Girl!”, you should be fired.

1. Heysuke

heesuke

Heysuke. Yes, it is an angry, naked baby, but what makes it stranger than the Shiri Rappers? Heysuke’s story on sanrio.co.jp:

“Who? What the heck? It’s a kind of a suspicious, mysterious baby. For some reason, it’s laughing in the nude. Where it came from is a mystery. Is it a boy? A girl? Heysuke doesn’t even know for sure. The place where it lives is right next to you. One thing is for sure, he loves to be naked. It’s birthday is January 1st.”

Heysuke is a suspicious, ever-laughing, genderless naked baby who lives right next to you! The reason Heysuke gets the number one slot is its ambiguity. Most Sanrio characters’ designs have a specific vibe and their story bios expound upon that vibe, adding detail. But not Heysuke.

It’s cute as a baby, but its angry face makes you wonder what the hell is wrong. Then Heysuke’s story bio confuses us more by explaining that it’s laughing, suspicious, and lives right next to you. Suddenly this baby feels threatening, which is a tough concept to digest because it’s a baby. Everything about Heysuke is perplexing and strange.

Oh, and Mami pointed out that it’s wearing muscle-relaxing patches on its shoulders. WTF, Heysuke?

Heysuke was introduced on January 1, 2000, so maybe it was meant to be some kind of Baby New Year. But it never caught on anywhere ever. All the other characters on this list, weird as they are, have enjoyed some kind of success, appearing on various goods and being drawn in various poses.

Heysuke was only drawn once and, as far as I can tell, no goods bear its likeness. And so it remains: laughing, naked, and staring at you.

Explore the Chara-verse!

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Okay, you’re done. You did your time at the table with the weirdos. Now you can go back to your Hello Kitty and your rap music. But hopefully you’ve learned a valuable lesson. There’s a whole world of Japanese characters to explore, within Sanrio and beyond. You may find more wacky treats when you search through them for yourself. Japanese mascot characters are a universe not often explored even by die-hard Hello Kitty fans. But if you dig design, animals, colors, or fun things in general, I encourage you to delve into this multiverse. You may just find yourself voluntarily sitting at the table of outcasts at the next Sanrio family reunion!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Five Ways To Experience Japan Without Leaving Home http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/07/five-ways-to-experience-japan-without-leaving-home/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/08/07/five-ways-to-experience-japan-without-leaving-home/#comments Thu, 07 Aug 2014 16:00:49 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41838 I’m sure for a lot of us, visiting or living in Japan is high on our list of things to do. But when you can’t make the trip overseas, there are lots of ways to experience Japan without getting on a plane. In fact, some of these you can try without even leaving home! Of course, I’ve left some basic suggestions off – like learning Japanese, reading blogs about Japan, and eating Japanese food – because you have probably already thought of those. But here are some things that might be new to you!

Community Service

japan-america-society

Japanese communities and Japanese-American friendship groups are both great ways to experience Japan at home. There may not be much of one if you’re away from a major city, but it never hurts to check or ask around. Start on the internet – search for (nearby large city) Japanese Society. Or (nearby large city) Japan America Society. For example, I live in Seattle. When I Google “Seattle Japan Society”, the Japan America Society for the State of Washington immediately comes up. If you’re in college, there may be a Japanese Students Association or an Asian Students Association. If you don’t have any luck searching online, don’t be afraid to ask around at a local Japanese restaurant or Asian grocery store before broadening your search. The Japanese consulate closest to you might also have an idea of what sort of communities or societies are active in your area.

The benefits of seeking out the local Japanese community are numerous, as Japan America societies tend to do a variety of activities. I’ve been involved with these sorts of groups in several different states. Through them, I have chaperoned Japanese exchange students, worked at Japanese New Year celebrations, gone to Japanese festivals, and attended a bunraku play – just to name a few. If you can’t find a Japan America society near you or want even more involvement, try to find the nearest Asian art museum, as it will likely have regular events of interest. Over time, investing in these groups more and more will help you foster connections in the local Japanese community, providing even more opportunities.

Communication is Key

letters

Photo by liz west

Out of all my suggestions, this one may take the most effort, but it can yield some great results over time. There are a lot of Japanese people online who want to make friends overseas and practice their English. Several sites offer penpal ads, so do some searches and find which one you like best. I’ve had the most luck with Japan Guide and the Penpals Subreddit. Ideally, if you can write and read Japanese, include some Japanese in your letters. Try to keep your English simple, practice internet safety/common sense, and talk about your hometown and what makes your life awesome. After all, these are probably the sorts of things you would want to know about the Japanese people you talk to. For several years, I maintained a penpal in Japan – we eventually even sent each other packages.

If you get to know your penpal and want to exchange snail mail or packages, but you’re not entirely comfortable sharing your home address, consider investing in a PO box. Be prepared to download Skype, Line, or whatever other messaging system is most popular at the time (right now, I see a lot of penpals looking for friends who use Line). Most ads you see will be very general, and it may take some effort to understand what the person is trying to say. Practice patience. I recommend writing an intro paragraph about yourself – say where you’re from (to whatever degree of specificity you are comfortable giving out on the internet), include your age, indicate your gender, describe a few of your interests, what you do for a living, what your favorite food is, and your Japanese language proficiency. If you can translate it into Japanese or get a friend to do so, include both the Japanese and the English. Keep the paragraph in a file and copy/paste it to new potential penpals, rather than reinventing the wheel each time you want to respond to an ad. When you get replies, respond to them in a timely fashion, take notes about each penpal so you don’t repeat conversations, and have fun!

Abandoned Places

haikyo

Photo by Kenta Mabuchi

Haikyo (廃墟) is the Japanese word for “ruin” or “abandoned place”; it’s used to refer to the exploration of abandoned sites and sometimes urban exploration in general. As stated before, blogs about Japan are great, and if you need suggestions for those, sources like Tofugu can provide you with lots of J-blogs to read. Here, we’re looking for a specific type of blog or site – those about haikyo. Gakuranman is a great place to start. If you can read some Japanese or don’t mind picking your way through Japanese sites, try searching for 廃墟 on google.jp.

I recommend haikyo sites for several reasons. First of all, haikyo enthusiasts visit a variety of locations – love hotels, amusement parks, houses, museums, hospitals, schools, factories – you get the idea. Second, haikyo frequently involves a dip into the history behind a site; I find that it gives a taste of Japan in a unique, engaging way. I once spent hours picking my way through Japanese company crests to try to solve the mystery behind this haikyo. Although I was unsuccessful, I learned about company crests and insignia and had a lot of fun. That haikyo sums up what I love best about good haikyo, which are beautiful, creepy, and fascinating – sometimes all at once.

Hobby Time

ikebana

Photo by halfrain

Take up a traditional Japanese hobby. Some of these hobbies are probably already well known to you (at least in theory), like karate, haiku, and origami. Your local YMCA or gym may offer karate classes, and there are numerous resources, both printed and online, if you’re interested in origami or haiku. There are also less well known Japanese arts that may intrigue you more.

Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging; it’s quite different from Western flower arranging and may appeal to you even if you’ve never had any interest in becoming a florist. A search online for your hometown, home state, or home country plus “ikebana” may give you a good idea of where to start. Kendo is a sword-based martial art; it may especially appeal to you if you are interested in both martial arts and Japanese swords. One of my favorite Japanese arts to practice is shodo, or Japanese calligraphy. If you cannot find a shodo society near you, try contacting nearby Japanese language professors; some form of shodo is frequently included in Japanese classes, so a professor may know someone who can instruct you. Any of these pastimes may have a local group in your area, but if you can’t find someone who’s already interested, look into making a group of your own – every organization has to start somewhere!

Analog Sources

stockholm-library

Photo by Samantha Marx

A recent trip to my local public library yielded more books about Japan than I expected – add the fact that many libraries these days will allow you to request books from other branches online, and you will definitely find a multitude of books on Japan. My suggestion is to look online, then write down the call numbers and head to the library itself. Once you locate your book on the shelf, you’ll likely find more books that interest you. The call number system means that other books on the same subject are likely to be on the same shelf. In my library, I found not only a large selection of Japanese history books, but a second section on the other side of the library with books that had more of a travel-guide theme. I didn’t expect to find much there, but was happy to be proven wrong. Looking for foreign-language books is always worthwhile as well as there will likely be a Japanese language section. Some of these may be of interest to you, even if you can’t read Japanese yet. By browsing this section, I once found a beautiful Japanese-language travelogue about my hometown that had been written by a Japanese expat by browsing the foreign-language section. Whether you find books in English or Japanese, reading is a great way to learn about Japan, and the library not only collects books for you by subject, but is also free – win-win!

Do It All for the Experience

images-of-shibuya

Photo by moominsean

No matter which of these suggestions most appeals to you, I urge you to look most closely at the options that are furthest from your current experiences. The further out of your comfort zone you wander, the more likely you are to have totally new experiences and find something awesome and shiny to be passionate about. I took a class in college that had us practice ikebana, shodo, and haiku. Those experiences have stuck with me, long after I forgot many of the other things I learned for exams. There are many ways to experience Japan without boarding a plane, and I hope you give some of these a try!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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How To Shoot A Samurai Film http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/29/how-to-shoot-a-samurai-film/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/29/how-to-shoot-a-samurai-film/#comments Tue, 29 Jul 2014 16:00:22 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=40626 A couple of months ago I went to TOEI UZUMASA EIGAMURA, which is both a theme park and an active movie set. The studio has been around since about 1955. But, with the decline in popularity of traditional samurai films the studios had to make up for some of that lost yen. In 1975 they built the theme park portion: A traditional samurai village, with actors who play the parts of samurai, ninja, villagers, etc. You can go there and see how samurai films are made, take pictures with samurai, and participate in/see various attractions. I wrote about most of it here in a travel article about TOEI UZUMASA EIGAMURA.

Now, I don’t want to ruin the experience of going there for you. You should go yourself if you are able to (it’s a lot of fun!). But, I do want to give you some “pre-information” about this place so you can further enjoy the studio set. If you want to go there without knowing anything beforehand though, you can stop reading right now. But, if you want to live vicariously through my time travel experience, read on. Ready? Light. Camera. Action!

A Small Town From The Edo period… Or The Showa Period… Or Modern Times…

edo-01

The most common time period used in the main town is the Edo period. The street set of the Edo period is used for a vast log of films since the periodical setting is changeable. Recently a TV movie film called 宮本武蔵 (Musashi Miyamoto), starring Takuya Kimura from SMAP, was shot here. This is despite the fact that the story’s era was a little earlier than the Edo period, when roofing tiles didn’t exist yet. So, they put some woven mats and wood on top to hide them.

edo-02

Sometimes they need to shoot in a period that’s later than the Edo period. One example is a scene from one of NHK’s morning drama series: “Carnation”. This series takes place in the Showa period. They didn’t need to change the tiles for this, but they did need to change the sliding paper doors (shoji) to glass doors. They also needed to change some of the vertically written signs to horizontal ones. This set even comes with the capability to erect poles for power lines and once the cables are thrown up the set instantly looks more modern.

Since the time period of this set is changeable, a very modern film could be filmed here as well. I heard that Kamen Rider and the samurai drama “Abarenbō Shōgun” were shot on the street at the same time (separate parts of the street though). On one side was Kamen Rider on his motorcycle and on the other was a samurai on his spectacular horse.

Anyways, my point is: this set is very flexible! Perhaps that has to do with how even in modern Japanese society we keep a lot of the traditional things as well. To shoot in modern times, or to shoot in times before the Edo era… all it requires is a few small changes and it feels like a couple hundred years have gone past. If you go to a rural area of Japan, you’ll see exactly what I mean.

A Lot Of Contrivances

house-with-wheels

Since they have to make full use of the movie set, they have a lot of tricky modifications on each building and other things on the street. Do you see something odd about the image above? It’s slightly off the ground. In order to easily alter the set, some buildings have wheels on them, this one included. it requires just five or six adults to move.

additional-front

Or take this for example: You can attach a new front wall to a building to make it look like a different building. If you look carefully, you will find some buildings that have double walls on the front, like the image above. The picture of the woman’s face on the wall inside (called otafuku) can be changed out if need be too.

nagaya-2

This here is a part of the Nagaya set, which are row houses from the Edo period and are now what might be called “apartments.” Because the walls between the two residences were so thin, you could easily hear an argument between the couple next door. As you can probably expect, the well in front of the nagaya is empty, so an actor/actress has to rely on their acting skills to convincingly collect water. It is also moveable so they can expand the washing area depending on the film.

People living in nagaya usually shared one well and nagaya mothers tended to be in close proximity to the well since many of their responsibilities, such as cooking, laundry, and cleaning dishes, all required water. I know it is a stereotype, but many of them apparently liked chatting about rumors and often gossiped beside the well. This is how the phrase “井戸端会議” (Ido-bata-kaigi), which literally means “meeting beside a well” and figuratively means “housewives gossip circle” or “water-cooler chat”, came about.

edo-03

Many buildings are set up to only be used for outside shops and don’t have an interior. This one, however, has a nice inside including fresh (plastic) fish and vegetables. Looks tasty!

The Only Half Bridge

bridge

This bridge is called Nihon-bashi (Japan bridge), but if you put a different name-sign in front, it can be a different bridge too.

My photo may not really show it, but it’s actually very short and steep. (Maybe slightly over 10 degrees). It’s a little trick used back in the time when CG didn’t exist. If it was shot from a lower angle, it appears very big and long on the screen. The other side is not actually a bridge, either. It’s just steps for actors / actresses to wait their turn. Because of that, there is an absolute rule that they only shoot from this side and the actors / actresses only come from the other.

Oh, and there is no water flowing underneath. If they shoot someone jumping off the bridge, they take a shot of that person going into a river in a different place. Sometimes they go on a little trip to Saga Prefecture to take such a scene. I also heard about one time when they used a pond here in the park and combined it with a moat scene shot in a different place.

A Pond With A Dinosaur

pool

The pond I just mentioned above happens to have a dinosaur in the middle for some reason. The dinosaur has been there since the theme park started, although now it is the third generation dinosaur. Two dinosaurs were placed there at first – a mother dinosaur with her baby. Perhaps due to wear from the elements, they were later replaced with this guy. I asked the workers his name, but sadly nobody knew it.

In spite of having the dangerous dinosaur, this pond is apparently used for a lot of scenes. The depth is different between the left side and the right side to diversify the scenes. A drowned body floating is usually shot in the shallower side, whereas someone who is killed by a samurai and drops into the water is done in the deeper side. There is usually only one set of samurai actor / actress costumes and wigs made (especially for those who will be killed or drown), so only the people who are most experienced and reliable in terms of falling into the water get these scenes.

For the big stars, the water is completely cleaned and warmed up. Needless to say, the dinosaur is forced to go hunt some sheep or something when shooting needs to be done.

Red-district Yoshiwara Street

yoshiwara

Yoshiwara was a famous licensed brothel district in the Edo period. There are two gates granting access to this street. The front gate is called “Oomon” and the back gate is called “Uramon”.

yoshiwara-2

If you go in there, you’ll find the street to be very short. Yet when they shoot there, they change the signs and curtains of each house and combine them together when they edit, so that the street appears as if it is very long in a film.

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The size of some of the doorways can also be altered and is done to change the appearance of the houses.

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The upstairs of these buildings are only used for shooting, but you can go into the first floor of some places. However, make sure to take your shoes off if you see this sign, 土足厳禁 (dosoku-genkin).

Modern Architectures

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Just as a quick side note, they don’t only shoot traditional films but contemporary films as well! So, you’ll see some modern buildings that can be used as film sets.

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This big staircase inside the modern building pictured above is often used for scenes that often include some big-shot politician with confidential information getting surrounded by a bunch of press. You may see this staircase while watching a Japanese drama or film.

shizukani

There is actually a pretty good chance of encountering an actual shooting while visiting, too. While I was there, they were shooting 大岡越前 (Ōoka Echizen), though photos were not allowed. While shooting, there are a lot of people standing with a fan with writing on it that says “おしずかに(Oshizukani)” which means “Quiet, please.” However, JR trains operate nearby the studio and they can’t read what the fans say. So, the assistant director always has a train schedule in hand and it is his/her job to scream, “Hey, we’ve got only 5 minutes for next train! Hurry up!”

studio-13

As I mentioned above, the exteriors of the buildings in the theme park are primarily what is used for shooting. Indoor shots, on the other hand, are done inside actual studios, which are located right next to the studio park. Sadly, this area is off limits to us normal people.

As you can tell from this article, I was truly interested in the film set. I hope you enjoyed this article and it encourages you to visit as well. There are a lot more than movies in this park too, including TOEI actors and actresses dressed up in historic costume, and many other touches that add to the atmosphere of a historical town. Actually, I even was able to conduct an interview one of the samurai actors, and his interview will be coming out tomorrow! Now that you know what the set and park is like, I hope you look forward to hearing more from someone who is often on the inside. If anything, you can find out how many people he has killed.

See you tomorrow!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Introducing Introduction: Mastering Jikoshokai and the ALT Self-Intro Class http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/28/introducing-introduction-mastering-jikoshokai-and-the-alt-self-intro-class/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/28/introducing-introduction-mastering-jikoshokai-and-the-alt-self-intro-class/#comments Mon, 28 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41650 Hajimemashite! It’s nice to meet you!

If you come to Japan you’re going to find yourself saying this quite often. Introductions are very important in Japanese culture. It can be seen as an extension of the Japanese obsession with perfection. Things have to be perfect right from the start and that includes the start of every relationship, whether in business, school, or even casual meetings. It can sometimes seem like the introduction is the most important part of any endeavor. If you’ve got off on the right foot, all the subsequent steps aren’t quite as important. But that introduction… gotta get that right!

I once attended an English camp where I spotted a tiny error in the program notes for the introductory speech. I pointed it out to the organizers and thought that was the end of it. Problem solved! I was surprised to find the organizers flipping out for the next half hour, trying to work out if they could reprint all the programs before the opening ceremony. I was very confused so I asked a Japanese co-worker why they were so agitated. She explained, “It’s because it affects the opening ceremony. We think that if the opening is good, then the whole thing will be good. If the opening is bad, then everything is ruined.”

To me that seemed like a lot of pressure to put on the start of something (though actually that camp was a disaster, so maybe they had a point.) Still, it gave me some insight into the importance that Japanese culture places on introductions. The introduction sets the tone for the entire relationship. It’s a formalized way of perfecting first impressions. In some ways this is stressful, if you don’t know the rules. But luckily the rules are easy to grasp. Once you’ve got them you can relax.

Let’s Jikoshokai!

kitty-cat-greeting

Photo by kouyuzu

So if introductions carry so much weight in Japan, it must be pretty important for you to master! Jikoshokai (自己紹介) is the Japanese word for self-introduction and it’s probably the third thing you should learn after konnichiwa and arigatou.

At its very simplest, the pattern is:

はじめまして。Hajimemashite. (Nice to meet you.)
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu. (It doesn’t translate well, but this means, in a self-intro situation, something like “Please be kind to me.” More than one student has thought it translates as “Nice to me too.”)

The next step up is:

はじめまして。(Hajimemashite.)
私は (name) と申します。Watashi wa (name) to moushimasu. (My name is… (polite version).)
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

Then you simply build from there:

はじめまして。(Hajimemashite.)
Watashi wa (name) tomoimasu.
(Home country) から来ました。(Home country) kara kimashita. (I’m from (home country).)
日本の(interests)に興味があります。Nihon no (interests) ni kyoumi ga arimasu. (I’m interested in Japanese (interests))
よろしくお願いします。Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

And so on, depending on what you want to say.

The content of your self-introduction will differ depending on who you are talking to. Self-introductions can open a lot of doors. For example, if you are a new ALT at a school, mentioning aspects of Japanese culture that you are interested in might get you an invitation to a class or club. But if you are in a business setting, it’s best to keep things formal. If you are just meeting people casually you don’t need to launch into the full spiel, just hajimemashite, name, and yoroshiku onegai shimasu will do. However, if any group is meeting for the first time, don’t be surprised if someone suddenly says it’s time for jikoshokai, even if you’ve been happily chatting for half an hour.

Business Cards

exchanging-meishi-business-cards-japan

Business cards (meishi) are an art form in Japan. If you’ve read any sort of guide, you already know to take them with both hands. Don’t write on them, damage them, or stick them in your back pocket. You might also want to have your own printed up. Bilingual meishi are particularly useful. Personally, I never got round to having some made, but there were certainly times I wish I had. As a JET ALT it wasn’t necessary, but if you are looking to find another job in Japan, ALTing or otherwise, then cards will be a useful tool for you.

I got a little case from a 100 yen store so that I’d have somewhere to put meishi given to me. Failing that, I’d put them flat on the table then tuck them into my wallet only when I’d finished speaking to whoever gave it to me.

Some people go beyond simply handing over a card. The most impressive presentation of a business card I ever saw was performed by a magician. When he opened his card case it burst into flames. Then he used sleight of hand to pass it to me without me even realizing. Business cards don’t have to be boring! You’ll probably want to stick to formal ones for formal occasions, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also have a set of personal name cards for more casual meetings.

How to Master the ALT Self-Intro Class

japanese-classroom

Photo by Dylan Raife

I recently wrote an article for new ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers), offering tips and tricks for success in the classroom. But before ALTs can start proper teaching, they are expected to teach a self-introduction class. While this may seem daunting at first, a little preparation and practice can make anyone a self-intro wizard!

First, don’t worry if it goes a bit wrong. The first ones are always dodgy. Take it as a learning experience. My first self-introductions were appalling, mumbling, too long, too focused on me talking, and far too complicated. Now, over 100 self-intro classes later I can literally do one successfully almost on autopilot. The key is to refine it a little each time. Notice which bits got the laughs and which bits got dead silence. Adjust your self-introduction accordingly. Ask JTEs (Japanese Teacher of English) for feedback. They may not all be willing to give any, but a few might have some good advice for you.

photos-from-home-self-intro

Photo by Verity Lane

Most of my schools didn’t have access to any kind of presentation equipment, so I relied on printed pictures. The laminator will be your greatest friend. I put my self-introduction together three years ago and used it over 100 times. Thanks to being laminated it’s still going strong. When it comes to pictures, think big – A4 size minimum. Passing pictures around takes time and splits a class’ attention when you want to keep that attention on what you’re saying. Flags are good, as are other props, especially for younger students. If you love rugby, take a rugby ball. If you have a national animal, take a stuffed toy. Pictures of your family, your pets, favourite foods and hobbies are good staples. Try to find a picture to illustrate each point you want to talk about. Back those pictures up with drawings on the blackboard, however terrible they may be. Fast is more important than beautiful. You can write keywords too, which really helps Japanese students who usually don’t get much listening practice, but can read much better.

If you do have access to presentation equipment, go for it! I’d particularly recommend Prezzi, presentation software. It will blow your students’ minds. Actually, even PowerPoint will probably blow their minds, especially if you include moving elements. In my experience of rural schools, most JTEs rarely use technology in the classrooms. (Some can’t even use Microsoft Word – I wish I was joking.) Given how unusual presentation equipment is in Japanese schools, I’d suggest making a low-tech version as a backup. You never know when a projector won’t work, or your power point will bizarrely show upside-down or a teacher will simply be so freaked out by the idea of a presentation that they say no.

So you’ve got your materials. But what do you say? Try to think back to language classes you took as a child. What topics did you cover? Family, animals, foods, and so on. Make it your own too. What is interesting about you? That can be hard to answer by yourself, so ask friends and family for their opinions.

Students-like-Sheep

Photo by Verity Lane

Now, I’m not saying you should lie to children (fun as that is), but do simplify your life story. Personally, I say, “My family are sheep farmers. This is my favorite sheep, Kevin.” I don’t say, “My Aunt once rescued some sheep and has since created a paradise on earth for out of luck farm animals. Kevin is an ovine spiritual guru whose wooly coat holds the secret to cosmic happiness, which can be unlocked by petting him.” It’s simpler. The aim is not to have the kids understand every nuance of your life, but just to have them understand something. Also, this appeals to the kids in my area, many of whom come from farming families. Try to find parts of your life the kids can empathize with. This will take some time. Don’t worry about being perfect on your first try.

Throw some questions in there too. When I show the picture of Kevin the Sheep I ask the students, “What animal is this?” Kevin is a very handsome brown sheep, but most sheep in Japan are white, so the answers usually go from dog to bear to cow before settling on sheep. That’s more fun for the students than me simply saying, “This is a sheep.”

Go to town with gestures too. Mime like your life depends on it. I do an imitation of Kevin the sheep running towards me in a field, which is 100% ridiculous. It always gets a laugh and the kids visibly relax. They aren’t so shy about embarrassing themselves, because nothing they do will be as embarrassing as me running around the classroom going “Baaaaaaaa!”

I don’t just talk about sheep, (though animals are a good topic for kids since they know a lot of the vocabulary.) I usually start with an explanation of the four countries of the UK. I make it more interesting by explaining that my Dad is from England and my Mum is from Wales (another simplification.) I do this using pictures of my Mum and Dad and making the kids guess who they are before saying “Yes. This is my Father. He has a crazy face.” (In the picture I use, he is pulling a very strange expression! Thanks Dad!) Really simple humor using words they know (like crazy) is really important. Thus, without really realizing it, the students learn about the otherwise confusing and dull administrative districts of the UK. (Also, the Welsh flag is badass and gets a mime too – roar!)

I also run through, my favourite food (scones), famous UK food (fish and chips), and my hobby (knitting). Each subject has a picture. I don’t work from a script, but instead put the pictures in order and let them remind me of the next topic. If I have a lot of time I throw in that I studied at Oxford University, but I brighten this up for students who have never heard of it by explaining Harry Potter was filmed there. Pop culture can be a useful tool to connect with students. Although this is a self-introduction, that doesn’t mean you have to talk about only yourself. This is a great chance to talk about where you come from and your culture.

Self-Intro Class Quiz Finale!

Verity-Self-Intro

Photo by Verity Lane

Some teachers will ask you to introduce yourself in 5 minutes. I did a very quick highlights version (name, country, student questions). But sometimes you’ll be asked to do your self-introduction for an entire class period. Talking about yourself for 50 minutes is tough on you and on the kids. That’s why it’s quiz time! There are loads of different ways to run this. I’m going to share what worked for me (at Senior High School level, though it could easily be adapted for Junior High Schools), but you’ll be sure to find your own groove.

This entire process is done in English, for both you and the students (this depends on student level, but even at low level schools, it is possible to do it all in English since your pictures and props will help with understanding.) Sometimes it’s appropriate for Japanese Teachers to add explanations in Japanese, but usually I found it’s not, even at the lowest level schools. Try as hard as you can to stop JTEs from translating every word you say. It kills self-intro classes.

Prepare your quiz questions ahead of time. At first you’ll probably need them written down, but your eventual aim should be to do this paperless. Don’t be afraid of going off script. It’s important to react to the tone of the class.

  • At the start, divide the kids into teams of 5 or 6 and have them move their desks together.
  • Give each group one big piece of paper.
  • Explain that you are going do your self-introduction then there will be a quiz, so the students should write a memo. Memo is a word kids know from katakana (these sorts of words are your friends).
  • Do your crazy-awesome self-introduction.
  • Explain that the first round of the quiz is the students asking you questions.
  • Give them two/three minutes to discuss their questions in a group.
  • Use this time to draw the scoreboard, question categories, and points on the blackboard.
  • If you have 4 categories then plan on between 3 and 5 questions per category to fill 30 to 50 minutes. As you get more familiar with your self-introduction you’ll be able to gauge how many questions you’ll need to fill the time.
  • Ask the JTE to keep the scores.
  • When the 2 minutes thinking time is up, regain the students’ attention and tell them to raise their hand to ask a question.
  • Answer the students’ questions. Give lots of positive feedback (“Great question!” “Nice!”)
  • If they ask a slightly wonky question eg. “What do you like foods?” repeat the correct version back the them before answering, “What foods do I like? I like agidashi dofu!” (The weirder the Japanese food you say, the happier they’ll be.)
  • Be prepared for rude questions too and don’t get too flustered.
  • Give the students 10 points for each question they answer.
  • After a few minutes, or when every group has asked a few questions, tell them it’s time for you to ask them questions.
  • Get ready to slip into a “Game Show Host” persona – think big gestures and big reactions.
  • Explain the categories and the points (more points mean a more difficult question).
  • Explain that if a team gets a question right they get to choose the next question (they can easily grasp this once they start playing).
  • Run through all your questions. Erase the points as the students answer each question.
  • Call out the points to the JTE who should be writing them down.
  • If there is a very confident team, try to give other teams a chance to answer too by ignoring them for a round.
  • At the end add up the scores and give the winners a round of applause.
  • Boom! You just ran an awesome self-introduction.

As ever, this advice is what has worked for me. Be sure to modify and change as you see fit. If you aren’t sure where to start with self-introductions, then you can use this as a framework to build your own style on. There are lots of awesome ways to run a self-introduction. If you have access to IT equipment at school you could do this as a Jeopardy style quiz on a screen. Or you could do it another way entirely. For very young kids, you could consider making answer cards with words or pictures for them to collect when you ask questions about yourself. You could make a comprehension worksheet with questions or in a bingo style for students to fill out as they listen to you. You could get the kids to guess everything about you. I tried several styles before settling on the one I described above.

But beyond all these tips, perhaps the most important thing is the attitude of the JTE towards you. I once had two classes, the same level, same material, same school, same day. The first class went fantastically; kids asked great questions and got really excited. The second class went terribly; the kids stared silently and getting them to ask questions was excruciating. The only difference was the teachers. In the first class the teacher walked in with me and said, “Today we have an ALT with us! She’s going to give you her self-introduction!” with a big smile on his face. The second teacher walked into the classroom without saying a word and stood at the back silently. In both cases, the teachers set the tone of the students’ reaction. If you can, talk to your JTEs before class to ask them to introduce you. As I said right at the start, introduction is an important part of Japanese culture. The students’ crucial first impression of you is formed in part by how the JTE introduces you.

Concluding the Introduction to Introductions

self-intro-helper-card

Photo by Ian Forrester

All that said, don’t let all this perceived pressure on self-introduction freak you out. When you first arrive in Japan things can be a little overwhelming. If you can get your Japanese self-introduction mostly memorized you’ll be fine. People will be forgiving, even if you flub it. Prepare your English self-intro class, but also be prepared to change it as you find your ALT feet. Don’t worry; you’ll have lots and lots and lots of opportunities to practice the art of jikoshokai. You’ll be a master in no time!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Can You Dig It? Of Love and Earwax http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/17/can-you-dig-it-of-love-and-earwax/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/17/can-you-dig-it-of-love-and-earwax/#comments Thu, 17 Jul 2014 16:00:17 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41202 Forget hugs and kisses. Throw away your candy, flowers and rings. If you want to truly express love for someone, clean their ears.

Is It a Love Story?

hemi-zemi

Image from the anime, Hen Zemi (変ゼミ)

Perhaps you’ve seen it in anime, manga, drama or movies. Or maybe you’re one of the (un)lucky ones to have experienced it yourself. In Japan it’s common imagery – a blissful man rests his head on the lap of a woman who takes a long, pointy tool and picks, pulls, or wipes the excess earwax out.

How romantic.

However, ear cleaning, or mimi souji (耳掃除) isn’t limited to romantic interests. Family members might also get in on the act. Hitome Kobayashi, associate professor of otorhinolaryngology at Showa University School of Medicine explains, “Many Japanese grew up having their ears cleaned by their mothers, and associate it with pleasant feelings of maternal closeness.”

How did such a rudimentary cleaning routine come to embody intimacy? Few areas of the human body are as important yet as vulnerable as the human ear. Even a pressure change during air travel can rupture the delicate human eardrum. So it’s no wonder any physical contact with the ear’s organs should be avoided. Luckily they sit deep inside our heads, protected by the outer ear, pinna, and (sometimes hairy) ear canal.

You wouldn’t let any Jo-suke Schmo off the street poke around in your ears, would you? Of course not. Only the most trusted people should be allowed access to this vital, vulnerable area – particularly when it involves long, pointy objects. In an ideal world no one would be more trusted than one’s parents or lover(s). So ear-cleaning as a symbol of love kind of makes sense.

Or A Horror Movie?

old-timey-ear-cleaning

But to the (un)trained eye the scene appears more fitting of a horror film. Ear cleaning tools resemble a dentist’s ensemble at best, medieval torture devices at worst. When I first witnessed the act my muscles tensed and my forehead broke into a cold sweat! I couldn’t escape the thought that a only small slip would cause major damage.

And I’m not the only worried Westerner. Andrew R. of Oita Prefecture wrote of his culture shock, “Imagine my horror when I came home one evening to find my Japanese wife bent over our little son, about to thrust a sharpened stick into his ear!”

So if the act appears (and is) dangerous, why do it? A cotton swab or a towel over my finger always the job done for me. Are all of these tools really necessary?

Turns out they might be – not all earwaxes are created equal.

Earwax Nomenclature

japanese-ear-wax

Photo by Hiro

There are two basic types of earwax. Genetics determines which type you have, but it’s also connected to race.

Erika Engelhaupt of sciencenews.org reported on earwax research performed at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “‘We could obtain information about a person’s ethnicity simply by looking in his ears,’ chemist Katharine Prokop-Prigge said. If you would describe yourself as white or black, your earwax is probably yellow and sticky. If you are East Asian or Native American, it’s likely to be dry and white.”

It appears that earwax type and underarm odor might share a connection. “As for our different ear odors, they came about because of a tiny change… that long ago granted an East Asian population a reprieve from both smelly underarms and sticky earwax.”

Why study earwax? Researchers hope to create an earwax test, similar to blood or urine tests, that would indicate health problems a patient might have.

Understanding earwax types allows us to understand the differences in ear cleaning cultures. Although my sticky earwax adheres to a cotton swab or towel, the “dry, flaky” earwax common among Japanese people doesn’t. This warrants the scoops, shovels and picks that pick and pull the dry, flaky earwax out. And considering the tools, having a partner perform the act seems seems safer than performing it alone.

Tools of the Trade

Japanese-ear-wax-pick

Whatever the reasoning, when it comes to ear-cleaning in Japan a simple cotton-swab won’t do. Ladles, loops, disks, picks and ear rakes line hygiene aisles. Ear cleaning tools, or mimi kaki (耳かき) come in plastic, wood, and even silver and gold models.

Some have puffs at the end to help pull wax out or brush it aside. Others have safety guards to prevent picks held by unsteady hands from entering too far.

The most technological models use LED lights to illuminate ear canal, making it easier to see. Some models even feature figurines for style. So Hello Kitty fans, for example, can reap extra satisfaction by cleaning their ears with an official Kitty-chan ear-pick.

If you’re single, don’t worry. Just because your love-life suffers doesn’t mean your ears have to. Daniel Krieger of TravelCNN reports, “When the Japanese government… (made) medical licenses unnecessary for ear cleaners, a new type of business sprung up in Tokyo and other big cities: ear-cleaning parlors, which now number in the hundreds.” Mr. Krieger purchased the hospitality of a “kimono-clad young woman,” tea, conversation, and the intimacy of a private ear cleaning for about $30.

Women with waxy build-up need not fret. “Though most Japanese ear-cleaning parlors cater more to men who may long for the maternal tenderness of their childhood, female-oriented salons have been appearing,” Mr. Krieger explained.

And if your love for mimi souji has grown into a fetish, there are parlors that cater to your needs as well. The Australian reported on the workers at a parlor called Tenshi no Tobira (Angel Gateway), “a job description that falls somewhere between beautician, unobtainable sex fantasy, and psychotherapist.” At these “discount versions of the traditional hostess bars” a cute member of the opposite sex cleans a customers ears while providing pleasant conversation and, according to an AFP News report, blowing their ears clean.

A few ear-cleaning parlors provide even more thorough, less innocent cleaning services. According to The Tokyo Reporter, “Mimi Kaki Club charged a heady 20,000 yen (about $200) for a 60-minute session, of which only the first 10 minutes involved ear-reaming.” If you’re having trouble imagining what followed mimi souji please read the article, but be forewarned that it includes adult language and strong sexuality. And please remember this type of mimi souji is the exception, not the rule.

But even improved ear cleaning technology and strong-lunged workers can’t hide the truth – most experts agree ear cleaning is unnecessary.

A Sound Argument Against Ear Cleaning

professional-ear-cleaning

Photo by Ricky Qi

Wet or dry, earwax serves a noble purpose. Alice Gordenker explains, “(Earwax is) there to protect the skin of the ear canal and keep out things you wouldn’t want in your ear, including bacteria, water and (bugs).”

Doctor Timothy C. Hain of american-hearing.org agrees, “One should realize that wax isn’t all that bad. It keeps your ear dry and helps prevent infection. Thus, you don’t want to eliminate wax.”

Perhaps my eyes didn’t deceive me. Maybe we should all tense up at the though of earwax removal – be it by finger, cotton-swab, pick, rake, or scoop. The act appears dangerous because it is. Even the innocent-looking cotton-swab causes its share of injuries. Rose Eveleth of Smithsonian Magazine explains, “Removing wax yourself can be dangerous… Thousands of people go to the hospital every year because of those pesky cotton swabs.”

Besides, ears are self-cleaning by design. Ross Pomeroy of RealClearScience explains, “‘(Excess wax) falls out of the ear without us noticing.’ Much of this cascade occurs while we eat. The movement of the jaw massages wax out of the ear canal. Along with the wax comes any particulates or dirt that were gumming up the hearing works.”

But what about waxy buildup? Surely some situations call for the physical removal of wax, right? Professor Kobayashi suggests that “there are times when ear wax has to be removed, but it should be always be handled by a medical professional.”

“If someone experiences symptoms such as pain, discharge, a sense of fullness or hearing loss,” Professor Kobayashi continued, “they should go to a doctor who has training and special tools.”

Is That Waxy Buildup In Your Ears, Or Are You Just Happy To Hear Me?

the-buddha's-ear

“Remember, never stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ears,” an elementary school teacher of mine once said.

“My elbow’s too big to fit in my ear!” a classmate called out.

“Exactly!” He said with a smile. Though I couldn’t maneuver my elbow anywhere near my ear to try, the teacher had made his point – don’t stick anything in your ears.

And health professionals agree, cleaning one’s ears is unnecessary and often does more harm than good. Self cleaning can lead to deeper wax buildup, infections, and damage to the inner ear. And thanks to natural mechanisms, ears clean themselves. So is it really worth the risk?

Some people think so. In many countries ear cleaning has become a hygienic ritual. This is especially true in Japan, a culture that prides itself on cleanliness. But mimi souji supercedes hygiene. Many consider the act a pleasurable, comforting experience that embodies love and trust.

Mii-chan, an ear cleaning parlor girl concluded, “The ear is a very sensitive place and, when someone is cleaning it, you feel loved.”

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Is Japan Really “Conservative”? http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/11/is-japan-really-conservative/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/11/is-japan-really-conservative/#comments Fri, 11 Jul 2014 16:00:14 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41146 I don’t think that I’m the only one who has experienced this but I often hear the word “conservative” being applied to Japan. At first I just accepted it as being true – because Japan is very obviously conservative on many fronts. But after a while, I started having doubts – maybe “conservative” isn’t the best word to describe Japan.

I’m going to try to explore how “conservative” Japan really is in this article. But first a definition is in order. I think most people have a their own idea of what conservative means, so when I use the term in this article, I mean prizing the group over the individual, a rejection of change, and a preservation of social and sexual mores.

Politically

political-campaign-van-japan

Photo by Joe Jones

Election campaigning truck from the conservative – and dominant – Liberal Democratic Party

Politics in Japan does show a conservative stance, certainly. This is seen firstly in how rarely the regime changes. Since 1955, Japan has had only had four changes in the main governing party with no change in the main ruling party between 1955-1993.

Secondly, the main and dominant party in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has a conservative slant. For example, while most of the other major political parties support some legal recognition of same-sex couples, the LDP is strictly opposed to it. In addition, it has also traditionally and, especially recently, shown a nationalist stance involving efforts to revise the peace clause in the Japanese constitution, visiting the Yasukuni shrine, and so on.

But even so, there’s some qualifications to be made. The LDP for example, has also traditionally been heavily in favour of protectionism and wealth distribution from the cities to the countryside. Not very economically conservative then.

Socially

taiko-drumming

Photo by May S. Young

Conservative or not conservative, that is the question

Stuff is a bit mixed when it comes to society. It’s a bit “yes and no”. Let’s start with the “no” side.

Compared to other East-Asian countries, Japan is actually quite liberal on some issues. The Pew Attitudes Report, for example, notes that Japan is actually one of the few countries where there is a clear plurality (44% vs 28%) that views abortion as acceptable. Japan also has a relatively high acceptance for divorce, contraceptives, and homosexuality – especially when compared to other Asian countries.

Very interestingly, Japan has the fewest number of people who view alcohol use as immoral among all countries. And while I do agree with Japan’s stance on this issue…why am I not surprised?

Sexually

kabukicho-entrance

Photo by alcyone.ath.cx

Entrance to Kabukicho, the most infamous red-light district in Japan

This is hard to talk about without overblowing all the sensationalist imagery with which Japan is associated – tentacles, kinks, and all.

What is clear, however, is that Japan has commercialised sex to an extent not often found in other societies. This isn’t just regarding their (in)famous pornography or how adult magazines are uncensored and right next to shonen-jump at convenience stores. Commercialised sex permeates Japanese society in a way which may appear very nonchalant to an outside observer.

For example, it is not uncommon for some very traditional Japanese companies to, after work, have a company nomikai (drinking party) at a strip-club. The little TVs in capsule hotels also will probably have one porn channel which anyone staying there can access. The size of Kabukicho (the most well-known red-light district in Tokyo) and how blatant it is – after all, it is but a few minutes from Shinjuku – may symbolise how ubiquitous and normalised commercialised sex is in Japan.

This often shocks outside observers, but I don’t think moral judgements on Japan are that easy to make in this case. After all, it’s not as if sex isn’t commercialised in other countries – it may not be as blatant, but it certainly happens. However, if one views commercialised sex as exploitative of women, this would be a problem.

Sex and Gender

maid-in-japan

Photo by OiMax

While there is certainly a degree of freedom in terms of commercialised sex, there are some qualifications and contradictions to be pointed out here.

For one, there is a permissiveness towards sex. But this does not mean that it’s talked about in an open manner – in my opinion, this is likely linked to a reluctance to discuss one’s private life and an avoidance of generally “serious” topics in conversation.

In any case the above applies to male sexuality – it won’t be mentioned in polite conversation but for a salaryman to go to a sex joint is perfectly “acceptable”. For a woman to do these things is frowned on much more.

This also shows some ways in which Japan appears to be very conservative – gender roles. While Japan scores well in terms of female health in international rankings, consider the following:

  • Politics – This is still pretty much a boy’s game in Japan. Only 8.1% of the lower house of parliament are women, according to this website. This is lower than the world average (21.9%) and is 132nd among 189 ranked countries.
  • Education – Differences are very clear when it comes to higher education. For example, the male to female ratio in the University of Tokyo is around 8:2. The number of male “ronin” (students spending an extra year to retake the University examinations) is around 3 times that of female “ronin”. Females also tend to apply for 2 year university courses instead of four year courses.
  • EmploymentThis article mentions some points about employment. In any case, the Japanese workplace is still quite gender unequal.
  • Society – If you go to a nomikai in Japan and, especially if it’s formal, it’s obvious that women at the table will be very attentive to the beer levels in everyone’s glasses. Once they hit dangerously low levels, women swoop in and pour. This perhaps emphasizes how there’s an underlying assumption that women are supposed to be subservient.

In Other Words…

kenrouken-garden

So maybe “conservative” isn’t the right word to describe Japan. The word I’m thinking about is more along the lines of “change-resistant”, because very often things move slowly in Japan. This may be surprising to people who view Japan as a hyper-modern high-tech society with robots and such. But when you consider how change-resistant Japanese organisations are, how job and university applications are still done by paper, and how fax is still used in Japan, this needs to be qualified.

There are many reasons for this resistance to change, but here are just a few I could think of:

  • Adversity to Risk - Japan and the Japanese people are still very risk adverse. And this is pretty much visible in all parts of society. From the low levels of entrepreneurship, to low numbers of people going abroad, to the tendency to vote for the “safe” conservative political party. Take a look here for an article on Businessweek on this. In any case, without risk-taking, there won’t be as much change in society.
  • Hierarchy – When society is structured based on age with seniority the main criteria for “moving upward”, then it probably means that decision making is likely to be centered on a more change-resistant group of people.
  • Consensus - This isn’t exactly a bad thing but, stereotypically speaking, Japanese firms take much longer to make decision than, say, American firms. One reason is the cultural need to build consensus and ensure that everyone is on the same page before making that decision.

You can see how this can have its benefits. However, one downside to this is that decision-making as a whole is slowed down. In addition, I personally think that consensus also means that often the “lowest common denominator” decisions are taken – not exactly conducive for radical reform.

Yes and No

osaka-castle

Photo by D. Julien

Obviously whether Japan is “conservative” or not really depends on the definition and what you’re comparing Japan to. However, in contrast with many other countries and many of Japan’s close neighbours, it certainly can’t be said that Japan is “extremely conservative”, even though it has its very rigid parts.

I’m now wondering if anyone else has heard any other “Japan is ________” statements that they feel are suspicious or worthy of examination. Leave your comments and suggestions below and I’ll see whether I can write another article examining these stereotypes.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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More Than Gaijin: Specific Ethnic Groups Living in Japan http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/10/more-than-gaijin-specific-ethnic-groups-living-in-japan/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/07/10/more-than-gaijin-specific-ethnic-groups-living-in-japan/#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 16:00:03 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=41159 When you hear that Japan is a homogenous country, know that it’s a lie. There’s certainly less diversity here than other places, but there are tons of foreigners. Some are harder to spot than others, partially because there is pressure to conform and blend in, but diversity is here. We have preconceived notions of many ethnicities in our own countries, so Japan isn’t alone in its treatment of foreigners. But their treatment is a bit different (again, partially because of that emphasis to fit into the group). There are so many other foreigners out here that I feel some comments should be made about some of these stereotypes. That way, hopefully, people have a starting point for in-depth discussions about, not only being a gaijin in Japan, but something more specific. Being Nepalese, being half Korean, half Japanese, Vietnamese American. In Japan! Something more than just gaijin.

She’s Not Foreign!

Japanese-Classroom

Photo by Dylan Raife

I know people forget this often but, sometimes, just because someone looks foreign, doesn’t mean they are. Some of us are born to parents who look a little different from other native people and end up kind of in between two or more cultures. I know a bit about how this feels, but Japan isn’t my home country. I have been mistaken for half in Japan, but it’s more funny than insulting to me. I know I’m foreign here, but for the kids born here that look foreign, I know it can be rough.

As a teacher, the first day of the first semester generally means I have to do a self introduction. While for normal people this should take less than a minute, for some reason, Japanese teachers want to make it much, much longer. I’ve turned mine into something more akin to “people and places in my life before Japan” because, well, talking about yourself for up to an hour seems really narcissistic. Anyway, while I’m doing my presentation, I notice there’s a little commotion centered around one student. The room’s a bit dark at this time, so I can’t tell why. I keep looking to the teacher, and he just smiles. I’m still not sure if it was because he knew why it was happening and wanted to surprise me, or because it was normal and he didn’t think much of it. When the lights come up and I ask if anyone has any questions, I see the students staring at the kid: she’s half white, half Japanese. I’ve been in similar situations myself but, as a kid, I didn’t really share my ethnicity and people could never guess it. I knew the girl didn’t want to be singled out, so I just taught class as I usually do. She never spoke and never raised her hand. She didn’t try to come talk to me after class or school. Instead, on her introduction card, which only I see, she says the obvious, like any other normal Japanese kid would. It turns out her mother is from the same state as me, but she spells it the way Japanese people would.

I rarely interact with her but, when I do, she’s fully Japanese. Some students get very interested when I randomly call on her or in the very rare cases she’s brave enough to ask for help in class, but she’s very much a normal Japanese girl. Her English isn’t great. There are many students better at English than her, even in her own class. We have no special bond, no chats after class, nothing like that. I know she’s Japanese but mixed, and she knows it too. She knows kids are staring and expect her to do something different, to suddenly turn super foreign and, I don’t know, speak perfect English and suddenly know all about America. But it doesn’t happen. It’s not that much different from the states except that here, it stands out much more.

If anything, I probably end up connecting more with the kids who are mixed asian. Students secretly (or sometimes openly) tell me they’re also mixed or born to foreign (asian) parents after my self introduction, if my mixed heritage comes up. I’ll talk about it a bit more later, but sometimes it’s the teachers who tell me someone is mixed, like it’s a secret, and those are the kids that, like the girl I described above, might distance themselves from me a bit. Moreso than her, though, there’s kind of some unspoken tension because we both know what being mixed and “not foreign” is like, and calling any attention to it is just not needed most of the time except when the kid gets teased.

It’s not just something that happens in class though. I had a kid somehow mistake me for her dad in the super market and grab my leg. Maybe it’s because we both were wearing black jeans and, being a small child, she didn’t look high enough before latching onto my leg. I heard perfect Japanese, no accent, and looked down to see a little black girl. Mom (Japanese) and dad (African) had a good laugh as the kid noticed her mistake and found them a few aisles down.

Asian Foreigners or “Oh, So You’re Not a Japanese Girl?”

yokohama-chinatown

Photo by camknows

I hope that Tofugu faithfuls recall Austin hitting on this topic, but will hopefully allow me to make a few broad additions and add new voice to the discussion.

As Austin mentioned, the Japanese often can’t tell the difference between their country’s men (or women) and non-Japanese Asians until they hear an accent, and sometimes even then they seem to have trouble. For example, I went to a Chinese restaurant with some Japanese friends and I noticed the waitress’ accent. I mentioned that I thought she was Chinese, but my friends didn’t believe me, so we asked her in the politest way possible (“Can you speak Chinese? Oh, where did you learn it?”) and yes, she said she was Chinese and had moved to Japan. Now, I’m not saying everyone can do this, but let’s compare this to my trip to Korea where my Japanese friend, who always approached people in English, always had Korean people greeting him in Japanese. As much as he thought he’d be able to blend in, he somehow stood out like I normally do in the Japanese countryside.

From what I’ve gathered, in Japanese eyes, Koreans seem “preferable” to Chinese. I’ve never heard complaints about the accent or personalities from Japanese people about Koreans, only sometimes that Koreans can be a bit “outgoing.” When I’ve brought up the idea of studying a foreign language, a fair number of students I’ve had in Kanto said they wanted to study Korean. It’s seen as “cool” by the younger generation. Korean dramas and bands are really popular here, and the “Korean Towns” I’ve visited aren’t just filled with Koreans.

However, even being Korean-Japanese still gets you treated as a foreigner. Teachers will sometimes “out” a student to me. I will say that the Korean students do stand out a bit most of the time, and seem to be popular. But for the most part, I would have never guessed they were foreign born unless I had been told. In some ways, it almost feels like the reverse of the American perspective of Canadians, in that they’re seen as friendly neighbors, but Japanese kids at least seem to think Koreans are cool, or at least when there’s no political misalignment (though a lot of the kids don’t seem to understand why Koreans are sometimes angry at Japan).

The Chinese, though, get a lot of complaints, both from Japanese men and women. I had a student everyone called “China” even though his dad was Japanese. He had a Chinese accent and was tall, so it was hard for him to blend in. The person he seemed closest to (and got teased by the most) was a yankiI think they meshed together because they were both outsiders. Unlike other kids, when he learned I was mixed, he was pretty happy. I could get him to work a little harder just by giving him a little extra attention, or he might hang back in the hall to talk a bit if I saw him between classes or after school, which isn’t totally uncommon for Japanese students, but it’s usually the sign you’ve won them over.

Like in English, Chinese accents (and thereby the people) are often accused of “sounding angry” in Japanese, which is something part of my culture is accused of (I prefer see it as “passionate”). Chinese are often seen as selfish and loud, more so than rude Americans, except that no one here understands Chinese (even though Mandarin is honestly spoken in my city more than English). The typical idea of Chinese here seems to be that they always want to be first in line and always speak loudly and don’t care who’s around. I’m sure white foreigners are a bit familiar with this idea, except Japanese really don’t understand Mandarin or Cantonese, so whatever’s being said is just a mystery to the locals. With Western English speakers, however, they usually understand quite a bit about when you’re complaining about Japanese culture.

What’s funny though, I’ve heard many Chinese people here say the Japanese are too quiet and polite, and that the food here “has no taste”. Of all the foreigners though, I feel like I get along with the Chinese best in that we try to blend in a bit, but also understand that we have our own culture and want to share it. One thing to note, though: If you’re dating Chinese and Japanese out here, be ready for a bit of a rant if you tell one that you’ve dated the other!

My Vietnamese friend and her mother who visited kind of blended in, until they spoke. My friend would get dirty looks because, truthfully, she’s more endowed than your average Japanese girl and showed a little skin, but once she started speaking to her mom in Vietnamese, people apparently got a little confused. I was recently talking to her and figured it might be nice to get some exact quotes from a female, non-Japanese Vietnamese, American-born perspective:

“It was oddly comfortable in Japan compared to say when I was visiting Canada or France. Maybe it was because everyone was Asian, so non-Asian foreigners stood out a lot more. However, in Tokyo, it was clear that my mom and I were foreigners in some sense because of the way we dressed. Tokyo’s very…stylish and the women there dress very feminine, while my mom and I were more comfortable in jeans. I really think that I was the only girl my age wearing jeans…and I got even strange looks when I finally took out my flip flops. Of course, the “low cut” shirts were also a very odd experience since that’s what would be considered mildly “conservative” where I’m from. My sister-in-law mentioned that when she went to Japan during May two years back, when she wore shorts, and got a lot of stares. And she doesn’t wear Daisy duke short shorts; they’re typical shorts that stop just above the knee.”

“I would get strange looks from Japanese people when I was speaking in Vietnamese to my mom – and when I couldn’t think of the word – switch to English. Or a full-on English sentence.”

“My mom wasn’t really into all the bowing. She felt uncomfortable when we went to the hotel and the staff members bowed at us. For me, I understand that it’s a cultural thing, but for my mom, who really takes pride in women standing up for themselves and all that, felt uncomfortable and sorry for the staff.”

European and Not “White”

white-sumo

Photo by camknows

During the last Cherry Blossom festival, I met an older German woman selling bratwurst. I can’t tell every nationality apart, but from both the look and sound of her, I knew she was German when she stood up: heavy accent, fading blond hair, blue eyes, and tall. Very tall. We had a short chat, and one thing that was kind of interesting popped up: Japanese people apparently thought she was from England!

That’s important because in Japan, many people (Japanese and traveling foreigners alike) see white Europeans and seem to think they’re American, English, Australian, or Canadian. If you’re Irish, they might ask why your accent’s so different. French? “Your English is amazing!”

Often on trains, I’ll see “white” people who are French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The travelers are always happy to ask me questions since my English is (naturally) better than the locals’ and they have questions. Those who teach here though are sometimes a bit miffed. Sometimes they’re accused of “not speaking real English” because it’s also their second language though. At the same time, they’re seen as experts. It can be a frustrating situation from what I’ve seen and heard, but I hear most of it second hand. Just know that if you’re from Europe but not England, Japanese might ask you about your hometown, what foods you like, and might even ask for some recipes. How do I know ? To be honest, after a bunch of drunk Americans walked by a little ramen shop I was having lunch at, the store owner turned to me and asked where my parents came from. I claimed the French part. And I taught them about French toast. Not my proudest moment, but now you fellow Americans who know your background, maybe a little of the language and food can pull that off if your colleagues get horribly embarrassing and you are tired of playing ambassador (sorry America!).

Quick aside to those who are mixed in America and are asked about their heritage by European people: If your grandparent came from Europe, but not your parent, you might be told you’re not European, just American. It’s happened a few times when trying to explain my various ethnicities (more on that later). Simply note which exact family member came from which European country in order to possibly avoid the long debate on when Americans stop being foreigners and become Americans (personal opinion: when people stop questioning your nationality).

“What are you?”- The Rest of Us

indian-restuarant

Some cultures here are rarer than others, and while I have maybe a single, strong experience with a group or many small run-ins with the same people, I’m kind of lumping them together because I have experience (or a great link to share) and have done the “cross culture” chat with them a few times so I don’t look like a total boob. That being said, remember these are just my experiences, and everyone will have a different one.

Now, I really hate saying this, especially with the current political climate, but in Japan, Muslim people stand out in Japan, and in a horrible way. I don’t really mean it in the “terrorist” way, but there’s that too. I used to have a long beard and long hair I kept under a beanie, and my brother was often described as either “That guy that looks like Jesus” or “the terrorist.” And that was in English. In Japan, he got stopped pretty often and attracted a lot of attention, good and bad.

No, it’s not quite the “terrorist” thing. The religion is seen as extreme, and the dietary restrictions are starting to become well known even in the inaka.” I had a co-worker who was Muslim and she had a very difficult time with food, which is one of the things Japanese really try to share. The easiest way to bond with most people is through food in my opinion, and when you can’t do that, things become difficult. Japanese people don’t realize that almost everything they eat is haram, or “not allowed.” They know about the “no pork” thing, and some know about “no alcohol”, but they don’t know quite how far Muslims take this. For example, I was told that a lot of baked goods (even the bread!) from convenience stores comes from factories that use pork-based grease on their pans. That’s not allowed. Mirin? It’s a kind of rice wine. Not allowed. Even things with soy sauce are dicey because natural soy sauce is fermented. Fermentation is how you make alcohol, which is very much haram. How the new Muslim Egyptian sumo is able to keep his weight here is a mystery to me.

Black people in Japan is something I don’t want to talk a lot about, not because it makes me uncomfortable, but because it’s a whole other article. Dark skin in asian countries is usually not viewed well, but Nigerians in Tokyo have particularly stood out and are associated with crime. Obviously not every Nigerian is like that, but the stereotype is hard to avoid, even out in the inaka where the rare black people I see are often working in a hip-hop store if they aren’t teachers. For those who want a really good, slice-of-life black-in-Japan look, I suggest reading Gaijin Chronicles. The blog hasn’t been updated in a few years, but it covers the topic so well, and in so much detail for everyday life, that I really can’t even try to do it any justice. Just give it a read.

Next time you to got an Indian place, ask yourself this: are they Indian or Nepalese? I won’t lie, I can’t tell the difference, which is why I ask. My favorite “Indian” restaurant here is actually run by a guy from Nepal, and he actually had another place in Tokyo before. Japanese people who lament not being able to practice English in the inaka always forget that Indian and Nepalese people speak English. They say it’s “not real English” but let’s be honest: there are so many dialects of English, you might as well use what you’ve learned and talk to someone else who can understand you. Honestly, any Japanese people reading this: go talk to foreign staff at your favorite curry house! They’re always friendly, to the point where the half Indian kid who barely speaks English (born in Japan) still goes out of his way to greet me if we bump into each other, even though I only ate at his parents’ place one time. Same goes for the Indian guys from another place. The Nepalese guys… I only go to their place twice a year, but they seem to know I love their food, or are just happy to have someone to practice English with. Anywhere I see them they give me a head nod at the very least.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m mixed. If I say I’m part Ainu, people are actually willing to believe it, even though it’s a joke. If a co-worker introduces me as half Japanese, people will believe it. Sometimes, if the conversation is right, Japanese people will think I’m half too. That’s only the ones that are more culturally aware though. Most Japanese just see my beard and think I’m American, English, or German (got a bit of all of that in me though, so that’s fair). However, I do get asked where my parents are from, and “America” isn’t good enough because, like many Americans, some Japanese can tell I’m “not quite white.”

Other foreign people seem to pick up on it too though. Spanish people have approached me in Spanish first. I’ve gotten a “guten tag” while I was in Kyoto before my terrible German quickly revealed to them that I was not a native speaker, and just last month, I had an Indian or Nepalese ask for directions yet insist that I was from a Middle Eastern country (I have Persian friends who would have been a bit upset with that).

Some people say I should be mad, or I should call them out on their racism, but let’s be honest: if you’re not a little bit racist, you’re probably terribly innocent. Americans people love cheese and bacon, Germans love beer, Asians can use chopsticks. You can actually offend people by questioning them about these things, even though there are honestly people out there that these stereotypes don’t apply to. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve been the guy that didn’t fit the stereotype and the one that was shocked I was asked about it. It’s just how our world works.

In general, foreigners stand out a lot, even in Japan, unless you’re a quiet Asian. Much like the “Are you Chinese?” question many Asians report encountering, Japan has only the faintest idea of where people come from. And sometimes it’s really, really far off. Just smile, laugh, and try to educate people a little.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Special Education on Japanese Special Education http://www.tofugu.com/2014/06/30/special-education-on-japanese-special-education/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/06/30/special-education-on-japanese-special-education/#comments Mon, 30 Jun 2014 16:00:27 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=40661 An English teacher walks out of a classroom with two students with down’s syndrome, a student with polio, and two “regular” students. He asks a Japanese teacher why the “regular” students are in that class. The Japanese teacher replies, “She’s too fat. The other one is too shy.”

If you think that punchline was in poor taste, I have bad news for you: that wasn’t a joke. That was how one of my classes at a special needs school ended. As a person who got to teach those (honestly great) kids, I was actually quite offended. I know the teacher didn’t mean to be offensive, and that maybe what he was saying was the students’ parents’ reason for enrolling in a special needs school, but hearing it put like that was upsetting to say the least.

While Tofugu has talked a bit about how (Japanese) parents want their kids to be normal, the issue can also work in reverse. That is, their child is “normal,” but the parent seeks to shelter them. I use “regular” and “normal” here in quotes because what defines these words is relative, not only on a cultural level, but on a personal one as well.

Handicapped in Japan – An Overview

handicapped-sign-in-japan

Photo by Trent McBride

Japan has an interesting relationship with handicapped people. On one hand, the country is notoriously unfriendly for those who are physically disabled, to the point that there’s a website specifically for those curious about how (in)accessible a location may be. Sorry, but the note on this site about Akihabara is quite an understatement. There are handicapped parking spaces in Japan, but they’re so rare that most blue and white marking I see on the road mostly signify as bicycle lane.

This isn’t all of Japan though, and Japan also does a lot of good for their handicapped. When some of the Tofugu members visited Japan last year, they mentioned how accessible it is, but this is mostly for the blind. What they didn’t mention is that even Japanese beer cans are accessible. I have witnessed several instances of crossing guards going the extra mile to help blind people cross the street, but kids who can’t walk seem to avoid some of the main roads in my neighborhood. While I am living in what seems like a textbook example of a city by American standards, anything outside of Tokyo is considered “inaka” (countryside) by many. So perhaps that’s the reason why I’ve experienced a little culture shock when dealing with disabilities issues in Japan, or students who are in special needs schools but lack disabilities.

To be frank, disabilities are still viewed negatively. Some people still dress it up, but one Japanese mother quite bluntly described her disabled children as “God’s defective goods.” While it may sound cruel, the woman is being very honest about her experience, and those who may wish to believe raising disabled kids is only a “blessing” would need to be dishonest with themselves if they could not at least admit that it is a difficult situation. That being said, the situation can be made easier. People with down’s syndrome can, controversially, receive reconstructive surgery, both for cosmetic and functional reasons. Naturally, the cognitive abilities of the patient may sometimes limit what can be done but, as I’ll discuss later, that doesn’t always stop parents from pursuing it.

Training for Special Education

handicap-toilet-in-Japan

Photo by Amy Watson

Being a developed country, one would expect good things from Japan in terms of taking care of their disabled. It is, however, a bit of a mixed bag. While there are some small schools for the handicapped in my prefecture, there is one quite large school that is a technological wonderland.

While my “normal” schools have teachers who have no idea how to use an overhead projector or believe the only tools worth using in the classroom are a blackboard and chalk, my special school had… well, everything. Huge televisions, automatic doors, toilets and faucets, washlets in every bathroom, an elevator with doors opening in the front and the back, Wii Sports Resort, and computers for the faculty. All the faculty. That might sound normal, but most teachers around here who aren’t full time employees are lucky if they can even borrow their own computer on a daily basis. At my old special needs school, every employee had their own. It’s also worth noting that there was one teacher for every student.

Let that sink in for a moment. Think about your own classrooms growing up. I was thrilled in college when I had a class with one teacher and eight students. Walking into some of the handicapped classes with a teacher literally holding each student was mind boggling, in a very good way. Not all classes were like this, but the classes were very small and always well supported.

However, that also had a down side which actually took a very long time for me to figure out. Despite the fact that this was a school for handicapped children– children with learning disabilities, physical deformities, blindness, deafness, etc– aside from the sign-language interpretor, these teachers were not properly trained for their work. It may be a bit ethnocentric, but that’s my feeling. While I’m no expert, I grew up in a school that had students with down’s syndrome and shared some classes with them and their personal teachers. I had to study special needs issues, particularly in their relationship to language learning, and some of the things that well meaning but ignorant Japanese special needs teachers said or did were often dated, to say the least.

Students with working hands and facial deformity learned to use a speaking computer rather than sign-language. Teachers talking to deaf students generally yelled, rather than (if they knew it) use sign-language or more clearly moving their lips at the absolute least. I was told certain kids would never understand Japanese, which, after triple checking with one of my former university teachers, isn’t true (grammar is difficult, but simple nouns and verbs are very possible). In fact, these same teachers would use complex grammatical structures when addressing kids and even said there was nothing they could do. Even after I tried showing them how a single word or very simple sentence (in my poor Japanese) repeated in different tones could catch a student’s attention and get them to focus on the most important part of your message, most teachers simply believed that I had some sort of gift. Only rarely did other teachers seem to employ these techniques themselves or pick them up from me.

I should have suspected something sooner, but it wasn’t until a rather unfriendly teacher at my academic high school was being transferred to a special school that I learned the truth: any regular Japanese teacher can be assigned to a special needs school. While I’ve had many teachers tell me that there is no training for this in Japan, it’s not true. It’s just very, very uncommon. The current generation of teachers do get some training when they enter the new school, but I’m told that is only a few hours or days. While some teachers seem like naturals, others are clueless and seem to have given up hope on the students, simply going through the motions as one might expect in a “regular” school.

Too Shy For “Normal” School

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There was often a very clear line as to when I was able to teach and who I could teach to, but that didn’t make it easy. I had “students” who were hydrocephalics, with heads twice the size of their tiny four year old bodies. I had screaming students placed onto my lap that bit themselves out of nervousness till they bled. I had students who, just by seeing an adult male, would burst into tears. Some of the problems could be overcome, but others were impossible, at least for me.

Some students though, were quite normal. From what I understand, Japan’s official policy is to separate disabled students from “regular” classes, but it’s up to local boards of education to handle this. However, around here, a parent can get their way if they make enough noise. I know that might seem odd from the culture that constantly employs “the nail that stands up gets hammered down,” but it’s true. Many parents use their outspokenness to get their very normal kids placed in special needs schools.

One little rebel, for example, was supposedly in the special needs school because she had a “rough home life.” This child was stuck in a class with several down’s syndrome students and a few with handicaps that made it difficult for them to speak or write. And this girl certainly had an attitude! Most Japanese kids are thrilled to meet foreigners. While I could tell she was curious about me when I first came to class, she tried to pretend I was just another “useless” teacher. However, as lessons went by, I noticed she was whispering the answers to herself. I started asking her to help other students, both the ones who were unable to do anything on their own and the ones who, at the very least, seemed to understand the lesson but had disabilities that made expressing their thoughts difficult. This girl was smart and seemed to figure out when she was “helping” or giving her answers quite quickly. She started smiling more, and at one point, asked me to put some furigana above some lyrics she had printed out so she could learn to sing some songs she liked (curse you Lady Gaga and your use of French!). Last time I saw her, she had certainly grown, both in height and maturity. She was freely helping her classmates, always with a smile, and was patient with the ones who understood their situations but had trouble expressing themselves.

As for my students from the start of this article, they’re great kids. The kid who was “too fat” was a middle school student and understood English better than some of my high school students. In fact, most of the students in that class who didn’t have down’s syndrome understood English better than some of my high school kids. Her “too shy” friend was the same. The girl had a great imagination and was a good artist (I had thought she’d drawn some Pokemon I hadn’t seen before, but it turned out they were just her own ideas). The girl with polio? She might have had trouble walking, but she had her own way of running. All three girls were pretty happy kids, high functioning, and only limited by having to go at a slower speed because they were studying with classmates who had mental disabilities.

I did, however, have down’s syndrome students who, if it were up to me, would have been in a mainstream school. “Alex” (not his real name) was actually quite amazing. He was an elementary school student with not only down’s syndrome but another growth problem that made him much shorter than most kids his age. At about nine years old, he only stood maybe two and a half feet tall. Like many kids with his disability, he has a tongue that’s slightly too big for his mouth, so talking for him was more difficult. Somehow though, his English accent is quite good, even if he doesn’t speak more than perhaps three words at a time. He understands what’s being said and was able to play “Simon Says” quite well after only a few mistakes. He could even sometimes give answers his “normal” peers couldn’t. Teachers worried about him because of his height, but he was allowed to move around on his own and even led me to the teacher’s office by himself once. This kid was less disruptive and much smarter than the down’s syndrome kids I had classes with in “regular” elementary school.

Special Needs in “Normal” Schools

Japanese-Classroom

Photo by Angie Harms

I don’t want to demonize the special schools or “normal” students though. The situation is simply different, partially due to how people choose to raise their kids. There are kids who have real problems whose parents put them in regular schools. I had two students (in separate classes) in the same school who had aspergers syndrome. It wasn’t mild either. It was immediately apparent that there was something different with these students. Oddly enough, both loved English and would often be the loudest or most outspoken person in the class, but the similarities ended there.

One boy had friends, or so it seemed, since he lives in my neighborhood and I’ve seen his friends wave him over to join them. However, he craves attention, not just from his classmates, but teachers also. He studies a lot, but because of his condition, it’s obvious that some of the most important lessons he’s learning aren’t in his books. Being in a normal school has probably helped him a lot, yet he still misses a lot of social cues. He asks odd questions and takes things (at least in English) far too literally, which has caused some confusion and hurt feelings when he thinks another teacher or I are upset with him. Overall though, I think he’s having a good experience, and his parents made the right choice to keep him mainstream.

The girl, on the other hand, might need some more attention. While outspoken, she seems to fear her classmates at times, and her classmates are often silent if she says anything. For example, at the start of class, when the students are normally expected to greet me in unison, the other students are mostly silent and allow the girl to speak directly to me. Of course, she wants the teachers’ attention, but that’s not exactly seen as a positive attribute. There’s some giggling, but I haven’t seen people really try to hurt her beyond that. Other students seem to try to work with her in class, even if they think no one’s watching, but it seems like she’s more comfortable working on her own, even in group. If she thinks I’m upset with her, she’ll almost be afraid of me, sometimes for a whole month (and I only might see her once a week at most). A specialist might be able to help her, especially if she had some one-on-one time with someone at the school. I’m glad she’s not at a special school, but at the same time, it feels like our school isn’t quite equipped to help her.

Slightly related are my students who are in regular classes but deemed unfit for the classroom and sent to a different room for independent study. Some teachers will tell me the student has a mental disorder but have no name for it, while other teachers will tell me that said student is bullied and the disorder is a made up as an excuse to separate the child. One child studies alone, and I only see them when I have to give them a test, which they take in a separate room, sometimes with an off-duty teacher there to monitor them.

Differently-abled

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Photo by ykanazawa1999

Japan’s reputation for helping the handicapped is deservedly mixed. The blind and the deaf seem to be well taken care of, and those with certain physical handicaps are slowly getting more tools to help them. However, mental disabilities are still a very difficult topic. The line between who has a disability and who doesn’t is further blurred by social problems under the same category from my western perspective; problems ranging from weight to bullying. While there are employment opportunities for the disabled, financial independence is difficult for them. As the this article mentions, 30,000 yen a month really isn’t a living wage. No country’s perfect in their treatment of the handicapped, but the situation in Japan is overall different (not better or worse) than what we may be used to at home.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Why Japan Laughs At Zombies http://www.tofugu.com/2014/06/24/why-japan-laughs-at-zombies/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/06/24/why-japan-laughs-at-zombies/#comments Tue, 24 Jun 2014 16:00:40 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=40561 If you think about it, Japan is almost the perfect setting for zombie fiction: densely populated cities, sprawling subway system, small island nation—add a zombie outbreak and I’d watch that movie. However, nine times out of ten in Japanese zombie movies, instead of seeing a slow, deliberate, creepy film where the shambling hordes of the undead shuffle through crowded Tokyo subways spreading their deadly plague, you often get this:

zombie-ass-poster

Finally, a zombie film that’s also about poop!

or else you get this:

hell-driver

A scenery-chewing Power Rangers-style villain and wacky action sequences

Japanese zombie films are almost exclusively horror comedies and typically come in two flavors: zombie movies with farcical comedy elements built into the plot, or zombie kung-fu movies with farcical comedy elements built into the plot (With movies like “Versus”, “Wild Zero”, and “Zombie Self Defense Force”, this is apparently a thriving genre in Japan) . Both are executed with tongue-firmly-in-cheek and very thick layers of camp.

If the zombies aren’t playing an over-the-top game of kung-fu baseball against our protagonists, like in “Battlefield Baseball,”

Battlefield-Baseball

Then they are the background of a romantic-horror-comedy with the main character’s impending zombification as the crux of the plot, like “Life is Dead.” Let’s not fail to mention that he contracted the virus by having sexual intercourse with a zombie prostitute.

Life-is-Dead

Zombies are parodied further in manga like “Kore wa Zombi Desu Ka” and “Tokyo Zombie.” The latter also got a movie treatment featuring two friends who are factory workers and, of course, martial arts masters squaring off against legions of the undead in a zombie kung-fu horror comedy (Jeez, they really are THAT popular).

tokyo-zombie

There are even movies that push the horror elements fairly well but still seem overly interested with parodying the genre, making jokes, and having creepy comedy elements. A good example of this is “Stacy: Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies.” The title and many of the visuals are used for cheap shock value, with over-the-top gore and wacky sight gags aplenty. The filmmakers also keep up a near constant barrage of self-aware references to pioneers of the modern zombie film like George Romero and Sam Raimi.

stacy-attack-of-the-zombie-schoolgirls

Why are zombies so often seen as clowns in Japanese media? Despite the fact that a zombie clown could actually be a very scary prospect, the tendency in Japanese media is to use zombies for comedic relief instead of pants-wetting horror. While a lot of this comes from the subversive nature of Japanese cinema, there are a couple of cultural theories that could help to explain this:

Why Zombies DON’T Scare Japanese People

They’re Foreign

uncle-same-zombie

Photo by Joe Mabel

Just like vampires, werewolves, and several other horror beasties, the zombie is not native to Japan. Japanese interactions with the undead are limited to spirits, certain yokai, and sometimes the Chinese Jiangshi (hopping corpse). After the zombie boom of the 1990s, which followed the popularity of the Romero movies, Zombies began to get more international appeal and Japan got on board the zombie train.

However, the foreign-ness of zombies never seems to leave the Japanese consciousness when they are making zombie media. It’s similar to American-made ninja or kaijuu movies— very similar if you consider how ridiculous some American ninja movies are. For this reason, invoking zombies in a Japanese movie is often considered referential of Western pop culture and because of that is often approached from a more ironic or humorous angle. This is perhaps why, when Japanese creators tackle the subject matter in a more straightforward and less subversive way, such as in “Dead Rising,” “House of the Dead” or the “Resident Evil/Biohazard” games, they are always set in the Western world and not in Japan.

They’re Not Ghosts

Yotsuya-Kaidan

Historically, ghosts have captured the imaginations and fears of Japanese people far more than any promise of the corporeal undead ever has. There are a handful of reasons for this. Firstly, the Japanese traditionally cremate their deceased. Because of this, the iconic imagery of zombies rising from the grave is not only culturally disconnected from the mainstream its also completely impossible to depict realistically in Japan. Second, there is a rich history surrounding the existence of ghosts and spirits in Japan where zombies are not only the new kids on the block, but they are also seen as more outlandish and, as such, carry less weight in a horror movie. If the movie is meant to scare you, Japanese film might lean in the direction of a ghost story before using something with a physical body. Zombies just don’t have the same creep factor as a ghostly hand on your shoulder that slinks away when you stop to notice it. I mean how can they, because, well,

They’re Clumsy

clumsy-zombie

Let’s face it, traditional depictions of zombies aren’t really THAT menacing. The idea is that they are slow and lumberingly incompetent by themselves but in a massive horde can quickly become a problem— a slow moving problem, but a problem nonetheless. This can go south for moviemakers because the slow movements, imperviousness to damage, lack of awareness when limbs fall off, and tendency to trip, slip, and look silly causes zombies to be a big unintentional source of physical comedy. There is not a single movie that I mentioned above that didn’t feature at least one scene where a zombie was flailing around humorously or otherwise used for a visual joke. Zombies are just silly-looking sometimes. Several western depictions of zombies have abandoned the slow moving schtick of the past for the swift-moving predatory “infected” model from “28 Days Later” or “Left 4 Dead.” I can’t help but think this is due at least slightly to the fact that you can only generate so much tension in a scene where your main antagonist is moving at the speed of smell and in danger of falling down at any given moment.

They’re Everywhere

zombie-horde

This is definitely a big factor for any filmmaker approaching a zombie movie, Japanese or otherwise. Creators have to spend a bit of time digging around in the barrel of creativity going, “what else have we got?” It can’t just be zombies anymore. It has to be zombies with this or zombies with that. Between movies, video games, board games, card games, television shows, podcasts, t-shirts, and anything and everything else, we have over saturated the universe with zombie media. We’re approaching a zombie singularity where every movie will either have a zombie in it or a superhero. Even in Japan, which has much less of an infatuation with zombies than the West, the feeling has started to emerge that they are running out of fresh twists on the zombie formula and that’s a driving force in leading Japanese filmmakers to continue creating weird and wacky films. Zombies have reached the point where they are so played out that, frankly,

They Don’t Mean Anything Anymore

night_of_the_living_dead

Zombies have worked as a scare in the past, not just by relying on blood and gore, but because they were representative of the perceived social ills and legitimate concerns of the filmmakers. In the same way that the original 1954 “Godzilla” endures because it’s a striking nuclear allegory, George Romero’s “Dead” films (the movies that for better or for worse started this modern zombie craze) endure because they dealt with issues like government ineptitude and unchecked commercialism. Romero’s zombies represented the fear of individuality being wiped out and absorbed into a mass consumer horde—fears that don’t resonate with the rather collectivist Japanese population. Zombies also represented the concept of the “other,” something that is different from you that swoops in and grows until you are pushed out of your rightful place. This is a very common fear to play on in the West, but something that a largely homogenized society like Japan’s didn’t readily cling to.

Even the more universal themes that could’ve made zombies frightening to the Japanese, such as the fear of spreading illnesses or the abuse of nuclear and biological weapons, have now been so watered down in the media that they too have lost their resonance. The iconic imagery of a walking human corpse has been used and reused and recycled and overused and reiterated and distilled until it doesn’t actually stand for much of anything any more. Sprint has used them to sell cell phones for goodness sake! A zombie is no longer an icon of fear. A zombie is just a zombie: A disposable rotting mook. If that’s all they are, why not throw them into kung-fu movies where filmmakers are always looking for hordes of something or other to have their stars punch their way through? I mean, it’s not like they matter—they’re just zombies!

Now if you’ll excuse me—I have some Japanese zombie movies to catch up on.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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City Life Outside Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto http://www.tofugu.com/2014/06/19/city-life-outside-tokyo-osaka-and-kyoto/ http://www.tofugu.com/2014/06/19/city-life-outside-tokyo-osaka-and-kyoto/#comments Thu, 19 Jun 2014 16:00:17 +0000 http://www.tofugu.com/?p=40235 My mouth was hanging open and I know I was being rude, but it was really hard to pull myself together. The woman I was speaking with was from one of the top Japanese Universities. She has had international relationships, traveled the world, and done work that most foreign anime fans would kill to see. Someone with her experiences, to me, should be open-minded about other cultures and lifestyles. Just the same, I can’t help but to be bothered by what she said: “I feel like anything outside Tokyo’s 23 wards is inaka.”

Most of what you read about Japan and Japanese culture will come from people living in Tokyo. Some of it comes from people in Osaka, Kyoto, or sometimes Okinawa, since the base is there. But in general, Tokyo is seen as the center of the Japanese world.

While people say my new Japanese hometown is inaka, or “countryside,” I can walk to several malls from my house, take a free shuttle to the outskirts of town for even more shopping, and walk by a few schools on the way to work. My town even has its own line from Tokyo that comes by every thirty minutes or so. To me, this sounds like a city but to others, this is a countryside town.

Anything Outside the 23 Wards is Inaka

Chiba-City-Port-Inaka

Photo by Otota DANA

My companion’s quote from the start of the article is one reason why some Japanese people, both inside and outside of Tokyo, look down on the Tokyo citizens.  This isn’t a random saying. I’ve heard it several times and every time I’ve brought it up to people who have talked about Tokyo being “different” from the rest of the country, people sort of shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s Tokyo.”

Now, to be clear, “the 23 wards” is specifically the 23 special wards (tokubetsu ku). Looking over that list might seem a bit funny, since you’ll notice Chiba, home of Tokyo Disneyland, is not in that list. That’s right! Some people think Disneyland is out in the “inaka.” In California, Disneyland’s practically considered it’s own city. It was at this point I had to start asking Japanese people an important question: “What does inaka mean?”

Often, people usually just use what they read in the dictionary, but I learned fast that “countryside” in American English is much different than in Japanese English. For me, countryside means farms. Countryside is driving to see your closest neighbor, riding tractors for work and pleasure, and being able to immediately tell who’s from your town just by looking at them.

When I say this to Japanese people and ask them to explain inaka, the joke is always the same: “Inaka is anything outside of Tokyo.” Osaka and Kyoto, for many, aren’t inaka, but Sapporo, which is one of the few parts of the country where this legendary thing called “insulated housing” exists, is inaka. Okinawa, in general, is kind of seen as “not Japanese” mainly due to the military base and the fact that the people there are viewed as different (you’ll hear about “Okinawa time” if anyone wants to joke about being an hour late). In fact, one person I spoke with said that most people, in general, can refer to their hometown as their inaka, but a person from Tokyo would never dare to do this.

I bring this up not only to make a point about the way Japanese people seem to feel about the word inaka, but to illustrate that Japanese people might think you are from the inaka.

Despite the fact that the cheapest houses in my hometown in America are over a million dollars, have Malibu-priced clothing stores, and a golf course built by Donald Trump, I was assured that, because there is one convenience store, no train, no game center, and no bars, my city surely must be inaka.

Everyday Life in a City that isn’t Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto

Inaka-Alley

Photo by Takato Marui

So you might be wondering how “bad” it really is out here. Truthfully, I’m living in a city, at least by American standards. Great bus and train systems, tons of malls and movie theaters, some of the major stores people visit Tokyo to see, game centers, golfing… and a few rice paddies. Not many, but there are some. Imagine a fashionable mall, famous manga store, well-respected school with a strong baseball team, and major supermarket, all within walking distance, with maybe one field of rice. Honestly, the place is so city that I don’t think I would willingly eat any rice that grew in that field. I swear, it’s in front of a bus stop.

I can still buy some imported stuff, but it’s expensive. Raw peanuts and walnuts, canned pumpkin, oatmeal, peanut butter, buffalo wing sauce… I’ve seen tons of stuff from home, but not at the prices I’d be willing to pay unless desperate (I’m looking at you, pumpkin!). Clothes in my size, however, require a trip to Tokyo or other non-inaka city, except for when I go bowling. Yes, I can get shoes in my size at the alley.

Oddly enough, after having lost weight, I’ve had a really hard time finding an affordable belt in my size (I’m cheap). The pants are often too short here, but the belts, oddly enough, tend to be too large! If you’re a big guy or gal, you can get a decent belt here, even at a 100 yen shop.

For food, while people complain about the price of vegetables and fruits, you just have to make due with the local foods rather than try to rely on what you used to eat. Onions, especially nira, a grass-like green onion, are rather inexpensive. Potatoes aren’t that bad for the small sizes you can buy, garlic is well priced, and, for fruit, look out for mikan (it’s very similar to a tangerine) in the winter and apples in the fall

However, one really big difference is that non-Asian foreigners really stand out. If gaikokujin in Tokyo complain about it, consider it at least twice as bad outside of the city. I’ll discuss this more in the future, but oddly enough, not every foreigner out here is a native English speaker.

Now, to be blunt: outside the major cities, foreigners are not super common and the traditional Japanese politeness may start to go out the window. My second month in Japan, an old Japanese man rode up to me on his bike, jumped off, and started staring at me, just inches from my chest (he wasn’t very tall). This was in the middle of a popular shopping street that always has a few black guys standing outside their American fashion shop, so I didn’t think I’d be that interesting. The guy was amazed, and said something I didn’t fully catch, so my friend translated it: “He says, ‘Is your beard real?’”

The beard wasn’t the end of it. In bathrooms, both young children and old men will lean over to check out my, ah, “foreign member.” Some don’t even hide their curiosity, which is why I am completely uncomfortable going to any onsen other than the ones just for your feet. It’s not as bad as the “bigu dikku” comments black men have to endure (at least, I imagine it’s not), but it’s still rather uncomfortable.

Any stories you’ve heard about kids and a certain “game” involving the thrusting of fingers towards the anus are real. I’ve only had one kid try to pull it on me, and it was a little girl. Apparently she had never tried to do that with the Japanese teachers, but the teachers laughed when she tried it with me. I try to be open-minded about different cultures, but having a child do that to a grown man in public, especially a teacher, just doesn’t seem “okay” to me. It’s funny looking back at it now, but at the time, I was pretty surprised at the “kids will be kids” reaction, rather than the “Sweet Siddhartha, what in Buddha’s name do you think you’re doing!?” reaction I expected from such a bold move.

For me, what’s more interesting is how, if you’re a foreigner, anyone with you becomes foreign, unless you’re approached while they’re speaking Japanese. I’ve had Japanese friends accused of being foreigners by little Japanese kids who just walked up to us and said “Gai(koku)jin(foreigner (foreign person))?” It’s not totally bad though, because then the kids try the very little English they know and will ask the Japanese person for some help. It’s a great time to prep the young generation for dealing with foreigners in perhaps a more respectable manner the next time they bump into one. What’s funnier is when I’m with a non-native Asian person who speaks little to no Japanese while I do some very basic translating for them. More on that later though.

There is a lot of good that comes with the not-so-good. People are usually friendly. Even when I’m “scary”, people will warm up to me if given enough time. Kids and old people I walk by everyday say “hi” or at least greet me. Store owners I can barely talk to and whose stores I barely shop at will greet me. Some even throw in small gifts from time to time (thanks for the little scoops of potato-salad, yakitori-ya no obaachan!). As an introvert, the extra attention isn’t exactly desired but, when I’m having a rough day or if I’m starting to question why I stay in this country, the positive aspects and seeing people grow a little through interaction can really make my day.

Japanese People Don’t Speak English, But They Understand It

Japanese-English-Sign

Photo by bonovox84

Despite the fact that very few people spoke English to me when I first came to Tokyo ten years ago, I remember getting a strong feeling Japanese people understood my English. For that matter, they understood the groups of Europeans who sat around in cafes and slammed Japanese culture, turning noisy cafes dead silent.

If there is one thing I want people to take away from this article, both for those in Tokyo and the inaka, it is “don’t slam Japan in English!” If you must, do it in Spanish, German, Mandarin, Arabic, or any other language but English. English is pretty much the only foreign language Japanese people study, and it’s mandatory. Japanese borrows tons of English words. You’ve heard seemingly random English words in J-Pop, Japanese commercials, and anime, right? Even in the inaka, English is scattered here and there, from tourist attractions to school club posters for the Tea Ceremony club. Japanese people may not speak a word of Japanese to you, but they’ve learned at least six years of English if they’re an adult. They might not understand the difference between “on the computer” versus “in the computer” but they certainly understand when you say, “They’re too polite!” I’ve heard stories from Japanese friends about foreign businessmen saying overtly sexual things about Japanese girls in their elevator thinking the girls didn’t understand them. They did, and those women felt deeply ashamed by the situation. Don’t be the foreigner in those stories!

Let’s switch gears to something a bit more positive. I said the Japanese understand English, right? Even out here, with my poor Japanese, I can usually overcome the language barrier if I speak slowly and try switching my vocabulary. My father doesn’t natively speak English, so I do have a lot of experience communicating with non-native speakers. I think patience is the real secret for adjusting and making connections.

Because Japanese people spend so much time on translating and very little time using the language, they are sometimes literally afraid to speak English. I mean shaking, almost crying, deeply-ashamed-to-try-and-communicate kind of afraid. During one instance, a grown man, upon finding out that the woman I was with was Taiwanese-American, not Japanese, and that I was the one that spoke Japanese, turned obviously pale when I spoke to him in Japanese. He never tried to respond to me, he just kept trying to speak in Japanese to the “Asian” person.

And that’s one thing you’ll need to get used to. While in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, Japanese people may be willing to try to use some English with you, outside, more often than not, people will simply talk to you in Japanese and hope that you can repeat their “translation trick” with their langauge. Despite how often I visit Tokyo, it’s still often a surprise to me when someone replies to my Japanese in English. Out here, even with some Japanese teachers of English, I’m used to getting Japanese replies.

If the example of me being ignored in favor of my Taiwanese companion didn’t reveal the next point I want to cover, than allow me to be frank: even when Japanese people understand you, in English or Japanese, Japanese people may sometimes ignore you or your request if it conflicts with their expectations. Not just in everyday life, but at work as well, and it will primarily be based on what’s expected. For example, during a self introduction, I had a teacher translate that “I hate McDonald’s” into “daisuki” (love) McDonald’s. I even said it in Japanese, but it wasn’t until I explained that I never eat there, I think the food is mazui (unappetizing), and that would rather cook for myself that the teacher believed I knew what I was saying. This has happened when I’ve only asked for one bag for all my souvenirs instead of one for each item, that I didn’t need chopsticks for take-out, or that I didn’t need a fork for my katsu. It happens kind of often in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, but much more often in the inaka. At first, some Japanese co-workers and friends who are good at English didn’t quite believe my experience, but upon witnessing it, became very protective and supportive of me. It can be difficult to keep learning Japanese when your correct Japanese produces opposite results.

I haven’t lived everywhere in Japan. Some people will have different experiences than me, or find what I said to be the complete opposite of their experience. And that’s fine! I encourage people to share their adventures in the comments. This is, however, a collection of what I’ve found to be the most common situations for myself and others from various locations around Japan.

Tokyo may have a lot more imported goods, stylish shops, theme parks, and foreigner-acclimated locals, but life in the inaka is still good. Just different. Foreigners can make a much bigger impact, exposing both young and old to different cultures and slowly showing them that we don’t all fit certain stereotypes. If you’re trying to learn Japanese, living in the inaka will force you into situations where your Japanese will improve. Japanese locals won’t always believe you know what you’re talking about, but it’s better than in Tokyo where, no matter how hard to try to only speak Japanese, they keep replying in English. And your inaka experiences will at least make for some decent stories. After all, Japan is much more than what many travelers experience in Tokyo and some of the “smaller” cities.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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