Japan Christmas '93: The Veneer is wearing thin...

Well another year has rolled by - rather quickly it seems to me- and I'm still in Japan. (Probably surprises me as much as you. I'm sitting here listening to Christmas music - of all things! Actually, one of my students wanted to learn a song called "Last Christmas". I often use music to teach English. I give them a copy of the song with some of the words blanked out and then they must listen to the song and fill in the missing words'. "Last Christmas" is a soppy love song - which is what most Japanese think about Christmas - the love part, not the soppy part. So Christmas is a very romantic time for all the Japanese girls and it has nothing to do with Christmas as we see it in the west. One of the big treats that a man can give his girlfriend or wife is to book a fancy hotel for Christmas Eve and spend the night there - just the two of them. Ordering the best room service in the best hotels. Just try to find a hotel in Japan on Christmas Eve! It's very strange to be here at this time. The stores are full of Christmas displays. Santa Claus mixed in with the Manger of Christ and the Three Wise Men. Christmas music bombards you everywhere you go. Almost all in English. Yet what's missing is any kind of Christmas spirit. It's just another working day for them. I have to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day-not even any concessions because you're a foreigner. The big thing here is Christmas Cake. Not anything like what you'd imagine it to be, but basically a fancy cake with lots of icing and decorations - again mostly on the romantic theme. These cakes are only good up until Christmas Day - after that they're garbage. They have a saying here about girls that aren't married by the time they're 25 - they're Christmas Cake. After 26, the women, like the cake, are no good any more.

As you know, I've been here for two years now. And as you can see, some of the veneer is starting to wear thin. When I first arrived in Japan everything was
wonderful and quite interesting. However, after two years some of the romance
dies and you begin to see the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies of Japan. So I'll take you through some strange but true stories from the land of the rising sun. Let's start with the language. I'm trying to learn Japanese and it's extremely frustrating. To begin with they have four different systems of writing. When you try to read a newspaper you must contend with four alphabets on the front page. The easy one is called Romanji - which is our alphabet - this one I can handle! Next we have two quite similar alphabets called Hiragana (70 letters) and Katakana (85 letters). These are virtual duplicates of each other in what they stand for.

Japanese is a syllabic language - sa, ta, na, ha, ka, etc. and every thing gets turned into syllables - McDonalds becomes Makudonarudo. Hiragana and Katakana letters each represent a syllable. This would be very easy if they would just choose one and be done with it. But no, that would be too easy for the Japanese. You must use Hiragana for Japanese words and Katakana for foreign words. An English word like steak becomes suteki -and is said the same way - not sounding at all like it would in English. Which would also be livable but there are many other reasons why you might use Katakana - like if you think that the person you're writing to has forgotten the Kanji. Now we come to Kanji - which is the Chinese characters everyone has heard about. They're difficult, yet not as bad as it might seem to write, that is. With some effort they can be learned. Yet each Kanji has at least two and often up to six sounds associated with it depending on where it is placed in the word or what the word is. The Kanji for 'man' and is pronounced 'otoko'. But when it is used with another Kanji it can be pronounced 'dan' or 'nan'. So, often you have to read a word backwards in order to figure out the correct pronunciation. I'm pulling my hair out!!! interestingly enough, the Kanji for man is made up of two other Kanji- the Kanji for 'rice field' and the Kanji for 'power' – interesting huh!. The Kanji for 'woman' is supposed to be a pictorial representation of a woman in a kimono – no sexism there huh... I calculate that a child spends the major part of his first six years in school just learning how to read. We teach our children to read English in the first grade.

After learning the basics of the English alphabet in a very short time, a person can sit down with an English newspaper and dictionary, and easily, but laboriously, work his way through an, article and translate it to your native language. With Japanese, you need three dictionaries and you need to know most of the language before you begin.

This difficulty in being able to read the language has kept the Japanese apart from ,@-he rest of the world - particularly the west. As a result of this difficulty, communication between the east and west is often misunderstood. And while Westerners often have a very warped view of Japan, the Japanese view of the west is often more warped. Last year at Halloween, a Japanese student was shot in the US. The student was invited to a Halloween party. He was dressed in a costume with a mask. He and his friend went to the wrong house and went in the back yard. Knocked on the door. The owner came out with a gun. Ordered the two young men to go away. He hollered "Freeze". The student didn't understand and moved towards the owner and the man shot the student. The man was acquitted. It was a tragic mistake. And, in my opinion, the man acted a bit hastily. Everyone, and I mean everyone in Japan knew about it. It was major news in every media. Talk show would spend hours teaching their audience what "freeze" meant. As a result, most Japanese think the west is a terrible place where everyone has guns and shoot each other. They are terrified of the west. The student's mother and father presented President Clinton with a petition, with a million odd signatures, for gun control. Foreigners are constantly being asked what they think of this. Some of my students are going to the US and they're very afraid. At the same time they think of themselves as being totally peace loving and Japan as being a very safe country to live in. And, yes it is a safe country to live in. Yet they ignore reports of cruelty and aggression that Westerners would be appalled at. I recently read an article about a boss beating his employee to death. Now fair enough, any one can go off his rocker. But this guy had beat up 10 other employees over the course of the last 13 years and no one reported him because they were afraid of losing their job. This last beating went on for four hours and coworkers could hear the man moaning. But no one did anything about it. It amazes me that this kind of thing can go on. I tell people that this is why Americans have guns - I'm sure that the first guy to get
beaten up would have either gone to the police or gone home and got his gun and shot the boss - a just end. Similarly, there are many stories of bullying in the schools. And many times the offending student has been beaten to death. Not only don't the Japanese notice this kind of thing but the mindset seems to be that it's part of keeping the offender in line. A Japanese proverb says that the nail which sticks up must always be pounded down. I'm sure that everyone knows that the Japanese are known for their hard work. Yet many die of this overwork. Japanese is probably the only language that has a special word just for this kind of death. As a matter of fact, more people have died of overwork in Japan than have been killed by guns in the US. So, which place is more dangerous?

One thing you notice in Japan is that everyone smokes. There is no such thing as a no smoking area in a restaurant. As restaurants are small and crowded and often have just long counters to sit at, it can be quite annoying when halfway through your meal, the man sitting at your elbow decides to light up. Yet the cancer rate is very low in Japan. According to statistics that is. You see it's a social stigma to die of cancer and sheds a bad light on the family. So, if you have cancer, there's a good chance that a) the doctor won't even tell you that's what you have, and b) if you die of it, it won't be recorded as your cause of death. So Japan has a low cancer rate - don't you see! Another interesting chuckle just happened to me tonight. The Japanese place a lot of importance on blood type. They think you can tell a person's personality by his blood type and I am often asked what my blood type is- usually just out of interest. There's a new video rental place just opened up close to my apartment and I went there to rent a video. I had to fill out an application to get a rental card - and I had to fill in my blood type on the form - I couldn’t believe it! Only in Japan!

Japan is definitely a place of opposites. One the one hand, the Japanese can be very kind and helpful to you. When you first arrive here you are treated like a king. People smile at you and offer to take you out. Invite you to parties - always at restaurants - never at home. Give you things. Are very solicitous of you well being, etc. Yet after a year or so you begin to realize that it's mostly a facade and that underneath there is a great xenophobia and fear and discomfort with foreigners. When I walk into a small restaurant or a group of people see me on the street, they will often all of a sudden break into trying to speak their three words of English. Not to me mind you, but to each other! After two years here, people are still amazed that I can use chopsticks. I am asked if I can eat sushi and rice - and they're surprised that I can. They're amazed that there are cherry tress in Canada - only Japan has all these marvelous cherry trees and only Japan has four seasons (most of them cold!) and the most perfect climate in the world - all this according to the Japanese. There is a combination of arrogance and naivete and shame and self consciousness that's quite intriguing. They are adopting the American culture at alarming rate. Most things American are quite revered - mostly clothing and food. We have McDonalds, Hagen Daz, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's, and Baskin Robbins everywhere. And Toy's R Us. The Japanese also think that no one else can learn their language. It's frustrating to sit in a restaurant with a Japanese friend and try to order something. I can say it in perfect Japanese five times and the waitress will look stupefied as to what I'm saying. Then my Japanese friend will say it the exact same way and the waitress will understand. I often get hired to do voice-overs in TV commercials. Not in English - in Japanese. Why? Because they want it to sound like a foreigner said the words - to get attention I suppose. Japanese is very flat intonation, monotone, while English intonation fluctuates greatly. The other day I did a commercial and said my Japanese line. The sound engineer came back and told me he wanted me to say it like a foreigner would say it, what I said sounded too much like a Japanese - it was too perfect. (Read that last sentence again - it's true!)
The sad thing is that no matter how long you remain in Japan you will always be treated the same way. Partly this is due to a western person's high visibility, but a lot is due to the Japanese inability to deal with a westerner. Their philosophy is to keep it light and smile a lot and keep those foreigners at a distance. The result is that it's very difficult to develop a friendship with a Japanese. A surface friendship yes. But something of substance and shared ideas and experience - very difficult unless the person has lived in the west for a few years. I usually start my classes by asking the students some questions like "How was your weekend?" "What did you do last night/weekend?" etc. Something that is normal for us when we meet our own workers or friends after a short absence. I asked my students if they did this in
Japan - in Japanese. - And they wouldn't dare do it in Japan. They are extremely close mouthed about their activities. Friendships are based on starting in the company in the same year or having an interest in the same hobby or sport team. Even then there doesn't seem to be a great exchange of ideas in the same way we do. Consequently, we seem too inquisitive and pushy to the Japanese and the Japanese seem very cold to us. Perhaps the hardest thing that I've found here is the loneliness that comes from not being able to communicate opinions and feelings to another person - even it that person speaks quite good English. As a result there is a tendency to form friendships with the foreign community where you can at least be understood and can express yourself. Westerners often get together for a session of 'Japan Bashing' as it's called and talk about their strange experience in living here. It can relieve some of the frustrations but it can also be tiresome.

Well, enough about Japan. I'm surviving in spite of all that. I had a great trip to Canada in the spring and it was great to see many of you - even if my visits were short. My summer was a series of ups and downs. Shortly after I got back I had another visit from my friendly kidney stone and I spent a few days in the hospital getting rid of it. Then in September I had an accident on my mountain bike. I was riding home one night and someone had left a board propped up right across the path I usually take home. It was in a dark area and I didn't see it until too late. I crashed into it and went flying over the handle bars. Cracked my elbow and had it in a cast for the next month. It's OK now but it's still a bit sore sometimes. I'm still playing at Jacky's Bar and this summer I went to El Patio Dude Ranch with Jacky and some of the crew. We went horseback riding - for half an hour!
Understatement is lost on the Japanese. But the countryside in that area was quite beautiful. I wanted to get out into the countryside more but was at a loss how to do this without a car. So I advertised for someone with a car who wanted to learn English. And now I have someone who wants to learn English and we go for a drive in the country and I teach her English while I get to see the countryside. We've gone on several pleasant outings and visited places that I normally wouldn't have been able to go - beaches and forests, etc. A few weeks ago we went to a town
know for it's onsen (hotsprings) and it reminded me of the small tourist towns in BC - with a Japanese flavour of course. The quaint inns and handicraft shops and special stores that cater to the tourists. We also went to two onsens - pools, feed by hot springs, and set in rocks and trees in typical Japanese style. It was very pleasant. What is quite noticeable though is that the natural light is different here. It's duller than I'm used to in Canada. Which make the colors seem faded and grayish. A fellow teacher showed me some pictures of her trip to Chile and the
difference in lighting was the first thing I noticed - how bright is was in comparison Japan.

My plans for the future are a bit unsure at the moment. I'd like to stay here for a while longer but I'm also thinking of going back to university for a while to take an MA in teaching English as a Second Language. I'm applying to universities but won't find anything out until next spring. So I'll have to let you know next year what happens. I'm enjoying teaching very much and would like to get into teaching at the high school or college level - but I need some more training for that.

My work is going OK - normal frustrations of working in a language school where the most important thing is not the students but the money. And teachers are way down the list. So sometimes we have to put up with things like going out and delivering school flyers (luckily only once a month) and generally being treated like an English teaching machine instead of a human being. Part of the reason I'd like to get into a more professional atmosphere. Christmas is coming up fast. I'm doing my Santa Claus bit again this year and singing Christmas songs at some Christmas parties. We get ten days holidays over Christmas and I'm really looking forward to it. I plan to just relax and sleep and go to the sauna a lot. Christmas is one of the few times that the Japanese get a long holiday so everyone travels and the airlines double their prices. So I decided not to go anywhere this Christmas. Actually, Christmas is not the holiday here - its New Years that is the big celebration - when most people go home to visit their families and friends. I wish I could do the same. But instead I'll wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - and all the best in 1994!


PS: Here's my new address


pH: (092) 612-6562


Copyright©2003 Braden Corby