Friday, August 21, 2009

Memo: English Teachers in Japan

Here is my cultural memo to those folks teaching English in Japan...I know, I know, you are really hip to the history and culture of Japan, and you don't need some guy named Mr. Kato to tell you what to do, but just please listen up for a second.

Until you've read the novel "Silence" by the Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo, then you don't know much about Japan. To understand Japan, you should understand what happened when Christianity began to get a foot hold in feudal Japan.

Now I know, you're a free-spirited, Zen-loving, (maybe even an athiest too) who doesn't judge the world or do an imposing - and becasue of your progressive outlook, you might even think that anything Christian or Catholic is simply some theological manifestation of "The Man" that always cut into your fun....but you'd be wrong to think so.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Japan in the Summer

How is the weather in Japan? Hot and humid I imagine. I, Mr. Kato (now referring to myself in the third person), am really happy that I'm away from the humidity and the cicadas of summertime Japan.

How's everybody doing as we enter the dog days of August?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Japanese Government to Send English Teachers Home

In a dramatic move yesterday, Japanese secretary of Labor Kaz Saito said that the Japanese government will pay to send English teachers of Ango-Saxon descent back to their country of origin. The initiative comes as Japan is paying unemployed Brazilians to go back to South America instead of going on welfare.

Details are sketchy, but English teachers who are at least 34% Anglo-Saxon or have an O positive blood type, will receive $3,000 for a plane ticket home. While English teachers haven't lost jobs in the way that Brazilian automotive workers have, the Japanese government is anticipating the eventual abandonment of the whole "learn English project in Japan."

English teachers from Canada, the U.S., Britain and Australia gathered in the streets of Roppongi for a short time, but quickly dispersed and passively retreated to izakayas to have drinking parties and "work off the stress" in an appropriate way.

"I'm in a state of shock," said Bill Jones, 28, from Milltown, Ohio. "In Japan I'm a pretty cool guy and everything, but back home I'm just an unemployed guy who knows nothing about football."

Prime Minister Aso ducked the issue at a press conference, but an anonymous government source said, "It's been admitted that English is a western force that we are sometimes uncomfortable with. Some in the world say we don't speak English very well. This, however, will prove to the world we don't speak English at all!"

Prof. Akihiro from Tokyo University saw the measure as a kind of long-overdue reform in Japanese culture. "In some ways it's a reversal of the whole Commodore Perry phase of Japanese history," he said. "Japan needs to learn more about itself by looking carefully at the Tokugawa period. " He emphasized that the constant fuss about English made the Japanese people feel somewhat inadequate, even nervous.

It's expected that those handful of Japanese people who are still interested in learning English, will have to fly to South Korea or China to find native English speakers and English schools. In contrast to the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese have embraced the idea of learning a lingua franca that gives them a powerful tool for interacting with the world.

"I think you'll find that when the dust settles," said Prof. Akihiro, "Japan will survive without English. You may recall that French was the language of the 18th century, but nobody in Japan knew a word of French then. We were okay just keeping to ourselves, perhaps the world will leave us alone once more."

(The above piece, of course, is satire.)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Spring Snow in Japan's Ishikawa Prefecture

Here is the evidence of a late-spring snowstorm about ten days ago in the village of Kashima in the Noto Peninsula area of Japan's Ishikawa prefecture. Needless to say there were no Sakura (cherry blossom) sightings that day.

Japanese Pay to Send Brazilian Immigrants Home

Of all the countries in the world, Japan is the last country that should be paying anyone to leave their soil. With a declining Japanese population and an increasingly insecure financial future, Japan should be finding a way to keep Brazilians and other South American immigrants in the country, even if they have to have them "on the doll" for a bit.

Japan is now paying to send recently unemployed South Americans of Japanese ancestry back to their country of origin, because they don't want to pay for their social welfare, and its very important to the Japanese that these contract or "temporary" workers get the ax long before any full-time salaried Japanese worker does. Fair enough...Yet this goes right to the heart of Japan's long-term resistance to a racially-integrated society, along with its attempts to maintain a rigid social stability no mater what.

Michael Zielenziger argues in his excellent book Shutting out the Sun that Japan will face a slow and inevitable economic, political and cultural decline if it doesn't take action on the following three items:

  • Open its borders to skilled immigrants who can help increase the sagging population, fill valuable employment vacancies and contribute to the tax base
  • Allow foreigners to invest in Japanese companies
  • Begin to teach English like you mean it (the way English in Japan is taught is a joke and everybody knows it); Fresh from a recent visit to Japan it seems that the country's English ability is actually in decline right now
I don't know if these goals are even remotely possible while the main players in Japanese culture refuse to engage in any reflection, openness or even to admit mistakes. I believe that Mr. Zielenziger is right in his recommendations - yet so what? Neither he nor I are Japanese, and its the Japanese themselves who will have to change.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Japan's Communists on Piracy in Somalia

Japan has agreed to send navy ships to the coast of Somalia to help combat pirates who are attacking cargo ships. This is good. Japan needs to do more of this. If you are a first-world nation that benefits from international trade, you need to help keep shipping lanes safe. Yet Japan's communist party doesn't see it that way.

A statement from our Japanese comrades:

"Japanese Communist Party Chair Shii Kazuo at a news conference on January 8 expressed opposition to the move to establish a new law to send a Self-Defense Force unit to waters off Somalia ostensibly to take part in anti-piracy operations to protect Japanese ships. "

"Ostensibly" to take part in piracy options? So this is all a ruse? I suppose Japan is really planning on colonizing east Africa. I see.

Our friends in red continue:

"The government has never attempted to dispatch a military vessel overseas for policing activity under the Self-Defense Forces Law. Shii said, 'Piracy is a criminal act that should be solved through police activity. It is wrong to call for Japanese warships to be deployed abroad.'"

Yes, piracy is a criminal act. Correct. So what's your point? This should be handled by Somalian policemen? Should we send Tokyo street cops in fishing vessels to handle things? If you thought that mainstream Japanese politicians were lost, you can take heart that the communists are really confused. Japan is trying to act like a responsible global citizen here, and forces within the country want Japan to stick its head back in the sand. Not good.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

North Korea to Launch Rocket Over Japan

Here's one important consequence of the constant political instability of Japan - other nations stop taking you seriously. Case in point: North Korea has announced it will launch a satellite-carrying rocket that will cross Japanese air space, and then land in the Pacific.

This is a provocative move by the North Koreans, and we learn that Prime Minister Aso's reaction was:

"The prime minister stopped short of demanding further U.N. sanctions if North Korea goes ahead with the launch."

All he can do is say: "If you do this, I might think about telling the UN." We know from experience with Iraq and Iran, that the UN means nothing to a country like North Korea. The sad reality is that Japan can't do anything. It doesn't have the military, economic or political muscle to do a single thing.

China, now that's a different story. If China wanted North Korea to back down, they could do it.

Another sign that Japan is fading into Geo-political irrelevancy.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Is Japan Closed Again?

After 150 years, is Japan closed for a second time? The fundamental tension in Japanese culture has always been between isolation on one hand and an undiscriminating love of all things foreign on the other.

(Photo courtesy of Toby Forage)

According to writer Gavin Blair, isolationism and an inward, domestic focus is now winning out in Japan. He writes about a new Japanese isolation in an article titled “More Japanese Shunning the Outside World” in Japan Today.

He begins:

“Today, it appears that Japan is increasingly looking inward and walling itself off from outside influences — a trend that’s showing up in everything from movies to music to learning languages.”

Okay, let’s see how he proves this thesis:

“‘When I was a university student, courses like English literature, German literature, French literature and foreign languages were difficult to get into, they were so popular,’ said Takashi Koyama, a professor at Akita International University. ‘Nowadays, those courses are struggling to get students.’”

Interesting. I know a Japanese woman in her 40s; she is quite literary and artistic. She knows the great books of western literature and, of course, plays the violin and loves western classic music. I wonder if she is a dying breed…It makes me think of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who has been largely influenced by American writers, but of course was born in 1949 to a very different generation.

Mr. Gavin then reminds the reader that it was only 150 years ago that Japan opened its borders to the outside world after being literally closed for 300 years. And then, of course, by the 1930s the problem with Japan was that it was all too interested in foreign countries, more specifically in invading them, and making them puppet states.

Gavin then focuses on the recent Oscar victory of “Okuribito” (Departures) in the foreign language film and what this might tell us. He mentions that Japanese films are doing better domestically, while Hollywood films are declining in popularity. He quotes a film distributor:

“‘Younger Japanese audiences don’t connect so strongly with Hollywood films recently,’ said Yusuke Horiuchi of Toho-Towa, which distributes overseas films in Japan.”

I’m not sure that proves much. I’m a 30-something American guy and I don’t connect with Hollywood films either. Maybe the Japanese can detect fluff and stupidity when the see it.

The writer then contrasts the strength of Japanese films, with the sad state of J-Pop, while still noting that Japanese pop music is outselling international pop music…That’s interesting, but not terribly shocking news.

He then jumps into some weightier matters regarding Japan cultural issues:

“The causes of this increase in parochialism are somewhat hard to identify. A sense of cultural pride, particularly among young people, has certainly developed regarding the popularity of Japanese manga, music and fashion.”

Okay, but can we logically conclude that “cultural pride” is what has lead to this inward, navel gazing now underway in Japanese culture? The French people, for example, are quite proud of French culture, but they are not easily described as parochial.

Continuing on:

“The 'hungry spirit' that drove Japan’s development from post-war decimation to economic superpower, has inevitably faded, and with it, the notion that interaction with the outside world is a necessity rather than a wish.”

The first part of this idea is spot on. Rebuilding Japan after World War II gave the Japanese people a real purpose for sure; and we should marvel at what Japan was able to achieve by the ‘60s and ‘70s. But I’d argue that this in and of itself, was all about Japan and not about being some engaged global citizen. I’m not sure that we can describe exporting Toyotas as a dramatic “interaction” with the outside word. It’s trade. The U.S. trades with China, but it’s hard to argue that China is having a great cultural influence on the U.S.

I think the next sentence is where Mr. Gavin is actually going with this:

“But whatever its roots, some are worried a rise in nationalist sentiment is mirroring this loss of interest in foreign languages and foreign affairs.”

And then he ends with…“Some observers in Japan however, no longer see creeping isolationism in a globalized 21st century as a laughing matter.”

Among many politicians in Japan, as well as foreigners with a progressive bent in Japan, there is the fear that any hint of Japanese cultural pride is a prelude to nationalism. This is irrational. There is a big difference between nationalism and Japanese patriotism, which must be fostered in young people.

Young Japanese people are taught to be weary of flags and national anthems and there is no way to justify this in the year 2009. A healthy Japanese national identity will not develop unless Japanese young people are first taught the truth about Japanese aggression in WW II, but then Japanese society was seriously reformed after the war. You don't think so? Look at the Emperor today - instead of being a god - he is treated more like the assistant deputy of agriculture, a nobody really.

I think the real danger for Japan, is not that it will once more become a global military bully (for it does not have the human capital or the natural resources to do so), but that it becomes a country forgotten by the 21st century economy, or perhaps even a victim of Chinese or Russian aggression.

Anyone who loves Japanese culture wants to see Japan have a role in Asian geo-politics, global economics and the cultural give-and-take of the great nations, but it seems instead that Japan is setting itself up for a slow, cranky retirement from the first order of nations.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Complaining Foreigners in Japan

I just ran across a great blog entry on complaining foreigners in Japan. Many of you who live (or have lived in) Japan have met just such people. They certainly aren't bad people, but they do make you wonder why they decided to live in Japan of all places. The entry is titled "The Profile of a Gaijin Whiner."

The writer describes this breed of gaijin (foreigner) in Japan:

"As I have established, the Gaijin Whiner is always looking to feel slighted by Japanese people. It fuels their self-centered world with quiet assurances that they are special and are being treated unfairly. So even when some unsuspecting Japanese person tries to help them out, in any fashion, but usually by speaking to the Gaijin Whiner in English, they have to turn it into a negative and complain."

This point is similar in some ways to observations I made about western feminism and Japanese women, where you have gaijin who want to "reform" Japan so that it is more western. Or more accurately we can say they want to decide what is "nice" about Japan, and also what is sexist, old-fashioned, boring, dull, annoying, etc.

Which begs the question, are these gaijin in love with Japan warts and all, or are they reformers and revolutionaries?...Maybe they are a bit of both...or maybe they are simply lost souls as many expaitriates truly are.

Japan Suicide Rate at Crisis Levels

The world has a basket full of problems right now; yet when 30,000 people take their own lives each year - as they do in Japan - you have to wonder what's going on in Japanese culture. The Japanese suicide rate now has seen 10 straight years (97-2007) of 30,000 suicides a year. So what's up with this tragic reality?

You want to be sensitive with a subject like this, but there are times when silence is itself a form of malice...Is anyone in Japan paying attention to Japanese suicide! Your neighbors, co-workers, grandfathers and nieces are killing themselves, do you wonder why?

And part of the problem in Japanese culture is a kind of overly-bureaucratic, sociological view of Japanese suicide. I cite a recent editorial in the Japan Times Online as a perfect example a certain view of suicide in Japan:

"It is likely that poor business conditions, overwork, unemployment, debts and depression lead people to contemplate suicide. Government and non-government organizations should work together to establish an efficient network in which unemployed workers can easily obtain counseling and advice."

Oh, gee thanks for this sensitive, empathetic analysis! Are we talking about municipal budget shortfalls here, or are we talking about human beings deciding it's better to be dead than alive? It's precisely this kind of dull, press-release sounding response which typifies the Japanese approach to Japan suicides.

And then, of course, the solution is that more "government and non-government organizations" should help out. What does that mean? How can a government give people hope? Is the UN supposed to come in and distribute self-help books and schedule counseling visits? I don't want to be glib, but the point must be made that we're not talking about tax issues here, but real spiritual and moral problems in Japanese culture.

I'm not a mental health professional, but I suspect that a bad economy, unemployment and debts don't generally cause people to kill themselves - these are 'final straw' issues if you will - but it is a long embedded despair which is the real culprit. A bad economy and severe unemployment describes the daily life of millions of people in Africa, Latin America and India, but we don't see the despair that we do in Japan.

Despair is the absence of hope. And hope is something that buffers people during hard times. When you have hope, you naturally look toward the future. One byproduct of hope is choosing to have children. Is it any surprise that the population in Japan is plunging, because Japanese people have stopped having babies?

I believe that this Japanese despair has much to do with its profoundly material and secular view of life. All of this makes sense coming out of the wreckage of WW II, but once people achieved great materiel wealth by the '70s and '80s, it was like, now what? Then came the bursting of the Japanese financial bubble in the '90s, and now the global recession that is starting to hit Japan. Money comes and goes, but hope, virtue and faith is something no economy can steal from you.

Though personally not a huge proponent of psychology as it's practiced these days, there certainly needs to be more acceptance of this tool in Japanese society. People should be able to say, "You know, I need some help here," and be able to get counseling without all the cultural taboos. But the larger survival of Japanese civilization involves having faith in something beyond themselves and material prosperity.

Let's hope and pray that the Japanese suicide rate starts plunging downward faster than the Japanese birth rate. And who knows, perhaps tough economic times may bring back an appreciation of family life, children and more simple pleasures; for only with family changes, can you expect significant changes to the society as a whole.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Japanese Business Culture and the Applogy

We’ve written about the Japanese apology culture in the past, and a recent article by Tomoko Otake in Japan Times Online beautifully chronicles how this plays out in Japanese business culture when a corporation gets into trouble.

The article on Japanese business etiquette describes a tragic incident involving a faulty elevator that led to the death of a young Japanese boy. The parent elevator company was Swiss, while the manufacturer was Japanese.

Ms. Otake correctly notes:

“A closer look at the company's handling of the event provides a cautionary tale for businesses operating in Japan, where a swift public apology after being linked to a scandal — regardless of who's chiefly to blame — is generally expected and taken for granted.”

Now this is part Japanese business etiquette and part Japanese culture. Apologizing in Japanese culture isn’t generally about guilt, but more about protocol.

In the west, with its Christian heritage, there is a close link between doing something wrong (sin) and personally repenting for it (confession); And this important aspect of western civilization is still practiced today in the Roman Catholic Church, which has never been a major cultural influence in Japan.

She quotes the executive of the Swiss elevator firm on his experience:

“‘I would say that our reaction was typically Western, especially an Anglo-Saxon type of reaction,' said Schindler… ‘When you are educated in, let's say, a multicultural environment as I was, and mainly in the United States, apologizing is always the admission of guilt. So not only by training as a lawyer, but genetically we are preprogrammed never to apologize until it is clear you are guilty."

Yes. I’d say that’s spot on – although I’m not sure what the U.S. being multicultural has to do with anything – and as far as saying it’s an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ reaction, I’d say that’s too narrow a perspective. I believe, as I've stated, that it’s the Christian underpinnings of western morality: admitting your sins before God is a serious act with eternal implications. It’s not strictly a sociological act as it is in Japan.

Ms. Otake continues:

“Indeed, in Japan, every time bad news breaks executives wearing uniformly dark-colored business suits meet the media, bow deeply and apologize profusely 'for causing a clamor' — though they are not always forthcoming about the details of the problem...Some even go as far as openly crying in front of television cameras to express remorse."

So true! And so Japanese! Can you imagine the c.e.o. of Enron, for example, crying and apologizing to the American people? No way! American executives are more likely to be found at a Jimmy Buffet concert in San Diego than prostrating in front of a camera crew.

I Like this writer very much! She doesn’t seem to be pro-Japanese or anti-Japanese in all the predictable ways – she’s interested in the truth of Japanese modern society. She then writes:

“Not that Japanese companies across the board are genuinely remorseful or have perfected the art of apology, either. Tatsumi Tanaka, in his 2004 book Sonna Shazai de wa Kaisha ga Abunai (Such Apologies Would Ruin Your Company), offers a long list of scandal-management flops by Japanese executives, who, despite apologizing, reinforced through their manner or response to subsequent questions their image as unrepentant, evasive or even antisocial.”

There is much about Japanese culture that is revealed in this paragraph! To make a great effort to publicly apologize, yet to not be particularly contrite. How human, of course, yet also how Japanese in particular ways.

And this kind of Japanese behavior can't be dismissed off-hand as phony or superficial - things are never that simple in Japanese society. Life in Japan - as wild as this will seem to westerners - isn't fueled by people's personal feelings. There are customs, traditions, expectations, taboos and other people to think of. This is a broad generalization, but how other people think of you, still matters in Japan. There is indeed something to all the fuss about Japanese group behavior and its affect on Japanese people.

Navigating Japanese society for the Japanese is no easy affair (we foreigners are exempt from this dance); by way of comparison, we might say that navigating all the expectations in Japan is akin to playing Chess while being blindfolded. While in contrast, making your way in American society is more like a rough and tumble game of dodge ball.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Travel to Japan Tips

If you plan to travel to Japan, here are a few tips to help your Japanese travel experience; the tips are highly personal and particular to my traveling in Japan experiences. But you may find them useful to ponder before taking your Japan trip:

(photo courtesy of bernardoh)
  • Food: Japanese food is something of an art in Japanese culture; learn some Japanese adjectives to describe your food. Why? Whereas food is fuel in America, food is central to Japanese society and interpersonal relations. After each bite of food make sure you say oishii, which means "delicious"
  • Shinkansen Bento: When you're on the Japanese bullet train (shinkansen), make sure you buy a bento lunch (box lunch) on the train platform; like in an airplane, there is a pull down tray on the seat back in front of you. It's great experience to munch on rice and beef while watching the countryside fly by
  • Book Store: If you go to a Japanese bookstore - and you don't speak Japanese - be prepared that the you'll be asked a question at some point by the cashier; don't worry, she is simply asking if you want a cover on the book; just nod yes
  • Courtesy: During your Tokyo trip, you might see a mother with a child in a stroller down in the subway; often there is no escalator, so she'll have to lug the stroller up the stairs. If men want to be real gentlemen - help her! You'll shock everybody, because people rarely do those kind of things in public in Japanese culture (the blinders are real thick in Japanese cities)
  • Japanese Ramen: You must have Japanese ramen, and ramen is like pizza or BBQ in America: the more local, greasy and obscure the ramen place, the higher the probability that the ramen is good.
  • Chopsticks: If you don't know how to use chopsticks, practice before you arrive. Even if you are terrible at using them, the Japanese will be amazed that you're even trying
  • Canned Coffee: There are tons of Japanese vending machines that sell everything from beer to coffee. I recommend getting canned Japanese coffee - preferably hot - it's already got sugar and milk in it, so it's good to go!
  • Mister Donut: (You can tell I love coffee) Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks have nothing on Mister Donut in Japan; it's an old fashioned New England coffee and donuts chain that somehow ended up in Japan. It's the best! Great coffee and simple, sugary donuts. While you're traveling in Japan - and have some time to kill in a big train station - look for it!
  • J-Rail Pass: Buy a Japan Rail Pass before you arrive in Japan; it gives you unlimited travel on Japanese trains for set amount of time - a great value

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Japanese National Identity

Japan exists in a geo-political bubble. Part of this is the reality of its geography – an island nation – and part of this is a result of having the U.S. military taking care of its defense for the last 60 years. One writer suggests it's time for Japan to have a more "flexible" Japanese national identity.

Author John Haffner, who just wrote a book on the Japanese global reality called Japan's Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship recently wrote an essay for the Huffington Post. He sets the stage for us:

“Japan's population is dropping, but the country is not so keen on immigrants to counter the decline.”

Quite true. Japan is apparently keen on being a very empty country in the future. He continues:

“Looking beyond its borders, some of Japan's leaders have felt nostalgic for the simple rules of the Cold War.”

Yep. How nice it was! The U.S. worried about defeating the Soviet Union and communist China, while the Japan self defense force did push ups, and Japanese businesses focused on making the most efficient compact car in the world. We resume:

"Japan's political leadership, meanwhile -- already long seen as mediocre or incompetent by the Japanese public - has lost all credibility, both at home and abroad. In a recent article describing Japan's (now resigned) trade minister Shoichi Nakagawa at a G7 press conference as 'incoherent, floundering, sleepy and confused.'"

Yes indeed. Think what happens when you give your adolescent son too much money, too little responsibility and then, you suddenly ask him to grow up. What happens? He becomes "incoherent, floundering, sleepy and confused." You might call it a Japan United States codependency issue (which the U.S. has been happy to nourish, for sure).

“So where should Japan go from here?...And when it comes to Japan's triangulations with the United States and China, should Japan simply hope to 'hug the US closer,'or should it cultivate a stance neither too hot nor too cold towards the United States and China, like Goldilocks?”

I don’t have a clue really, though somehow will need to check Chinese power in Asia. Can the Japanese help the U.S. with such a project? In twenty years will Japan have enough young men to form a Japanese defense force of any merit? Japan’s plunging birth rate keeps getting in the way of future plans.

For the author, the solution to Japanese cultural and political problems is to become a lot less like Japan, and more like England.

“If Japan wishes to escape a future of decline and irrelevance, and if it wants to take meaningful steps towards a more secure, contented and prosperous future, it needs to think big. Japan really has only one sustainable option: to become a more open, dynamic, conscientious, engaged, globally integrated country.”

Okay…but this doesn’t sound like anything Japan has ever been. I have a great fondness for Japan and Japanese culture, but this sounds more like America than Japan. The author proposes how Japan can move forward (or at least beyond Japanese history):

“Moving beyond a rigid and inflexible conception of its national identity, by opening up to trade and immigration, by learning to communicate more effectively, including with the English language as the global lingua franca, and by undertaking a much more spirited commitment to global development and security.”

It’s idealistic, I’ll say that. Let’s go point by point on this critique of Japanese culture:

  • An inflexible national identity: Huh? This is fine progressive talk for a pluralistic society, but in Japan? How are the Japanese supposed to become less Japanese? No one seems to be asking the Chinese to become more flexible in their Chinese national identity?
  • Immigration: I think Japan would benefit from measured immigration (more doctors and other heath care folks, for instance), but it’s not an easy question. Japan is Japan because it’s homogeneous. In England, for example, immigration from Muslim countries is profoundly changing that culture. Now you can argue whether that’s good or bad, but that’s a big step.
  • English: I suspect that many readers of this blog are English teachers in Japan and have a lot of ideas about the state of English in Japan. What do you all think?
  • Global Security: I think if Japan wants to have a “spirited commitment” to the world, they better send combat soldiers to Afghanistan and start fighting terrorists with NATO. And if China ever invades Taiwan, Japanese Chinese relations should sour and a Japanese United States alliance may have to combat China. I wonder if that’s what the author means, or is he talking about a resurgence in Japanese patriotism?

Our Author concludes:

“To pursue this path, however, Japan must think beyond isolationism and the US security alliance. Japan must begin to see itself as a global citizen and as an Asian country, and it must walk the walk on both counts.”

On this last point I’m in total agreement with the author. Japan will actually have to do more than send tourists out into the world if it wants to be a leading world citizen.

You can purchase Mr. Haffner's book at

Japanese and Christian?

Is it possible to be Japanese and Christian?

Of course the answer is yes, but statistics show that only around 1% of the Japanese are Christian. And while no one thinks of Japan and Japanese culture as even remotely Christian, there is a substantial Christian presence in Japanese history.

It's been observed that there really is no Japanese religion to speak of right now. If you're in a cynical mood you might even suggest that materialism is the Japanese religion of choice, but certainly there is much more to the Japanese spirit.

To speak of Japanese religions that have impacted Japanese culture, you would have to note the native Shinto religion, Japanese Zen Buddhism (Chan Buddhism in China), ancestor worship, the Confucian ethical code and Christianity.

It's interesting to note that Japanese Prime Minister Aso is Catholic, which makes him a minority of a minority in Japanese culture, for Catholics in Japan are only a small sliver of the Christian population. Most Japanese Christians represent various Protestant denominations. And while there was almost nothing said about his being a Catholic in the Japanese media, it was noted in many American media outlets that he was the "first Catholic Prime Minister in Japanese history."

Christians in Japanese history go back to the Japanese arrival of Catholic priest St. Francis Xavier in 1549. He seems to have had a fair amount of success preaching about Jesus Christ and making converts. St. Xavier paved the way for a Japanese Catholic saint named St. Paul Miki, who met his death when political actors in Japan started worrying about the loyalty of Japanese Catholic people. From Catholic online:

"(St. Paul Miki) was crucified on February 5 with twenty-five other Catholics during the persecution of Christians under the Taiko, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ruler of Japan in the name of the emperor."

Despite many persecutions, the disciples of St. Xavier and St. Paul Miki, continued in their practice of the Catholic faith - even without priests - most notably in and around Hiroshima.

There is an excellent blog on what Japanese Catholic people are doing today, written by a "twenty-something ex-pat", who uncovers fascinating items about Japanese worship and Catholics practicing their faith in Japan.

Yet the question remains, why has Christianity failed to find fertile soil in Japanese culture?

I think part of the issue is that the Japanese see Christianity as a foreign religion. And though Christianity began in the Middle East and is today vibrant in Asia - most intensely in the Philippines, South Korea and now China - it's still seen by Japanese people as a European religion.

I think the main development to watch regarding Japan and Christianity is China and its experience with Christianity.

Right now Christianity is spreading rapidly in China, and is the spiritual force behind Chinese efforts to oppose the Communist government's human rights abuses. Much of Japanese history and Japanese tradition has been influenced by Chinese religion, art and philosophy....So stay tuned.

Monday, March 2, 2009

'Haafu' and Japanese Culture

If you ever been to Los Angeles or Vancouver, you'd have a hard time deciding who is an American or a Canadian and who isn’t. In Japan it's easy. If your ethnically 100% Japanese, you are Japanese. If you're not, you’re something else. In the West this is racism; in Japan it’s called reality. So where do “half-Japanese” people or “haafu” fit in Japanese culture?

Haafu is a Japanese japlish word that meas a person who is half Japanese and half non-Japanese. Normally the child of an international marriage.

Corey Gaskins wrote about his life and this issue in Metropolis Magazine. He begins:

“I am Japanese. In fact, I had been Japanese for 21 years before coming to Tokyo to live for the first time in 2006. You might not consider that very Japanese, but I think I’ve passed all the tests.”

I can tell him one thing: nobody in Tokyo, Japan will think he's Japanese. Just as I don’t think that people in Uganda think that a black man from Florida is really African.

“For instance, when I was 10 and living in Portugal, I endured hordes of people shouting ‘Hey Chinese boy! What are you doing?’”

These people were clearly ignorant, but their ignorance doesn’t make him Japanese. Being Japanese means that you’re part of a tribe of "mind and blood.” That’s the best way I can put it. You may have Japanese blood, but if you weren’t raised in Japan – and learned the way to be and think like Japanese people – you aren’t Japanese. Again, one can label this Japanese racism, but I think this would be a mistake. The writer continues:

"I expected that when I moved to Tokyo, I would finally be able to blend into Japanese society. How naïve I was!”

Yes. It’s true. Many Japanese-Americans who thought of themselves as “Japanese,” have received a great shock when they went to Japan to work or live. I have sympathy for the disappointment he must have felt in Japan, he goes on:

“Some people, namely celebrities, do capitalize on their biracial origins, wearing the ‘We’re different’ sash proudly. But that’s not me. I don’t get paid for how I look or how much I stick out in a crowd. When I moved to Japan, I was simply a recent college graduate struggling to fit in.”

The first problem, again, was trying to “fit in.” This can’t be done. Japan is not an open, pluralistic society; traditional Japanese culture has never been pluralistic, and modern Japan has no intentions to go that route. And if we’re honest, we as foreigners in Japan must admit the attraction of Japan is precisely its “closed” homogeneous quality.

The second mistake was thinking that “being different” in Japanese culture was an admirable quality. In the West, with the notion of free will, human rights and individual liberty, “being different” is often respected. Not in Japanese culture! (unless you’re a wacky Japanese comedian, of course, but then being wacky is actually what’s expected of you).

The writer then talks about how in the West he felt like he couldn’t share his Asian roots with people. He writes:

“Just once in a while, I wished I knew somebody else who could understand how great it is to drink warm green tea after eating the undulated sweetness of azuki-filled mochi.”

The Japanese will drink Japanese green tea with you and eat Japanese mochi, but they’ll still will be amazed that you – a foreigner – like to drink green tea and eat mochi. You won’t be amazed, but they will. It’s reality.

Maybe the Japanese people should welcome the writer home as a “long lost brother,” but that would be fake. We in the West often accuse the Japanese of hiding their true feelings, but when they treated this man like a foreigner, they were being sincere.

“After the 1,000th time I was asked “Are you haafu?” and after repeating the same set of answers three or four times a day, I’d had enough. Not only that, I started feeling pangs of indignation when the locals seemed eager to point out how much I didn’t belong here — the very country I’d identified as my homeland since birth! I wondered how other haafu coped.”

In this disappointment, we must feel great empathy for the writer. Yet I don’t think it’s the fault of the Japanese. I believe the real fault are those in the West who make so much of the ethnic backgrounds of so-called “minorities.”

We go on and on (particularly in America) about how so and so is the “first Chinese-American elected to the so and so school board” and so on. Instead of letting Americans be Americans, we make them “special.” I suspect it was this endless multicultural dialogue in the West (along with real instances of racism as he suggests) that got this writer so convinced he was Japanese.

In the end, the writer found a kind of “haafu” community in Japan, which seems rather nice, yet aslo a little sad:

“Hanging out with half-Chinese, -Peruvians, -Greeks or -Palestinians, my race never became an issue — none of my new friends made a fuss when I was able to belt out a popular B’z song at karaoke. By befriending other haafu, I was able to be who I truly was, and not what my race was.”

The writer is fine man, who is sincere in his feelings and experiences. And in his honest telling of this experience as a haafu in Japan, we can learn quite a bit if we're listening.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Japanese Stereotypes - American Stereotypes

I’m convinced that people teaching English in Japan are now the de-facto western “cultural commentators” on all things Japanese. It’s interesting that we never hear about Japanese culture from an American businessman or a Christian missionary, for example, who may also understand Japan quite well…English teacher Amy Chavez writes about Japanese stereotypes in The Japan Times Online:

“Japanese people tend to think every Western-looking person is American (or if they don't, they tend to think foreigners are distinguishable by nationality — imagine over 50 identifiable nationalities!”

Okay. Very true statement. But is seems to imply some Japanese cultural backwardness. Are we to assume that Amy can tell the difference between white Americans, Germans, Canadians or South Africans? Maybe Amy’s point is that Japanese people should simply see white people and say “white people.”

I’d also have to assume that Amy has trouble distinguishing between Koreans, Japanese and Chinese based on appearance alone. We in the west solve this by saying, “Asian people”, Japanese people solve their issue by saying “American people.”

This alone, is not a Japanese issue. While traveling in South America, this writer learned that all white people were also “Americans.” So we must understand some universality to this issue. While being seen as an American in Japan can be an advantage (foreigners in Japan get away with a lot), this is decidedly not an advantage in Latin America. One Scandinavian chap wrote on his backpack, “I am not an American. I’m Norwegian.” So goes the cause of a common humanity!

“Japanese people still say to me: ‘What do you eat for breakfast, bread?’ As if we sat down every morning to a large pile of bread on a plate.”

On the surface, this is a simpleton question. Yet it the question must also be understood in the negative, as in: “So you don’t eat Japanese rice and miso soup every morning?” Which, by and large, is the norm for Japanese people.

It must also be understood that when you don’t speak a language well, you tend to stick to safe, easy questions. There are also some Japan etiquette and Japanese behavior customs here; the Japanese often ask about safe topics to create a pleasant, surface-level conversation. This is being polite in Japan.

Yet the writer appears to be searching for some Utopian civilization where everyone thinks of human persons in the particular, and never succumbs to the temptation to talk about humanity in generalities. Japanese people, like their counterparts in America, Uganda and Bolivia, all rely on stereotypes to a certain extent.

Amy writes:

“The fact is, that although ‘stereo types’ should be limited to Panasonic and Sony, they are still very much alive, even in the Japanese classroom. And I was shocked to find myself teaching them!”

Shocked! Ah, don’t be. You’re human and so are the Japanese people…As a teacher if you have fun with your Japanese students, they’ll have fun with you. This may be a teaching English in Japan stereotype, but I’m sticking to it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Japanese Women in Western Women’s Minds

Anyone who has spent much time around Japanese women will agree they are on the whole practical, bright, curious and open-minded. Despite these realities, however, many western feminists continue to project a sense of victim hood on Japanese women.

A recent blog entry entitled “Women in Japan: Conversation Remembered” on the site is a classic example of the tendency among women in the west to insist that Japanese women are victims, because Japanese feminism doesn't seek the ends that western feminism does.

The writer tells us about Ayuko, who she worked with at an English school in Japan; we can presume she teaches English in Japan. She writes:

“I couldn't help doing a bit of western-tradition feminist indoctrination from time to time, which I now somewhat regret.”

And poor Ayuko thought she was just chatting with an English teacher! But then the writer continues:

“The more time I spend in this country, the more I see that whenever Japan gets around to having a major feminist revolution it's going to have to happen Japanese-style.”

I suppose this will be a disappointment to Gloria Steinem, but then again as long as the end in Japan is western feminism, the means can be Japanese.

Yet our western feminist was dedicated to bringing enlightenment to young Ayuko and she saw her progress:

“Still, there were a few fun lightbulb moments when Ayuko noticed close-to-home examples of things I liked ranting about.”

Our hero understands that Japanese culture is full of sexist, and patriarchal families who see it as their duty to turn Japanese women into obedient wall flowers. She was onto this error in Japanese cultural thinking and was determined to correct it:

“(Ayuko) was always saying, "We are told that..." … Well look would seem that, contrary to the common wisdom, humans want to want what they want after all. I don't think she had even noticed the gap between what "we are told" and her own experience.”

The lesson is clear. What we are told (i.e. Japanese tradition, education, Japanese history) is false, while what we experience (our feelings) are always an infallible guide.

But our feminist hero soon discovered the real tragedy that afflicted Ayoku – she wanted to get married:

“Ayuko herself…was husband-hunting. When I asked her why she felt the need to go get married if she had a nice boyfriend she enjoyed spending time with, she said, "Actually, I don't like working!"

Marriage, oh no! I recently blogged about a British female Buddhist priest in Japan, which addressed some of the issues of marriage from a western feminist point-of-view.

Now if our young Japanese women simply wanted to get married to quit her job, this is certainly problematic. Yet here is where we must deal with a fact that western women (since about 1968) have found unacceptable, and that is that most women in the world believe that their main vocation is to get married and have children! It’s important to stress that Ayuko and Japanese women like her are normal – they are not oppressed or victims.

Now, having said that, there is real discrimination against Japanese women in the Japanese workplace that needs to be remedied; but the answer is not to convince Japanese women that their authentic desire for motherhood and marriage is problematic. In the area of Japanese women and jobs in Japan, our feminist writer captures the situation quite well:

“I couldn't blame Ayuko for the way she felt about work, though, as her full-time salary provided only spending money (she lived with her parents, at age 28-nothing unusual in Japan, but had she wanted to move out her salary wouldn't have supported it). Upon graduating college, she had gotten a good salaried position that looked to be a lifetime job, but when the company started doing badly she had to leave, and now she was fatalistically certain that as a female nearing 30, it was impossible for her to land a second good job.”

She is quite right. Japanese companies view women over 30 as women who will soon get pregnant and "leave" the company. This is foolish. Japanese women who wish to return to their companies, should be allowed to do so.

Japanese culture and Japanese society is out of whack, not doubt; and Japanese men need to step up to the plate and become better husbands and fathers. Yet it is rather condescending to think that western-style feminism is the answer to a complex Japanese cultural problem. We now see that American women in the west are finding that the choice between careers and motherhood/marriage is a false one.

Japanese women, I suspect, reject this choice.

While Japanese business should allow “older” women to work and Japanese mothers to return to work after pregnancy if they choose, I still believe that careers are not primarily what Japanese women (or Asian, Indian, African, Middle Eastern or Latin American women) want – they want respect and support to be wives and mothers first and foremost. And right now Japanese women can't even find proper OB/GYN care in Japan, which is a real hardship.

In this area Japan and Japanese culture have a long way to go. Let's see if a Japanese solution to a Japanese problem arises.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

British Woman is Japanese Buddhist Priest

We often hear about Japanese racism. The Japanese, because of their homogeneous culture, are both fascinating and repulsive to the west. Many westerns are drawn to Japanese traditional culture in the abstract, but in reality they want to impose a strictly western view of life on the Japanese cultural tradition, with certain feminist, multicultural overtones. And so we come to the tale of a British woman who became a Japanese Buddhist priest.

A recent article in The Japan Times Online describes her journey:

“Victoria Yoshimura, 38, from Peterborough, England, started her life in Japan like many foreigners. Twenty-two years old, two weeks out of university, she came over on the JET language program.”

The JET Japan program, if you didn’t know, is a Japanese government program that recruits recent college grads to teach English in Japan at the jr. high level. It’s a pretty cushy gig to teach English abroad with government help, decent pay and not many teaching hours. If you want to teach English overseas, JET Japan is a nice deal.

She wanted to teach English and probably learn Japanese. I respect that. Yoshimura then began dating a Japanese man, which is somewhat unusual. In Japan, Japanese dating usually means western men with Japanese women. The feeling among western women is that Japanese men are unromantic, unfaithful and somewhat intimidated by western women. She says of her now husband:

"Junsho was the first Japanese guy to talk to me normally, and not treat me like a freak; he taught me all the saucy, rude words I know in Japanese."

Her comment reveals something quite true about the Japanese cultural attitudes and their dealings with foreigners. Many Japanese do think of foreigners as freaks, meaning people who are vastly different from the social norm, and the norm in Japan is the Japanese way of doing things.

They dated, and it turned out that her boyfriend was “the 17th generation in the family of priests for Shonenji, the 430-year-old temple nestled in this rural town of Miyazaki Prefecture.” It turns out for the two or three people who actually care about Japanese Buddhism in the area – Japan religion these days is about as healthy as the world economy – were against the marriage. Despite what may be common in Southern California and London, Japanese Buddhism and Zen is not seen as something white people do.

I’m assuming that she wasn’t Buddhist at the time. You’d think if Buddhism means something to her boyfriend, he’d strive to find a Japanese Buddhist wife, but love is love, of course. Yet it’s predictable that her western feminist consciousness would be aroused by this opposition:

"Sometimes I wonder whether all the opposition to our marriage actually pushed me into it further. I wanted to prove them all wrong."

Feminism in Japan is not typically about pushing for equality in the sense that “I want to do everything that men do.” That’s not the goal (this is foreign to Asian culture in general). Japanese women simply want emotional and financial support for being wives and mothers and the ability to work after giving birth. Japanese women, on the whole, understand that they are smarter, more practical, more open and stronger than Japanese men.

She married her Japanese boyfriend and eventually had children, which brought up the issue of “interracial children” in Japan. While the Japanese have a great admiration for western people, they are a bit squeamish about Japanese children who have a mixed racial background. "Some of the community even warned that our children would be deformed," she said, which is a pretty accurate sentiment.

But then the writer of this article, Kris Kosaka, who is probably a Japanese American writer, gets back to the mission of the article, which is to conduct a western feminist critique of Japanese cultural life:

“She was expected to settle down to life as a mother and temple accessory, fading to the background in demure contentment in this happily ever-after.”

Of course! Nothing could be more oppressive than to be a wife, mother and behind-the-scenes supporter of her Japanese Buddhist husband. The article goes on:

“Only that fairy tale did not fit Yoshimura. ‘I'm the kind of personality type who sees a 'Wet Paint. Don't Touch' sign, and I have to go up and touch it, just to make sure for myself.’ Yoshimura again challenged expectations.”

Ah, yes, we have a rebel. A British woman comes into the den of Japanese traditional culture and “challenges” a culture thousands of years old. In its on way, this is a subtle form of western racism that presumes that the Japanese way of doing things is a real drag for women.

From my understanding, being the wife of a Japanese Buddhist temple priest in Japan is kind of like being the First Lady in the U.S. It is a challenging, busy life with many social and religious obligations, requiring social acumen, tact and intelligence. There are many Japanese women who would hesitate to marry a Japanese Buddhist priest precisely because of these challenges. But I digress.

Yoshimura the says: "Motherhood is great, but I was losing myself, and my brain cells were rusting." Ah yes, “The Sex and the City” view of life. As much as our British hero wants to explore the exotic far-east and traditional Japanese culture, it must in the end bow to western feminist realities.

And then, in what can only be understood as a repudiation (or at least a misunderstanding) of marriage, she says: “I realized it was important to make my own roots, separate to those of my husband. I needed to be happy here because I like it here, not because I like him."

My understanding is that marriage is not about “doing my own thing,” but about sacrificing for my spouse. I wonder if that’s why half of marriages fail in the west, and divorce in Japan is still rare.

She eventually becomes a Japanese Buddhist priest – just like her husband. She said, "Suddenly everything became clearer once I started to learn why things were so, instead of following like a lemming."

Again, to simply be a mother, wife and English teacher in Japan wasn’t enough, one had to be equal to her Japanese husband. What we see is that, instead of living in Japanese culture and accommodating its differences, she had to “change it” as if she was some agitator.

Go here to read the full article on the British Japanese Buddhist priest.

You can also go to to check out a classic book on Zen and Japanese Buddhist culture in Japan: Zen and Japanese Culture

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to Buy a Japan Rail Pass

So you want to travel to Japan? Okay then, you better get ready to give up the idea of a rental car and settle instead for public transportation. Just like in Europe, trains are the only way to travel in Japan, and the Japan Rail Pass is “the way” to get the best travel value during your stay.

Japan Rail operates the Japan rail system and they offer a discount pass that can only be purchased outside of Japan. Japanese citizens living in Japan are not allowed to buy the Japan railway pass. The only ones who can purchases the JR Pass are people who:

• are entering Japan on a non-Japanese passport with "Temporary Visitor" entry status or Japanese citizens who live abroad, and are either permanent residents of another country or have a foreign spouse.

The Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass is a discounted ticket that allows visitors “unlimited rail travel throughout Japan over a 7, 14 or 21 consecutive day period.” And the best way to take advantage of the pass is to make the most of your Japan travel time.

Once you’ve got your fourteen day Japan railway pass, for example, it doesn’t matter whether you visit 10 cities or two – the price remains the same. So the best way to use the Japan Rail pass is to travel like crazy! Make as many trips to as many places as possible: Kyoto, Kobe, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Osaka – see them all!

The JR Pass also means that you can travel on Japan’s bullet trains, which are know in Japan as shinkansen; this will save you many hours and provide you with a few kicks.

The key to the buying the Japan Rail Pass is to purchase the exchange voucher from a distributor in your home country. Don’t wait until you get to Japan to buy a JR Pass, because they won’t let you. Go to the Japan Rail Pass website to find a distributor in your area.

When you arrive in Japan – most likely Narita Airport, you can exchange your JR Pass voucher for a rail pass at a Japan Rail Pass exchange office. Good luck!

Tokyo, Japan Travel Facts

Tell someone you're going to Tokyo, Japan and they always say, "Oh, I want to go to go there someday!" It's strange. Even people who've never been outside of Michigan, have dreams of visiting Japan for some reason. And while there are other cities that are more interesting than Tokyo - like Kyoto - you've got to deal with Tokyo if you want to understand Japan.

Here's a few facts about enjoying your stay in Tokyo. And remember that Japan Tokyo travel is best undertaken in the Spring and the Fall when you avoid Japan's extreme weather. Here's some facts to ponder when you go on your Japanese adventures in Tokyo:

  • Remember as you walk through Tokyo that nearly the entire city was destroyed during World War II; then imagine that up until 1940, most of Tokyo was made of wood!
  • Hotels in Tokyo, Japan are expensive - no surprise there - but they are also small, clean and orderly
  • If you get lost in Tokyo, asking someone a question in English to Japanese people might not always work - try some Japanese from a phrasebook first, then Japanese people might feel comfortable to try their grammar school English with you
  • Tokyo Japan attractions include the Tokyo tower, Tokyo Dome (baseball) Imperial palace and Shinkjuku
  • Don't strain yourself looking for a girl in a kimono - it's a rare occurrence to spot one - except when a Japanese women is going to a wedding or some other super-formal occasion
  • Flights to Tokyo, Japan arrive at Narita Airport; from there you can catch a one-hour train ride into Tokyo. One great tip is to buy a Japan Rail pass before you come to Japan; the pass allows you to ride the Tokyo subways and all of Japan's trains for a discounted price. It's definitely worth it, and this discount is only available to foreigners or Japanese citizens who have an American green card, for example.
  • Remember to be adventurous: the Japanese love to go abroad, so they understand what it's like to be a tourist. Don't worry about appearing foolish in Tokyo, Japan, just try to have fun

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Japanese Cherry Blossom Time

As winter fades and spring looms, the Japanese people prepare for the japanese cherry blossom season and all the joy and hope that it brings to the Japanese soul.

It's hard to do justice to the deep feelings that the cherry blossom trees in japan engender in the people who live there. In may ways, it's an interior reminder to the Japanese people of how important nature and Japanese traditional culture is to them and their children. And because you could argue there are no Japanese religions practiced anymore, the appreciation of nature is a kind of neo-pagan spiritual practice for the Japanese.

On a purely visible level, the pink blossoms of the japan cherry blossom are stunning, particularly when the japanese cherry blossom trees are lined up along a river as they so often are in Japan. To look down a row of such elegant colorful trees is enough to stir anyone's heart; yet for the Japanese people, this annual display is more about interior appreciation than the stimulation of the senses.

The cherry blossom in japan reminds people that though the country is now a very urban, technological place, the heart of Japan remains very much in tune with nature, much like the Haiku poets of old - like Basho - who wrote so beautifully of nature.

And while you'll see Japanese people setting up their tarps under the japan cherry blossom to sit with friends and drink, don't forget that it is not simply a sensual activity for the Japanese people, but also a profoundly culture act that is deeply embedded in the Japanese spirit and nation.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Drugs in Japanese Culture

Until recently there wasn't much talk about drugs in Japanese culture, because there weren't any drugs in Japan to talk about. Recently, however, there's been a spat of news stories involving Japanese college students getting caught with marijuana. Now this would be laughable as a news story in London or Los Angeles, but in Japan it's a worthy news subject.

In Japan, unlike most of the west, there are no distinctions made between heroin and marijuana, for example. In Japan, both of these drugs are illegal and therefore taboo. In many ways this is a far saner attitude than in America where marijuana is illegal, but is seen as benign by most of the culture and some in government - and so people ignore the law.

I can only speculate why pot is now making an appearance in Japanese culture. My guess is that Japanese students who go abroad to Australia, America and Europe are exposed to it and pick up the message that it is a "cool" and harmless thing to do.

Being an island nation, Japan has historically been able to control much of what comes in an out of Japan. We see this when it comes to immigration, narcotics and even guns. This is not to ignore the fact that the Japanese mafia (yakuza) has been dealing with drugs and guns for years, but most Japanese aren't touched by the underworld.

Japanese culture generally condones sloppiness and excess when it comes to alcohol use. Even the most mild-mannered Japanese businessman (salaryman) is allowed to get crazy and make a fool of himself when he is drinking. I can only image the absolute tawdriness of Japanese people who are under the influence of illegal drugs.

I wonder if drug use in Japaneses society will produce a generational split along the lines of the 1960s in America, when the college kids of that generation decided that illegal drug use was a private affair and no state or Church was going to tell them anything different.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ten Reasons it's Great to be a Foreigner in Japan

I don’t care what anyone says, but being a foreigner in Japan is a real kick. It’s not always easy being the object of attention – at least in small Japanese towns – but it’s better than being anonymous in Pennsylvania! So here’s my list of the top ten reasons it’s great to be a foreigner in Japan.

In no particular order, here we go:

  1. Low Expectations. No matter what you do, the Japanese will be impressed. Call it the benefit of low expectations. The Japanese people are tough on themselves, but forgiving with foreigners. If you can use chopsticks and eat miso soup, they’ll be impressed!
  2. Different, but First World. Let’s be honest, you can get quite a thrill from being in some far-flung third-world country like Mongolia, but at the end of the day you’re still in Mongolia! In Japan you get all the thrill of being in a very different place, but with lots of clean bathrooms.
  3. Japanese Food. Enough said.
  4. Same, Same. Japan is culturally homogeneous. You can go from one end to the other and people all kind of “think Japanese,” which means that once you get things figured out, you’re good to go anywhere.
  5. Smoking. If you’re a smoker, Japan is still a free country.
  6. Women and Drinking. If you’re a woman, and you like to have a few drinks, the Japanese will think nothing of it. There is no such idea of a women being a “lush.”

    Lonely Planet's Japan Guide is a sound resource for people preparing for a trip to Japan:
  7. Bamboo. This is a personal preference, but I think bamboo groves are the best. To fly by endless groves of bamboo in a bullet train is a perfect merger of technology and nature.
  8. Hot Springs. Public baths, either outside or inside, which the Japanese call onsen. This is one of the genteel and civilized customs of Japanese culture.
  9. Ego Boost. If you happen to be a western man who is reasonably attractive, you will find that both Japanese men and women will give you a lot of attention and compliments. I once had a male Japanese taxi driver (all of them are male actually) tell my wife how handsome I was.
  10. Beer Vending Machines. I actually don’t drink, but I think the idea that an adult can buy a beer from a vending machine at 2 a.m. or even 11 a.m., is another sign of a mature civilization

Friday, February 13, 2009

Panasonic Workers to Buy Company Products

So do you think the global recession is affecting Japan yet? Well, Panasonic of Japan has announced that it will "ask" 10,000 of its Japanese employees to buy Panasonic products.

Let's make one thing clear, when a Japanese company asks its employees to do something, it's an order. So you can expect quite a boost in Panasonic flat-screens for a while, yet is this really the way to make the company profitable?

Panasonic is an old-line Japanese place where company loyalty is not questioned. What must be said, however, is that this is most likely being done in place of massive layoffs. For if there is one thing that the Japanese absolutely despise, it's layoffs. I think they'd rater give up their salary than be told they have to clean off their desk and go home.

This aversion to layoffs is certainly an admirable part of Japanese culture; there is a kind of paternal care that Japanese companies exercise in Japan. Many people in America, for example, have learned that your employer will dump you the minute the profits start dropping.

Japan's Cities Don’t Explain Low Birth Rate

Several times on this blog we’ve looked at the unprecedented low birth rate in Japan. The reality of a future where Japanese people may be as rare as spotted owls is beginning to make some news, and writer Rowan Hopper recently had his go at the problem in The Japan Times Online.

The article is titled “City Ecology Explains Japan's Low Birthrate,” and Hopper’s main point is that the Japanese habitation in large cities is the main reason for this decline.

Apparently Mr. Hopper has never heard of places like Mexico City, Bombay or the growing Muslim metropolises in the Middle East. Even in a tiny urban slice of chaotic land like Gaza, the Palestinian people have no problem producing plenty of children.

Hopper, like the Japanese people, puts his faith entirely in science. Science, he reasons, must be able to tell us everything. So he puts on his biological wonder suit and explains:

“This difference is explained by what is called the metabolic theory of ecology. Bigger animals have a bigger network of blood vessels that are used to deliver resources to their cells. So the efficiency of resource delivery is less in big animals. But it's not just in big animals.”

Huh? He then compares cities to big organisms that consume lots of energy, are inefficient and, as a result, produce less “products,” i.e., children.

Okay then, so how are we supposed to convince Japanese women to have more babies and solve this problem? Hopper writes:

“If we and our cities become more efficient in terms of energy use, the scientists predict, we'll have more children. That might be the only way that Japan can survive in anything like the form we know and love.”

Oh, I see! If we have lots of hybrid cars in Tokyo and we do a better job of retrofitting Japanese municipal buildings with solar panels, Japanese women will suddenly rethink the whole baby game. Got it!

Hopper’s idea is puzzling at best. What he fails to understand is that the number one factor for declining populations in the world is religion and traditional values. Declining birth rates are occurring in secular, first-world places like Europe, Canada and Japan (the U.S.’s birth rate is helped by Latin American immigrants).

Muslims, whether they live in the Arabian Desert or London, are having lots of babies. The Arab world, where religion is part of the fabric of society, has no problem with birth rates. In Africa and India where traditional morality and beliefs survive, you don’t see any population decline.

We also see that devout Christians, wherever they live, tend to have more children than their secular neighbors.

This global reality of demographics and religion is chronicled in the recent book by Mark Steyn called America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.

In Japan, where there is absolutely no evidence of any belief, faith or religion in Japanese culture any more, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Japanese have decided to live for today only - and let’s face it - children are a lot of hard work and a drain on “resources,” to use the language of scientists.

Regardless of whether one sees religion as a force of good in the world, its believers generally have a sense of hope (in an afterlife) and this sense of optimism for the future generally manifests itself in the form of children and the investment in their future success.

The Japanese people need more hope and less of a reliance on silliness like “the metabolic theory of ecology.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Japanese Women and Feminism

When one thinks of Japan, feminism isn’t the first thing that normally pops into your mind, but if Japanese state minister has her way, Japanese women will soon resemble the girls of Sex and the City…She recently published her thoughts on Japan and feminism in The Japanese Times Online.

While Noda makes important points about the difficulty that Japanese women have returning to the workplace after giving birth - and is courageous to talk about her experiences with infertility and miscarriage (not usually discussed in Japan) - she is wrong to look to western feminism as a model for Japanese women.

Noda writes:

“Family diversity should be the norm everywhere. Every person has the right to create the family he or she would like. I am single but hope to have a child in the future. If I find a partner, wonderful; and if not, I would still want to have a child. According to Japanese law, though, I would have difficulty adopting, and surrogate motherhood is also outside the legal framework.”

Statistics in the United States prove that children who are raised by one parent have a tougher go of it in life. This is a fact. Japanese women, for the most part, understand that if they desire children, they must first find a husband. The idea that you can have a child without a husband is selfishness, not authentic feminism.

As things stand when it comes to procreation, Japanese women are on strike – and for good reason. Reproductive health in Japan is terrible, with very few OB/GYNs, very little day care support and Japanese husbands who believe they have no responsibility to be in their children’s lives (they spend all their time at work, and then attend after-work drinking parties with co-workers). The result has been a frightening drop in Japanese births; right now the Japanese are having children well below the replacement rate.

Japanese women – unlike many western women – are not postponing marriage and children because they want to pursue professional careers, have “freedom” or participate in sexual relationships out of marriage. Many Japanese women postpone marriage and children because their know their husbands will be absent, there is lousy female medical care and they will never be able to return to work.

Noda is right to criticize this, but the answer is not Japanese women taking matters into their own hands with IVF treatments, surrogate mothers and casual sexual relations with men. The answer is to demand that Japanese men embrace their manhood – to challenge them to be men and to put their wives and children before their careers and social status. In addition, the Japanese government must make it easier for Japanese couples to have children; they can do this by giving tax breaks to companies who allow their employees to have more family time at home.

In her piece, Noda made one other point – entirely unrelated to Japanese women – which is worth commenting on. On the Japanese nation she wrote:

“A nation's strength is not measured in its military capabilities but in its environmental power. That's Japan's strength: We are the world leader in environmentally sound energy sources, from hybrid cars to solar power. Our nuclear power plant development is the most advanced in the world, because we have been constantly developing new technologies.”

This is a common Japanese view point, which ignores the fact they have been under the military umbrella of the United States military for 60 years. Instead of having to prepare for a North Korean attack on their own, they have been able to focus exclusively on their domestic economy.

Like a spoiled adolescent who lives at home and doesn’t realize the sacrifices his father makes to pay the rent, many Japanese people have rather naïve ideas about the reality of geo-politics. My guess is that a parking lot of hybrid Toyotas won’t be much help against North Korean ballistic missiles.

Noda’s comment also reflects the Japanese attitude concerning war, which comes from a half-reading of Japanese history. Because Japanese people were the victims of two atomic bombs, they see themselves as eternal martyrs for peace. Yet they conveniently ignore the decades of Japanese war and aggression that lead to the U.S. assault on Japan.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Japanese Continue to Teach English Wrong Way

In this blog we’ve documented the strange reality of the English language in Japan, whereby the Japanese study English for years, but don’t know how to actually use it or speak it. It seems to be part of a disconnect in Japanese culture, which is as much about procedures as it is about philosophy.

Gregory Clark, vice president, Akita International University in Japan recently had some interesting thoughts on the failure of Japanese schools to properly teach English.

He mentions the fact that although Japanese children get about six years of English instruction in the public schools, they lag well behind countries like Korea, which do a better job of preparing their students.

The real problem - and Mr. Clark nails it - is that the people teaching English in Japanese high schools are Japanese teachers who can’t speak a lick of English. They might be able to diagram a sentence, but they can’t order a beer in New York City to save their life. Mr. Clark comments:

“Japan seems not to want to realize the harm caused by having young students spend six years listening to bad English. Some say that if the world is happy with Indian or Singapore English then it should accept Japanese English. But these other varieties of English are standarized and fluent. Listening to them is no harder (sometimes easier even) than listening to the accents and dialects of British English.”

He writes that Japanese English (Japlish):

“is a hodgepodge of accents and pronunciations thrown together and spoken haltingly. It is hard on both the ear and the patience. More importantly, most Japlish speakers find it very hard to process English spoken at normal speed. Normal conversation is almost impossible.”

He also believes that Japanese students aren’t as motivated as their Chinese and Korean peers, because English isn’t as necessary to get ahead in Japan.

Yet I think he is really onto something when he critiques the manner in which Japanese people understand knowledge and learning. The Japanese people have a long history, and they learn it exclusively as a list of dates and facts. Many Japanese people know when a certain Japanese battle happened in 1656, but they have no idea how it fits into the political, social and philosophical whole of Japanese culture and history.

Mr. Clark states:

“Language learning is not like math or history — the mere accumulation of facts and data. With language the memory operates at two levels. One is what I call conscious memorization — mastering enough of the grammar, vocabulary, etc., to be able to translate and put sentences together. But at some stage the language has to be moved to the subconscious and that can only happen with strong motivation and good learning techniques — repetition, realistic conversation, good listening materials and so on. Only at this subconscious level can you retain vocabulary and speak the language naturally.”

He believes that learning English should be moved to the university level; interesting idea, but then again you will run into the resort atmosphere of most Japanese universities, where everyone is taking a break from crazy Japanese school entrance exams .

Mr. Clark has a real understanding of the problems of English and learning in Japanese culture. Undoubtedly it will take much more than bureaucratic reforms to convince a rather isolated and coddled Japanese generation that real life require sacrifices, and that Japan’s wealth today has little to do with its future place in the world.

Mr. Clark’s complete article on Japan and English learning is well worth a read.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Japan and School Exams

You think the American SAT's are stressful? Think again. In Japan, where you go to jr. high school, high school and college makes all the difference for your future, and the school exams are your ticket into these institutions.

In America, going to prestigious Andover Academy and then Yale, for example, can boost your career prospects without a doubt; but going to Average Joe High School and then some random state college will not prevent you for being successful, as long as you're smart and hard working. The Japanese, on the other hand, don't put much trust in the meritocracy; it's all about the brand in Japanese culture.

February is the month of school entrance exams in Japan and Japanese mothers are doing their best to completely flip out and make sure everyone is appropriately stressed out. Japan Today quoted a Japanese mother who said:

“I have told my child not to attend PE class since January. I can’t believe the school lets kids wear T-shirts and shorts for PE in winter. My child has been studying at prep school six days a week and for 10 hours a day in weekend. I don’t want him to catch a cold on the day of the exam.”

Kids wearing shorts during PE class? What outrage!!...But seriously when you believe that the brand - i.e. the school - is all that matters, then you'll get a little crazy about that sort of thing.

The pressure that's put on Japanese children must also be understood in the light of Japan's declining birth rate. Most Japanese families have one, or two kids at the most. So all the pressure to succeed is draped on one child in Japanese culture. This is also seen in China as a consequence of the shameful "one child policy" of the Chinese communist government.

This concern of form over matter reaches its apotheosis with Japanese universities, which are amazingly hard to get into (another killer Japanese school exam), but almost impossible to fail out of, because they expect nothing from university students (the thinking has been, "Why not relax in college? You'll soon become a salaryman and have to work 90 hours a week for the rest of your life").

The Japanese mother, in the above quote, mentioned "prep school" which is also known as a juku school, which can be translated as "cram school." While the public schools at least pretend to educate children, the cram schools get right to the heart of the matter; they understand that in Japanese culture the school test is everything.

Nobuyasu Morigami from the Japanese Morigami Education Institute, had some kind words for the parents and children who fail the Japanese school exams, but you'd have to think this is not how Japanese families take the news:

“Even if their children fail the exams, parents should not show their disappointment. What is important is to encourage children to go on to any school positively by telling them they can change their lives by themselves, even though they might not be able to go to their first choice school. Failing an exam is not the end of their lives.”

One of the sad effects of this testing pressure is Japanese teenage suicides, which Mr. Morigami may be alluding to in his comment. In my humble opinion, the absence of any kind of faith or religious conviction in Japan (particularly the personal God of the Christian Jewish tradition) is a big factor in the despair and disappointment of Japanese youth.

Mr. Morigami says, "They can change their lives by themselves." In the absence of a "higher power" for the Japanese, so much of the burden of life falls squarely on the Japanese people to solve things "by themselves." During the 20th century we saw what happens when nations eschew faith and rely dogmatically on atheistic forms of philosophy that see "the self" as the only resource one can count on.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Japanese Business Culture and Etiquette

Japanese business culture is a complex world for a western businessman to navigate on his own. While each business culture has its own etiquette, business in Japan can prove quite frustrating for your average American business man.

It should first be noted that the idea of a meritocracy (the best and brightest get promoted) has not been a big winner in Japanese business culture. The reason is that seniority still determines who runs the show. Now while there is much to be said for the value of experience, there is also the potential that a Japanese Bill Gates is toiling in the mail room when he should be heading the board room.

Here is a reference book at on Japanese business culture: Japanese Business Culture and Practices: A Guide to Twenty-First Century Japanese Business

There's been much written about the Japanese businessmen who don't like to give the American c.e.o. a clear 'yes' or 'no' answer, causing all kinds of cross-cultural problems, but the bigger issue revolves around an old Japanese proverb: "The Nail that Sticks up Gets Shot Down."

The above proverb is the key to understanding both Japanese culture as a whole, and Japanese business culture in particular. There's no question the Japanese are hard working, yet they work within their allotted, approved and institutionally-grounded work spheres. While this has helped the Japanese make excellent cars, it hasn't allowed them to foster the kind of business culture that produced a Microsoft or a Google.

One of worst things a Japanese junior executive can do at a business meeting is to draw attention to himself and his personal opinions. This is a quick way to end up in the dog house.

English teachers in Japan have experienced the same thing: ask a question to Japanese class and even though a few might know the answer, they don't raise their hands for fear of being seen as a show off or for fear of being wrong; mistakes in Japanese culture are not easily forgiven.

While it's difficult to speak in generalities (although I often do this on the blog), the Japanese business culture is about everyone on the team being on the same page, and the proper channels being respected. This characterization, of course, is much like the business culture of other countries, yet the Japanese live with a great fear of being "different" and being on the wrong side of the group consensus.

Because Japan is so homogeneous and Japanese culture is rather uniform in its broad strokes, the Japanese often can "read each other" to such an extent that they often don't need a drawn out discussion to know where the major players stand. This makes it very easy for the group to appreciate that the V.P. of Sales, for example, wants to ink the deal with the American distributor now. And despite misgivings that the junior sales people might feel, they downplay them because they understand - almost without any discussion - that this is the decision that must be made.

Before signing that same distribution deal, a group of American salesmen will have to hash things out together, and there may be individuals who are "on record" for opposing the deal. The V.P. will note the opposition, appreciate the frankness of his staff, yet decide that the deal will go forward. There was no real consensus, but the American V.P. made an executive decision and there's no hard feelings.

This is not how things normally go down in Japanese business culture; before a meeting takes place, it's likely that the participants know the outcome before any "discussion" takes place.

If you lived on one of four small islands in very crowded cities like the Japanese do, accommodation and "harmony" might begin to look far more attractive than self assertiveness and independence.