West Meets East: An American in Japan

From Buddhas to ice cream, a Colorado native living in Japan explores the sights and culture of the land of the rising sun.

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Back in Action

By Josiah Lebowitz
Sunday, March 20, 2011

Well, I’m back in the US and things in Japan… Well, they aren’t really getting any worse. Some of the reactors at the Fukushima plant are still in a dangerous place but they haven’t gotten any worse and they’ve managed to get the cooling systems back online in others so it’s looking like things will be ok. But all the worry about the Fukushima nuclear plant (much of which has been completely unfounded) has pulled attention away from the damage done by the tsunami. And, while the vast majority of Japan wasn’t hit by it, the towns and cities that were are in really bad shape. Some towns are almost completely gone and the death toll is still rising. Remember that if you want to donate you can find a list of trustworthy organizations at http://abcnews.go.com/International/japan-earthquake-donating-relief-funds/story?id=13122660

You have to admire the Japanese people. Despite the death and devastation caused by the tsunami and the worry over the reactors at Fukushima, there has been no looting, no rioting, and no giant masses of people attempting to flee the country (the vast majority of people who left are foreigners, and even many of them stayed). People in the damaged areas wait in long lines for supplies without complaint and people in the rest of the Japan (even in areas relatively close to Fukushima) go about their daily lives. The only problem is that some people started hoarding bottled water, food (rice and bread mostly), and gasoline, causing them to sell out very quickly. But that’s pretty minor. Imagine if a US state was hit with an earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear crisis like Japan is facing. Any single one of those (much less all three) would like lead to widespread rioting and looting.
Heck, we’ve already had a lot of US citizens (especially in California) panicking because they’re worried that radiation from the Fukushima plant will reach the US. Such fears are baseless. Just about every expert (other than ones in die-hard anti-nuclear groups) agree that even in a worst case scenario (which is highly unlikely) there’s unlikely to be serious fallout in areas more than a short distance away from the plant. Even news reports of radiation detected in Tokyo and in food grown near the plant aren’t a real cause for concern. Sure the headlines sound bad, but if you actually read the articles and look at the numbers, you’ll see that there’s nothing to worry about. You can be exposed all day every day for a year to the highest radiation levels detected more than a short distance away from the plant and you’d still be within the range of radiation that the average person in a modern country is exposed to as part of normal life. And even the worst of the contaminated food and water would only be a problem if you ingest enormous amounts of it every day. And if the vast majority of Japan has nothing to worry about, you can be sure that the US is perfectly safe.

But enough of that. I’ll be resuming my regular update schedule starting tomorrow and plan to keep it up for a while whether I get the opportunity to return to Japan soon or not.

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Quick Update

By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Due to the ongoing issues at the Fukushima reactor, my current stay in Japan has been cut a bit short and I'm heading back to the US tomorrow.  There are more details in my latest travelogue entry.  I was planning to stay for at least another week and a half and I still think there's a a very good chance that any damage done by the reactors will be fairly minor highly localized but things aren't certain yet and my family back home is extremely worried.  Hopefully, everything will work out ok and I'll return to Japan (either for a vacation or maybe a new job) later this year.  However, I certainly don't have to be in Japan to write about Japan so regular blog entries will resume next week.  Japan may be going through some tough times now but it'll recover soon enough and there's a lot more to talk about so I'll see you then!

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Aftermath

By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, March 14, 2011

I’m taking a break from the regular schedule today to talk a little more about what’s been going on in Japan lately. As you’ve probably already heard, Japan was hit by a major earthquake (anywhere from 8.6 – 9 depending where you get your info) Friday afternoon. The quake itself actually didn’t do all that much damage (Japan builds everything to be highly earthquake resistant) but the tsunamis that followed completely devastated some towns and cities along the Northeastern coast. I’ve seen pictures and videos on the news and it’s not good. The full death toll is still unknown (officially it’s around 2000 now but could end up being considerable higher) and quite a lot of people lost their homes and businesses. If you’d like to donate to help the disaster relief effort, you can find a list of trustworthy aid organizations here.

Outside of the Northeastern coastal areas the rest of the country isn’t too badly off. There have been a lot of aftershocks (pretty small for the most part), and the earthquake did start a few fires (mostly minor) but it’s more just put everyone on edge. I spent some time today walking around in Tokyo and you really couldn’t tell that there was a quake. However, things are certainly a bit more subdued. There aren’t quite as many people out and a number of shops and restaurants are closed (though quite a lot re-opened today and it’s looking like the rest will open in another day or two). Then there’s the trains. While they started running again Saturday morning, they’re running a bit less frequently and a few lines still aren’t in service. There’s also been a huge run on rice, bottled water, and bread at every grocery and convenience store. Though it looks unlikely that any areas other than the ones worst hit by the tsunami will experience shortages.

Then there’s the situation at some nuclear power plants. As a quick recap, Japan’s nuclear plants shut down (as they’re supposed to) in response to the quake. However, the tsunami knocked out the backup cooling systems at a few of them. I’ve been following the news and despite some headlines which make it sound like the end of the world as we know it, a full meltdown at any of the reactors is looking pretty unlikely. And, even if such a thing did occur, it would probably be contained to a relatively small area. While some are already under control, it could be a few days before they’re sure that everything will be ok at the Fukuhima plant. So it’s keeping folks a bit on edge. Plus, with so many power plants shut down (most just temporarily), Tokyo is going to have some rolling blackouts over the coming days (quite possibly the coming weeks).

And that’s how things are. To summarize:
1. The earthquake was bad but most damage was caused by the following tsunami.
2. While some towns and cities were devastated, the majority of the country received no serious damage.
3. The situation with the nuclear plants, while tense, hasn’t escalated into a full blown disaster scenario and seems unlikely to do so.

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Rice

By Josiah Lebowitz
Friday, March 11, 2011

First off, if you heard about the big earthquake that hit Japan today, you don’t need to worry about me. The Tokyo area (where I am) was pretty far from the epicenter. We felt it and it shock things up and shut down the trains but didn’t do any serious damage. If you’d like to know more, I wrote all about it in my travelogue at www.pebbleversion.com Now on with today’s originally planned post.

Rice paddies

If you need to choose one food to describe Japanese cooking, it would have to be rice. Like China, Korea, and a few other Asian countries, rice is the staple of the Japanese diet. Rice is eaten plain and used in a variety of different dishes. In fact, it’s very common for Japanese people to eat rice with nearly every meal. But it goes deeper than that…

Rice as a Defining Cultural Element

The world's largest rice scoop on the Japanese island of Miyajima.

Many Japanese people like to refer to themselves as a country of “rice eaters”. As opposed to the US, Canada, and other Western countries which are countries of “bread eaters”. The basic concept there is true, though perhaps not to the degree many Japanese people think it is. In Japan, bread is extremely common these days and Japanese bakeries have created some very interesting and excellent types of bread that you can’t find anywhere else in the world (which I’ll talk about in a future post). Though rice is certainly in no danger of being replaced. And while bread is a staple in many Western countries, it isn’t quite on the same level as rice is in Japan. I know Japanese people who were shocked to discover that many Americans don’t eat bread at every meal and that rice is actually quite popular in US.

Rice as Wealth

An old government rice storehouse.

In the old days, wealth in Japan was often measured primarily in rice, not gold. If the Emperor or Shogun wanted to reward a noble or retainer he would raise him to a rank of x units of rice (each unit being roughly the amount necessary to feed one person for a year). Such a rank meant that the person was entitled to a domain which had the land and subjects necessary to produce that amount of rice every year.

Many taxes were also paid primarily in rice, rather than money or jewels. As an interesting note, because of this it was often only the well-to-do who actually ate rice. For peasants (including the farmers who grew rice), rice was too precious to eat. Instead, they would sell whatever they had left after taxes and live on cheaper grains such as millet, buckwheat, and barley.

Rice as Food

Rice plants up close.

In modern Japan, everyone eats rice and the cheaper grains are only used in a handful of ways (buckwheat for making soba noodles, barley for barley tea, etc). Rice is most often eaten plain and, as I previously mentioned, it’s quite common for Japanese people to have a bowl or two of rice with nearly every meal. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Japanese family without a rice cooker that sees almost constant use. There are many types of rice in Japan but normal Japanese rice (which is the kind most often eaten plain and used in cooking) is a medium length, moderately sticky, white rice. Sushi rice (probably the second most common type) is a shorter and stickier variety. And, while you can usually find a bag or two of brown rice in stores, it’s not very widely used.

Rice is used in a variety of different Japanese dishes including some you’re likely familiar with like rice bowls (such as gyuudon, which I talked about in a previous post), sushi, and curry (though Japanese curry is rather unique compared to other types). Of course there are many rice based foods you likely haven’t heard of as well, such as mochi (a glutinous paste made of smashed rice), which is eaten plain and used in many Japanese soups, sweets, and snacks such as dango (I’ll explain what dango, and many other popular Japanese snacks, are in future posts). And, just in case rice isn’t one of the main ingredients in a Japanese meal, you can be almost certain that it’s included (or at least available) as a side dish.

Rice as Drinks

A giant sake bottle at a sake museum.

Chances are, most of you know about sake (Japanese rice wine). Though you probably didn’t know that it’s supposed to be pronounced “sah-keh”, not “sock-key”. I don’t particularly like sake but so far I haven’t found a single type of alcohol that I do like so I’m really not the best judge. I’ll do a more detailed post on Japanese alcohol in the future (believe it or not, there’s a lot more to it than sake). For now, just know that sake and kirin (a sweeter rice wine often used in cooking) are indeed made entirely of rice in a rather interesting process.

But not all rice drinks are alcoholic. While rice milk (a staple in US health food stores) hasn’t caught on in Japan (though, to my knowledge, there haven’t been any serious attempts to market it here either), Japan has its own non-alcoholic rice drink, amazake. Amazake is actually made from sake lees but its alcohol content is pretty much non-existent so it’s safe for those of all ages and carries no risk of becoming impaired or drunk. Amazake is generally served hot and is primarily sold at small restaurants and snack stands in winter months, though you can buy bottles of it (usually in the liquor section of stores) any time of the year. The consistency and taste vary considerably from place to place but it’s usually a little thick, has a slightly fermented taste, and is very sweet. During my time in Japan, I’ve had some amazake that I really like and some that I can’t stand, so it’s worth giving it a second chance if you don’t like it your first time.

As you can see, even from this brief overview, rice is firmly infused not only in Japan’s cuisine but in its culture as well. Despite the popularity of bread and other foreign foods, there appears to be no danger of rice losing its place at nearly every Japanese meal or its role as a one of the country’s defining elements.
 

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The Japanese Mindset

By Josiah Lebowitz
Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Individual vs. the Group

Everyone in Japan is part of many groups.

In the US we tend to focus on the individual. Our primary concern tends to be what's best for us. We'll go out of our way to try and get the best end of a deal, base many of our decisions on what we think is best for us and/or our closest family and friends, and stand up for ourselves if we feel like we've been cheated or wronged. Not that we ignore the needs and feelings of others, many times we go far out of our way to accommodate them, but in the end, it's our own needs, wants, and concerns that tend to take preference, as long as they're not seriously hurting someone else. There are, of course, some people who really couldn't care less what happens to others and some people who are incredibly selfless. But to talk about a subject like this I have to make a lot of generalizations so keep in mind that when I speak about US people and Japanese people I’m referring to US and Japanese society in general, not every single individual.

In Japan, the mindset is all about the group. You must always prioritize your obligations to the group and work to preserve peace and harmony in the group (even if doing so goes against your own best interests, or even the best interests of the group itself). A Japanese person is a member of many groups. The largest group is the country itself, the group of all Japanese people. Narrowing it down, there's the town where that person lives, his coworkers (particularly ones in the same department), friends, and family. With friends, family, and coworkers (and the business/company as a whole) being the most important groups.

Social Ranking & Obligations

Even Japanese children have an obligation to society.

Japanese people tend to be extremely friendly and polite, especially to socially superior people in their own in-group (higher ranking and more experienced coworkers (experience being determined by their amount of time with the company), older family members, etc). Most Japanese people are also extremely friendly and polite to strangers (those not in their in-group), both because promoting peace and harmony is an important part of their society, and because they don't know how they rank against a stranger socially and don't want to accidently act inappropriately to a superior or cause problems should they have to deal with that person again at a later time. In Japan, you never want to burn your bridges.

The Japanese mindset also focuses heavily on obligations. Basically at every stage in someone's life (though particularly from the time they finish school and get their first serious job until retirement) there are obligations that everyone is "required" to fulfill to maintain a productive and harmonious society. A student's obligations include attending school every day, following all school rules, studying hard, complying with the rules and regulations of whatever club they join, etc. However, students are more easily forgiven when they fail to uphold their obligations as it's considered "youthful indiscretion". A working man (or woman), on the other hand, is "obligated" to put aside their own needs and desires and devote themselves to their business/company even if that leaves very little time for family, friends, hobbies, relaxation, and the like. Because of this, many Japanese people work themselves half to death without complaint and never even ask for overtime pay, as they feel it's their obligation to do so).

Hypothetical Situations
Now that I’ve explained the basics, it’s time for some scenarios to show how the US and Japanese mindsets really differ.

If a stranger asks someone for directions the majority of people in both the US and Japan would help (though I suspect the percentage of helpful people in Japan would be a decent bit higher). Some Japanese people will even take this a step further and lead you there (even if it's out of their way). But what if the person asked doesn't know where the location is? Naturally some people would try to look it up or ask others but there are times when they simply can't answer. Now, an American person will just come right out and tell you that they don't know (and maybe offer some advice on the general area or where to go to find out more). For Japanese people, that would be equivalent to saying that they can't help you, which would be rude since they're obligated to help when asked (within reason). I've had random Japanese people spend five or ten minutes looking around and checking maps trying to figure out how to get to the place I was looking for and one who wandered around with me for a little while until we stumbled across the correct building. Some, on the other hand, will just take a guess about where it is and end up giving you the wrong directions. In my opinion, that really isn’t helpful at all but at least they get to feel as if they fulfilled their duty, even if they really just inconvenienced you more.

One interesting thing to note is that, since Japanese people are more or less obligated to be helpful when asked, a lot of them won't offer to help unless asked, so they don't get stuck helping every person they see with a problem. If they don't acknowledge someone and that other person doesn't obviously acknowledge them, they can safely ignore each other.

It's extremely important to maintain harmony in the work place.

In the US, if someone has a problem with their neighbor, coworker, etc, there's a good chance they'll confront the problem person directly. For example, if my neighbor's loud music was keeping me up at night I’d go knock on his door and ask him to turn it down. Or if my coworker Bob kept taking the pens off my desk I'd go tell him to stop. Of course, not everyone favors direct confrontation (it depends on both the person doing the confronting and the one being confronted), some would prefer to ignore problems and hope they go away or maybe talk to a superior (boss, apartment manager, etc) who will then confront the person if they deem it necessary. But, as Americans, we tend to like solving our own problems. In Japan, however, direct confrontation is almost nonexistent. In order to preserve peace and harmony in the group, Japanese people won't confront the person they have a problem with.

Let's use the example of Bob taking my pens again. I wouldn't go to Bob directly, because then Bob would know I was upset with him and he'd be upset with me for getting on him and that would disrupt the group harmony. Instead, I'd continue to be nice and friendly to Bob as if nothing had happened but I’d hint to a different coworker that there was a chance that Bob might be accidently taking my pens. That coworker would tell another coworker who would tell another until it eventually made it to someone higher up, who would likely pass it on to someone even higher up, and so on and so forth until one of those higher ups (whichever one felt it was his place to do so) would go to Bob and tell him that there was a chance that someone was slightly worried that he might be accidently taking other peoples’ pens. Yes, it can be that vague. The goal is that the problem person doesn't know who is upset with him (although if I'm the only one Bob is taking pens from he'll probably figure it out pretty quickly) or even if there's really much of a problem in the first place. Does this preserve peace and harmony? Yes, on the surface anyway, but it often fails to adequately address the underlying issue so my feelings towards Bob wouldn’t change, I’d just keep them buried.

All the non-Japanese people I know who have been involved in this process of vague circular talk find it extremely annoying when they have to go through the whole process to solve a simple problem and many feel insulted when they realize that someone who was being perfectly friendly to them went behind their back to complain about something instead of just telling them. It's not just for serious problems either. For example, if one of the teachers at the school I was working at decided she didn't like the songs I was using in class, instead of telling me she might tell another teacher who would tell the principle who would tell the board of education who would tell the company that hired me who would in turn tell me (not that I've had any trouble with things like that, but that's how the process works). So something that could have been easily solved with a three minute conversation between myself and the other teacher soon becomes a huge issue involving a number of different people.

Maintaining Group Harmony

Getting along with your co-workers is very important.

As you can probably guess from the preceding examples, just because a Japanese person acts very friendly towards someone on the outside, doesn't necessarily mean they feel that way on the inside. Don’t get me wrong, many many Japanese people are naturally polite, friendly, and helpful, but it can be difficult to recognize when someone is being insincere. If you’re upset at a coworker for some reason, you don't want them to know it, you just go through the process of passing your complaint around until it comes back to them and they hopefully never know you were the one who complained. Of course, many people in the US will pretend to like someone as well (especially if that person is important and/or could cause serious problems for them if upset (say a teacher or boss)). But a lot of people in the US will also be quite obvious with their dislike, something you don't see much in Japan.

Keeping harmony in the group also means going along with the group's decisions. In the US, if you think that your boss or the company as a whole is making a poor choice, depending on the situation and people involved, you might come right out and say it's bad or you may simply phrase your opinion as a small concern or alternative measure. In Japan, disagreeing with your boss or the group would disturb the harmony so it's best to just keep silent and pretend to the support the decision, even if it will eventually lead to problems for you and/or the group as a whole. It’s better to preserve group harmony than try and prevent a mistake (often even a big costly mistake).

Similarly, a Japanese person may be less likely to stick up for themselves if they're cheated or taken advantage of because doing so could cause a lot of trouble and disrupt harmony. The opposite extreme is the occasional American who throw a fit over everything they perceive as even the slightest infraction. While most of us fortunately aren’t like that, it does seem to be getting more common, especially on the internet where I’ve been subjected to long angry tirades for nothing more than politely disagreeing with someone about which of two TV programs was better.

Saying (or Not Saying) No

If this store was out of a flavor, they probably wouldn't tell you so directly.

Another interesting thing is that, for a Japanese person, it's considered extremely rude to say no to just about anything. Japanese people will often go to a whole lot of trouble to avoid answering any question with a straight up no, or anything like a straight up no for that matter. Of course, some Americans will do that too although usually only in certain specific situations to either spare someone's feelings ("Sunday? I'd love to go with you but I've got a dentist appointment.") or avoid angering someone important (boss, teacher, etc) ("Of course you're not doing anything wrong sir, that software must be faulty."). Still, there's many times when we just say no.

Japanese people, on the other hand, have many ways to get the meaning of no across even while saying something entirely different. The Japanese language is full of expressions like that which can be very confusing for people without at least an intermediate grasp of Japanese. Japanese people often won't even say "no" to a simple question such as whether or not their store has a particular item in stock or if they’d like something to drink.

One common way to avoid no is a simple excuse, like my dentist appointment example. But in Japanese the reason for the excuse is often left unstated. For example, instead of saying that I have a dentist appointment on Sunday, I'd probably say something that literally translates to, "Excuse me, Sunday is a little..." Notice that I don't say Sunday is bad, just that it's a little of something (though what that something is, I don't say). Similarly, if I went to a store and asked for udon noodles but they were all out or didn't carry them, the clerk might say something that translates to, "Excuse me, they’re a little..."

Another popular way to say no that can be very confusing for the uninformed is saying yes. For example, say I suggested to someone that we go see a movie tomorrow. Instead of saying no, they might say one of a couple different phrases that mean, "Yes, but..." or "That's a good idea, but..." Though the person is technically saying yes, that hanging "but" means no. Once again, the reason or excuse is often left unstated.

Summary

Both the Japanese and US mindsets have their pros and cons.

Overall, I think both the Japanese and Western mindsets have their pros and cons. The Japanese mindset certain does promote friendly, harmonious, and helpful interaction with other people (even if it's faked at times), but it also creates a rather strict social hierarchy in business, needlessly complicates some matters, can lead to the stifling of new or better ideas in the name of going with the group, and makes it easier for people to be taken advantage of by their "superiors". In contrast, the American mindset lacks many of those problems but can promote selfishness, anger, feelings of entitlement, and a tendency belittle others and take offense when none was given. So, whichever mindset you prefer, just keep in mind that both are far from perfect.

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