Monday, September 27, 2004

Failure to communicate

Most of the time I have little or no problems with communication, even though I don't speak Japanese. However, there have now been two minor irritations that have left me feeling a little frustrated because I didn't know basic Japanese.

The first incident happened a couple of weeks ago, and it involved buying sushi from the corner vendor that I buy from all the time. Usually an older woman waits on me, but this time she was busy in the back and a man--I'm assuming her husband--waited on me. I had chosen one small package of salmon sushi from the refrigerator case. In bold red letters, I saw what I have now come to recognize as a "sale" sticker saying something about two for one. In this case it was 2 packages for 500 yen. I didn't want to buy 2 packages. Only one. So, I gave a 1000 yen note to the man and he gave me back 250 yen as change. I looked at it and said, "I'm sorry. I'm only buying ONE package, not two, so you owe me 500 yen." He pointed to the "500" that he had rung up on the cash register, even though he had mis-entered the amount, and gestured that I had been given the right change. I picked up the ONE package of sushi and pointed to the bold red Kanji, saying 2 for 1. He resolutely pointed to the cash register where it said 500 yen.

This went back and forth for several attempts. Finally, the older woman happened to look up and saw us through the window to the kitchen area. She came out to assist, and I showed her the 2 for 1 packaging. She knows I always only buy one package. I gestured to show that he had rung up 500 yen instead of 250. She gave the man a withering look, shoved him out of her way, and reached into the till to give me my 250 yen.

Another incident was at the train station where, for some weird reason, the train attendant thought I had tried to cheat the system by not paying my full fare. I had used my pass to travel to a destination beyond what is covered in my pass. However, when I got to my destination, I bought another ticket to cover the remainder that I owed, and used that to pass through the ticket gate. When I returned to the station to reverse my travel, I knew I couldn't use my pass so I went to the window where the ticket agent sold me a one-way ticket. As I attempted to use it to go through the ticket gate, he waved me back over to his window where he showed me the calculator, indicating that I owed him another 150 yen. I said, "I just paid you 150 yen." My reply fell on deaf ears. He hammered at the calculator, as if to demand another 150 yen. I told him, again, that I had already paid for the ticket like 10 seconds ago! You know the expression that all Asians look alike to Americans? Well, I've heard the same thing said about the way Westerners look to Asians, so I figured he had just had an extremely short memory, or could not recognize me again once I left his window the first time.

This disagreement over who had paid what went on for a couple of minutes and then I finally just threw 150 yen at him for another ticket and huffed off, determined not to look back if he decided to call me back yet again. People at work told me that he probably assumed I had tried to cheat the system, even though it was clear when I showed him my pass what I had done. They said next time it happens to just keep walking. They rarely go after people, and especially not Westerners. It might involve too much explaning, and they're terrified of having to try to converse in English.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Learning Kanji: a different perspective

I heard the most interesting comment from one of my students, a middle-aged Japanese business man. I was teaching some vocabulary words in an upper-level class, and happened to ask my student if learning to spell in English was very difficult. He acknowledged that it was, especially with all the exceptions to every rule. I asked him if it was just as difficult learning Kanji , one of the three different Japanese written forms, and the most beautiful and elaborate form. There are somewhere around 50,000 different Kanji characters, and a college graduate should know at least 2,000. It takes a very long time to learn even the required 2,000 Kanji.

This is what he said:

While the Japanese were busy learning Kanji, the Western world passed us by. With only 26 letters you can say everything!

This was a rare insight into the Japanese perspective, and one that I will never forget.

Japan's Mount Asama spewing

Did I mention that we also had a volcano erupt this month? Most people remember the winter 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, a mere 48 kilometers from Mount Asama.

Mt. Asama began erupting September 1, just a few days before our big earthquakes, and continues to spew ash. In one day, there were 183 "volcanic quakes." Scientists said the eruption was unrelated to our large earthquakes just a few days later.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Shake, rattle and roll. . .

Even though I had decided not to write about all the earthquakes in Japan (usually about 1,500 a year!), the past week requires me to make a comment. On September 5th we had two rather large earthquakes , the first occurred around 7pm and measured 6.9 and another one occurred around midnight measuring 7.4. The Kobe earthquake in 1995 measured 7.2 and killed nearly 6,000 people, so I was relieved that these two did so little damage and that there were no deaths. The next few days brought more earthquakes measuring from 5.4 to 6.3. Overall, I think there were six earthquakes this week measuring 5.4 or more.

I've felt numerous aftershocks. Each time I've wondered if this would be the "big one" and have devised a strategy for an escape route from my apartment. Who knows if it would actually work, but at least it's good to try to think things through ahead of time.

I've found that most Japanese people I've talked to about earthquake preparedness don't seem to have much information about how to survive, so I'm writing an article on the topic. If anyone has an idea for where to publish this article, please send me an email. It's loaded with information about fallacies and facts for surviving an earthquake. Everyone needs to read this! I've communicated with the world's leading survival expert and have information that can help save thousands of lives!

Riddle me this

Riddle Me This: When I finish using the ATM machine, I see an animated picture of a man and a woman (dressed in bank uniforms) bowing to me. When I make a purchase in a shop or convenience store, the clerks always fold their hands over at their waistline and make a polite bow. If I give my seat up to an elderly person on the train, they smile and bow with deepest appreciation. So, the puzzle is this: why is it that Japanese people will let a door slam right in your face and make no offer to hold it open until you can either get through it or grab the door yourself? Why is it that they will bang into you while walking without the slightest attempt to apologize? And another thing, why is it that they walk all over the sidewalk or street without making any attempt to stay on "their" side? It reminds me of an ant hill with people walking everywhere, in every direction, with no thought to an organized flow of traffic. For people who are so super-organized about almost everything, I find it very perplexing that trying to walk anywhere is a contact sport and requires me to bob and weave in every direction to stay out of the line of fire.

Legwarmers: These were popular in the early 80s I think, but I'm seeing them on teenage girls now. Usually they're thick white cotton and go up to the knees. The girls are wearing them even on exceedingly hot, muggy days! How can they stand it? Are these a revival of the style worn in Flashdance?

Den-Entoshi Train: Is there some reason why this particular train line doesn't use the AC at all, or only on low? I can't tell you the number of times now that I've had to ride it in the sweltering heat with little or no AC!

Modesty: I find it refreshing that Japanese women are somewhat modest about their summer fashions. In hotter parts of the U.S. women seem to think they're entitled to appear almost nude in public. They wear the shortest shorts and the most revealing tank tops or camisoles imaginable! This summer, despite record-breaking heat, I've rarely seen any Japanese females in shorts, and those that I have seen wear only a more modest version. Usually women here wear slacks, jeans, or long skirts. There's also the fashionable jeans or leggings worn under summer dresses accessorized by the requisite tall, spikey heels.