Friday, December 31, 2004

2005: Seeing with new eyes

I can't believe almost two weeks of my vacation have passed already. The time goes by so quickly! It doesn't seem possible that I'll be going back to Japan in another week. Sometimes I feel lost between two worlds--belonging to neither one. Coming back to the U.S. has made me see with new eyes, and I'm shocked at what I see.

One of the things I see everywhere is obesity. It's staggering! There are so many really, really overweight people, including very young children. Despite all the so-called "low fat" foods and "diet" soft drinks, people are growing bigger and bigger. My own weight had been creeping up for years, even though I eat a healthy diet of fresh vegetables and fish. I blamed my weight gain on too little exercise, which probably was correct since I've lost weight in Japan. All my slacks were suddenly too big and I've had to have them altered. I walk quite a bit now and have more stamina.

The other thing I noticed when I returned to the States is the sheer excess of purchases. Walk into any CostCo or Wal-Mart and see the enormous shopping carts overflowing with goods. This isn't to say that the Japanese wouldn't love to buy even more things, but it's much more difficult to carry things home if you're walking or using the trains. You learn quickly to buy only what you can carry. And another thing, most Japanese houses or apartments are too small to store a lot of extra stuff.

I've felt lost without a car here, and miss the convenience of the trains in Japan. It's a love/hate relationship with them since at times the trains are too crowded, but at other times I feel such relief that they're so available. They make it easy to get around, no matter where you need to go.

In the U.S., people are clogging the highways in their one-person-to-a-car travel, but in most cities around the nation, there's no other choice. Mass transit, except for bus stops that all seem to be located too far away from most neighborhoods, is pathetic in such a rich, industrialized nation. No wonder so many elderly people feel so isolated. How can they maintain an independent lifestyle when they're unable to drive? How can they get to the doctor or, for that matter, the supermarket, when they don't have a car? America is such a strange place, where the government assumes that everyone has the means to be independent. The reality is that there are many millions of people who have no access to public services, even though they need them desperately. In Seattle there's been talk of a "light-rail system" for at least 25 years, yet no difinitive movement in that direction. Too many worries that expensive homes will lose value if light rail moves into their neighborhoods. How shortsighted and selfish. Meanwhile, traffic is snarled in all directions while people curse their commutes.

Coming home for the holidays has been filled with so many emotions. I'm so thankful to have this time with my family, and to be able to hug and hold each other for a little while longer. With the terrible tragedy unfolding in Asia, I'm especiallyg grateful for the time to appreciate the simple things in life: the love of family and friends, good health, a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. These are the basic needs for anyone, yet for many millions now in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and several other countries, their lives have been turned upside down.

Much to think about in this new year of 2005.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Countdown for trip home!

It's December 15 already! Where did the year go? This has been one of the most exciting years of my life, but I'm ready to go home and spend the holidays with my daughter in the U.S. While I love teaching, it will also be nice to take a break for a few weeks.

My students are so puzzled about Americans and their vacations. They can't understand how we manage to take even two weeks at a time. Rarely does a Japanese worker take more than one week. I've asked them many times about why they take so few days at a time and the usual answer is that they can't leave their work for others to do. It's a custom I can't wrap my brain around, but in Japan people are much more team oriented. If a member of the team is absent, the team falls apart, apparently. It's for this same reason they don't take sick leave when they're really ill. They'll drag themselves to work (or to class!) no matter how sick or hung over they are--all for the sake of "gambatte" (the title of my Web site).

"Gambatte!" is an expression used to encourage others to give it their best, and it's ingrained in the Japanese psyche. Appearance is everything, even if the worker or student is unable to focus on work or the lesson. They think, "well, at least I showed up. Gambatte!"

So, I've wished all my friends here in Tokyo a merry Christmas and a happy New Year and will leave for the U.S. in just a few days. I'm wondering how it will feel to see things from a new perspective. I'm sure everything will look very big to me after living in Tokyo where everything is very small. It will also probably irritate me the first time a store clerk slaps something in a bag and throws it at me--that is, if I can find a clerk to make my purchase. In Japan service reigns supreme and there are "shop girls" everywhere to wait on me, bowing and smiling.

Yes, it will be a big culture shock to go back home where I will once again look short, be ignored by store clerks, and stunned by "personal space."

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

No mention of Pearl Harbor anniversary

Understandably, there was no mention made here yesterday of the 63rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, or that today, December 8, was the anniversary of the day that the American Congress officially declared war against Japan.

Only once or twice have any of my students even mentioned that there was a war between the United States and Japan. I think all parties seem to want to forget that it ever happened.

As I look around me, I can't imagine that such a thing could have happened, and I can't imagine that there were two devastating atom bombs dropped on civilian populations.

I suppose it's a good thing that both countries have been able to forgive.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Japanese government wants more babies

As hard as it is to believe, Japan is worried about its dwindling population. It currently has one of the lowest birth rates in the world. The decline in Japan's birth rate is so severe they have invented a word for it - 'shoshika', meaning a society without children.

Unless women here start having more babies, the population in Japan is expected to shrink more than 20% by the middle of this century. Nearly half would be elderly, placing impossible burdens on the health and pension systems. -BBC News

While it seems to me that every third woman in Tokyo is either pregnant or pushing a stroller, apparently this is not enough to replace the dwindling population.

According to this morning's Christian Science Monitor, another troubling trend is that educated, career-driven Japanese women do not want Japanese husbands. They're far more interested in marrying American or European men because they believe they're more likely to be treated respectfully, maintain their careers, and have more help at home.

In Japanese culture, women are expected to forego their career once they marry. Even if they manage to keep their jobs, they must be home before their husbands and carry the burden of all housework and childcare. Often, they're also expected to care for their husband's aging parents. With this load to carry, it's no wonder Japanese women prefer marrying Western men.

So, what are Japanese men going to do about this? Will it be possible for them to change enough to woo back Japanese women? In a society where change is measured in centuries rather than decades, it will be interesting to see how quickly this culture can change if they expect to save themselves--quite literally!

Shop 'til you drop

It seems very strange to be shopping for Christmas presents in Japan this year. Last year at this time, I had no idea I'd be living in Tokyo when the next Christmas rolled around.

I've ventured out twice now to shop for gifts to take home when I leave on vacation in a couple of weeks. What do you take to friends and family in America?

One of the places I just had to go to shop was Shibuya. There are Christmas decorations everywhere, and it looked very festive. Even though it was windy today, the temperature wasn't that cold, so it was quite comfortable. Well, that is until I walked into the stores. While it's around 50F (10C) outside, the stores maintain an even 80F (26C) inside, which might be fine for the lightly-dressed shop clerks, but for the people wearing coats, mufflers and gloves, it's unbearably hot.

Even at work, the Japanese staff want to keep the building at 80F, which is their comfort zone but certainly not the comfort zone for most of us who come from other countries. In America, almost all business offices keep their thermostats set at 68F (20C), all year long.

I was happy to get a good part of my shopping completed in only two trips, the one today to Shibuya and Harajuku, and the one last week to Harajuku. Next week I'm going to Shinjuku to shop with another friend who will show me some of her favorite places.

In Harajuku, while walking down one of the narrow streets today, I noticed quite a few people running out of shops carrying t-shirts and marking pens. It seems that somebody famous was shoping there, which stopped traffic everywhere while people asked for autographs. I didn't recognize him, but he looked African-American, was very large, and dressed in a silver-colored jogging suit and baseball cap. I figured he was either an athlete or a rap singer, but don't know for sure.

Harajuku is, so far, one of my favorite places in Tokyo. Its wide, tree-lined streets remind me of cities such as New York or Paris. It's also where I've seen the most foreigners. It seems very beautiful and cosmopolitan, and there are so many interesting shops, including a plethora of retro 80s shops. Remember those leggings I mentioned last summer? Well, I guess they're just part of this hugely popular retro look. I suppose big hair and shoulder pads will soon follow.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Are we in Kansas, Toto?

Typhoon-class winds hit the Tokyo area Saturday night and sleep was impossible because the wind gusts were 90 mph (144 kph) at times. Even the very solid, traditional two-storey Japanese home I now live in shook like a bowl full of jelly. (I thought that was an appropriate simile since it's so close to Christmas!)

None of my windows are double-paned, so the curtains billowed out inside my room, knocking over a small vase of flowers. With each gust I thought the roof would lift off. In the dark, I heard crashing sounds outside, and wondered if I would end up in Kansas by morning. I also worried about the landlady's cats surviving the night because they live outside. One of the teachers at work told me about a cat she found on her eighth-storey balcony one morning after a typhoon hit during the night. The only way the cat could have gotten onto her balcony is if it had been blown up there! Fortunately, the cat survived, and my friend carried it downstairs the next morning.

An inspection of damage the next day revealed about a dozen heavy ceramic roof tiles that had been ripped off the roof and smashed to bits on the ground below. There was also a large steel downspout lying in the backyard, but I was relieved to see that all three cats were fine.

I read that more than 300 airline flights were cancelled and 100 trains brought to a stop.

Everyone says this has been a freaky weather year in Japan, and no one seems to remember a typhoon-class storm hitting in December. Instead of the usual low 50s temperatures for this time of year, yesterday it made it all the way up to 75.7F (24.8C), the warmest December temperature ever, and felt like summer in Seattle. Today, the wind is still howling, and the temperature is expected to be back into the seasonal 50s.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Looking more Japanese?

Strangely enough, I was recently mistaken for a Japanese as I stood on the platform waiting for the train. I heard a woman speaking to me in Japanese, and when I turned around she had the most shocked look on her face! She immediately backed away and darted over to someone who really was Japanese, to ask her question.

The number of redheads in Japan has grown to unbelievable proportions, so why wouldn't I have been mistaken for a Japanese woman? It seems that red hair has now become so popular that it probably outnumbers black hair, at least among women, although it also seems quite popular with young men. And, if not red, there's also the blondes, and one Japanese guy even had blue contact lenses and platinum blonde hair. He looked like an alien!