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April 2004

light-bulb nutrients

April 24, 2004

There are are a number of myths about foreigners that a surprising number of people in Japan seem to believe to a greater or lesser extent. A lot of these are to do with how difficult it must be to live in Japan if you’re not Japanese. One problem is that the Japanese language is almost impossible for foreigners to ever grasp. We might learn enough to read roadsigns and menus, ask for directions, have conversations, and maybe even read Japanese literature, but we can never really grasp the language, because it’s so difficult. Another difficulty foreigners face is the challenge of having to eat with chopsticks instead of spoons, and consequently we face the real threat of malnourishment in the midst of plenty, just because everything we try to eat just slips off our chopsticks before it reaches our mouths.

This is a particularly odd myth, because it seems to be based on an idea that chopsticks are specifically Japanese, and misses the fact that just across the East China Sea, on mainland Asia, about a fifth of the world’s population – and all of them foreigners – are also getting by perfectly ok with chopsticks. The insular mindset that the whole “ooh, you’re eating with chopsticks” attitude implies annoys me, and I usually can’t help saying something along the lines of “yeah, well, there are loads of Chinese restaurants in Britain, see…”

Another difficulty for foreigners is that there are so few of us – Japan is one of the most culturally homogenous countries in the world – so we must be lonely. Although inquiries about loneliness are always well-meant, they still boil down to a benevolent sort of racism, because the implicit assumption seems to be that we couldn’t have Japanese friends.

The last two myths (plus God knows how many others that I’m not aware of, and which, together, might actually make some sense of what follows) came together in a surreal exchange in the supermarket queue the other day with the school librarian, who seems to particuarly enthusiastically buy into mad ideas about foreigners. She pointed at my shopping basket – which contained only a carton of fruit juice and a 60 Watt light bulb – and then at her full basket and looked at me and giggled, as if I should understand what the joke was. This set my teeth on edge, so I asked what was funny. She explained that “I have to buy all this because I have so many mouths to feed. But you live alone, so you don’t need much at all.”

As with lots of the things she says, my mind reeled trying to grasp the network of assumptions that you would have to hold in order to think that that made any kind of sense… She has a family, so she has to buy lots of food, whereas I, being alone and foreign, can subsist off nothing more than a carton of fruit juice and whatever nutrients I can lick off the glassy surface of a light-bulb? If so, how long does she think one light-bulb lasts me? That’s what I want to know.

posted in Okinawano comments

another year

April 9, 2004


Well. A few weeks ago I decided to stay out here for another year, mainly because while one year has been enough to improve my Japanese and learn the very basics of scuba-diving, taiko-drumming, and sanshin playing, I’m not sure that any of it has stuck well enough that it wouldn’t slip away after a few months back in Britain. I think another year should be enough to actually put these things into practice, though, and make sure I’ve got something permanent out of being here. I’m going to assume, though, that after this year I’ll be going back to Britain. Not because I necessarily will, but because if I decide to stay a third year I don’t want it to be because I feel I didn’t do enough in my second. Besides, I’m already daydreaming about Norway, Hungary, Namibia and (as of this afternoon) Ghana…

Wednesday of this week was the start of a new term, and a new school year (they run from April to March in Japan), and in true Japanese style we started the term with not one but three opening ceremonies, back-to-back. A big difference between Britain and Japan is that here, people’s ceremony-tolerating threshold is extremely high. As the vice-principal announced the closure of the first ceremony – to welcome the new teachers – I thought “Wow. That was surprisingly bearable – only fifty minutes.” But then, without a pause, the Principal got up and announced the opening of the ‘starting the term ceremony’. Another forty-five minutes or so. Then a five-minute toilet break, before the ‘welcoming the new students’ ceremony started. This overlapped considerably in content with the initial ‘welcoming the new teachers’ ceremony, and it seemed to me that with a little forethought these two ceremonies could have been condensed into the one, general ‘welcome’ ceremony, which would probably have freed up at least half an hour of precious life, and necessitated singing the horrible, horrible school anthem only once. There is a bit in the anthem where the piano plays a jaunty descending major bassline that has surely been lifted from a novelty song of the 1950s, or a really bad country and western number. Horrible.

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temples and gardens

April 8, 2004

hooded buddhas

I’m back on the island after a week or so’s absence going round Kyoto and Okinawa with my parents. On my previous, brief visit to Kyoto at New Year, I only saw a couple of temples, but this time the cherry-trees exploded into blossom on about the day after we arrived, and we went temple-beserk. If you find yourself in Kyoto, my top two temples are Kinkakuji (金閣寺), the Golden Pavilion, which – true to its name – is almost entirely covered in gold, and Kiyomizu Temple (清水寺), which is a collection of several buildings, all very different, and each of which individually would kick the arse of most other temples in the vicinity.

Quite a few of the temples had Zen rock gardens, and I was surprised to find that while some immediately struck me as balanced and peaceful and quite possibly the product of someone who knows something rather profound, others, though superficially similar, seemed as if someone had just raked some gravel into pretty shapes. I began to wonder if my instant discrimination between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ Zen gardens was a sign that I understood something – perhaps even of imminent enlightenment – but my optimism was shattered when, on reaching the last garden of the day (one of the ‘real’ ones) whose only prominent features were two large and slightly rounded mounds that seemed to be emerging from an otherwise calm sea of gravel, one of the first thoughts to ripple the tranquil, pondlike surface of my mind concerned their hilarious (and not entirely vague) resemblance to… the breasts on a lady! Imagine that! A great big nude lady, hiding under the gravel, just biding her time, waiting to jump out and startle a passing monk!

posted in Japanno comments