Friday, February 19, 2010

JET Interview: The Post Game Wrap-Up

It finally happened today. My interview with JET. Months of preparation, etc. And now it's over. Thank God.

My interview was at 10am this morning, at a hotel in Japantown. I was expecting the mood to be somber and serious but actually the atmosphere in the waiting room was pretty light. Two former JETs sat behind a table, checking off names, while the head of the local JET organization hung around, dispelling myths about the interview process that he'd read online.

That should have been my first clue that a lot of what's out there passing as information is bogus. Really, if I had this to do over again, I would not read anything on any forums and just prepare as I would for any other job interview. Because that's actually what it was: just a job interview. My professional skills and personality were ascertained via questions. Not so strange, that.

I was really nervous going in but once it started I forgot that I was supposed to be scared and went with it. There was a panel of three people and they were—dare I say it—nice to me. There was even laughter. Of course there were some tough questions but I answered honestly and did my best.

Overall, I think it went really well. I was well-spoken and enthusiastic, and I believe my passion for Japan came across. My lack of teaching experience is a definite minus but I hope my other attributes are enough to overcome that.

Next step: the waiting. I will know either way by early April.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Suddenly I Have an Interest In the Olympics

I spent a good part of yesterday morning trying to get set up to stream the Olympics on my computer. NBC only televises the events that involve the US teams, but there are tons of other events happening simultaneously. NBC streams all events on its site in real-time. As long as you are a cable subscriber you can watch. I had some problems logging in, but after a call to customer service I was at last able to watch sports on my computer.

That's right, I said sports.

What's wrong with me, you might ask, and deservedly so, for I have taken a life-long anti-sports stance. I do not watch the Super Bowl. I don't care about baseball or soccer. I have no interest in skiing or snowboarding. Whether spectating or participating, sports are boring.

So when my mom saw me watching the Olympics on my computer yesterday, she remarked, not surprisingly, "Why are you watching the Olympics?"

Why, indeed.

This is the Japanese women's curling team, Team Aomori. And unlike some Japanese athletes who are getting a lot of heat for their appearance, Team Aomori is beloved at home precisely because they're so photogenic. And, as a certified menkui, I figured it was my duty to watch as well. (It's the same reason I watched ping-pong in the 2008 summer Olympics. Hey, consistency counts for something, right?)

Curling itself is lot like shuffle board played on a giant deck of ice with 42-pound granite pucks, called stones. One person lauches the puck, pushing it down the line and trying to get it onto target-like markings at the end of the ice. I'm actually still kind of fuzzy about the particulars but it is interesting to watch. I find the push-off stance particularly graceful, and the frenzied sweeping of the ice that others do to alter the course and speed of the stone is kind of cool. But really, for me, it's all about this:

This is Mari Motohashi, the Second on the team (whatever that means). The picture to the left is from a calendar, which tells you how popular she is in Japan. Check out her blog.

This is Anna Ohmiya. She's the Third. Here's her blog.

There are three others on the team as well, Moe Meguro (the Skip), Kotomi Ishikzaki (the Lead), and Mayo Yamaura (the Fifth), who I'm sure are all stellar athletes but for our purposes links to their blogs will suffice.

If you're as lonely and obsessed enthusiastic as I am about Japanese women's curling, go to the NBC Olympics site and set up alerts so you won't miss any games.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

I'm A Face Eater

A few years ago one of my students in Oita accused me of being 面食い, pronounced "menkui." It literally means "face eater," someone who puts more stock in physical appearance than personality. I argued with her—and am obviously still doing so since I'm writing a story about it 2 years later—that I'm not a menkui. I have very rarely dated someone just for their looks, and if I did it didn't last very long.

The subject came up again last night but among different people. I went to see a movie (a forgettable Hong Kong comedy) with some friends and while looking at the posters for the movies showing in the theater after, I pointed to a pretty girl on a poster for a different movie and said, "I wish she had been in our movie." Oh, do you know who she is? "No, but she's hot." And then it started up again.

So I suppose it's time to admit it: I'm a menkui. Physical appearance is very important to me. However! It is not more important than personality when choosing a companion. But could I date someone who had a great personality but was lacking in the looks department? I'm sorry to say I don't think I could. Maybe that's why I'm still single.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Exploding the Myth of Expensive Japan

I find it odd that Japan is still thought of as a prohibitively expensive place. Sure, compared to other Asian countries like Korea or Thailand it is, but even compared to America right now it's not all that bad. Even though things are changing, why does this myth linger?

Japan's reputation as a pricey place started in the '70s when its miracle economy started to take off. I recently read Paul Theroux's The Great Train Bazaar, in which he takes trains all over Asia and Europe, and even then (early '70s) there were wild rumors of $40 cups of coffee in Japan. This persisted through the wild Bubble '80s, when Japan was one of the richest countries in the world and people ate gold just because they could.

I first went to Japan in 2004 and Tokyo at that time reminded me of San Francisco in terms of cost of living. Apartment rentals were high but similar to what I was used to at home in the Bay Area. Since then, rental prices have come down. It's possible to get a studio apartment (much like the picture to the right) in central Tokyo for around $600 a month now. Try getting that in SF.

But take a look at an apartment rental site like Apamanshop and you can see just how cheap it can get. Sapporo is one of Japan's largest city and there are literally thousands of vacant apartments, many for under $200 a month. And not all of these are of the rabbit hutch variety either. Some have full kitchens, or a second room. And the dreaded key money—two or three months rent as a move-in gift to the landlord—has been lowered to one month in many cases. And hey, if rent is only $200 a month, what's another two bills?

The Japanese fondness for expensive things ("If it costs more it must be better"), born in the boom of the '80s, is also changing. Today young people want "fast fashion," cheap chain outlets like Uniqlo and Forever 21. They're even famously buying jeans at the grocery store. With 15% of Japan's population under the poverty line this makes sense. If people don't have a lot of money they can't keep spending, so lower the cost of goods to match what people have in their wallets and keep the market moving.

However, Japan can still be expensive. The cost of food is really high. Japan spends more on food (and I don't mean eating out) than most other countries. And because of strict import rules, electronics are all made domesticly and sold at high prices regulated by the government. There's no cheap Chinese food processors or toaster ovens here. And of course the $6 orange juice and $8 cake set are standard prices in fancy cafes.

Almost 20 years of recession have changed Japan from rich to, well, not so rich. Japanese still like to spend money—it's a shopper's paradise—but the difference is now the things they're buying cost $10 rather than $100.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Why I Like Japan Reason #6: My Own Space

This, the last in a series exploring why I like Japan so much, is perhaps the hardest to write because it's the most complicated. In encompasses both a reason why I like Japan, and a reason why the country sometimes drives me crazy. Two sides of the same yen, as it were. I'm talking about being left alone.

I've always been something of a solitary person. As a kid I would spend hours alone in my room reading, listening to records and designing Dungeons & Dragons adventures. True to my nature, I enjoyed designing the levels by myself more than I enjoyed playing them with other people. This love of solitude has continued into my adulthood. I have absolutely no problem taking trips by myself, seeing movies by myself, and spending hours alone reading and listening to MP3s (I guess that's one thing that's changed). Of course, I don't shun interpersonal contact but I really do like spending time alone.

Japan, I have found, is the perfect place to do this. Since I don't fit in—I'm not Japanese—I am left alone to go my own way, do my own thing. And, because I'm no longer beholden to the strictures of my own society, I'm free to just be me. It's a very liberating feeling and one that, I believe, fuels most long-term expatriates.

Of course, it's not quite this easy. Another way to say "left alone" is "ignored," and in Japan the Westerner is often studiously, intentionally ignored. It's an odd feeling, to know you're being purposefully ignored. usually I can let it go but sometimes it drives me absolutely crazy. But that's the price to pay, I suppose, for the freedom I feel in Japan.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles exploring my fascination with Japan. Previous entries include:

Honor System

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why I Like Japan Reason #5: Honor System

In the picture to the right (which I did not take), there are freshly harvested vegetables up for sale. You will notice there is no person guarding them. On your honor, if you take a vegetable you pay for it. There are thousands of these unattended vegetable stands all over Japan. Local farmers put some produce in a box or stand on the side of the road and passing motorists stop, shop, and pay. It's amazing.

In many ways, Japan is a country run on the honor system. It's a very trusting place, on a whole. I love this about Japan. Spend just a little time here and you'll find your faith in humanity restored (at least until the national elections come around again).

To some people Japan is easy pickings. I once had a foreign woman break down for me all the ways to cheat the Tokyo Metro. You can buy a kid's ticket at half the price. No person will ever see the ticket—you buy it from a machine and then put it in a mechanical gate. Or, as the amount increases by distance, you can buy a ticket to the closest station and then go as far as you wish, feigning ignorance at the other end.

Yes, you can do these things (and more, I'm sure) but why would you? It ruins it for everybody. When I was a kid, trick or treating on Halloween, I would occasionally come across a bowl of candy sitting unattended on a porch with a sign that said, "Take one." Of course, I would take only one. It's unfair to the next 50 people if I take it all. But more often than not I would find the bowl empty. If I listened hard enough, I could hear the greedy kids who took it all, still laughing from down the block.

I don't want to live in a place where people take it all. I want to live in a place where the remainder of the candy is left for those who come after. It's called the "honor system" for a reason. When you take all the candy, when you screw the Tokyo Metro, when you steal from old farmers barely able to make a living, you may have made some small material gain but you have lost a whole lot more. You've lost it for everyone.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles exploring my fascination with Japan. Previous entries include:


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why I Like Japan Reason #4: History

Japan is roughly the size of California, yet within this compact land mass lies some of the most interesting historical sites in the world. There are thousands of temples and shrines, hundreds of burial mounds, tens of castles (plus plenty more sites of former castles), and on and on. Can you imagine 50 castles in the entirety of the US, let alone California? Even 12, the number of original castles in Japan, seems extravagant for our Western state.

I love history and Japan just bursts with it. Every region has at least one thing to see but often this number is more like a hundred. Even Oita, the prefecture where I lived in 2008, isn't all that exciting in the modern world but was a powerful area in the samurai days. In just Oita Prefecture alone are two castles, tens of castle ruins, the ancient headquarters for the network of Hachiman shrines that stretches across Japan, 2 or 3 samurai quarters, and much more. Multiply this across Japan's 47 prefectures and you begin to get an idea of just how much there is to see.

Perhaps it's because I'm from California that I love history so much. America has its own history, however young that may be, but it's largely confined to the East Coast, to places like Boston and Philadelphia. Out here on the other side of the country there's a distinct lack of past. If you want to see something from before WW2 you have to search for it and once you find... oh, too late, it's been replaced by a Wal-Mart. Japan likes to replace its old buildings too but in the case of shrines and castles, at least it rebuilds it exactly as it was before, preserving the lay of the land as well as the feeling of the place. Try finding that in the diaper isle at Wal-Mart.

Japan is also in love with its own history so there's no lack of homegrown appreciation for samurai and days of old. It's sort of like America's love of the western before Italy took it away from us and made it better. Back in the '50s, you could see westerns on TV, at the movies, and read about it in books. It was part of our national culture. Now no one cares about the past, perhaps because for most Americans now it has no bearing on them. Their past is in India or China or Eastern Europe. It's not right to say that America has no past; its pasts are countless and spread all over the world.

But for someone like me, who so enjoys learning about the past, living in a country without a distinct national past is like a baseball enthusiast living in France. You just have to go elsewhere to get your needs met.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles exploring my fascination with Japan. Previous entries include:


Monday, February 1, 2010

Why I Like Japan Reason #3: Safety

I had been living in Japan for around 6 months when it struck me: I was so much more relaxed walking around town. What's going on, I wondered. I get stared at constantly, so I'm always aware of people around me, and it's not like the streets are so empty that I don't have to worry about accidentally bumping into someone. No, the difference was I never felt like I was going to be attacked.

Japan is famous for its low crime rate, and you really feel the safety living there. Being robbed on the street is a rare thing. A friend of mine once left his backpack on a Tokyo street corner and it was still there days later, its contents unmolested. And I once saw a salaryman passed out face down on a train platform with his wallet in his out-stretched hand. I'll bet you it was still there when he woke up. The fact is, Japan is a remarkably safe place to live.

To walk down a crowded city street and not have to switch your wallet from back pocket to front. To not have to monitor for unpredictable crazy people. To not have to scan for potential muggers. To not have to keep an eye on dark corners and alleyway entrances that could hide assailants. To not have to constantly recalculate escape routes through the shifting crowds. I am blissfully free from such stressful thought processes in Japan.

I know that previous paragraph makes me seem paranoid, and when laid out like that it does seem a bit like safety overkill, but this is really what we're doing in our heads when walking down a busy, urban street. You can't tell me you don't tense up a bit in the Tenderloin or in parts of Oakland. Maybe these things aren't at the front of your mind but they're there in the back. It's called being aware of your surroundings. I really only noticed that I even did these things after living in Japan, when they had gone.

OK, Japan does have some weird crimes, like teenage daughters killing their fathers with axes, and anime fanatics stabbing each other in the streets. But this doesn't scare me. A knife? Come at me with a gun if you really want to scare me. When I saw someone get shot in LA, the killer and victim were standing a mere 5 feet from my car. After the shooting, the killer looked into my eyes and smiled. I was sure he was going to shoot me too. I nearly pissed my pants. If he had been holding a knife, I wouldn't have been scared at all.

It's a wonderful thing to be free from fear, even when it's just that little, everyday fear we call "street smarts."

This is part of an ongoing series of articles exploring my fascination with Japan. Previous entries include: