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Tuesday, March 6, 2012
HAVE YOUR SAY
A few of readers' favorite things; heated discussion on the burning issue of warmth
A selection of readers' responses to Debito Arudou's Feb. 7 Just Be Cause column, "These are a few of my favorite things about Japan":
Disrespecting the handicapped
As the father of a disabled child and fellow rights activist, I found it disappointing and more than a little hypocritical that one of Debito's favorite things about Japan is the ability to use facilities specifically designed for one of the most discriminated-against minority groups as his own personal "throne" with impunity. I can only imagine he is also thrilled that there is no enforcement of handicap parking violations.
Perhaps if there were fewer self-entitled "foreigners" taking what they want when they want it, Mr. Arudou would not have or need as many straw men to rail against.
His actions certainly put an experience my son and I recently had into perspective though.
While returning from Tokyo after lobbying Diet members on child custody issues, my son and I parked in a designated handicapped space in a rest area. Within seconds a young Japanese man tapped on my window and somewhat pointedly (or so I thought) told me the space was reserved for the disabled. When I politely showed him my permit and began suctioning my son, he became quite flustered, apologized and left.
Regrettably, my first thought was he would have never approached me if I was Japanese. Then I thought perhaps he just wanted to practice his English. Despite my initial irritation about his possible motives, I quickly realized I should just be grateful as he was ultimately protecting the handicapped, my family included, against people like Mr. Arudou (regardless of race or nationality).
For someone who readily cries foul at any slight, real or otherwise, Mr. Arudou might do well to remember actions speak louder than words.
Debito in your pocket?
Love Arudou Debito's "Things I Love" opinion piece, and the illustrations. Will you be marketing a Debito key fob anytime soon?
Ten more things to love
Having lived almost a quarter of a century in Japan and now semi-retired in the U.S., I'd like to add my 10 things to love about this country to the list provided by Debito Arudou:
1. National health: If you're a resident, you can get good health care for modest fees, whatever your "pre-existing condition."
2. Taxes: Your employer deducts taxes from your pay without your having to endure the annual April 15 agony of filing them yourself.
3. Drivers: Japanese drivers are usually courteous, or at least don't think they own the road.
4. Pedestrians: With the no-turn-on-red rule, pedestrians are respected, not the targets of maniacs driving SUVs.
5. No tipping: The custom of tipping in the U.S. allows restaurants to pay waiters substandard wages, even when they charge $50 for a mediocre plate of pasta.
6. Fewer screwups: Service people usually do their jobs conscientiously and are polite — which makes them pleasant to deal with.
7. Food portions: They're usually moderate, making it easier to stay slim.
8. Public transport: As Debito says, it's great!
9. Quiet neighbors: In this shame society, people don't think waking people up in the middle of the night with their carousing is a basic human right.
10. Religion (or the lack of it): In secular Japan, your religious beliefs are your business, and your business only.
The list goes on, and on
In regard to Debito Arudou's Feb. 7 essay, I totally agree with everything on his list, but thought I'd add few of my own favorite things:
1. Early morning sunrise on a bright, sunny day at Yamanoka-ko with the snow-covered peak of Mount Fuji all aglow in red, pink and light purple. A marvel to behold.
2. World-class bakery shops everywhere!
3. Efficient table service in most restaurants, and no tipping.
4. A food culture second to none, perhaps the finest culinary traditions in all the world. And variety to match.
5. Surprisingly sophisticated coffee lover's paradise.
6. Himeji Castle during the cherry blossom season, or any season for that matter.
7. The honesty of most Japanese and the low crime rate.
8. Affordable health care!
9. Trains, trains, trains. Clean, comfortable and on time.
10. The splendor of an autumn sunset on the Inland Sea when all the world seems to be bathed in a golden, radiant sunlight.
11. The quiet on New Year's Eve, just before one hears the Buddhist temple bells ring 108 times. And the many bonfires and holiday meals.
12. Not having to own an automobile! Japan has such a fine network of public transportation that owning a car is sometimes an unnecessary financial burden, and often just an inconvenience. Japan is also bicycle-friendly, and I hope it always will be.
13. The mild winter weather in places like Tokyo.
14. NHK's many cultural and art-related programs.
15. Professional baseball games can end in a tie.
16. Litter-free sidewalks in most cities and towns.
17. The warmth and good cheer of so many Japanese! And their devotion to family and nakama.
18. Quality bookshops in Kanda, Tokyo.
19. Having sushi for breakfast in Tsukiji after touring the early morning market.
20. Opera City in Tokyo.
21. Having the opportunity to meet famous people from other countries or just getting a glimpse of them around Tokyo. One day I swear I saw the famous opera singer Luciano Pavarotti on the escalator at Isetan department store. I just waved. Had a chance to correspond with Walter Mondale when he was the U.S. ambassador to Japan.
22. The extraordinary Japanese scientists, engineers, doctors, academics, housewives — just all the ESL students in general that I met while teaching English in Japan. I miss teaching English very much.
23. The religious freedom in Japan. I mean there's no right-wing Christian evangelicals running around screaming in your ear that you must accept Jesus or else. Though I did have a nasty run-in with Soka Gakkai. I've recovered.
24. Very low-profile military forces in Japan who just quietly do their jobs. America is a garrison society by comparison with too much "hero worship" and jingoistic fever.
25. Seeing my letters published in The Japan Times from time to time.
26. A very fine bowl of rāmen on a cold winter eve.
27. Honda motorcycles (Kawasaki, too).
29. World-class Japanese models attired in kimono.
30. Suntory Hall.
31. The Japan Alps and Hokkaido's Daisetsu mountains.
32. Rural or mountain onsen in Hokkaido, far from the maddening crowd's ignoble strife.
33. Brand new tatami mats
34. A cool and relaxing soba shop on a hot, muggy summer day — enjoying a bowl of cold soba and washing it down with perfectly chilled mugs of beer.
35. Kinokuniya bookstore, foreign book section.
36. Wandering around Ueno and Nishi-Nippori in the autumn, many wonderful temples and art galleries along the way.
37. Snorkeling along the shore at Oshima Island.
38. Taking the car ferry from Niigata to Otaru and having my own private cabin!
39. The love and affection so many Japanese displayed towards my corgi when I was walking around Tokyo. Same goes for the golden retriever I cared for some years ago.
40. Japan's love of literature. There's a Japanese restaurant with authentic traditional foods at the Mark Twain home and museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Splendid museum and fine dining.
41. Those Japanese who are so multitalented, such as the Tsukuba Science City engineer I met years ago who also played the violin in the city's symphony orchestra, or the Japanese English teacher I once met who was a virtuoso at playing the classic guitar.
42. Hot summer afternoons and the sound of the fūrin bell ringing ever so faintly in the cooling breeze.
43. I could go on, but you get the idea!
What an extraordinary land Japan truly is, and an extraordinary culture. When I finally return in September, I know I'll be more at home than ever before.
Best of East and West
Why I still love Japan: The best of both worlds, via the eyes of one expat who left.
This is a topic that I often have trouble articulating to truly encapsulate my feelings. But I think I finally know why now, after living in Osaka for six years, and now back home for almost two. Japan really is the best of both worlds. You can have your ramen and slurp it, too.
Arriving in any big city, you will instantly notice the ubiquitous nature of American culture and influence: McDonald's, The Gap, Levi's, Polo Ralph Lauren and HP — you name it, you'll usually be able to find it.
You can watch a movie in the cinema in English, whilst the rest of the audience read the subtitles. If you teach English (as I did), you can go to work and speak your native language all day, and what's more, everyone will be glad that you did. You will be regarded as fascinating, and will be asked all kinds of questions about your lifestyle, interests or daily activities. You will usually be offered assistance by bank staff, nurses and shop staff whenever you look troubled.
As a foreigner, to some extent you get to live in your own little universe, kind of on the periphery of society. Whilst Japanese people are bound by strict conventions of their position within the social hierarchy and need be mindful of appropriate keigo, manners and gifts at various times, foreigners, on the other hand, generally do not.
Of course, if you are speaking with your boss in Japanese, you should certainly be respectful, but it is not expected that you would totally understand the complex nuances of keigo, and mistakes and lapses in protocol will usually be forgiven.
One can also experience and indulge in so many things that you cannot at home. The gorgeous autumn leaves and cherry blossoms of the changing seasons, spectacular temples and shrines, hot springs, wonderfully attentive customer service, punctual trains, a feeling of personal safety, convenience of knowing that if you need something you can get it at your local 24-hour convenience store, festivals, cultural days and a generally considerate and cohesive society.
Yet, despite Western influence, Japan still retains many of its traditions and much of its culture. Two of my favorite cultural aspects are koinobori, where wind socks are made by drawing carp patterns on paper or cloth, and can be seen fluttering in the wind, adorning houses from April until Children's Day in May. Carp are said to represent perseverance and courage, in the hope that male children will grow up healthy and strong.
The second are the various firework festivals that take place during summer, and the delightful visual splendor of girls wearing colorful summer kimonos called yukata, food stalls, spectacular fireworks and the feel-good atmosphere that prevails.
You can immerse yourself as much as you want to — or don't want to — into Japanese society. If you want to make Japanese friends and speak Japanese most of the time, naturally you can do that. Any time you miss home, you can probably find a slice of it that's just enough to keep you sane.
For myself I guess, that's why I miss Japan the most, because I can't have my slice here. The trains don't run often enough and everything at the convenience store costs double. People don't form neat queues, and neighbors do play loud music at 12:30 in the morning. There are no hot springs, cherry blossoms, Uniqlo, nor equivalent cultural days.
I often that feel people are a little more self-indulgent here: It's more about the "I," whereas in Japan there is at least some consideration or awareness of others, and the "we" or "they." Little gestures like the elevator etiquette or the way Japanese people duck down when passing in front of you at a supermarket or DVD store do matter. It's nice to have a little bit of consideration.
But don't get me wrong, it's not all bad here either. Lovely parks and huge green open spaces, large houses, good social security, al fresco dining, family-friendly work policies, concerts that you can get tickets to, minimal overtime work, and no language stresses when buying a mobile phone or going to the hospital. I suppose that anyone who has lived in two different countries will have a list of things they like and don't like. For me though, admittedly my list entitled "Japan — the things I like" is longer.
So when I finally do return to Japan, I'll forgive the fact that I could count on one hand the amount of times I've seen grass in a year, that it's still 28 degrees at 2 a.m. in summer, zero degrees at the same time in winter, or that my 1K apartment was so small that I accidentally trod on my roommate's face once en route to the bathroom.
At least the toilet seat will be heated, and the neighbors will have the stereo turned down.
Some readers' letters in response to Gianni Simone's Jan. 31 Light Gist column, "A winter's tale: cold homes, poor lives in wealthy Japan":
Article right on the mark
This article was absolutely perfect in describing winter in Japan. Only this morning I was thinking that I am more comfortable walking to the station than I am inside my house, where I shiver in three layers of clothes and huddle with a hot cafe au lait under the kotatsu.
A student of mine whose son now lives in Seattle said after a visit that Americans waste so much energy on fully heating a huge house. But I feel it's throwing water on desert sand to heat my house, which has zero insulation.
Why does my electricity bill have to quadruple in winter when the heat just seeps out of the house and the room cools to 7 degrees in just a couple of hours? My parents' condo in Canada stays warm with the thermostat set at 15 because it is well insulated. After cooking dinner the rooms are 24 degrees and by morning it's still around 21 with the thermostat never touched!
Also in Japan, how about all those homes that burn because of heater accidents in winter?
Thanks for the great writing. Stay warm!
Law against insulation?
I have lived here for four years now and have watched several neighborhood homes be razed and new ones built without any insulation or double-/triple-glazed windows.
Is there a law or something forbidding them to conserve electricity by insulating? It just flies in the face of common-sense, especially now that power use is of such vital concern. Maybe they have an aversion for the usual pink fiberglass insulation jazzbo.
Greetings from Canada
Very funny! Thank you. It brought back happy memories of my life in Japan from 1970 to 1981.
West Vancouver, British Columbia
Japan's frugality is a virtue
Really, this is a silly article. Though we live in the USA, my wife, who comes from a very old family in Japan, grew up in a house where the only warm room in the winter was the kitchen. That was normal for most rural homes in Japan then, and perhaps it still is. It's why Japanese took really hot baths before retiring.
In my home in the USA when I was little in the 1940s, my baths were taken in a wash tub in the kitchen. These are good things, because they teach us about humility and to realize how to value our lives as we live them in our times.
It is certain that the world cannot sustain all of its inhabitants living comfortably in spaces maintained at 22 C by either heating or air conditioning all year round.
Japan has always been known as a place where frugality is rewarded. I really do hope the rest of the world could see how valuable this is in our times.
Some discomfort in our daily lives makes us all have so much more respect for each other when it's a shared sacrifice. Isn't that what is needed for our planet to survive our times and lifestyle?
MAHLON F. CRAFT
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