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Saturday, Oct. 20, 2012

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Then and now


I remember well my first Halloween in Japan, mostly because I was invited to speak about it at a junior high.

Trick or treating? Kids in sheets with peep holes? Jack O' Lanterns? I might have been lecturing about life on Mars.

And now? Now Halloween has carved its own niche in the Japanese holiday pantheon. Maybe it's not the same as back home, but Halloween has nevertheless arrived. Witness all the decoration in stores. These days when it comes to Halloween, Japanese kids could lecture me. Just goes to show you how things have changed.

As for that other choco-holiday — Valentine's Day — it was already a hit when I arrived. Even back then — the mid '70s — girls were pushing chocolate at guys. That was a bit different from the States, but nothing I couldn't get used to. Almost 40 years later, I still gain 2.5 kg each February. Just goes to show you how things haven't changed.

And, naturally, those are not the only things that have changed/haven't changed over the last many decades.

Take the trains . . .

Then . . . the wickets were all manned. At each one would stand — or rather slouch — a uniformed representative of the train company. This fellow's earnest task was to clip each passenger's ticket with a metal punch, a job no doubt earned by virtue of a college degree.

Now . . . those workforce stalwarts have been replaced by machines, a comment perhaps on the value of education. I sometimes wonder what the train company did with all those punchers — both man and metal.

What's the same? The rush hour crunch — not enough seats, not enough space, not enough air, with bodies jammed together like marshmallows. Even now, rush hour is never rushed enough. It always takes too long.

Fast food chains . . .

Then . . . the Colonel, McDonald's and so on served as emotional links to the faraway West. And such "home cooking" wasn't just around the corner. In 1976, for example, there was but one McDonald's in all of Kyushu.

Now . . . my local train station alone features three separate McDonald's, not to mention every quick form of fried chicken known to man. Yet, now these eateries mostly serve as links to indigestion.

What's the same? Prices. Indigestion may not be good, but at least it's affordable.

Fashion . . .

Then . . . cosplay was reserved for singing idols, whose outlandish outfits made must-watch TV. Everyone else was mostly in uniform, staid uniforms too. Almost no one dyed their hair, and those that did all showed a "magic marker" type effect.

Now . . . Japan has loosened up and keeps getting looser. Diet members drop neckties in summer. Fashion designers tinker with school uniforms. And the biggest fashion statement of all? A coed without dyed hair.

What's the same? Comparing photos from then and now, the clothing is clearly different. Yet . . . everyone still has fingers raised in that infernal peace sign.

Shopping . . .

Then . . . shopping? If not for food, I didn't bother. Japan didn't offer my sizes. Instead, I would haul back suitcases of clothing and shoes from each trip home.

Now . . . Japanese have grown upward and outward and I now have plentiful options, with clothing, shoes or whatever. If only I could stand the crowds, I might live in the stores. As it is — another change — I prefer browsing online.

What's the same? I still lug back suitcases of goods from each trip stateside. Where my humble yen carries quite a swagger.

Sports . . .

Then . . . then there was baseball. More aptly, Yomiuri Giants baseball. When asked to name their favorite teams, 24 boys in a class of 25 answered, "The Giants." The other boy, the class clown, coughed out, "Nippon Ham," to explosive laughter. Sumo had but one foreigner — Takamiyama — who at that stage of his career was sort of a clown as well. J League soccer did not exist.

Now . . . now almost as many Japanese follow the ups and downs of their ballplayers in the States as they do those at home, where the Giants are still the reigning popular monarch. But they are no longer dictators. Meanwhile, foreign wrestlers rule sumo and Japanese wrestlers are clowns. No matter. Soccer is more popular than anything.

What's the same? Japan remains plumb loco for sports. Sports hype is so thick it could be dumped into the sea and used to reclaim land.

English . . .

Then . . . foreign residents were, in the eyes of some, walking English lessons. I might be hailed anytime, anywhere by the call, "Hi! May I speak English with you?" Not so hard to understand, as schoolteachers who spoke passable English were as rare as unicorns. Of course, this supply/demand situation led to plentiful jobs.

Now . . . no one has approached me to speak English in over 20 years. And schoolteachers who cannot speak passable English are an endangered species. As for jobs, foreign instructors now need some qualification beyond being born an English speaker.

What the same? Japanese still have trouble with "r"s and "l"s. How do I know? Just this sign, with the greeting of the season . . .

Happy Harroween everyone!



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