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Monday, March 15, 2010
1000 Things About Japan/Japanese Snack Reviews
By KYLE KORABOWSKI
When Shari Custer arrived in Japan with her American husband, the original plan was to stay for "five years." That was 20 years ago. During her extended time in Japan, Custer wanted to chronicle some of the little things that many overlook, and her ongoing list comprises one of her blogs: 1000 Things About Japan. Custer consistently posts about what she will and will not miss when she finally leaves Japan. Originally from Pennsylvania, Custer is subjective in her views and has no pretensions about being an authority on the best and worst of Japan. While naturally not every reader of her blog will wholeheartedly agree with each like and dislike, any resident, former resident or visitor to Japan should be able to find something here that strikes a chord. Alongside her 1000 Things blog, Custer also blogs about the never-ending snacks on Japanese Snack Reviews, which has the tag-line: Telling you more than you need to know about Japanese junk food.
What inspired you to begin this blog?
There were two things. First of all, there is a wonderful blog called 1000 Awesome Things , which notes a lot of the little things in life that we tend to take for granted and I thought it would be interesting to do the same for my life in Japan. I think things tend to slip away if you don’t take the time to notice them. The other reason was that I wanted to do a blog with a short, notational posting style since I tend to be verbose and write at length. The "1000 Things About Japan" blog format is meant to constrain my natural writing style.
Some of your posts relate to non-Japanese people judging you for not being obsessed with all things Japanese. Were you a Japanophile when you first arrived?
I was not a Japanophile, nor have I ever been one. Many people think that being a Japanophile is complimentary to the country, but I think that they love a distorted, unrealistic version of Japan. It is not at all flattering to the Japanese people when non-Japanese love it from a narrow perspective as they know the real deal, warts and all. All places have good and bad points. Japan has a lot to love, but that doesn’t mean it is a perfect place.
How has your attitude toward Japan changed over time?
I went through the same phases that most people do when they live in Japan for some time. At first, all is sunshine and roses, then I got angry and depressed. Eventually, my perspective became more balanced. Part of my blog’s purpose is talking about both sides of life here. There are good things, but also bad ones. I realize that conclusions about Japan are subjective. My experiences are authentic, but my emotional responses to them are ones that others may not share.
Have any readers ever misunderstood the intentions of your blog and thought you were criticizing Japanese culture and ways?
I didn’t have issues with misunderstanding in that way, but I had problems with people being angry with me for what wasn’t being said. Early on, I allowed comments, but I had to disable them because some people felt it was essential for me to address issues from a broad and deep perspective. When I explained that that was not the purpose of the blog, they got even angrier. Part of the problem is that some people make reasonable points, but they are beside the point in terms of the blog’s intent. They want me to validate those points by acknowledging and debating them, but I’m not interested in exhausting myself by debating each of what will end up to be 1,000 posts in that fashion.
In general terms, what is the one aspect of Japan that you will miss the most, and the one you can't wait to get away from? ... or is that too tough to answer?
This is actually very, very easy to answer, but it would give away post numbers 999 and 1,000. I already know how the blog will end. I can say though that one of the things I will miss very badly is my association with Japanese people. Being around people with such a different perspective has really helped me develop a sense that we are all shaped so strongly by our cultures that we cannot help but feel and think as we do, and that it is important not to judge people for seeing things differently. That doesn’t just go for Japan, but for every region of the world. I’m politically liberal, but being in Japan has helped me learn to tolerate conservatives because they developed their perspective based on their life experience. I have come to respect the differences I have with people, even when I don’t agree with them and that’s something living in Japan has given me.
You've recognized that many people disagree with your "will not miss sushi" post. Have there been any other memorable topics that polarized your readers?
The topic that polarized people and forced me to turn off comments was about taxis not picking me up because I’m a foreigner. Mainly, people felt I was absolutely obliged to state that I would not suffer discrimination back home as I do in Japan because I have the "privilege" of being a Caucasian. Personally, I think not being treated in a prejudicial manner should not be viewed as a special privilege, but rather the state that all people deserve regardless of ethnicity or appearance. I realized that I could not satisfy people who felt I had to address every topic with an exploration of how and why I wouldn’t have these problems back home without radically altering the way I did the blog. I just don’t want to spend a full page posting on each topic or handling it from a global perspective. It’s not that that wouldn’t be a valuable or interesting exercise, but rather that it isn’t what I want to do with this blog.
Have you ever been on the fence about something and not known whether you will or will not miss it?
If I’m on the fence about a topic, I’ll do a double post addressing the good points and bad points (as I did with the national health insurance). If it’s something that I’m relatively indifferent about, I won’t talk about it at all.
You're still in the hundreds with your "will and will not misses." Do you think you will be able to make it to 1,000?
I’m actually one-third of the way through counting the posts to date and my (as yet unpublished) buffer. I think finding 1,000 things is a matter of paying attention to things that are around me. Right now, I’m finding that I need to get into the habit of carrying a notebook to remember all of the things I want to say. I’ll be walking around and think, "I’m going to miss that" and then I forget by the time I get home.
You have another blog Japanese Snack Reviews. When and why did you start this one?
I have done two personal blogs before and in the second one, I wanted to talk more about the food and products I encountered because I think that products you encounter in a country are a reflection of cultural differences. For instance, the fact that Japanese snacks don’t use artificial dyes, but instead use? things like purple potato and carrot for coloring shows that they reject these types of food additives. I didn’t think that talking so much about such things was appropriate for my personal blogs, so I spun off a full blog on snacks.
Can you recall the snack that surprised you the most . . . either in unexpected flavor or misleading packaging?
The one that surprised me the most was Nakano Kombu. I bought it from the kid’s snacks section and thought it was a sweet. I didn’t pay any attention to the name, ingredients or description and just tossed it in my shopping basket. When I got home and opened it, I saw it was leathery strips of seaweed. I gave it a try anyway and it was the worst thing I’d ever eaten. It’s not that I hate seaweed, but rather that it was sweet and the combination of sugar and kelp was pretty awful in my opinion.
How has trying and analyzing all these snacks affected your opinion of the Japanese snack industry and consumer behavior?
I’ve learned that the Japanese snack industry isn’t quite as imaginative as it appears to be. There are a lot of novel flavors, especially among KitKats, but many are pretty boring or badly combined. I realize that most of those things are one-trick-ponies that are meant to get a spurt of sales or media attention. They aren’t even meant to be good or loved for their taste; they’re just supposed to be interesting enough for an impulse buy. I’ve also learned that Japanese consumers must prefer lots of fat in their snacks. Most sweet treats are higher in fat, but lower in sugar than similar Western-made treats. The calorie counts are often slightly higher in Japanese sweets because of this. Of course, I’ve also learned that Sucralose or sugar are added to savory salted snacks a lot in Japan so the "salty sweet" combination which has become very popular recently is something that has been in place for awhile in Japan.
f you could give snack-makers any advice, what would it be?
Japanese snack makers are pretty savvy about their market, but I really dislike the aftertaste that comes along with most Japanese chocolate. The chocolate itself is often very good, but you end up with a bad taste which is similar to coffee breath afterward. I wish they could do something to eliminate that.
You mentioned in a February post in that despite your hundreds of readers, your blog is "young," and you aren't great at marketing your blog. Do you plan on taking your blog to another level? What are your future plans for it?
In the niche blogging world, it takes several years to gain a readership unless you are lucky. There are a lot of Japan blogs and people only have so much time to read them. You have to not only hope they find you, but that they choose your content presentation over someone else’s with similar coverage. My future plans are to overhaul the layout so that it is more interesting. Ultimately, I want to take what I have learned about snacks and write a book on snacking in Japan.
When it comes to blogs about Japan, are there any that you follow/admire?
I love Shibuya 246 for the way in which it feels both like a "brand" blog (not personal), but still has a real human feeling and the author connects with his readers. The pictures are also excellent. I also follow a lot of personal blogs written by women in Japan because I think you learn the most by hearing about experiences that others have had and most male Japan bloggers don’t tend to write about their lives or experiences.