Wednesday, November 16, 2005


I have to apoligize to everyone for the flippant nature of my last post, I sat down Sunday ready to answer all my e-mails and write a long blog post when I was interupted by a date. Drat. I did however, on Sunday, get a chance to visit the famous and illusterous Kyoto Space Needle, 105 meters of abosolute high altitude viewing tower fun. Okay, so it's not famous, and it's certainly not illustrious and probably lose in any contest to America's Seattle Space Needle. However, I do have a free week of vacation starting tomorrow, which will give me a chance to see some of Japan's 15 other freestanding viewing towers over 100 meters in height. Yes, this is an obsession brewing.

I also got a chance to eat at Kyoto's best all you can eat itallian resteraunt speciallizing in Seafood pasta. Yeah, I might be getting tired of Asian cuisine. At my homestay I am treated to America sized portions of homecooked seafood and indiginous japanese vegetables, including celery, carrots and other tubers the likes of which I can't really describe. One can't really escape, however, the years of conditioning that have shaped one's tastebuds and thus I am still drawn to the western style yogert, bread and pastries that have been popular here since the 17th century days of the dutch trading post in Nagasaki. In addition to bread and yogurt, my homestay also enjoys the American tradition of watching TV through dinner, which has exposed me to another fun side of Japanese culture: the obsession with "cute." It might not surprise you that the land that produced Hello Kitty, Tamagachi, and "lovable" robotic puppies can sometimes be transfixed by the things they call "Kawaii" but living here allows one to witness all the ads, cartoons and billboards where huge eyes, ear to ear smiles and small bodies dominate.

But if you don't mind me going into a geopolitical digresionn, what has really struck me during my time here is the "globalization with Japanese tendancies" that has transformed Japan over the last 140 years. At first glance, the incredible "westernness" of Japan surprised me, even after seeing the completely developed Beijing and the soviet influenced Ulaan Bataar. First of all, English dominates to surprising extent. It is likely that whoever you bump into on the street has studied it at least a little bit in school, and many will have studied it in depth. When I catch the early train to kyoto, the train that has teenagers commuting to private highschools in the city, I have on numerous time seen kids going over sheets with english words on them or other English homework at an advanced level. On my commute home I pass no less than three specialty English Language Schools and at the book store TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language, a test neccesary for study in American universities) cram books are about as comomon here as SAT study guides are in the States. It goes beyond that. You likely know many English and Dutch words have worked their way into the national lexicon in "japanesed" forms, but also many words are common used in their western form, written out in the roman alphabet. This is espicially true for many of the names of larger coorporations which I have never seen written in Kanji (traditional characters) or Hiragana (the Japanese alphabet) but always written in the Western Roman Alphabet. What's more suprising is JR (or Japanese Railways) which doesn't even use the Japaese word for Japan in its name, it uses the english word. Imagine if Amtrak was called "REU" for "Railroad d'Etats Unis."

Eingrish, or horribly translated English, is also present in Japan, but not nearly as common as it is in Mongolia and China. It is surprising that, for the most part, when something is written in English, it's done correctly. That's often more than I can say for more blogs or e-mails. I have however seen a fashionable clothing store called "commode" and a clothes dryer with twin motors and a "fuzzy logic" system.

The dominence of english sorta drives home the fact that for about 60 years Japan has been an American dependent of sorts. It was under our umbrella that Japan rebuilt itself and under our protection that allows the country to continue without a national military. Aside from trade agreements, Japan rarely says no to America in an international setting, making it one of our "best friends" in the U.N. aside from Isreal .

This is where it gets interesting.

So one might say that Japan is fully westernized, fully developed, fully drawn in by the forces of globalization. But that's not true. From 1867 (the beginning of Japan's modernization) to 1952 (the official end to American Occupation and restoration of Japanese soverignty) to today, the country has entered modernization on its own terms, and thus, much more so than certain parts of China, has retained much of its own culture. Shinto shrines are everywhere and shinto heritage is stressed by many prominent Japanese simply because of the inherent "Japaneseness" of the faith relative to the imports of Buddhism and Christianity. In the alleyways between the new highrises and officebuildings of marble, granite and glass there are small alcoves for a shinto or buddhist shrine, sometimes done in the traditional wooden style, sometimes carved into the same sleek polished granite that makes up the side of the building. Japanese bowing still dominates many breif and polite social interactions and the Japanese people still overwhealmingly prefer their own style of complex baths to the quick western shower. Women, also, still often wear the formal Kimono for many activities, and don't shy away from going to the grocery or deparment store in the traditional dress. I have also seen some tradition minded Men (such as the Mayor of Tokyo) sometimes wear a traditional blouse over their shirt and tie at some formal functions. Overall, Japan has kept ahold of much of what it considers representive of its culture despite the numerous and complete overhauls it has undergone in the last century and a half.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Waiting Room

Living in the cramped Ibaraki aparment of my near elderly hostmother, I am treated to nightly dinner conversations on contemperary events and culture, mostly culinary culture, but culture none-the-less. The quiet wisedom and vast experience that resides behind the surface of her replies reminds me subltely of Tuesdays With Morrie. Except my "Morrie" speaks to me mostly in Japanese and by Tuesday, I mean every day. Not that I've read the book or plan to, for that matter, but from third hand information and overhead comments I've heard its about an older guy, right?