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Part V Cultural Notes and Haircuts

September 12, 1998

And now, a plethora of rambling non-sequiturs about life in Japan.  The little differences are really starting to get my attention now that I am more or less reconciled with the big differences (those being, for starters, that everyone here speaks a different language).

First, however, an anecdote is in order.  I got a haircut the other day, and while most of the communication went fine, I egregiously misused the word "more" while the stylist still had the clippers in hand.  (Author's note:  notice the story telling style -- set the scene, put the reader at ease, then lay a teaser to get them to read more.  Plus, I used the word "egregiously," always a good thing.  I should be doing this for a living.)  Anyway, what happened was that I told the guy (I'll call him "the barber" for short) to use clippers on the sides and the back, but he just used it at the very bottom, near the neck, so I said "no, more, further up the head."  Of course, his English is worse than my Japanese, so the only thing he understood was "more."  So, he dutifully switched attachments and before I knew it I was getting shorn.  It actually isn't that bad; itís just a little shorter than usual on the sides and the back.  Later, I got him to understand my original comment, so itís all good, as they say.  The best word I can think of to describe the barber is ìmeticulous.î  Itís not a perfect haircut, but there is not one hair that isn't where he meant to put it.  It just wasn't always where I wanted him to put it.

There are some interesting differences between American and Japanese hair styling establishments.   First, when you sit down, they don't put a simple little nylon sheet on you to keep the hair off you.  No, it takes two people to prepare you for the event.  First, a thin nylon thing, like they have in the US.  Then, a small towel around the neck.  Then, a huge, thick, obviously waterproof layer, bigger than the first.  Little metal arms about 18 inches long stick up at a 45 degree angle from the end of the armrests, and the third layer is attached there.  I'm not sure why -- it made me look like I was in one of those chairs expecting mothers use.  This layer was roughly half as thick as that screen they make you wear when taking dental X-rays, so maybe the propping up is to protect your legs from being crushed.  Then, a fourth layer is added, another small towel around the neck.  I felt like I was in a cocoon.   In Japan, a shave (with a straight razor, of course) is considered a normal part of the package.  I wimped out, however.  Maybe next time, now that I have more faith in their skills.  Also, a head/neck/upper back massage is included, and you'd better believe I took advantage of this.  Not that I got the full effect, considering I was wearing the equivalent of kevlar body armor.  I have been told that the ìfull treatmentî at some of these establishments includes various degrees of sexual stimulation once the hair cutting has been completed, but, fortunately or unfortunately, mine is not that type of barber shop.

Anyway, the barber was very good, and very patient.  I even got him to understand that I wanted him to use thinning shears, because my hair gets really thick sometimes, and it poofs up (nobody wants that).  And don't think for a second that "thinning shears" is in the pocket dictionary that I brought with me.  When all was said and done, the haircut cost me 2900 yen, which is about $20.   A shave would have been only $4 more, so I think next time I will treat myself.

OK, now for the ramblings.  There are ten of them, in no particular order.

1)  I went to McDonald's the other day, and I was looking at the extra value meals.  They have a one-cheeseburger extra value meal.  I mean, what's the point?  That's hardly an appetizer.  Especially since the ìmediumî fries that comes with it has about four french fries.  They don't even have quarter pounders -- I mean, who in Japan could eat that much meat at one sitting?  People might faint if they saw that much meat in one place.   On the other hand, they have menus with pictures in front of all of the registers, so you don't actually have to order in Japanese -- point-and-grunt works fine.  So, I pointed and-grunted at the double cheeseburger value meal.  I wanted it "super-sized," since here all the value meals come with less than the equivalent of a small fries and a small drink.  But they don't have "super-sized" -- again, how could anyone possibly eat that much?  So, I pointed to the double-cheeseburger value meal and said "Large, large, large."  The woman behind the counter looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, which, of course, I was.  I then remembered a previous experience and said "L-size, L-size."  Then, her face brightened, and she pressed the appropriate buttons, as if I had spoken in Japanese, which, of course, I hadn't.  That's right -- the menus here have L, M, and S as the three sizes, but nobody here seems to realize that they actually stand for something.  They are simply "L-size," "M-size," and "S-size."  And actually, the "size" sounds more like "sai-zu.î

2)  Thirty people, one jump rope.  You want to know why Japan is seen as a homogeneous society?  Try watching more than thirty kids jump the same rope at the same time.  Two strong kids on either end swinging the big rope, and thirty kids jumping, and counting, in unison.  One class got up to 24.  Watching thirty-something junior high school students jumping and counting in absolute perfect unison 24 times gives a little insight, I think, into the culture.  It comes through in class -- no one is supposed to be less smart OR smarter than anyone else.  Hence, when you ask a question, no one raises their hand, because that would make them different.  And they really, really, really don't want to be different (I guess I could dig into a thesaurus here, but hey, I'm a lazy, lazy, lazy man).  The thing is, of course each student has a different personality, but this only comes across after class, when they approach me and ask questions, which some of them actually do.  Not all the questions are welcome, but the students don't really mean to offend people when they ask personal questions -- it just isn't as socially reprehensible.  One student asked me, in class, in front of all the girls in the class plus the 24 year old female JTE, whether I like "big bust" or "small bust."  If some kid asked that in the states, he would be in the principal's office before he could blink.  But here, everyone just looked at me expectantly, including the teacher.  There is a foolproof way to skirt such questions, though -- ask it right back.  Then the kid gets really embarrassed, everyone laughs, and the tense moment is over.

3)   The ATM machines here close when the bank is closed.  That's right, when the bank is open you can go inside and get money from the machine, but when the bank is closed, well, the machines are locked inside.  What's the damn point?  Its like, they figured out that ATM machines are useful, and then they negated much of their usefulness by putting them _inside_ the bank!!  AHHHHHHH!!!  On the other hand, they do have one feature on the ATM machines which is absolutely fabulous:  whenever you make a transaction, you stick your bank book into the machine, and it updates all of the transactions for you -- you never actually have to write down yourself anything that you do, so you can never make a mistake.  Genius?  Well, maybe, but of course you can only do this during banking hours.

4)  Incomprehensibly poorly timed politeness.  Last Wednesday, I was at a junior high school, about a five minute bike ride from home, when I got a call from my supervisor in the board of education.  First, he apologized for bothering me, then he asked me how teaching was going.  I responded with the appropriate platitudes.  Then he informed me that my fire alarm was going off, and could he have permission to let the firefighters inside to check it out.  Uh, what?  Well, OF COURSE YOU CAN GO INSIDE!!   Did he expect me to say ìactually, Iíd rather all of my belongings burned rather than let you see themî?  It turned out to be a false alarm (rats biting through the wiring had shorted out the circuit -- out of the frying pan . . .), but I sincerely hope that if they had actually seen smoke they would not have asked permission to go inside and put it out.

So, letís go over the correct procedures in a situation like this.  First of all, you go inside without asking when the fire alarm sounds.  Second, when you do call, you don't chitchat for five minutes while the other person's apartment is burning down.  The problem is, itís impolite to come right to the point, because it makes the person you called think that you don't really care about them, but only called them to tell them something.

5)  Ahh, sarcasm, my long lost friend.  Sarcasm does not exist in Japan (probably because everyone is too busy being polite).  Itís very frustrating when absolutely everything you say is taken at face value, and taken very seriously.  For instance, yesterday a box was delivered to the junior high school.  The administrative assistant, Mr. Motegi, who is an awesome guy, signed for it.  Then, I walked up and said "I think that package is for me," because I was bored and I saw a chance to bother someone.  So, he dutifully double-checked the label and informed me that, no, the shipment of nylon badminton birdies was in fact intended for the badminton coach.  I tried to tell him that I was just making a joke, but he looked at me like I was talking a foreign language.  Which, of course, I was.

6)  The way sports training is conducted here is kind of absurd -- well, I should say that itís absurd to me, since it is so different from what is done in the US.  First of all, everyone does one sport only, all year round.  There is no such thing as a two, let alone a three sport athlete.  They were amazed to find out that I play not only basketball AND ping-pong, but that I also dabbled in soccer, volleyball, and tennis.  Also, the way people go about practicing their sport is a bit odd.  Every student must attend a "club" after school, from about 4:00 until about 6:00.  These include sports, martial arts, and the like.  The basketball team, with whom I have played twice, runs around the track from 4:00 until 4:45.  Then, they come inside and run windsprints until about 5:40.  Then, they play 7 minutes of basketball (the boys play a 7-minute game, then the girls play a 7-minute game).  At no time do they actually practice jump shots, although just before playing everyone has to shoot ten free throws and the number of shots made is recorded.  So, yeah, they'll never get tired during a game.  Of course, that doesn't mean much when they can't actually get the ball in the hoop.  I am not surprised that Japan does fairly poorly in most international athletic competitions, although I do find it strange that Japan isnít better in the track events and long-distance running, which should be their forte.  Maybe this goes to show that there are intangible benefits to practicing more than one sport.  Either that, or it shows that Japanese aren't very good athletes.  However, it should be pointed out that the all the kids, without fail, do all the running, and with little or no supervision.  Can you imagine junior high school students in the US running windsprints by themselves, with no coach directing their actions?

7)  Which brings us to another interesting point -- Japanese students always do what they are told, without question.  There are very few exceptions to this.  The only one I can think of is that a girl in one of my classes is so shy and embarrassed about speaking English to me that she just plain won't, no matter how much I plead.  Anyway, this blind obedience, which I am sure many teachers in the States would kill for, makes games like Simon Says nearly impossible.  I mean, sure, Simon tells you to do something and you do it.  But when I don't say "Simon says," they still do it, because they always follow directions.  I had a small epiphany after one class in which I tried, with notably limited success, to teach Simon Says (or, Rafi Says, in this case, since I was teaching the game and I could call it whatever the hell I wanted).  I was standing in the teachers' room looking outside when I saw the aforementioned jump rope phenomenon.  It all suddenly became clear why Simon Says wasn't working -- itís just not a Japanese style game.

8)  There are almost no street names in Japan.  Ever try to give someone directions without using street names?  "OK, go straight until you see the water tower on the left, and then turn right.  Now, just after you pass a big barn with the words 'Welcome to Earth' painted on the roof in neon turquoise, turn right again, and then take your second left after passing the house with 8 jack-o lanterns and the cardboard cut-out of a woman bending over out front."  Now try to do it in Japanese.  So, my address here is "Honcho 3 Chome 6-38", which means Honcho street (it is the main street of the city, so at least it has a name).  However, the rest of it is not exactly a number.  See, Honcho street is split into about 7 "chomeî, or sections, numbered north to south.  I am on the third section of Honcho, in the 6th sub-section of the third section, to be exact.  Unlike the main sections, the sub-sections are numbers south-to north, at least where I am.  That changes in other places.  In other words, when trying to get somewhere in Japan, either get a very detailed map or kidnap a guide.  Postal employees in Japan usually have relatively small routes, because they must be very familiar with an area before they are able to deliver all of the mail.

9)  People drive on the wrong, I mean left, side of the street here.  That's weird.  More than that, nobody drives very well, which is even scarier than it might be because most streets are very narrow and do not have sidewalks.  I have now adopted a policy of defensive bike-riding.  As in, I'd better defend myself or someone is going to decapitate me.

10)  Men don't cook in Japan.  Plain and simple.  People here are amazed when I tell them that yes, I do live alone and eat real food.  I don't know what they think I do, but when I tell them what I had for dinner the night before, they say, "oh, where was the restaurant?"  When I tell them that in America many men cook, including my father, they get all wide-eyed.  Maybe it was the same in America a few decades ago, but it is very weird for me (especially since I did not live in America a few decades ago).  And speaking of cooking, I found this Japanese ginger chicken recipe that kicks major ass.  Unfortunately, it requires something called mirin, a Japanese cooking vinegar/wine type thing, that might be hard to find in the US.  I am sure that any Asian food market will have it, though, because it is nearly ubiquitous in Japanese cooking.  If you want the recipe, let me know.  One warning though -- Japan has not yet been infected by the low-fat bug, and this recipe includes pan-frying the chicken in (GASP!) oil.  I know, I know, just try to calm down and breathe normally.