Category Archives: Educational

Shakotan Blue Available Now

Shakotan Blue angle

At long last, Shakotan Blue is officially published! Head on over to ShakotanBlue.com or Amazon to order your copy of the ultimate Japan travel guide/memoir. Makes a great gift for anyone interested in Japan, especially those considering teaching English in Japanese schools.

And thanks for reading!

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The 5 Biggest Misconceptions about Japan

To celebrate the upcoming publication of my book, Shakotan Blue, I wanted to share an interesting tidbit of what I learned during my time in Japan. Even for a Japan Studies major like myself, there were many misconceptions about Japan that persisted in my thinking until I actually came to live in the country. So let’s recap the five biggest notions about Japan that I have learned just aren’t true.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

1. Japan Is Not So High-Tech

After rising to economic dominance with companies like Sony, Panasonic, and Toshiba, Japan has certainly become synonymous with cutting-edge technology. One of my college history professors even said, “If you want to see the future, go to East Asia.” The idea being that technology was advancing so rapidly in Japan, China, and South Korea that visiting those countries was like traveling forward in time. Well, I’m been to the future, and you know what? Outside of Akihabara in Tokyo, Japan isn’t all that futuristic.

Don’t get me wrong: Japan has the most technologically advanced toilet seats in the world, for sure. The rail systems are top-notch. And modern Japanese home appliances are always compact and energy efficient. But that doesn’t mean Japan feels like technological dreamland. A well-engineered rice cooker is nice, but it’s not exactly on par with the robots I had been promised.

In some areas of life, Japan almost seems resistant to adopting conveniences that we take for granted in the US. Bill paying in Japan for instance, is not particularly advanced. You can pay your electric bill or purchase concert tickets at your local convenience store. You know why? Because Japan is primarily a cash-only society and you can’t always use your debit card make those transactions online. While it appears convenient to pay for these things at the 7-Eleven, it’s really not when you consider that Internet makes the entire system irrelevant. Existing communication technology is largely not utilized.

And even though Japan is largely cash-only, ATMs are only open for specific hours of the day. Why?! Who could have possibly thought that was a good idea? Technologically advanced or not, Japan is transactionally challenged.

But that’s not all. Every household I visited in Japan had a fax machine. All businesses still insist on maintaining paper records for absolutely everything. Flip-phones with outdated features have dominated Japan’s cellular market since the days of antiquity, and Apple’s iPhone has only begun to make a dent in recent years.

The thing is, it’s not technology that defines modern Japan, but tradition.

As Japan’s population ages, the country appears more and more resistant to new consumer technology. Like a cranky grandfather who can’t be bothered to learn how to use his email, there might be a large swath of the population who prefers the old and familiar to the new and innovative.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

2. Japan Is Not So Weird

Not by a long shot

In the west, Japan has the reputation of being outlandish, kooky place; loud, colorful, and frenetic, like a teenybopper’s fever dream. Through wildly creative animation and video games, the island nation has solidified its place in the global zeitgeist as a Nerd Mecca. But beyond the bubblegum pop, the dissemination of crazy prank videos from Japanese TV and truly bizarre urban myths have added a mildly disturbing underside to the country’s kooky image.

This may come as a surprise, but Japan is not nearly as incomprehensible as you’ve been led to believe. In fact, overall Japan is a rather conservative place. Remember that thing I said about tradition in the last section?

Out of context, the aberrant gets misconstrued as the norm. Videos of weird pranks and gross-out humor posted online as examples of bizarre Japanese traditions are almost always gags from comedy programs. It’s like if someone in Japan used Saturday Night Live skits as an example of how bizarre American political values are. It’s not representative of the country; it’s literally a joke. If you see an outrageous video from Japan and it strikes you as truly deviant, you can be fairly certain that the vast majority of Japanese people will have the exact same reaction.

It doesn’t make for good headlines, but the fact of the matter is that life in Japan is fairly ordinary. There certainly are differences between Japan and the US—especially the esoteric cultural nuances you would have never known of, had you not read my book—but if you come to Japan expecting the perplexing and ridiculous highlights you’ve seen online, you might be disappointed by how normal everything is.

Image courtesy of Pokemon.Wikia.com

3. Silly Otaku, Anime is for Kids!

Speaking of Japan as a Nerd Mecca, I have some bad news for anyone whose interest in Japanese culture is based entirely on an appreciation of anime. Sorry dudes, but even in Japan, cartoons are primary made for kids. Animated cinema carries about the same level of mainstream respectability in Japan as it does in the US.

Manga reading is far more prevalent in Japan, as comic books are produced in just about every genre you can think of. But that doesn’t mean the entire country is really into comic book superheroes. It means that there is an infinite amount of manga in genres that you would find completely boring. If a popular manga can be made into a live-action movie or TV series, the producers will likely go that route. Generally it’s only when the audience is considered to be teens or younger that the concept gets animated.

Just look at the Pokémon cartoon series. See how childish and silly it is? The audience they’re aiming for is very young, and that’s the audience the majority anime series aim for. And sure, there are some exceptions, but they are few. In general, a “mature” anime audience means teenagers.

Japan is not exactly a nerd utopia. The country does not embrace nerd culture any more than the US does. On the contrary, Japan is almost certainly a less hospitable place for niche subcultures. While some anime enthusiasts in the US call themselves “otaku” as badge of honor, the word remains an insult reserved for outcasts in Japan. You really don’t want to be labeled as an otaku.

Sakamoto Ryoma. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org

4. Japan’s Citizens Are More Individualistic Than You Think

More so than most other nations, Japan is viewed from the outside—and often from within—as a very homogeneous country. Japanese society certainly encourages blending in with the crowd, values modesty over audacity, and emphasizes loyalty to the group above one’s personal desires. The image of the Japanese people as a united front is pervasive.

The unfortunate result of this constructed image is that many people outside Japan tend to assume that the outward conformity is representative of an internal conformity shared by all Japanese people. Those who generalize tend to assume that Japanese people are less individualistic than people in the west. And that’s simply not true.

The Japanese friends I’ve made throughout my journey not only hold a great diversity of opinions, political attitudes, and tastes, but they are at least as individualistic as their western counterparts—maybe more so! It’s just not as immediately apparent because they generally aren’t very vocal about it.

Plenty people in Japan won’t be too quick to share their honest opinions with you. Again, modesty is highly valued. But just because someone doesn’t share their opinions easily doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

The people who felt comfortable discussing politics with me revealed an incredible diversity of opinion. While I expected most folks to lean conservative, the views they shared fell all over on the political spectrum, and many surprised me with their nuanced stances across multiple divisive issues. Far from subscribing to one preconceived agenda, all my Japanese friends proved to be more individualistic that I would have assumed.

Classic Chris Farley SNL skit. Image from Imgur.

5. Learning to Speak Japanese Isn’t Really That Hard

(It’s reading and writing that’s impossible)

Japanese is a cool language, the one that I had always wanted to learn. But learning it outside of Japan can be very challenging. It’s so completely different than English and not widely spoken in the US, meaning that my opportunities to practice were few and far between. And that’s what you need to learn a language like Japanese, practice. Tons and tons of practice.

I studied Japanese in college and, despite my great enthusiasm, I came out of school unable to hold a real conversation. I memorized loads of vocabulary, grammatical structures, and at least a couple hundred kanji, but my brain was never able to access this information quickly enough for me to utilize it. All my study proved futile, useless.

But why?

When you switch from speaking English to Japanese, your brain has to “change gears”, so to speak. The part of the brain that handles language is like a muscle; you have to exercise it to keep it fit. You have to use it or lose it. When we study in school, the part of the brain that commits all the vocabulary and grammar to memory doesn’t necessarily connect that information to actionable language part. Study all you want, but without putting things into practice—as in actually speaking the language—you won’t build the language skills you need.

So how does one really learn Japanese?

You have to engage in actual conversations. You have to listen and you have to speak. Talk with as many different people as possible, different ages, different jobs, ideally people from different regions. You have to force your brain to shift into Japanese-mode and build an understanding of the language that can be rapidly accessed without even thinking about it. That’s the only way to practice.

The catch is, to learn as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you need to go to Japan. You need to immerse yourself in the culture, to surround yourself with Japanese words, spoken and written. You need to make English the language that must be sought, and Japanese the default speech of day-to-day life. You need to go to Japan.

Whatever your current skill level, however much you know: start there. Fake it ‘til you make it. Seriously. Practice speaking is the only way to learn to speak. Go to Japan and speak the language everyday.

And please note, while I said that learning to speak Japanese isn’t really that hard, I didn’t say that learning to read and write Japanese is so easy. Thanks to the seemingly infinite number of kanji used in Japanese text, reading and writing competency is a far, far more daunting goal than speaking.

Learning new kanji is just plain difficult. Still, the more conversational experience you acquire, the more vocabulary you will learn. The larger your vocabulary, the easier it will be to learn new kanji, and vice versa. So even if you want to master reading and writing, you still need to go to Japan.

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Badass Japanese Vocabulary T-shirts

Have you enjoyed our Speaking Japanese Like a Badass articles? Well, now you can get the t-shirt! With the upcoming release of the book Shakotan Blue, we’re celebrating by making wearable versions of your favorite Japanese vocabulary words and phrases. Check out the images below and leave a comment to let us know if there’s another dictionary entry you’d like to see on a t-shirt.

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Coming Soon…The Book

Kamui Misaki Mikaku037

If you’ve enjoyed the true stories of life in rural Japan featured on this blog, then I have a treat for you. I’ve written a book!

Titled Shakotan Blue, the book will soon be released through Ahmnition. It catalogs the most popular content from this blog–all the humorous anecdotes and helpful insights on Japanese culture–along with some new tales that never made it online.

Shakotan Blue front_cover

Check out ShakotanBlue.com for more details.

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Speaking Japanese like a Badass Vol.2

Are you running out of cool Japanese expressions that make you sound totally badass? Then it’s time to add to your verbal arsenal with another round of ‘Speaking Japanese Like a Badass’. Again, I’ll assume that you’ve already begun your linguistic journey with the barebones basics. At the very least, everybody who comes to Japan needs to know arigatō (もありがとう – thank you) and sumimasen (すみません – excuse me), and I’m going to assume you know basic grammar as well. Plus, you’ve obviously read the first ‘Speaking Japanese Like a Badass’, so I’ll try not to repeat myself.

Shōganai (仕様が無い) – “It can’t be helped”

When I first arrived in Japan, the trainers with my company taught this phrase to all new teachers on day one. (Perhaps I should have recognized that as a bad omen.) Literally meaning “there is no way”, shōganai (仕様が無い) is an infinitely useful phrase to express that something is inevitable, nothing can be done, or the situation can’t be helped. It is the ultimate expression of accepting an unpleasant reality, of reinforcing the status quo, of acknowledging one’s helpless to change anything. In many ways, it is the most Japanese expression of all.

And this expression can be used for all matter of no-win situations, from the very serious, to the very trivial. It’s raining today? Shōganai. We’re all going to die someday? Shōganai. Your job’s being transferred to another city? Shōganai. All your students failed their English exam? Well, nothing we can do about it now. Shōganai. The potential uses of this phrase go on and on and on.

Kankeinai (関係ない) – “That’s not it”

Sometimes in conversation a badass needs to express that the discussion has veered off topic, or simply that someone is focusing on the wrong thing. If you find yourself in that position, the dismissive phrase you’re looking for is kankeinai (関係ない). Literally meaning, “there’s no connection”, kankeinai is a succinct way to say, “that has nothing to do with it” or “that doesn’t matter”. Depending on its usage, this flexible phrase can be interpreted as “I don’t care about that” or “that doesn’t concern me”. Be careful not to overuse this phrase, lest you sound like a jerk.

Shinmai (新米) – “Novice”

When one first arrives in Japan, it goes without saying that there will be many things with which they are unfamiliar. For this reason, it’s good to be able to express when you are new to particular activity. To express your inexperience, use the word shinmai (新米). While the literal translation of shinmai is “new rice”, the term is used to mean “beginner, newcomer, novice”. The closest English equivalent would be calling someone “green” for their lack of experience in a specific field. Once you’re a hardened pro, you can use this term to single out newbies who have yet to reach your level of mastery.

Guchagucha (ぐちゃぐちゃ) – “Messy, Sloppy”

Japan is known for emphasizing cleanliness, organization, and order. So how does one express that something is not so neat and tidy? The answer is a fun little onomatopoeia, pronounced guchagucha (ぐちゃぐちゃ). This term means “messy, sloppy, untidy” and can refer to everything from a cluttered desk or mussed up hair, to muddy boots and paint-splattered overalls. For a non-native person living in Japan, this term becomes a necessity.

Manzoku (満足) – “Satisfaction, Sufficient”

It’s good to know when you’ve done very well, but sometimes it’s even more important to know you’ve merely done well enough. In these situations, it’s good to know the word manzoku (満足), meaning, “satisfactory” or “sufficient”. This term can be used to express deep satisfaction, like someone being contented with their life or satisfied in their work, to more mundane usage, like when you fill out required paperwork sufficiently. Manzoku ga iku (満足が行く) is the full phrase meaning “to be satisfied”, while manzokukan (満足感) refers to the feeling of satisfaction.

More Kotowaza (諺) for Badasses

Here are a few more Japanese proverbs. In case someone uses one of these idioms in conversation, or you find yourself in the opportune moment to use one yourself, these phrases will make you sound like a badass.

Ashita yaro bakayarō. (明日やろばかやろう。) This fun rhyming phrase means “doing it tomorrow makes you an idiot”. But a more fitting translation would be “procrastination is masturbation”.

Ashita ha ashita no kaze ga fuku. (明日は明日の風が吹く。) The opposite notion of the last phrase, this saying means, “tomorrow’s wind blows tomorrow”. This is a laidback way to express that tomorrow will take care of itself.

Asu no koto wo ieba oni ga warau. (明日の事を言えば鬼が笑う。) Keeping to phrases about tomorrow, this maxim literally means, “Talking about the future makes demons laugh”. I’ve seen this translated a bit dramatically as, “Nobody knows the morrow.”

Asu no hyaku yori kyō no gojū. (明日の百より今日の五十。) This phrase translates to “fifty today is better than a hundred tomorrow”. As the English equivalent goes, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, it is better to have a small but certain advantage now than the mere potential of a greater one later.

Hana yori dango (花より団子) – “Dumplings rather than flowers.” This is a saying for people who are more interested in the practical rather than the aesthetic. At least you can eat the dumplings.

Gojuppo hyappo (五十歩百歩) – “50 steps, 100 steps.” Much like the English phrase “six of one and a half dozen of the other”, this saying indicates a scant difference between two compared things.

Kyuukanbi (休肝日)– “Liver’s Day Off”

As I’m sure you are aware, Japan has a healthy love of drinking. Japan loves drinking so much, in fact, that whether it is healthy or not is up for debate. But it is from this drinking culture that we get a fun vocabulary word that everyone should have in their arsenal: kyuukanbi (休肝日). Kyuukanbi is a day where one abstains from alcohol, a term that literally means “liver rest day”. This word can be used anytime you would rather not drink, but you don’t want to give the impression that you never drink. Perhaps you really overdid the previous night and the thought of imbibing alcohol at present is distinctly unappealing, but you might be down for a beer tomorrow. In cases like this, just whip out kyuukanbi and everyone will be on the same page.

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Shakotan’s Garbage Rules

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One thing I have come to love about Japanese culture is its reverent appreciation and conservation of nature. Environmental issues always seem to be on the forefront of the national conscience. This means that Japan is (usually) quite an environmentally responsible country. While I had an understanding of this, I didn’t know how it would personally affect me while living in Japan. As I have now learned, the rules and schedule of garbage disposal is significantly more complicated than what I had experienced in the States. Americans with a shaky grasp on Japanese (like me) might initially find the rules a bit daunting, so here’s what I’ve learned.

Growing up in Iowa, we definitely could recycle things like cardboard, but in my experience most people only really bothered to recycle bottles and cans—and then mostly just to get their nickel and dime deposits back. In Seattle, where everybody’s a tree-hugging hippie, each apartment complex would have two dumpsters; one for trash and one for recyclables, like aluminum cans, glass bottles, cardboard, and plastic. Many buildings also had a receptacle for food and yard waste. It was a Planeteer’s dream! Coming from this perspective, I fully expected that Sapporo would be serious about their recycling rules, but Shakotan, being a rural area, would be more lassie faire and simply trash everything. That didn’t hold true.

As I learned, trash in Japan is separated to a few different categories: burnable trash (燃えるゴミ), non-burnable trash (燃えないゴミ), plastics (プラゴミ), metal cans (缶), glass bottles (ビン), plastic bottles (ペート), and paper waste (紙ゴミ).  In Shakotan, special color coded trash bags are used to distinguish between burnable trash (yellow bags), non-burnable trash (blue bags), and plastics (orange bags).

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Burnable trash is what you consider to be regular old garbage and this stuff goes off to literally be incinerated. Disposable chopsticks, used paper towels and tissues, banana peels, egg shells and other food scraps, your general ‘yucky stuff’ all goes in the burnable category.

The plastics category is where things get a bit more interesting. With the exception of plastic bottles that have their own unique group, everything plastic goes into this category—even the plastic bottle lids! This includes all plastic bags, Styrofoam, plastic packaging, plastic wrapping, and pretty much anything made out of polystyrene. This must be separated from your regular burnable trash.

Since so many food products come in plastic containers, especially ready-to-eat items, some of your plastic trash ends up messy with sauce, grease, or some other viscous slime smeared on it. In the US, we would probably call this soiled and toss it in the trash. But in Japan, you are supposed to clean the grease off and put it in the plastic trash. That’s right; you wash your garbage before throwing it away.

Even in Seattle, I remember tossing many a plastic lid, wrapper, or grocery bag in trash can, because I had been told that it wasn’t recyclable. I had always wondered how much such things added up in the grand scale of things. Now, after having collected all my plastic waste in one spot, I tell you that it accumulates pretty quickly. Even just the plastic bags and packaging from one person’s groceries can form a hefty mountain in a week’s time.

Plastic bottles are called “PET” bottles (ペート), referring to polyethylene terephthalate, the polymer they contain. These bottles proudly sport a number 1 resin identification code inside the universal recycling symbol. Clearly, this system was someone’s PET project. (These jokes plastically write themselves!)

Cans and glass bottles are pretty self-explanatory, but paper waste category requires a bit of clarification. Paper waste doesn’t simply mean anything made of paper. Specifically, it’s supposed to be stackable things made of paper. Old magazines, broken down cardboard boxes, and even broken down milk cartons fall into this category. The key is that your stack of recyclable paper needs to be of a fairly uniform shape and must be properly bound with some sort of cord. At school, where a pint of milk comes with every meal, each student is responsible for methodically rinsing and breaking down their own milk carton. These rectangular pieces of cardboard are then collected, and over time form massive stacks until they are gigantic enough for paper recycling day.

And finally, if waste item doesn’t fit into one of the previously stated categories, it probably goes into the non-burnable trash. That said, I have never gotten the waste management crew in Shakotan to take a bag of non-burnable trash from me, ever. So I might not know what I’m talking about when it comes to this category.

The trash is collected on weekdays, and pickups are scheduled both by the week and by the month. For example, here’s what Shakotan’s waste management picks up every week:

Mon:     Burnable trash (燃えるゴミ)

Tues:     Plastics (プラゴミ)

Wed:     N/A

Thurs:   Burnable trash (燃えるゴミ)

Fri:         Non-burnable trash (燃えないゴミ)

The monthly pickups follow a Monday-Wednesday-Thursday schedule that varies from week to week. Since the third week is the same as the first, and the fourth week is the same as the second, so the schedule basically alternates like this:

Odd weeks:                                                                        Even weeks:

Mon – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)                           Mon – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)

Wed – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)                          Wed – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)

Thurs – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)                        Thurs – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)

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Personally, I’ve never paid much attention to the monthly pickup schedule because my apartment doesn’t have a proper bin to leave trash out. My neighbors and I literally leave our garbage out on the corner on the scheduled day and it gets picked up there. In the case of Cans & Bottles Day, someone at my apartment has to put out these specially labeled Rubbermaid baskets or there’s nowhere for me to leave my recycling. That means I just wait until a morning when the baskets appear and toss all my cans then.  Unlike cans and glass, PET bottles get collected in a big green net, which I’ve always liked. It really fits my seaside village.

My favorite part of Shakotan’s garbage collection has to the garbage trucks themselves. Painted baby blue, the smallish refuse collection vehicles have a fairly cute look, but the music they play is just plain adorable. I suppose they play music to announce their presence wherever they go, both to alert pedestrians that a heavy truck is rolling through, and also to remind forgetful residents that they need to take their trash out, posthaste. But when I first heard the garbage truck driving through, I thought the Ice Cream Man had come to town. The trucks play a variety of recognizable songs, most from classic animated series and movies, all played in a tinkly music box style. The themes from Laputa, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, even Lupin III; the trucks play them all.  And always the tune is reduced to its basic melody, played like a lullaby being plucked out on the teeth of metal comb. It was definitely foreign to me when I first heard it, but it is undeniably peaceful and downright relaxing.

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Speaking Japanese Like a Badass

 

When coming to Japan, people usually learn basic phrases to be polite and generally get by. Pretty much everyone in the world knows konnichiwa (こんにちは – Good day) and dōmo arigatō (どうもありがとう – Thank you), and almost as many are familiar with the absolutely crucial sumimasen (すみません), which can mean “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, or even “thank you”, depending on the precise context.  The overachieving otaku have probably mastered sugoi (すごい – amazing, cool) and daijōbu (大丈夫 – OK, alright) from their hours of anime research. But if you plan on being in Japan for longer than a few weeks, you going to want more tools in your verbal arsenal than the barebones basics.

That’s where I come in. Here are some useful expressions for you to use when you really want to sound like you know some Japanese. This is the good stuff that I wish I would have had down on day one. Let’s start with a general tip to assist you in your linguistic journey.

Ano~/Eto~ (あの, ええと、えっと) – The Verbal Pause

If you’re just starting out learning Japanese, or having trouble actually using the stuff you’ve learned in class, I recommend training yourself to use the Japanese verbal pause. Saying ano~ or eto~ is the Japanese equivalent of saying “Um…”, “Ah…” or “Let me see…”, and buys you time to search your brain for that missing vocabulary word when you’re trying to hold a conversation. This was recommended to me way back in the day and I made a half-assed attempt at using it, but never really took it seriously until I was speaking Japanese every day. Basically, when you start conversing in a second language, it’s like your brain changes gears. Stammering with your native ums and ahs will pull you back into English mode and break your rhythm. So remember to falter the way the native speakers do it, it honestly makes carrying on that much easier.

Similarly, when something catches you off guard, you’ll probably want to say, “Huh?” or “What’s that?” But resist this slide back into English. Train your Japanese speaking instincts to respond with are (あれ), the Japanese equivalent. It’s the perfect way to express that you didn’t quite hear the question or didn’t quite understand it.

Iranai de (いらないで) – “I don’t want/need it.”

If there is only one certainty in life, it’s that when you buy something in Japan, they will put it in a bag. Even when you buy a bottle of water at the conbini (コンビに – convenience store), they will bag it. You probably won’t even be asked if you want a fukuro (袋– bag), they’ll just assume you know how this process works. So when you see the salesperson reaching for the bag – and they move with speed and precision – you’ll need to quickly express that you don’t need it. In proper Japanese, you’d say iranai desu, but since you’re a badass, just shorten it to iranai de.

Another important phrase to use at the register is the convenient compound word mochi-kaeri (持ち帰り), meaning “to go”, takeout, takeaway. When buying a coffee at Mr. Donut, you will surely be asked if you want to drink it in the store – they do have free refills on coffee, by the way – or if you’ll take it “to go”. In case of the latter, just drop mochi-kaeri with a cocky smirk.

Chidoriashi (千鳥足) – The Thousand Bird Step

Drinking is pretty popular in Japan in general, and getting sloppy drunk at social outings is not uncommon. Therefore knowing the vocabulary of the yopparai (酔っ払う – drunken person) can be quite handy. For example, how can you express that you – or your friend, yeah sure, we’ll say your friend – is too drunk to walk properly? Use chidoriashi, the Japanese term for a drunken stagger. The term quite literally translates to “thousand bird step”, which I assume must be what a drunkard’s footprints are supposed to look like. It’s really all you need to say to express that you’re not currently able to ride your bike home, operate heavy machinery, or send an ill-advised text message to your ex.

A related term that’s also worth knowing is futsukayoi (二日酔い), Japanese for hangover. It literally means “two days drunk” and is the perfect term to explain why you were late for work this morning.

Otsukaresama deshita (お疲れ様でした) – “Thanks for the hard work”

Speaking of work, if you are employed in Japan, you are certain to hear the phrase otsukaresama deshita, meaning “Thank you for your hard work”. Translated too literally, otsukaresama means “the honorable tired one”, but your colleague is not insinuating that you look tired. This is an old-fashioned expression of appreciation for your efforts. You’ll also hear this said among sports teams, yōsakoi dance groups, when helping a friend move, and from people at the gym. It’s usually said at the completion of something, or when people are parting ways, like a special exercise goodbye.

Also, if you’re asked to do something and you’d like to express that you’re happy to do it, I recommend saying yorokonde (喜んで). Literally meaning “with pleasure”, this phrase is perfect for when your Yakuza boss has just ordered you to rough up that guy, who conveniently, you already had a beef with.

Ryu ga Gotoku

Omatase shimashita (お待たせしました) – “Thank you for waiting”

Another one that you’re sure to hear at a restaurant or at the airport, omatase shimashita is a convenient phrase that you’ll probably want to use yourself. Literally meaning “I made you wait” in polite Japanese, this one is pretty straight forward. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that you probably didn’t need to have me introduce it to you. When speaking among your peers, feel free to abbreviate it to simply omatase; because you’re too badass to be bothered with the long version anyway.

Speaking of restaurants and being in a hurry, kuinige (食い逃げ) is the Japanese phrase for “dine and dash”, to run away without paying for your food. It’s a combination of the words for eat and escape, but you didn’t hear that from me…

Osewa ni narimashita (お世話になりました) – “Thank you for helping me”

People in Japan are extremely generous, and you’re certain to feel like you owe a debt of gratitude to someone along the way. While you can say dōmo arigatō gozaimasu – and you will, a lot – you might find yourself wishing that you had another way to express your appreciation, something special to convey to this person in particular that they really saved your ass. In that situation, say osewa ni narimashita. This is like saying “Thank you for helping me”, but with gratitude to the point of being indebted. In that sense, it’s a bit more like saying “I am obliged to you” or “Thank you for taking care of me.”

Ojama shimasu (おじゃまします) –Entering someone’s home

Since we want to be refined, classy badasses, and not chavy thugs, it’s best to say ojama shimasu when entering someone’s home. You’d usually say this when you’re talking off your shoes at the genkan (玄関 – entryway), so it’s kind of like saying “excuse me for intruding.” Remember this pleasantry so that you don’t look uncouth. And remember to say it again when leaving, except use the past tense version, ojama shimashita.

Kotowaza (諺) – Japanese Proverbs

You might find that’s helpful to know a few classic Japanese idioms, just in case someone uses one in conversation with you, or you find yourself in the perfect opportunity to reference one and sound like a badass. There are tons of these to potentially learn, but I’ll just give you a couple examples.

The first is my absolute favorite, Saru mo ki kara ochiru (猿も木から落ちる). Literally meaning “even monkeys fall out of trees”, it’s the Japanese way of saying that everyone makes mistakes. While I don’t know of an equivalently poetic phrase in English, the closest one by meaning would probably be “that’s why pencils have erasers.”

Next is a phrase that’s rather famously Japanese, Derukui wa utareru (出る杭は打たれる). It literally means, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” A profound commentary on conformity in Japan, this old adage is saying that the best policy is to keep you head down and never stand out, lest society has to put you in your place.

And lastly, another cool saying is Uso wa nusubito no hajimari (うそは盗人の始まり). This translates as “lies are the beginnings of thieves”, which is fairly self-explanatory.

Okagesama de (お蔭様で) – Under the Gods’ Shadow

Anyone who’s spent any time in Japan has experienced the Genki Conversation, the common pleasantry of inquiring about someone’s wellbeing. This is the How are you? Conversation in English, the Ça va Conversation in French, and it usually goes something like this:

A) Konnichiwa. Genki desu ka? (こんにちは。元気ですか?)

B) Hai, genki desu. Anata wa? (はい、元気です。あなたは?)

A) Hai, genki desu. (はい、元気です。)

Not that there’s anything wrong with always repeating this basic conversation, but a badass doesn’t stick to generic pleasantries. To shock native speakers with your comprehension of Japanese language and culture, when they ask if you’re genki, reply with this: Okagesama de genki desu (お蔭様で元気です). I guarantee that they’ll be impressed.

What you just said was very humble. You see, Okagesama de generally means “by assistance”, and potentially “by your backing”, indicating that while you are well, you’re not taking any credit for it. In fact, depending on the context, you might be crediting the person you’re talking to for your position, like saying, “Thanks to you, I’m fine.” By itself, kage (蔭) means shade, shadow, or “the other side”, while the ‘o’ prefix and ‘sama’ suffix are both honorific. Since westerners sometimes have a hard time not taking absolute credit for the circumstances in which they’ve found themselves, and an even harder time giving this credit to other people, this humble phrase is sometimes translated as “by the grace of God” or “under the Gods’ shadow”.

In a related tip, if you get tired of asking people if they are genki, I recommend using the phrase Choushi wa dou desu ka? (調子はどうですか?) This is like saying, “How’s it going?”

Kyoushuku desu (恐縮です) – The Ultimate Japanese Phrase

No matter where you go in Japan, you are sure to encounter compliments. Japan is a famously polite nation and the people generally like to make you feel comfortable. They will compliment your Japanese language skills, even if you can only say one word…badly. They will compliment your looks, prepare to be told that you have a tall nose and a small face – they’re apparently good things. They will compliment your physique; you’d never guess that you were so tall and muscular until several Japanese grandmothers tell you so.

But Japan is also a famously humble nation. Try and return a compliment to a Japanese person and you will be brushed off. To give is better than to receive, and Japanese people do not accept praise. Seriously, you can’t even compliment someone’s family without them waving it off, lest a part of the praise reflect positively on them. (“Your wife is very attractive.” – “Oh, her? No! She’s actually quite ugly without all the makeup.”) Well now, I bet you feel a little embarrassed for agreeing with all the nice things they said about you. Clearly, no one here ever accepts a compliment.

So what’s a foreigner to do when you’re complimented on your ability to use chopsticks for the millionth time? Use this phrase to surprise and delight any unsuspecting Japanese person: Kyoushuku desu (恐縮です).

While it literally means to shrink (縮) with fear (恐), kyoushuku desu would best be translated as “that is too kind of you” or “stop, you’re embarrassing me”. This, my friends, is the ultimate tool in your Japanese arsenal. With so many compliments to brush off, you’ll never run out of opportunities to bust it out. And the best part is that no other foreigners ever seem to use it. You’ll look like a Japan Studies scholar and the reactions you’ll get will be priceless. Just be careful not to switch the vowels and say, Kyūshoku desu (給食です) – that means “school lunch”.

You can even use the same words at the beginning of sentence to politely ask a favor, just add the particle ‘ga’: Kyoushuku desu ga… This is like starting off your request with “I’m sorry to trouble you” or “I’m embarrassed to say this”.

And if you end up using kyoushuku desu to death – remember, with great power comes great responsibility – you can always shake things up with osore irimasu (恐れいります). Using the same “fear” kanji as kyoushuku, this phrase has almost the exact same meaning in conversation. Now go turn down those compliments like a true badass.

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Getting a Japanese Driver’s License

In late November, I received an email from the company about the process of getting a Japanese driver’s license. It contained a list of documents to procure that was dauntingly long, and also informed me that Americans rarely pass the test on their first attempt. At that time, I was really indecisive about whether or not to renew my contract; in fact, I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t do it. Since I wasn’t planning on staying in Japan for a second year, I certainly wasn’t motivated to jump through the hoops of getting a Japanese license, so I promptly forgot all about it.

Fast-forward to February and I received another email from the company labeled “URGENT”. The rep asked if I had gotten any of those documents ready and reminded me that time was running out. By this time I had decided that one year wasn’t long enough and was now planning to stay in Japan after all. But I had done myself no favors by dragging my feet. Now I needed to act fast and get my documents in order so that they could schedule a test for me, and in the meantime, I was strongly advised to take some driving lessons. The urgency, combined with the looming difficulty that Americans usually have passing the test, freaked me out a bit.

Here’s what it looked like:

  1. A valid foreign driver’s license (US license)
  2. A Japanese translation of the US driver’s license from JAF (Japan Automobile Federation)
  3. An official document identifying the date that the license was first issued (such as a driving record or official state verification of status)
  4. An old Japanese driver’s license (if I had one)
  5. Tōroku Genpyou Kisai Jikou Shōmei-sho (外国人登録原票記載事項証明 – Certificate of Information Recorded on a Foreign Resident) a registration file from city hall
  6. Gaijin Card
  7. Passport
  8. Any additional documents confirming residence of 3 months or more in the country from which the license was obtained (such as school transcripts, old passports, etc). If necessary, apparently the US embassy could issue an entry and departure record.
  9. A photograph (3cm long x 2.4cm wide) taken within the past 6 months, no hat, front-face, no background, and from the shoulder up

Scrambling to collect the documents, I discovered that the seemingly complicated process was actually just as complicated as it had first appeared. Not only were some of the documents difficult track down – A document identifying the date that my license was first issued? Like from when I turned 16…in Iowa? – but some of them were even rather expensive. The JAF issued translation of my Washington State driver’s license cost ¥3000 (plus an additional ¥380 in postage for them to mail it back to me). Once I received this pricy piece of paper, I discovered that it actually had an expiration date. Why would a translation of a driver license have an expiration date, you ask? Beats the hell out of me.

It took me two weeks or so to get everything in order. By my count, the costs for the documents alone totaled ¥4480. (Additionally, I ended up spending $10 on an official Washington State driving record that I didn’t actually need. The Washington State DOL website’s FAQ section was quite clear that I just needed to email them to receive a “verification of status” document, but in my haste, I had already paid for the driving record before I read that bit. And by the way, Iowa’s DOT website, along with its lack of services, was utterly useless and unhelpful.) I was ready to face this test and see just how bad it really was.

On Thursday, March 1st, I was given the day off work so that I could go take a driving test in Sapporo. Since Americans are required to do a paper test and a practical driving exam, I had thought that I was doing both of these on the same day, but it turned out the written portion needed to be done first and actual driving part of the test would have to wait. Hiroko and Shun were kind enough to take me to the Driving Test Center (運転免許試験場) in Teine, and guide me through the process. As it turns out, I certainly could not have managed without their help.

We arrived at the Driving Test Center at 1pm. Documents in hand, we proceeded to window six, the one for foreigners. Hiroko noted that within the Driving Center, the signs were written almost entirely in kanji, making it difficult for a person of novice Japanese skill to read what’s what. The lady at the window took my documents and gave me a short paper to complete; it was basically asking if I have ever had any problems with problems with loss of consciousness, or other medical conditions which would impair my ability to drive.  I quickly read through it, circled “none of the above”, and signed. Then, before giving it back, I quickly corrected a small typo and handed it across the counter. This startled the lady, as she thought I was going to circle one of the other options, but when she saw that I was just correcting the form’s English, she seemed rather pleased.

They took my various documents, as well as my Washington driver license, passport, and alien registration card to be copied. Then they asked us to wait and return to the window in about one hour.  Hiroko, Shun, and I bought some refreshments from the vending machine corner and sat down to wait. An hour later, they called me up to the window again and I got my passport, alien registration card, and Washington license back. Apparently all my documents had checked out. I was given a new form and directed towards the vision screening area. But before I got my eyes checked out, I need to purchase ¥2400 in payment stamps to cover the process. The guy who did my vision test was probably the most cheerful guy I saw all day. He seemed to really enjoy listening to answers of “left”, “right”, “up”, and “down” in English, and his huge smile never faded.

After the vision test, I needed a wait for a little while longer while the staff prepared an English version written test for me. I was a bit worried about this written exam, even though I had actually read the book; I just had bad memories of my written driving test back in Iowa. It turned out that the exam was only ten questions, and it was a maru-batsu test (まるばつテスト – true-false test).  This should have been simple, but I still stressed over the prospect of making too many mistakes and failing. Luckily, I passed just fine.

With the written test passed, we then had to schedule practical driving exam for another day. Hiroko again stepped up and took care of me, speaking with staff and calling Nozomi-san to make sure the times worked for everyone. We scheduled the driving test for the following Monday afternoon, at 1pm. Following my company’s advice, we also scheduled a one-hour driving lesson for that same day, in the morning. This way I got some practice on the driving course, as well as insider info from a professional driving instructor. Use of the driving course costs ¥700 per half hour, so I had to buy ¥1400 worth of payment stamps ahead of time to be able to pay for my lesson’s hour on the course Monday morning.

On Monday March 5th, I got up at 5:30am. I had a driving lesson scheduled at the Teine Driving Test Center, with a driving course reservation at 7am. Hiroko was happy to drive me to the Driving Test Center in Teine again, even though it was very early. My driving instructor turned out to be a slender, athletic-looking gentleman with a military haircut. He seemed quite fit and youthful, so I assumed he was young, but the creases around his eyes indicated he had more years than I had guessed. We would be driving the course in his car, which looked like a taxi cab. The course was smaller than I had expected after looking at its map. Still, it was probably the size of two football fields placed side by side. There was a traffic signal intersection in the center, a couple of tight and narrow side streets, and enough room to accelerate to 50kph on the outside track.

The lesson itself was done completely in Japanese and proved invaluable for passing the practical driving exam. This isn’t because the lesson teaches you the necessary skills for safe driving, but because the driving exam has very specific and rigid expectations for what you are to do. Without a briefing on the esoteric actions one needs to perform during the test, the safest drivers in the world couldn’t pass. There are a lot of little touches, simple things to perform, but if you don’t know what they’re looking for, you’re screwed.

For example, right from the outset of driving, you should look 1) back at the left blind spot, 2) forward towards the front-left corner of the car, 3) at the rearview mirror, 4) towards the front-right corner, and then 5) back at the right blind spot. That’s a 5-point look combo that you’re obligated to do or you’re docked points. Of course during the test, you might not have been aware that you were being judged on few things even before this “initial” step. Did you adjust your seat, adjust the rearview mirror, buckle your seatbelt, and lock the door? Did you physically crouch down and check the ground in front of the car before even getting in? You probably missed points if you didn’t.

After the 5-point look combo, you still have to perform another step before starting to actually drive. Hit the right blinker to indicate you’re going to pull out, and look 1) at the rearview mirror, 2) towards the front-right corner, and 3) back over your shoulder at the right blind spot before starting to drive. In fact, anytime you turn or changes lanes, you are expected to perform this 3-point look.  From there on out the instructor gave me little tips to fine-tune driving. For example, what side of the lane to lean towards and when, when to drive slower or faster, and remembering to look right –then left – at an intersection (not left then right, like I’m used to). With his tutelage, I became more confident that I could pass the test. I paid ¥7000 for the hour lesson and hoped that it was enough.

Hiroko and Shun again accompanied to the driving center to help with any communication issues and to generally root me on. The time sensitive nature of the whole thing had made me anxious and I genuinely appreciated their support. As instructed, we were there at the window, five minutes before 1pm, ready for the physical driving test. However, we ended up having to wait because I was testing with two other foreigners and they hadn’t showed up yet. I joked to Shun that my fellow foreigners were probably Russian mafia and so they didn’t show up on time for anything. To my surprise, twenty minutes later, five or six young Russian men appeared.

The Russian guys lazily strutted up to the counter, standing out more from their swagger than from their height or whiteness. Since we had to wait for them to show up late, Shun was a bit offended by their lack of decorum. He quite audibly talked about how they were idiots in Japanese. I too was a little put off by them at first, as groups of rowdy young dudes generally make my spider-sense tingle, and I didn’t particularly want to attract their attention. Luckily, these guys could barely understand a word of Japanese so they probably didn’t catch the cracks Shun made about them.

My two fellow test participants and I were led into a little room where they explained how the test was going to go – in Japanese. Most of this time was spent trying to clarify if the Russian guys understood the directions, which they quite clearly did not. I tried to help translate a little, but one guy understood only a bit of Japanese and a bit of English and not much of either.  The other guy knew only migi (右) and hidari (左), right and left. During this briefing, I discovered that Japan has separate licenses for manual and automatic transmission vehicles. I was getting an automatic transmission license, so I would only be legally allowed to drive automatics and any car with a stick was off-limits.  My new Russian friends were doing the manual transmission test, and I had a feeling that their chances of passing that day were really slim. It was too bad too; they actually seemed quite friendly after I got a chance to talk to them.

To start our test, the three of us jumped in the car with an older gentleman, and he drove the course to demonstrate what we were going to do. After the run through, I got to drive in that same car – an automatic transmission – with the man, while the Russian guys got into a second car – a manual transmission – with a female test administrator. Since I was in the lead car, I couldn’t see how my Russian friends were doing, but I needed to focus on my own test anyway. The fate of the whole endeavor came down to my performance of the rehearsed, arbitrary, esoteric, superfluous driving actions to I had learned that morning.

Throughout my driving test, the test administrator made little ticks on his clipboard; I assumed he was checking the boxes of all the things I was doing right. I felt pretty confident during my drive. I followed all the tips I had received, made it painfully obvious that I was looking at all the right places, and never hit anything. The actually driving took less than five minutes. Finishing up back at the starting point, the man casually asked me a couple questions; what kind of work I did, where I lived, if I had taken driving lessons. His friendly demeanor gave me the impression that I had passed. Ten or 15 minutes later I got the official word: I did indeed pass. No problems. The Russian guys both failed. There was one more fee to pay via the payment stamps, another ¥2100, and then I had my photograph taken. It was about 2:15pm, and they told me that I could pick up my brand new license at 4:00.

Since we had some time to kill, Hiroko, Shun, and I drove to a nearby used book store to do some shopping. Like many bookstores in Japan, this store sold all kinds of media; books, manga (漫画 – Japanese comic books, which are produced in a variety genres for pretty much all possible audiences), music, movies, and even a variety of video games. I entertained myself for an embarrassing long time simply perusing the Famicom, Super Famicom, and Nintendo64 titles. Eventually (and with Hiroko’s help) I located the store’s inventory of a boxing manga called Hajime no Ippo (はじめの一歩); I’m a fan of the anime. I purchase book #4 and decided to challenge myself to read it.

At 4pm, we returned to the driving test center and picked up my new license. I had succeeded, and just in time too. To have the card in my hand was a great relief. It was also a further endorsement from the Japanese government that I was welcome to live and work in Japan.

In the end, the cumulative expenses to get my license totaled ¥17380 (that’s about $208 USD). The process of converting a foreign driver’s license to a Japanese one did honestly seem to be intentionally complicated. While one might guess that this is in an effort to keep foreigners excluded, I don’t think that’s the case. I believe the process is actually made difficult to prevent Japanese citizens from getting a driver’s licenses in foreign countries and converting them over at home. A Japanese citizen could easily get a driver’s license while on vacation, in say Hawaii, and then return to Japan and convert this license to the Japanese equivalent. If successful, you would circumvent the normal driving school method of obtaining a license and save yourself a lot of money.

You see, Japanese driving schools are quite expensive. Enrolling in a driving school in Japan can run you somewhere between ¥300,000 and ¥400,000 (approximately $3,600 to $4,400). Clearly, it’s big business. The boatload of documents, the esoteric driving test rituals, and even the driving course itself, are all designed to maintain the necessity for driving schools. From the outside this looks like quite a scam. But then again, I’m just an American, so what do I know?

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Filed under Educational, Sapporo, Teine

Driving in Japan

When I accepted my placement in the rural town of Shakotan, there was one aspect of the position that really bothered me. It wasn’t the relative isolation in the country, or the fact that almost no one spoke any English (or so I’d been told). Even the promise of an epic winter with massive snowfalls the likes of which I had never seen wasn’t a worry for me. It was the driving. You see, one simply cannot work outside of major cities without needing a car.

Well, that's informative.

Personally, I don’t have much love for automobiles. It may be un-American to say, but I think the way people fetishize cars is absurd. Some people may see owning a car as liberating, but I see the opposite. I hate being confided to a car seat, obligated to focus on the task of driving for long periods of time. (It’s boring and my legs start to cramp up after a while.) I hate being in – nay, a part of – traffic. I hate all the maintenance that owning a car entails. I hate all the trouble one has to go through with car registration and insurance. I hate the expense of gasoline and the social implications its use. In general, I just hate driving – but I hate parking even more.

One of things I had loved about Seattle was that I had been able to get around the city without needing a car. Sure, Seattle’s public transportation isn’t the best in the world, but it got the job done. Only on rare occasions did I need to borrow my brother’s car for something specific. I didn’t particularly mind riding the bus, and anytime I could get to a destination on foot, I felt especially gratified. But in rural Hokkaido, I needed a car, if for nothing else, just to drive to my more distant schools.

So the day before I left for Japan, I had made a trip to AAA and picked up an International Driving permit. This was a surprisingly quick and easy process, and only cost about $26. The International Driving permit was good for one year, and along with my valid Washington State driver’s license, officially allowed me to drive in something like 150 countries. This seemed far too easy…

The company leased a car for me. I was given a “location allowance” on my paycheck that made my net income look bigger, but it really just covered the cost of the car lease and a little gas. They handled the lease, insurance, registration and the like; they would even cover routine maintenance appointments for me at a nearby autoclub. This made the whole car thing rather foolproof on my end; just don’t get in an accident. (And I’ve been in my fair share of fender benders.) Once my car arrived, it was time to get the hang of driving again, this time on the left side of the road.

Driving on the left is, of course, the biggest difference between roads in the States and roads in Japan, and the one that’s hardest to acclimate to. The first time I drove my car, Yamazaki-san was in the passenger seat as we took a leisurely drive around Bikuni so that he could remind me where the schools were. I absentmindedly turned into the right lane twice with him in car, making him alternately laugh and freak out. While I was awfully careful driving on my own initially, I still ended up turning into oncoming traffic on at least five separate occasions. Parking lots are especially confusing when you’re used to using the wrong side of the road.

But eventually I got the hang of it. The 30-minute drive to Yoichi became routine. I even started making the long drive to Sapporo. This greatly impressed Nozomi-san, as I made the journey on my own, without dashboard navigation or even a map. (The road signs are in both Japanese and English, so I just followed them. It was really pretty easy.) When I had a free day and the weather was nice, I’d explore the coast and the mountain roadways of the Shiribeshi area, driving through Niki, Iwanai, Tomari, Kamoenai, and the like. During the summer break, I drove across central Hokkaido to the town of Obihiro for a massive fireworks display. I brought three passengers along who had naively put faith in my total lack of Japan driving experience.  With such practice, driving in Japan became second nature, and I got used to the little nuances that make Japan’s roadways unique. There were a few things that stood out for me.

For instance, at least in Hokkaido, people will quite often run a red light if it has just turned red. Occasionally, I’d fly through an intersection when the light was yellow – just barely making it legally, I thought – only to have three cars follow behind me. The first driver could maybe have facetiously claimed that the light was still yellow when he entered the intersection, but the second and third drivers definitely ran on red. At first, this slightly amused me as a blatant violation, but then I saw it happen over and over, and I started to wonder if maybe Japanese traffic laws were flexible on the whole “red means stop” thing. I eventually learned what is common knowledge in these parts, that when the traffic signal turns red, there are exactly three seconds before the cross traffic gets their green light. With this three-second gap in mind, drivers will often run red lights, slipping by without interfering with the flow of traffic. So when it comes down to it, green means ‘go’, red means ‘stop’, and yellow means ‘go really fast’. But for a fresh red, see yellow.

Another thing that startled me early on was that the police almost always drive around with their emergency lights flashing. The sirens aren’t on but the reds lights spin around, apparently without communicating any sense of emergency. I wasn’t sure if I should pull over when I first encountered this, but it turns out that the cops just generally cruise the highway like that. In fact, they often leave a squad car parked outside of the police station with its red lights flashing, as if just to remind you that they are there. If I ever do get pulled over in Japan, the cops will really have to use the siren or else I’ll have no idea that they want me to stop.

On the highway and especially in Sapporo, I learned quickly that the lanes are really just mere suggestions. Especially on four lane roads, drivers don’t really hesitate to swerve into the neighboring lane without so much as a turn signal, whether to avoid a park car on the left, or a car waiting to turn on the right. While this sounds dangerous, everyone is usually driving pretty defensively and looking out for what the other cars are doing, so it seems to work out pretty well.

Generally speaking, the speed limits in Japan are slow. REALLY freaking slow. Driving on the highway, I usually see 50kph as the posted speed limit. This is about 31 miles per hour. The fastest speed I’ve ever seen posted was 80kph on the expressway, which is almost – but not quite – 50mph. Yamazaki-san once told me that everyone gets speeding tickets, and with the snail’s pace regulations, I can see why. Still, I suppose it is safer that way.

Through observation and imitation I have learned that you’re supposed to stop and look both ways before proceeding through a train crossing. This is true when the barriers are up, no lights are flashing, and there’s not sign of activity whatsoever; you always have to stop at the train crossing. Also, you are supposed to turn on your headlights whenever you enter a tunnel. During the day, most drivers flip on their lights when they enter the tunnel and switch them off again when they come out the other end. Since there are tons of tunnels in my area (the road from Yoichi to Shakotan is probably more subterranean than open-air) I generally just leave my lights all the time. I hope that doesn’t make me look weird…

There is a lot of road construction in Hokkaido, year-round. Whether they are filling potholes, repairing the damage of the latest landslide, clearing away many tons of snow that necessitates the use of heavy equipment, or even boring huge new tunnels into the side of a mountain, the construction crews in Hokkaido never stop working. They are also incredibly polite. The kanji for construction work is read kouji (工事), not that you’ll ever need to know it, because you’re sure to recognize their symbol; a stick man in a hardhat and safety vest bowing. Their signal gestures to you, whether delivered with illuminated wands or hand flags, are intuitively clear and don’t require any explanation. Although, generally speaking, it helps to know that red means ‘stop’.

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Filed under Educational, Obihiro, Sapporo, Shakotan, Yoichi

Japan’s Funny Valentine

"I love cat - Only imflowing you don't flowing imflowing - I must go to you stay a place"

At first glance, Valentine’s Day in Japan seems pretty sexist. And that’s because it is. Women are expected to give chocolate to men, and men aren’t expected to give anything in return. However, the equalizing factor in Japan is a second holiday called White Day (ホワイトデー) that reverses the gifting roles. Just as the Valentine holiday is essentially a marketing gimmick of romantic obligation in the US, Japan has manged to double the profitability of the tradition by splitting the ritual gift giving into two separate events. Let me explain how it works.

Valentine’s Day arrives in Japan on the standard February 14th with all the hearts and Cupid imagery that you’re familiar with. The social expectation on this day is the women will give gifts, most likely chocolates. But the ladies aren’t just expected to give chocolates to their boyfriend/husband/lover guy; they’re also supposed to give chocolates to friends and coworkers too. Instead of being motivated by purely romantic notions, Valentine’s chocolate can be expected out of various levels of social obligation. The prime example is called girichoko (義理チョコ – literally “obligatory chocolate”), the ritual of giving chocolate to your male coworkers, just to be polite. This term breaks down to giri (義理), meaning “obligation”, and choko (チョコ), meaning “chocolate”, just like it sounds.

Quick tangent; when talking about Japanese society, the concept giri (義理) is very important. This social obligation compels one to act in accordance with the rules, but is thought to often conflict with ninjō (人情), meaning human emotion, or more simply one’s personal feelings. You can see this conflict between duty and passion in lots of Japanese stories, from classic samurai tales to modern Japanese dramas. The western equivalent can best be illustrated in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (or my favorite version, West Side Story), where the protagonists are torn between their feelings of love for each other and their responsibility to their respective families. But whereas personal feelings (ninjō) tend to win out fairly easily in western stories, the characters’ sense of duty (giri) proves to be stronger in Japanese fiction. Understanding the giri vs. ninjō dynamic is critical to understanding individuals’ motivations in Japanese society, both in literature and in real life. Now back to chocolate.

"Wow, you made these?...but I didn't get you anything..."

So ladies are expected to give girichoko to their coworkers, without any implication of romantic interest. They might also give chocolate to their friends, which is called tomochoko (友チョコ – friend chocolate). This is already a rather hefty coco-burden, and we haven’t even gotten to honmeichoko (本命チョコ), the chocolate you give to your true love. This word breaks down to honmei (本命), meaning favorite or “one’s heart’s desire”, and choko (チョコ), again just meaning “chocolate”.

It seems plausible that a festively inclined young lady might end up buying a lot of candy for Valentine’s, and from what I’ve read, the confectioners are really counting on that. (Apparently Japanese chocolate companies make about half of their annual sales during the Valentine’s season. They’re cuckoo for Cocoa Profits.) And if that wasn’t enough of a hassle, homemade chocolates are considered preferable to store bought items, so often times ladies will spend a weekend day creating confectionary goodness to distribute on the holiday. This homemade chocolate is sometimes called dekochoko (デコチョコ), or “decoration chocolate”.

Now, it’s not unheard of that a man might step up and give his girlfriend a gift on Valentine’s Day, but it’s definitely not the norm. This is called gyakuchoko (逆チョコ – literally “reverse chocolate”) and as the name indicates, it’s considered the opposite of social expectation. Whereas ladies are almost obligated to give chocolate, the guy who reciprocates on Valentine’s Day is considered funny or weird.

It’s not until one month later that the roles reverse. On March 14th comes White Day (ホワイトデー), the male answer to Valentine’s, the day when men return the gifting favor.  Social obligation dictates that men get something for all the ladies who gave him gifts, so most of the time these gifts also carry no romantic sentiment.

Apparently White Day was first proposed in the 1970’s by a Fukuoka marshmallow company. The idea was that it was only fair for men to give something back to the women that had been so generous to them. And of course, the best way to do that was by buying marshmallows. It was originally introduced as “Marshmallow Day” (マシュマロデー), but the name changed rather quickly thereafter. These days, typical White Day gifts included cookies, white chocolate, and even dark chocolate. In the case of one’s wife or girlfriend, a man might purchase a non-edible gift, like jewelry or lingerie; the latter of which is probably also white. The holiday is celebrated outside of Japan as well, in Taiwan and South Korea.

Speaking of South Korea, they apparently take this tradition one step further, with a third holiday called “Black Day”. Basically like an anti-Valentine’s Day, Black Day is a day for single people. It occurs on April 14th, following the same monthly pattern, and involves single people get together to eat jajangmyeon, a noodle dish with a black bean sauce.

On last thing, it’s worth mentioning that Valentine’s Day isn’t really the big romantic holiday in Japan. That would be Christmas Eve. This is probably why Japan has a seemingly odd attachment to Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ), the only way to end a romantic dinner on December 24th. Christmas Eve is the prime time for lovin’. Valentine’s Day and White Day take a backseat as (only slightly more) transparent corporate conventions for unloading chocolate.

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