STORIES (2003 - 2005)
Interview, Jasper Cheung, President, Amazon Japan
Interview, Elly Miller, Creative Director, J. Walter Thompson
Interview, Alejandro Lopez, President, Beacon Comm.
Interview, Stefan Stocker, President, Bosch Automotive
Interview, John Giamatteo, Nortel President, Asia
Interview, Tommy Kullber, President, IKEA Japan
Interview, Todd Budge, President, Tokyo Star Bank
STORIES, MAJOR NEWSPAPERS (1995 - 2002)
CLICK HERE FOR STORIES FOR MAJOR NEWSPAPERS
International Herald Tribune, Die Welt, and others.
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STORIES, ASAHI WEEKLY
English-Training Publication (Oct. 1998 to Feb. 1999)
Story about Japan's housing industry.
Story about foreigners helping local Japanese community.
Mystery of Number Seven
Compares charm of number seven in Japan & West.
Hammering Nails, Greasing Wheels
Compares Japan & West using proverbs.
Please Come on Weekdays
Escaping the dizzy pace of life in Tokyo.
Will I Ever Leave Japan?
Japan's magic and why it keeps me here.
Gems of Japanized English
Foreign words imported & invented by Japanese.
Attending Sumo tournament with box-seat tickets.
Reviews innocent yet curious questions about Japan.
Too Big For Comfort
About the Japanese gods of fertility.
A Love & Hate Relationship
Web junkie's love/hate relationship with Internet.
Japanese contradictions as seen from gaijin eyes.
About foreigner losing identity in Japan.
(Breaking the Law in Japan)
Clang, thud. Wherever you live in Tokyo, the sounds of construction are within earshot. When I was a young salary man, the noise didn't trouble me. But as I got older, I grew to hate the noise.
So, in 1993, I decided to move from noisy Tokyo to quiet Kamakura. It was a perfect time to move. Thanks to e-mail, I no longer needed to commute to work. I was thrilled by the idea of working from home in a quiet seaside resort town just one hour south of Tokyo. I found myself a nice house, which I shared with a friend, turned my bedroom into an office, and soon began my new life as a "telecommuter."
Bang, whack. The family next door decides to demolish their home and build a new one. Before construction begins, my roommate and I receive a letter from our neighbor asking for our understanding. The letter says construction will be noisy (urusai) and take six months. Tucked inside the envelope is 100,000 yen.
Construction begins. Each day I am awakened at 8:30 a.m. by the sound of gas-powered motors and hammering. On Sunday morning I loose my temper. I walk outside in my pajamas, alone, and demand that Sunday be sound free. The builders depart, and the next day I am presented with a small gift (two tiny bath towels). After that, Sunday was my only day of peace.
Four years ago I discovered a secluded public park in the foothills of Kamakura. Not shown on tourist maps, the park is unknown to the vast crowds who visit Kamakura each weekend. The park's main users are local residents, who tend to use the grounds sparingly. Surprisingly, the park is rarely crowded and frequently empty.
What a treasure! A park with no people, my own private playground in a nation overflowing with people. Before long my friends and I became regular park users. Three times each week, we would ascend the mountain trail to the park, then relax and play a game of aerobie (an amazing flying ring that floats on air if thrown correctly).
Then, suddenly, disaster struck. The local ward office cut park funding because of budgetary problems. As a result, only a small portion of the parkland was mowed. The grass began to grow knee-deep. Wild mountain foliage began eating away at our playing space. We became disheartened, until we decided to groom the grounds ourselves.
It took five of us, and nearly three full days, to mow the field and trim the mountain foliage - all at our own expense. Local residents watched in amazement as five foreigners groomed the park, and then they too pitched in. Nearby residents presented us with refreshments and snacks. Even the local policeman stopped by to thank us for our community spirit.
The Mystery of Number Seven
Some weeks back I was reading a book about strange Western customs. The West, for example, appears bewitched by the number seven. In ancient times there were seven wonders of the world. Rome was built on seven hills. Medieval Christians counted seven deadly sins. The modern world revolves around a seven-day week. People still say "I'm in seventh heaven" when they are extremely happy.
How strange, I thought, for Japan too is captivated by the numeral seven. Ancient Japan was founded around seven districts. In Japanese folklore, there are seven treasures and seven deities of good luck. Japanese Buddhists believe people are reincarnated only seven times, and seven weeks of mourning are prescribed following death.
Seven also figures prominently in one of Japan's most endearing traditions. On November 15 each year, children aged seven, five, and three don their finest traditional garb and visit local shires to celebrate the 7-5-3 festival. At the festival, special Shinto rites are performed to formally welcome girls (age 3) and boys (age 5) into the community. Girls (age 7) are welcomed into womanhood and allowed to wear the obi (decorative sash worn with kimono).
Seven's charm can sometimes be traced to early religious and astrological beliefs. But in our modern age of science and reason, the popularity of seven seems baffling and arbitrary. If I ever discover the reason for seven's enduring charm, I'll be in seventh heaven.
Hammering Nails and Greasing Wheels
Friends on both sides of the Pacific always ask me how Japan and America differ. I often have a difficult time responding, for I believe the two nations are becoming more and more alike. Nonetheless, I cannot deny the general truth that Japan's cultural heritage differs profoundly from America's.
Caveats aside, I still love to discuss our cultural differences. And when I do, I generally rely on proverbs. Two of my favorites are "the nail that sticks out gets hammered in" and "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." Can you guess which comes from Japan and which from America?
The first is a popular Japanese maxim. It is used to discourage bold individualistic behavior and thought. It means don't buck the system, don't stick your neck out, be a team player. The latter maxim, an English expression, encourages the opposite behavior. If you want something, be aggressive, be assertive, stick your neck out, make your voice heard. Don't sit back and wait for things to happen.
We see many examples of such conflicting social traits in real-world situations. Take sports for instance. America's top professional athletes are notorious for their outspokenness and grandstanding (pro-basketball star Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls comes to mind). In contrast, Japan's star athletes are known for their modesty and team spirit. This is changing, however, for Japan's youth appear increasingly prone to squeakiness.
Please Come on Weekdays
I live in Kamakura, one of Japan's most celebrated religious centers and historical sites. It has a long and rich cultural history, dozens of temples and shrines, wondrous gardens, numerous mountain trails, and a long strip of ocean beach. Located just one hour by train from Tokyo, sleepy Kamakura comes alive during the weekends, when thousands of Tokyo residents come here to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city.
When I moved here in 1993, my goal was to escape the dizzy pace of life in Tokyo. To my dismay, however, I soon discovered that my home was to become a favorite weekend retreat for friends from Tokyo. I soon became a proficient tour guide, and enjoyed sharing my knowledge of Kamakura with my friends. But, unknown to them, I really hated jostling with the weekend crowds.
Nowadays, I caution all my friends to visit during the week. To me, the spiritual treasures of Kamakura are best experienced during weekdays. With no crowds to battle, one can truly savor the serenity and sacredness of traditional Japan. Crowds can be fun too, but they distract from the experience.
Regrettably, most of my friends work grueling five-day weeks, and their only option is to visit on weekends. So, like before, I just grit my teeth, don a smile, and lead them headlong into the crowd.
Will I Ever Leave Japan?
When I moved to Japan in 1984, my only possessions were $2,000, a suitcase full of clothes, and a college degree. My plan was to find work, settle down for a few years, make some money, learn the language, and then move back to America. Little did I know Japan would become my second home.
Fast forward to 1998. I'm still in Japan. I'm still learning the language, and I'm still wondering if I will ever move back home. What keeps me here? There are lots of reasons. For one, I've been really lucky in Japan. When I arrived, I had no job. I had no savings. I had $25,000 in student debt back in the U.S. I needed to find a job fast, both to succeed in Japan and to repay my debt.
Bingo. Japan's magic quickly lands me a good editing job with NEC. Then comes another bolt of good fortune (at least for me). The Japanese yen begins to appreciate rapidly against the dollar. My yen salary buys more and more dollars. Before you know it, I've repaid my student debt.
Japan is still my lucky charm. Today I edit and translate from the comfort of my home, and I enjoy a very flexible work schedule. Strangely enough, I seem to have greater freedom and mobility in Japan than I did when living in America. Perhaps that is why I stay.
Gems of Japanized English
I have worked hard and long to learn Japanese. What amazes me most about the language is how quickly it changes, how quickly foreign words are imported into the Japanese vocabulary. What's more, imported words often undergo amusing changes before becoming part of the language, changes that give them a distinctive Japanese flavor.
Let some examples serve. "I typed it on my waapuro using the pasokon I bought at the depaato." Can you recognize these words? All three are words borrowed from English (word processor, personal computer, department store). Let's try a harder example. "That boxing puro, the guy with the rikuruuto-katto, was arrested for seku-hara." Again, all are words borrowed from English (professional, recruit cut, and sexual harassment). Recruit cut is Japanese slang for short haircut, for the "clean-cut" look adopted by young job seekers hoping to impress prospective employers.
As you can see, the Japanese don't just import words. They invent new and playful ways to communicate. Take the word purikura (print club). It refers to the latest craze sweeping the nation -- photo stickers. People enter a purikura booth, pop in a coin, get their photo taken against decorative backgrounds, and in minutes receive a sheet containing five to ten miniature photo stickers. The Japanese tend to expect English-speaking people to understand this so-called English, but they may be expecting too much, especially from old dogs like me.
A few months back I was watching the summer Sumo tournament on TV when a friend called to say she had four box-seat (masu-seki) tickets. "Wanna go?" she asked. I jumped at the opportunity. The general public rarely gets a chance to sit so close to the Sumo ring, for such tickets are snatched up by large corporations before every tournament.
At the stadium we were escorted to a tiny enclosure containing four small cushions (zabuton). We piled in, but it was nearly impossible to find a comfortable position in such a pint-size space. My legs started aching, but I said nothing and turned my attention to the gigantic wrestlers in the ring. Before long our escort returned with mountains of food and drink. It seemed hopeless, but we somehow managed to squeeze together and clear a space for our refreshments.
Despite being "boxed" in, I had a grand time. The beer and wine (sake) flowed freely, and I soon forgot the pain in my legs. We cheered wildly when our favorite wrestlers were victorious. And, in proper Sumo fashion, we devoured copious amounts of food. When we departed, we were each presented with a large gift bag.
I fell asleep on the train home, and woke up just in time to get off at my stop. But in the rush, I forgot my gift bag. My only keepsake was a Sumo-sized hangover.
First-time visitors to Japan have a knack for asking tough questions. Like young children asking why the sky is blue, these visitors ask innocent questions that defy straightforward answers.
Let me illustrate. Last spring my folks paid me a visit, and not a day went by without them asking me some probing question. "You mean they sell cigarettes and beer in outdoor vending machines? If we did that in the U.S., our high-school kids would have a field day. Doesn't Japan have a problem with drinking and smoking among its adolescents?"
That's a good question. As far as I know, the answer is no. Japan does not have a large problem with adolescent vice. But why not? The answer may involve Japan's grueling education and examination system. Japanese teenagers must study hard if they hope to survive Japan's "examination hell" and get into a good university. Unlike American teenagers, who have tons of free time to get into mischief, Japanese students are buried under mountains of homework. With their nose stuck in a book all day, they just don't have the time to develop vices.
My parents also asked me many amusing questions about less serious topics. For example, why are there so few fat people in Japan, and why are Sumo wrestlers so fat? And my favorite: "Why do high-school girls wear those long white socks?"
Too Big For Comfort
Along the eastern coast of Honshu is a sleepy fishing village named Inatori. Every year in early June the village hosts a local festival and fireworks extravaganza to attract commerce and visitors. This summer I was invited by friends from Inatori to participate in the celebration. "You'll help carry a portable shrine during the parade," they told me.
What fun, I thought. I love street parties and merrymaking, so I was naturally excited by the chance to participate in the festivities. But my glee turned into shock when I saw the portable shrine. It was a huge phallic symbol, a gigantic wood carving of the male sexual organ.
When I turned to my Japanese friends in disbelief, they burst out in laughter. With twinkles in their eyes, they offered me some wine and merrily explained the significance of the carving. "It represents fertility," said one. "Women who touch it are blessed with children," said another. "It sure is big," joked a third.
It was heavy too! I counted 15 people in our crew when we hoisted it off the ground onto our shoulders. Some of us tired along the parade route, but, as if on cue, bystanders jumped in to replace us. I don't remember any women rushing up to touch the carving, but I do remember my girlfriend jumping in twice to ease the load. I sure hope the god of fertility wasn't watching!
A Love and Hate Relationship
The Internet is both a gift and a curse. On the plus side, I can visit far away places, read newspapers from around the world, and listen to radio shows from back home - all from the comfort of my house in Japan. Better still, my family, my friends, and my employers all use e-mail. Goodbye post office. Goodbye fax machines. Goodbye daily trips to the office.
On the minus side, the Internet is still a sluggish and clumsy giant. Information is organized in nasty mountain-size piles, and users are forced to sift through tons of worthless data to find what they need. To use an old adage, searching for information on the Internet is like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Even worse, the Internet is a heated battle zone littered with casualties. New technologies constantly replace old technologies, Internet software is constantly revised and upgraded, and dozens of conflicting formats are used to share data. The roar of the battle is deafening, and users must fight hard to survive.
Don't get me wrong! Despite its problems, the Internet is still a fascinating invention. I both love it and hate it. However, like most Internet junkies, I suffer from two worrisome side-affects. First, computers soften the muscles. I'm getting flabby. Second, computers rot the brain. I've forgotten how to spell since I began using my computer's automated spell checker.
People everywhere live with contradiction. Americans, for example, love to make laws, but their cities are mired in lawlessness and populated by gun-holding citizens. The world from Hollywood California portrays a tough, strong and sexy America. But in reality, many Americas are overweight and flabby.
Japan too is full of contradictions. Japanese love nature, but their cities are a hideous tangle of concrete, wires and poles. A democratic nation, Japan has been governed by a single political party for nearly 50 years. The country portrays itself as culturally unique, yet it imports foreign culture and foreign words with unrelenting zeal.
As a longtime Japan resident, I have witnessed innumerable contradictions. Take garbage collection for example. To protect the environment and minimize waste, the Japanese separate their trash into different categories for disposal and recycling. And they do so conscientiously. Yet, in stores and supermarkets throughout the country, customers expect their purchases to be wrapped and packaged using layer after layer of paper and plastic.
Or how about sumo? Sumo is Japan's national sport, but the general public can't get tickets to good seats, which are controlled by large corporations and sumo tea shops. Japan's university system is likewise a mystery to me, for the grueling study needed to succeed in Japan's "examination hell" opens the door to a "carefree" life at the university. The list appears endless, so I'll stop now before I contradict myself.
I came here to study Japan, not to become Japanese. After 10 years of living and working here, I've graduated. I "am" Japanese, at least sometimes. I remember July last year, when my Japanese girlfriend dragged me to Tokyo Disneyland.
It was frightful at first. She loves crowds, I don't. She doesn't mind standing in line for 30 minutes, I do. To me, the thought of waiting 30 minutes to enjoy a three-minute ride was absurd. The price of admission made me cry, but I ignored my skepticism and bought the highest-priced "passport" ticket, which gave us rights to ride all Disney attractions.
Wow. It was fun. The rides were worth the wait. Spending time with my girlfriend was fun, talking to the people in the crowd was fun, and watching all the smiling and sniveling toddlers was fun. The late-night illuminated parade (populated by evil Disney demons and good Disney champions) was delightfully enchanting. We barely had time to catch dinner at a Disney restaurant before the entire park closed.
We drifted through the promenade on our way to the parking lot. We were tired yet satisfied. It had been a cloudy and cool day, threatening rain, and visitors were relatively few. My girlfriend winked at me, like girlfriends do. "So you still think I'm nuts to enjoy crowds," she asked.
Copyright © Mark Schumacher.
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