Friday, October 29, 2010

Last-Minute Halloween Costume Ideas

Two days left until Halloween and still no costume for the big party? Why not consider one of these cheap, easy, last-minute ideas:

- Man with Fly Unzipped
- Post-modernist "Kid wearing a really crappy ghost costume made out of a sheet" Costume
- Co-worker of the Opposite Gender
- High-school Version of Yourself
- Harry Potter Wearing Regular Clothes
- Barbecue Chef (a.k.a Man Wearing Apron)
- John McClane from Die Hard 1
- Invisible Man
- Dress is an assortment of random clothes from your wardrobe and then when people ask who you are, answer, "What? You don't know?"

Happy Halloween, everybody.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Neighborhood

This is the unnamed street I live on, part of a faded though very functional community called Takara (treasure in Japanese) a ten-minute walk from Kofu train station. Like most of the communities radiating around the station area, the buildings are older, the inhabitants aging, and the shop wares dusty and out of style. I like it here a lot.

This is the building where I live (middle floor, far left). It's a lot brighter than any other building on the street. The tiling is pretty cool, as well as the circular stairs outside, which offer a nice view of the surrounding street, the hospital towering above, and the mountains beyond.

This is the stand where I buy my vegetables and eggs. The outside is heaped with great boxes of onions and potatoes that go bad quickly, plus fruit of dubious quality. Most of the produce inside is better and keeps for longer, sitting alongside old display cases stocked with canned tuna and pineapple. There is usually a woman of indeterminate age in the living room behind the store who comes out when she hears the door open. Sometimes we talk in Japanese. Other times an old man rings me up, and he always counts what I've bought with an abacus. It's pretty awesome.

The building on the right is a bakery down the street. They specialize in rolls stuffed with different kinds of filling, though I also buy bread from there sometimes. Like the vegetable stand, I have no idea how they stay in business because there's never anyone inside. I always buy from the day-old rack because day-old bread in Japan is the same as fresh bread in America. If I go on Saturday evenings they usually give me an extra roll or two for free.

To the left is a small bar with wood-paneled walls. I've never been inside because it's always either empty or filled with drunken middle-aged men. In the interest of curiosity I may give it a try before I leave.

This is the inside of the laundromat (koin randoree) on the next block. It has a musty smell and is usually filled with old coffee cans. I don't need to use it since I have a washing machine, but if I was ever in a pinch and needed a dryer, it's reassuring to know that it's here.

This is the small medical clinic across from my apartment. I'm not sure what kind of clinic it is but I know they must have patients sometimes because the front room has a bed surrounded by a curtain and several machines. One of the nurses who works there is kind of hot. I saw her making the bed after I took this picture.

To the right of the clinic is a barbershop that appears to be out of business. The sign and barber pole are still there, but no one ever answered when I knocked looking for a quick haircut. Instead, someone always parks a moped (not shown) on the front step.

This is the nicest house on my street. A young family with kids lives here, and I assume that an older concrete building was torn down to build this one before I moved in. To the left of this house there used to be a really cool old building that was also torn down last spring to make room for a less entertaining parking lot.

There are a lot of vending machines (hapi dorinku shoppu) here. The second one from the right has Mountain Dew.

In the other direction sits this boarded-up machine shop. I want very badly to sneak inside but cannot discern any simple methods of entry. There are some other shops like this one a few blocks away still in business, but everything there is really expensive and there's never anyone inside.

This is a really, really small bar up the street from the electronics shop. Only about four people could fit at the counter inside, and I think it's the kind of place where everyone who drinks there knows the owner. I think it'd be pretty cool if your friend down the street owned a bar that you could drink at whenever you wanted. You also wouldn't have to worry about driving home.

Like most houses in the older city, this one has about a million plants outside. It's pretty cool to walk down the gray concrete streets and have all this nature around you, even if it is in pots and on people's balconies. One day I was walking by and the guy who lives here had set up a display of alpine plants for sale. The plants all resembled ferns and were growing out of shelves of rock. The guy said they came from Nagano and explained in Japanese how to take care of them. I bought one for a thousand yen and put it on my balcony, where it flowers whenever there's a rainstorm.

This is just a picture of the other side of the street. In the distance you can see a small machine shop that always has a lot of scrap metal stacked out front, and past that is the corner where we put our recycling once a month (I always forget, though). The tall building on the corner looks like it might be really fancy inside. Most afternoons and some nights there's flute music coming from one of the apartments, which I think is someone actually practicing rather than a recording. The music gives the normally-quiet street an upbeat, exciting feeling. It is a sign that people live there.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Oversimplifying "Karoshi"

I have more than once been accused of oversimplifying topics in this blog that are complicated enough to warrant entire articles or lengthy essays in order to completely explore them. I like to keep things (fairly) short on here to fit (what I can only assume is) the span of the average internet viewer, which I'm afraid has turned much of my nonfiction writing into one-sided snippets that never allow the reader to become fully informed. To write proficiently about the topics I'm interested in, especially those related to Japan, requires more time and a higher word count than I've been allowing my entries.

With "Karoshi," however, I never intended to give a complete perspective of the Japanese habits of overwork, though I'm afraid some people might read it that way. I wrote it in an attempt to capture the horror and cruelty of the Japanese business world that I'm surrounded by every day. I see it in my own workplace, in the textbooks I teach, when I talk to my students about their jobs, in books about Japanese daily life, at the bank, on the street, and even in my own fiction (where do you think Corporate Takeover came from?). There are things here that irk me terribly, and the business world is one of them. I wanted to recreate the pain I see on people's faces after long, stress-filled days at jobs they're afraid to leave. I wanted to shock people the way I was shocked when a girl I knew suffered a nervous breakdown at her job and had to be sent back home. I wanted to scare people the way Orwell scares them in the final chapters of 1984. The way the business world scares me sometimes.

So, to do that, I oversimplified things. My dictionary translates karoshi as "death by overwork," which in English is a perfectly reasonable way of describing that end just as we might use "death by dehydration" or "death by vomiting" to describe a mode of death without a more convenient term. Overworking can cause death or serious health problems for Americans just as readily as it could for Japanese, and I certainly don't mean to imply that some linguistic barrier prevents us from recognizing that danger.

Perhaps my attempts to shock and horrify are best left to fiction, and not just my entries here that routinely blur that line. For all my talk of disguising fiction as fact, and vice versa, sometimes it can be detrimental to the way people read about unfamiliar cultural topics. It makes it much harder to recognize hyperbole. But in all seriousness, I want to address a topic as complex as Corporate Japan as honestly and thoroughly as I can in whichever medium is best. You haven't heard the last of me on this one.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Language is an integral part of culture. A culture evolves language to express the values that it deems most important, and in turn, the framework of that language allows people to express those values more easily. By comparing different languages, we can see which values are important in different cultures. English, like most other Western languages, is concerned with defining specific notions of identity (a banana, the banana, some bananas, and so on), while Japanese is dominated by different levels of politeness (the word taberu, to eat, can be more politely expressed as tabemasu, to name but one of thousands of examples) to suit different societal relationships.

It is also vital to examine the extent of a language’s lexicon. Cultures create words to define those concepts that are most relevant to their lives. Consider some words expressing different manners of death in both Western and Japanese culture:

If a person goes with minimal or no food for a prolonged period, resulting in extreme malnourishment as the belly extends grotesquely outward and the skin becomes tightly shrunken around the victim’s increasingly brittle bones as the lack of caloric energy to fuel the body’s basic functions results in a slow, agonizing death, we say starvation. Japanese say ue.

If a person becomes submerged in water, even if they are capable of swimming for short or long distances, the desperate exertion to stay afloat eventually becomes too much to bear, and their body becomes weak and tired as the victim’s energy dissipates and the exhaustion becomes so much that they slide below the surface allowing the water to flow freely through their nose and mouth into their lungs, simultaneously suffocating and choking them, we say drowning. Japanese say oboreshinu.

If a person’s upper body comes in contact with a sharp object traveling at a rate of speed sufficient enough to slice off the victim’s head in a quick or gradual manner (as for such purpose as the French designed the guillotine) so that the brain cannot communicate with the rest of the body, leaving the victim’s eyes blankly empty as the brain’s neurons sputter and cease function even as blood spurts relentlessly from the victim’s still-warm neck, we say decapitation. Japanese say kubi o haneru.

If a person is prevented from breathing normally by any number of methods (such as having another person’s hands clenched around his or her neck, squeezing the windpipe sufficiently so as to cut off all oxygen; or having a pillow forced over his or her face so tightly so as to render respiration impossible) reducing the victim’s inhalations to quick, desperate gasps, so that said breathing eventually ceases as the brain becomes completely deprived of life-giving oxygen and the victim falls down dead, we say asphyxiation. Japanese say chissoku saseru.

If a person is subject to spending prolonged periods at their stressful job, where they are constantly belittled and talked down to by stern bosses, piled upon with unreasonable deadlines, and constantly engulfed in an atmosphere of absolute loyalty to the company so that they become obsessed with fulfilling their workplace duties, forcing the victim to work hour after agonizing hour of overtime, neglecting proper nutrition, exercise, and fresh air for the stuffy confines of a crowded office late at night, until the victim can focus on nothing but achieving the company’s goals to a point where stress, nervous tension, exhaustion caused by lack of sleep, claustrophobia, hunger, and eye strain combine in varying amounts to cause any combination of heart attacks, strokes, or serious illnesses leading to the victim’s untimely death; there’s no single word to explain this in English because most self-respecting Westerners possess the common sense to escape such a horrible fate.

Japanese say karoshi.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Bombing

One of my students is a 73 year-old man who enjoys discussing controversial topics. I asked him once what he remembered of the Allied bombing of Kofu during the war. After a short pause he wrinkled his nose in disgust and said, "Very bad smell."

You can't find that in the history books.