Wednesday, May 24, 2006

About Australia

I have had occasion over the last few months to say a few bad things about Australia, and I have to pause when people here ask me "which do you prefer", but my experience of people`s reactions to some very (I think) Australian aspects of my personal behaviour have given me cause to reflect positively on my home country. I have also heard stories from others` home countries which make me think, "wow! Australia is cool." The best one that springs to mind is from Bangladesh: in class, our Bangladeshi student was asked the number of the police in Dhaka and replied "We don`t call the police, it creates more trouble, so I don`t know the number." I don`t think people would say this about Australia (not since 1996, anyway). In Bangladesh, according to this chap, people steal your shoes when you leave them outside the Mosque ...

The main properties of Australia which distinguish us are, I think, the amount that we travel, the amount we know about other countries, and our willingness to try their ideas (which makes us a lot like Japan!) For example, the Mongolians in my residence and all Japanese I meet are blown away when I use chopsticks, cook with kimchi, or make a stir-fry. This is not something they are familiar with in foreigners. The Africans are stunned into silence when I tell them I know what Halva is, and the Moslems (when they are not stuttering with blue-faced horror at me being an atheist) are quite stunned to discover I have read a third of the Quran. I don`t think these are properties so much of me as they are general consequences of life in Australia. Australians are interested in foreign ideas and (to my surprise after recent events in Australia), quite welcoming to foreigners in comparison to some countries. In class, when asked what Japanese foods they like, my African/Moslem fellow students cannot think of any, because a) they only like their own food and b) they don`t know any Japanese food in any case. Which, after a month in Japan, is a little staggering. (See my post on Japanese myths for some of the reasons for this). The Japanese, on the other hand, are very eager to learn about other countries. So our teachers know all about Ramadan but the Ramadanians know nothing about Shinto worship. Two of the three in my class are not even interested in visiting a shrine - whereas I, an atheist, have already been.

This might explain why everyone in Japan knows where Australia is and what its main properties are, but know nothing about much more populous countries elsewhere in the world - e.g. Bangladesh. Give and you shall receive.

Having said that, i suspect right now somewhere in Australia a Japanese person is busy typing a long essay on all the myths Japanese people have about Australia...

Japanese myths 1

So begins my analysis of some of the worst of the Japanese myths I have encountered, or at least the most interesting ones. I have left out the topic of conformism, since I believe that this deserves a whole separate essay of its own. Some of the myths I have heard about Japan are from Australia, and some I have heard since I got here. I shan`t bother distinguishing, because they are all myths.

  1. Japan is more sexist than the west: this is an interesting one, which I think mostly derives from a failure to compare societies properly (so it is a non-comparative myth, in my patented taxonomy). Also, sometimes people report their personal experience as if it were true of all Japan. Someone may have heard of someone who was forced to resign because they were pregnant, and so they generalise about the country. I could do the opposite: one of my teachers (in this tiny country town!) is working while pregnant, then taking maternity leave when she is very close to giving birth. Isn`t this exactly what happens in Australia? This is why one does not construct opinions based on personal experience. I have heard that the statistics bear out the theory that women in this country are second class employees, but I seem to recall something about this in Australia too. The facts about Australia and Japan are exactly the same, in any case: women can work, drive, vote and join the armed forces in both countries. Japan differs from Australia in perhaps having less organised childcare arrangements and more discriminatory employment practices, but it is also a lot safer for women here: women can walk alone anywhere at any time of the night without fear (and they do!). So which society is more sexist - one where you have to lose your job while pregnant, or where a stranger gets you pregnant against your will? I think it might be a little from column A, and a little from column B. And this is without considering the behaviour of all the English Teachers here who had to fly 9 hours across the ocean just to pull a root, because no-one will sleep with them if they understand a word that comes out of their foul mouths.
  2. Japanese do western food in a wierd way: I think this may have been true in the 80s, when people travelling in Japan discovered spaghetti sauces made from sea urchin eggs. I recommend that those people try my (paternal) grandmother`s patented steak-and-kidney spaghetti sauce before commenting on another country`s view of western food. Anyway, this is not the case now: Japanese versions of Italian, French and Middle Eastern food are excellent. I have had the best falafel of my short life in Hiroshima, and the best Italian food in Kyoto. Also, margharita pizza in japan is universally good. The local burger chain, Mosburger, is reported by the Delightful Miss E to do a vastly superior fishburger than Maccas. This seems to me to be a rather incongruous myth to create, in any case, and right now in my minds eye I can see the idiot who started this myth, coming back from his teaching stint in Tokyo, all full of knowledge about Japan, his Japanese wife beside him: "The Japanese don`t have any ideas of their own, even their language was taken from abroad. Oh, and they do western food really badly."
  3. It is impossible to get good dairy products in Japan: see above. There are some people who have lived here who have obviously never visited a supermarket, since there is a huge dairy section in every supermarket, stocked mostly with foods from the local dairy industry. The Japanese are obssessed with pastries, cakes and anything creamy, so they use huge quantities of dairy products. Here in Tottori you can go to a cafe in town and buy smoothies or lassi. One thing I certainly don`t have to miss here is yoghurt, and I suppose the only complaint one could make about it is that it is not very fatty. It is worth noting in this regard that most Europeans consider Australian yoghurt way too sweet.
  4. Japan is expensive: I think this is a big city myth, because prices in Tokyo are a little steeper and rent a lot steeper than in Japan. Still, rents in Tokyo from what I have seen and heard seem to be about the same as rents in Sydney, and the quality of the house one gets is probably a little higher (though it will be smaller). Prices in the country and the regional towns like Hiroshima are very different to prices in Tokyo. For example I recently had shrimp tempura with rice, salad, pickles and soup for $7. Some people may be including the shinkansen (bullet train) in their analysis of Japanese prices, but this train is a case of getting what you paid for. It takes half the time to travel the same distance as sydney-melbourne, but costs twice as much. And long after the price war in Australian airfares is over and we have to pay real prices to do that journey, the Japanese will have their high-speed trains.
  5. Japanese are really into rape porn: google rape porn, and you will find all the sites selling it are American, and all the people doing it are American. All countries are into rape porn, it just so happens that some countries have extreme porn and some (like Australia) have extreme censorship. This is a case, I think, of an uncontrolled myth, where people examine a situation in Japan without knowing the equivalent situation elsewhere. There is a particularly insidious form of this myth which says that the rape is real, but I went into a porn shop in Kyoto and had great difficulty finding a) rape porn and b) any evidence that it was not acted (that is, I found the names of the actors. I didn`t get to watch the porn). The funny thing about this myth is that there is a far more serious and disturbing truth about Japan which no-one in the west seems to talk about - in any decent-sized comic shop one can buy comic book porn involving sex with children. I don`t know what western idiot came back from Japan full of knowledge about their non-existent rape porn and forgot to mention their very real (comic book) child porn.
  6. The Japanese work harder than everyone else: statistically, Australians work harder than the Japanese. Although one often hears stories about heroic work practices in Japan, the evidence seems stacked against them. First of all, they have a vast number of public holidays. Secondly, rush hour in Tokyo for office workers is at 5pm. If they work really hard, why is rush hour at 5pm and not 8pm? Do they start work at 5am? This would make them unique in the entire world, which seems unlikely. If they work so hard, how is it that there are so many brothels, pubs, video game parlours, karaoke places, sports precincts and clubs in this country? I think it might be reasonable to claim that the Japanese attitude to work is different to ours, but maybe not so reasonable to suggest that they work harder. I think this myth also has a certain element of "asian superhero" about it. During world war II when the Japanese were stomping the allies into the dust, many western newspapers and magazines portrayed them as superheros. I think now in our war of economies the same thing is being done, but is a myth now just as it was then.

So as you can see, myths about Japan abound and sometimes it is difficult to sort the truth from the lies, but I say to you: if you didn`t hear it from me, it`s clearly bullshit.

Classes of myths

There are so many myths going about the foreign community in Japan that I have decided to commence an extensive scientific analysis of their development, nature and implications. I shall begin with a taxonomy of the mythology of modern Japan, i.e. a descrition of the different sorts which fly about in this land, and how I think they came to be.

  1. The complete fiction: This is the most obvious myth, in which someone makes up a complete and idiotic story for no reason. There are a few very good myths in this category, my favourite being: milk in Japan is 70% recycled. How there can be a basis for this myth is beyond me. It`s kind of like saying "there is a mysterious creature in the sky, invisible and undetectable, which controls your fate." How can anyone think of such a thing?
  2. The Eighties extension: this is a common myth in Japan, and I suppose should really be called a legend, since it is a ridiculous story based in fact. These myths develop because someone experienced something in the 80s in Japan, when it had no tourism industry to speak of and a bubble economy, and then reported that story in the West. This story became truth in the west even long after the phenomenon passed. For example, some of you may recall my efforts last year to find a man who would push me onto a train in Tokyo, and my complete lack of success in so doing. This pusher man is apparently a phenomenon from the 80s, which no longer exists. But the story persists ...
  3. The big city myth: many things happen in Tokyo which perhaps do not happen in the rest of the country. Tokyo is an insane city with more people than grains of sand, and things can happen there which are impossible in more sane cities. For example, rent in Tokyo is much higher than the rest of Japan. Since many foreigners go to Tokyo only, they report stories from Tokyo as if they were facts about Japan, without any sense of what the rest of Japan is doing. It is from Tokyo that everyone has the impression that Japan is expensive.
  4. The non-comparative myth: in the non-comparative myth, someone experiences something in Japan and fails to compare it with life in their own country, and concludes a profound social phenomenon from the thing they have experienced. For example, women in Japan often have to stop working when they get pregnant - hence the society is "more sexist than the west." True, perhaps, but women in Japan can wear whatever they want and go wherever they want without fear of harrassment or sexual assault. A deeper level of comparison is needed before comparative conclusions can be drawn.
  5. The baka-gaijin myth: there are many completely stupid, idiotic foreigners in this country. They report things they have experienced once as if they were gospel truth, and because they move in very restricted and isolated communities their myths do not get tested. For example, all the moslems in my little town believe that the fresh noodles here have pork extract in them, even though they do not. Someone said this, and everyone believes it, but it is not true. The myth spreads, and people tell you it as if it were a fact. Because of this little myth the moslems never go to restaurants, so most of them do not know about a Pakistani-run curry restaurant in the centre of Tottori. Too bad for any moslem from India who wants to eat good curry ...
  6. The uncontrolled myth: by this I mean a myth created by a stupid foreigner who decided to conduct an experiment in Japan without having a western control group. The classic example of this is the early-20s female english teacher who, having heard a few bad things about japanese porn, decides to investigate for herself. She enters a 4-story porn shop in Tokyo and is shocked by what she sees. But has she ever been in a porn-shop in her life before? Has she ever seen porn in her home country? If challenged, I`m sure she would find it rather difficult to tell you what "good" porn would be. In which case the issue for her is not Japanese porn, but porn. Had she first examined porn in her home country she might not venture to give an opinion about the Japanese based on her opinion of porn.
  7. The cultural-ignorance myth: sometimes people just fail to understand that what is bad for them is not bad for someone else, or vice versa. Many people seem to think the Japanese are very unhappy on account of their high suicide rate, which is certainly the conclusion one would draw in the West. But in Japan suicide has always been considered an honourable way to atone for one`s mistakes, and there is no religious taboo against it. Even the kamikaze are often only seen as a tragedy today because the war itself is seen as a tragic mistake, not because they were doing anything intrinsically wrong. A failure to understand this cultural difference leads to many myths about how the Japanese view their own society.
  8. The Lonely planet myth: the lonely planet maintains some silly things. It only ever seems to mention the worst internet cafes, not the good ones, and it also makes two completely false claims: 1, that the Yushukan in Tokyo denies Japan started the war (I have been and read the exhibits, it says the opposite); and 2, that Japan is unsafe for women. Whatever the reasons, these are myths.

Here are a few examples of crazy myths and their categories:

  • The Japanese do not like chocolate: this is a baka-gaijin myth, which I have heard amongst the moslems in my town and which is a complete crock of shite. The same man who told me this shops in a local supermarket which has a whole aisle devoted to chocolate, mostly made by Japanese companies. Have these companies sprung up only to serve foreigners, and have a whole aisle in Tottori just to serve the 30 non-chinese foreigners who live here? I don`t think so. This is like coming to Australia, standing outside an Asian grocer, and saying "Australians don`t like Asian food."
  • Japanese milk is recycled: this is a complete fiction. How does one recycle milk? How do the milk companies get the milk to recycle? We have 5 types of rubbish in my town, but none of them are `milk`. Do they extract it from the water system? How do they separate the sour milk? Sadly, I heard this myth from a man who had lived in Japan for years.
  • The trains in Tokyo are so packed that you cannot use them in rush hour: as far as I can tell, this is an 80s myth. The shops in Tokyo open at a different time to the offices, so rush hour is 4 hours long and, having caught the train in rush hour to and from various stations in Tokyo, I can safely say they are not impossible. No worse than London or Sydney. I think they might once have been bad, and hence the myth.

So these are the categories of myth I have so far experienced in Japan. Read on to encounter some of the more significant myths, and my view of them.

Monday, May 15, 2006


I have moved my illustrations, because flickr sucks. The new location is amended in the sidebar. Therea re some new pictures, though not many, and more to come.

Cute japanese words

The Japanese language is a cunning thing, being constructed primarily by combinations of kanji with different meanings, which can be used to represent almost anything. I have decided I shall list a few of the cuter words I have encountered, for your viewing pleasure. I shall refrain from actually presenting the kanji or kana, since some computers don`t understand them. Here are some words:

  1. Kwizzu, usually stated "Kwizzu des". This is the Japanese import of the word quiz, and we have a kwizzu almost every day in my classes, always preceded by a loud and super-cute pronunciation of "Kwizzu des!" from the teachers. This word is written in katakana, the characters used for foreign words. Katakana words are often very cute.
  2. Prostitute, which is made up of the kanji words for "to sell", and "spring" (I read this this afternoon, and have promptly forgotten the words, which are something like maishu). Essentially this word means "to sell one`s spring" or something like it (spring as in the season). This is quite poetic.
  3. e to: this is Japanese for "and, um...", and is used by our teachers whenever they are thinking. So a typical sentence might be " e to, this is the, e to, verb inflexion"
  4. jitensha, bicycle, whose kanji mean "self-powered vehicle"
  5. jinrickisha, the rickshaw, originally named in Japan, whose kanji mean "strong man vehicle"
  6. ne, usually pronounced neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, which is almost always found on the end of a statement of fact when given in agreement to someone`s circumstance. For example, something that is a huge hassle is taihen neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Sometimes there will be a meaningless doooooooooooooooooo on the front, for emphasis. If something is excellent it is segoy neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, usually said very loudly. There may or may not be an "un!", which is a sound of agreement, somewhere in all this.

Japanese, especially good-humoured japanese, which is what it mostly seems to be (everyone here being so continually cheerful) is a very cute and endearing language, although mostly at the moment it is passing me by in a blur of words I don`t know, mumbled at speed. As I decode it, I will perhaps share some more of its cuter aspects.

My first Kanji experiences

Kanji, as you all know, are the mysterious pictographic characters used by the Japanese to write with. Because they are crazy, the Japanese have 3 alphabets: 2 syllabic alphabets (where each letter represents a sound) containing about 40-50 characters each (mostly composed of about 35 basic characters) and the big one, Kanji, which contains at least 10,000 characters.

This last alphabet might seem a little daunting with this number attached to it, but in fact it is not that large. The government has a list, the Joyo list (or something similar) of 2000 characters considered essential for modern life. Apparently with these and a knowledge of the kanji for technical terms and animals (and a supplemental list of 245 kanji used in names) one can easily read, say, a newspaper. I live with a Columbian chap who is proficient in the language, and he claims to have used some cunning methods to identify a core list of only 800 characters required to read an article in a newspaper. So it is not really as bad as all that.

Currently I know 40 kanji well (after 5 lessons on the topic!) and another 30 or so by sight, probably. I don`t know these kanji in their entirety because almost all kanji have 2 readings, and in some cases I only know one.

That`s right, most kanji have 2 readings. The first of these, the on reading, is the sound the kanji makes when it is read with other kanji. The second, the kun reading, is the sound it makes when read with one of the two kana alphabets, when read on its own or when read as part of a proper name (but not a name of a country). Sometimes the on and kun reading have different meanings, and sometimes a kanji has more than one. It is also possible that I have mislabelled, and called the on the kun and vice versa. For some reason I am having difficulty with the names of these two forms (though not, fortunately, learning the associated facts).

By way of example, consider the kanji for a meeting place, kai:

When read with another kanji, for example the kanji for house, kan, this kanji is read as kai. My home is called the kaikan, for example (meaning `meeting house`), and written as:


However, kai also forms the stem of the verb to meet, in which case it is read as a, and the verb inflexion is written with kana. In this case, we have (for example), I will meet:


which is read as aimasu with a silent u.

Such a system of writing is not entirely incomprehensible, although difficult to write (and to read, my apologies to those of you whose computers are sensible enough to refuse to print these characters!). It is fun to learn, though, and easier in many ways than learning the actual language (which is hard). It is also easy to do on a computer, since handwriting is not then an issue. I confess that because I am a sad-arsed nerd, this is my favourite part of learning so far, and I am speeding along with it in hopes of being able to write haiku sometime soon. Being able to read signs is also a nice bonus, and I want to be able to do this as soon as possible! Rumour has it we will officially know 220 characters (including the numbers) by the end of my 4 month course. I hope to know more than that!

The trusting nature of my fellow man

No doubt some of you have heard rumours regarding the lack of crime in Japan. You may even have engaged in the rather dubious pursuit of self-education, reading statistics on crime on the web and discovering to your horror that the rumours are true: in fact, robbery, armed robbery and murder occur at alarmingly lower rates in this country than they do in Australia, New Zealand, England, America or in fact anywhere. The commonest response to this phenomenon by disgruntled foreigners is to say "well yes, but the police can torture a confession out of you." I have heard rumours to suggest that in fact this is not the case, but i do not engage in such bourgeois pastimes as self-education, so I am not able to confirm what the particular rules are which govern the behaviour of police over here. I think the explanation for the lack of crime over here may be simpler than police violence, lack of guns, or the conformist attitude of local Japanese (who to me seem to be on the whole rather non-conformist - about this I shall wax lyrical in subsequent posts). I think the explanation is perhaps rather more simple: the Japanese think crime is wrong, so on the whole they do not do it, even when they can do it without being caught.

This is a radical suggestion I know, one which flies in the face of everything we know about civilised people everywhere. I hear you demanding an explanation, evidence, some sort of justification for this crazy and radical view, so here I shall present it to you. Since my arrival in Tottori I have seen many examples of things which may support this view. I shall present a list now (dot points being a very important part of our power point culture). I shall start with the evidence which least supports my crazy ideas, and proceed to the most crushing and compelling evidence you can hope to find. Here, then, is my list of exhibits in defence of the claim that the Japanese simply do not think of committing crime:

  1. When my friend Hiroki-san leaves his flat (which is on the main road in Tottori) to visit the supermarket across the road for, say, beer, he leaves the door unlocked. I admit, this may just be evidence of his individual foolishness. Many other Japanese do not do this (I have asked)
  2. When the Japanese speakers who assist us in class need to reserve a seat in the university cafeteria while they queue for food, one of them goes and dumps her stuff on a chair before returning to the queue. Everyone does this. After dumping their gear, they spend 10 minutes in line, completely out of view of their bag, while 200 people swirl past the chair. Admittedly, crime is never actually a common event anywhere in the world, so it could be that one could get away with this in Australia without any trouble
  3. There are no anti-armed-robbery screens in the bank. There is not even any glass, just a nice little desk on one side of which the staff sit. The only concession to the risk of crime is the presence of 3 security cameras at the far end of the room. Perhaps this means nothing - perhaps no Japanese gangster would ever consider wearing a ski-mask (Japanese gangsters dress very well, from what I have seen), so the cameras are sufficient deterrent.
  4. All the bicycles here have the most pathetic locks you have ever seen, the sort of locks which can be smashed with a hammer or removed with a screwdriver. Mine consists ofa 5mm wide bolt attached to the front wheel, which sticks into the spokes once locked. My key opens a friend`s bike lock. The locks are clearly intended only to deter people who decide to take an unlocked bike because they need to ride around the corner, not to prevent serious thieves intent on stealing a bike to sell for money. One could easily make a living here stealing and selling bikes with these crappy locks on (although all bikes are registered, but so are all English bicycles, and bike theft there is a serious problem)
  5. no shop anywhere in Tottori (or Hiroshima for that matter, and often even Tokyo) has any defense against shoplifting. Many of the men`s clothing shops in Hiroshima have their jewellery stored in unlocked glass drawers, sometimes left open so you can just pocket the gewgaws. In Australia, a shop without such a defense will get lifted, simple as that.
  6. people leave their flower boxes with carefully tended flowers sitting outside businesses and homes, on main roads, after closing up and leaving for the day. The Tottori post offices have ranks of these flower pots, all completely unattended and chock full of nice flowers. Sometimes you can see $100 worth of flowers (or more) sitting unattended and unguarded when anyone can just, well, take them.

I grant you, these are signs of a society generally without crime, but not crushing evidence of a general unwillingness to commit crime when it is possible to. So now I present the coup de Grace, the final stunning piece de la resistance in my argument, the simple fact which shows without a shadow of a doubt that the Japanese by and large just do not do the wrong thing. The simple fact I am about to present is so utterly compelling, so earth-shatteringly alien to our conception of the nature of man, such a great challenge to our understanding of the universal order of things, that I shall indent it and present it as a separate, essential fact, around which I hope in the future philosophers will construct whole new theories about the nature of man:

  • the public toilets at Tottori University, which are frequented by poor students who need to save money, keep the spare toilet paper rolls unlocked on a shelf in the cubicle, where anyone using the cubicle could simply take them

Walking around in the university grounds, seeing happy people going about their business like ordinary human beings - greeting each other, saying goodbye, talking on their phones, studying - one is tempted to think that they are just like us. But then one goes into the public toilets and there sit the toilet paper rolls, naked and vulnerable, free to be taken by any passing criminal, unguarded and monitored only by the invisible, impotent eyes of society`s conscience. At this moment one realises how completely, utterly and inscrutably alien these people are to everything we in the English-speaking world are capable of understanding.