Minding my manners

Manners Banners

“You are Japan master.” I swear to you these words came out of my roommate’s mouth and were directed to me.  She spoke English too (kind of), so there was no miscommunication due to my terrible Japanese.  What prompted these words of praise and acceptance??

My good manners.  I shit you not.

After four years of living in Japan, I now mind my manners.  Well, I mind Japanese manners when I associate with Japanese people, so unfortunately you all will probably never benefit from my newfound politeness.  My life is now lived in マナーモード, “manner mode”.

I never talk on my cell phone in public places–neither indoors nor outside–and the ringer is always off except when I’m in a private space.  Eating is similar; there is no way I will eat or drink anywhere other than at a restaurant or at home, not even a sip of bottled water while walking in Tokyo’s summer heat.  Jaywalking is out; regardless of traffic, I wait for the crosswalk light to change.  I will carry trash for miles until I find the proper trash can or recycle bin. I never suffer socks with holes in them, and wearing shoes indoors makes me cringe.  My dishes are washed, dried and put away within ten minutes of finishing a meal; laundry is on an equally strict schedule.  I expect to wait in line frequently for long periods of time without complaining.  Before doing anything, I ask permission from everyone who might be involved, no matter how peripherally they will be effected and no matter how minor the matter.  “Please”, “thank you” and “sorry” are the most common words in my vocabulary.  Although mastering the silence of Japanese daily existence is probably forever beyond me, my friends in Tokyo–people who have know me for years–have described me as a “quiet person”.  Again, I not joking.

Eating is public is like ripping your neighbor’s heart out and eating it in front of her.

Politeness Zone

Phones should be on “manner mode”, aka silent or vibrate. Backpacks become frontpacks to prevent you from unknowingly bumping into others. You are only one person, so make sure you only take up one person’s space–no laying down on the seats, sitting with your legs spread out, putting bags on the seats or taking up excess arm room by unfolding your newspaper to read it. Thank you for your kindness.

Using your cellphone in public worries young women and makes old women cry.

The correct way to ride the escalator–standing on the left, walking on the right.

The ladies on the right are obviously not from Tokyo.

Even the most beautiful symphony is just noise when overheard from someone else’s headphones.

I’ve been afraid for my clothing more than once too.

I saw a similar sign that said, “Walking with a lit cigarette is like carrying a 400 degree fire at the level of a child’s face.” If nothing else makes you quit smoking, that should do it.


Misreading the kanji for “Push” and “Pull” and other stupid things I do on an everyday basis

This post is about why–after four years in Japan–I still can’t speak the language properly, let alone read it.  From the get-go, let’s all agree that the real reason for my terrible Japanese is that I don’t study.  However, writing about something I don’t do would be boring, while the linguistic intricacies of Japanese are fascinating, so we’ll go with the latter.

In phonetic writing systems, speaking and reading reinforce each other, so by doing one you effectively learn the other as well. Not so in Japanese, which relies heavily on characters borrowed from the Chinese a millennium and a half ago.  These characters, called kanji, express ideas, not sounds.

Like many languages, Japanese combines multiple word stems (in the form of kanji) to create new words with more specific meaning. For example, 鉄道 tetsudou combines 鉄 “iron” with 道 “path”. This “iron path” is the “iron rails”–鉄道 translates to “railroad”.  However, the pronunciation is rarely as simple as compound words like railroad. Instead, each character is pronounced differently depending on if it’s standing alone or if it’s used in conjunction with another stem. English is similar. For example, one’s house can have either a sunroom or solarium, depending on how pretentious one is.

Tropical Storm Danas is currently passing over Japan, so weather advisories are posted with the warning 強風.  Now, I know these signs say, “strong wind”, as in “Be care of strong winds due to today’s typhoon.”  I know this because 強 is the character for “strong” and 風 means “wind”. However, I have no idea how to actually pronounce 強風 in Japanese.  As stand alone words, 強 is pronounced tsuyo and 風 is kaze. But 強風 is not tsuyokaze.

Sometimes the opposite happens.  At my train station, there is a billboard advertising a local university that offers courses in 法科.  I have no idea what subject 法科 is exactly, but I can pronounce it–houka.  This is possible because I know the pronunciations of each of these kanji individually from us with other words.  法 is hou like 方法 houhou “way” or 法王 houou “pope”.  Ka is used in words like 科学 rika “science” and 科学者 rikasha “scientist”.  Thus houka, whatever that is.

Only on rare occasions does the character system work to my advantage. Sometimes I can guess a word’s meaning from the stems plus the context. Recently at a church prayer service, the worship leader used the word seika. I know the stem sei means “holy” because it’s a prefix in a variety of religious words, like seishou–”scripture”. Ka can have various meanings, but as we were singing, I could assume the stem meant “music” in this case.  Holy + music = “hymn”.

Most of the time though, I still can’t figure out if I’m supposed to push or pull.  Which is fine because Japanese people aren’t so great at English either.


“Gellin’ like a felon” (Japan in my brother’s words.)

A guest post from my little brother who is currently visiting me in Japan:

One of many cultural experiences Japan offers is the sento, a public bathhouse where strangers bathe together (although men and women are separated). I honestly don’t know why you would bathe any other way. As I found out, it can be a very social event even if you don’t know Japanese. Two men approached me as I was bathing because they though it was strange to see a foreigner in such a traditional Japanese facility.  We had a great conversation.  Additionally, after you bathe, there’s a hot tub and sauna for further relaxation. This warms your whole body and readies it for the ice bath that comes next. An ice bath sounds unpleasant (and kind of is), but after getting out of the cold water, drying off and getting dressed, you’ll be gellin’ like a felon sellin’ melon for the rest of the day.

Edo-Period sento

Junko's directions

Susan's further explanation

History of Sentos

What's a Sento?

how to make people uncomfortable in a public bath

Just Odd

Yesterday I saw a pickup truck pulling two giant robot ladies down Omotesando, one of the most fashionable, busiest streets in Tokyo. Femmebots rolling down the road? – I didn’t bat an eye.  But the sight of a proper, American-style truck on a Japanese street shocked me.  I’m from Missouri, yet found a pickup remarkable.  Japan has possibly forever altered my perception of “normal”.

The femmebot truck is a mobile advertisement for a new theme restaurant in Tokyo. There are theme restaurants here for every interest–trains, ninjas, monsters, girl bands and prisons among others. They vary in intensity. The Alice in Wonderland place is underwhelming, consisting primarily of gothic lolita/steampunk interior decor and fancy, stylized menu items.

Fancy food

Fancy dessert

Fancy decorations

Occupying the middle ground, we have maid cafes.  Originally a home away from home for otaku, fetishists and creepy old men, maid cafes have recently caught on with young women because of the fun atmosphere and super cute staff.  The food is so-so, but when your waitress says a magic spell over your meal to make it extra delicious, the kawaii overload makes you completely forget to care.

Shizuru-chan, my maid

with my flatmates outside the cafe

my membership card


At far end of the only-in-Japan spectrum, the Robot Restaurant is bat shit crazy.  I don’t even have words to describe it.  Luckily, I do have videos.

You need panorama to capture this much crazy!

Why are there dinosaurs in front of the Robot Restaurant?  Beats me.







Odds and Ends 2

Mom’s room and Dad’s room, not Mom and Dad’s room

I’ve written before about the sleeping habits of Japanese of families before, but here is an interesting specimen created by one of my English students.  His family consists of two parents and three rambunctious boys, all living in a two bedroom apartment.  A tight fit, but the interesting tidbit is the room divisions.  During one of our lessons, we drew a map of his apartment to learned the English for the various spaces.  Note how the two bedrooms are labeled.

The same student taught me another (non-airconditioned) way to beat the heat the Japanese way: ice pack headbands.

Where the Streets Have No Name

Literally.  Japan’s address system is extremely logical and extremely impractical.

The country is divided into 47 prefectures, each of which is divided into wards and/or cities, which are divided into districts, which are divided into blocks, which are divided into land plots, which are divided into buildings. My office is building 37 of land plot 2 in the 4th block of the Roppongi district in Minato Ward of Tokyo Prefecture.  Good luck finding that without (or even with) a map or GPS.

This is a map of Roppongi (六本木) in Tokyo Prefecture’s Minato Ward. ~丁目 are the different district numbers. The small blue numbers are the blocks.

Except the largest thoroughfares in the most major cities, Japanese streets don’t have names.  When roads do have names, they are  accompanied by helpful signs like this one.

This is where Route 5 intersects Route 5. Thanks for the help.

(Traffic lights are equally helpful.)

What am I even supposed to do here??

Intersections (most of them) have names, but knowing that I should turn left at Sansonkyo Bridge Entrance Intersection does not help me at all if I don’t already know where the Sansonkyo Bridge entrance is. God bless the grid system.

Some streets are so narrow that they shouldn’t even properly called streets. A more appropriate term would be “death traps”, especially when it comes to turning corners. Huge mirrors stand at many intersections, angled so that you can see on-coming traffic, even when you can’t see on-coming traffic.

Also, driving on the opposite side of the road is incredibly disorienting. Not that one side or the other feels wrong, but now both sides feel correct.  Should my car be on the right side or left side? I have to constantly consciously remind myself which lane of traffic my car should be in. When turning a corner in America, I have to repeat to myself, “Right side, Mackensie. Right side.” I’m not sure if this makes me a more conscientious driver and therefore safer, or if everyone should fear the day I get behind the wheel again.

Typhoon Day

Every December, children in the United States begin watching the skies, waiting for that special day of the year to arrive–the Snow Day.  Japan’s work and study ethic is somewhere between the US Postal Service and the Navy Seals, so Snow Days are rare.  However, in summer months when the sky darkens and the wind picks up, Tokyo-ites get the same hopeful gleam in their eyes.  Maybe, if the rain is torrential enough and the wind is windy enough, we’ll all get a Typhoon Day.

In Tokyo at least, typhoons are more annoying than dangerous.  They drop a lot of rain on the city in a very short time, but more importantly, typhoons come with very high wind speeds which shut down the train system.  No trains equals no work/school.  Typhoons also mean a lot of broken umbrellas and general flooding of anywhere flat.

In the typhoon vs. umbrella battle…

Typhoon always wins.

sandbags blocking rain water from flooding Shinjuku Station

If you brave the weather for shopping, stores reward your commercialism by typhoon-proofing your purchases.

train passengers stranded at Ueno Station

flooded subway station

Japanese Exceptionalism

Talking about exceptionalism seems to be all the rage recently, so let’s talk about it in a Japanese context.  Japanese people are just as much in love with themselves as everyone else, Japan just doesn’t flaunt it as indiscriminately or internationally as others do.  That’s one of the things the Japanese love about themselves–how “polite” their society is.  But the Japanese are self-interested, prejudicial and racist too, just not in the same ways we are.

Although it’s becoming less common, sometimes a Japanese person will stand up or move away when a foreigner sits down in a neighboring subway seat.  I’ve had police cars follow me while out for a jog–sometimes for miles–and more than once an officer has stopped me on the street and asked to see my papers for no apparent reason.  Racial discrimination is not illegal, so police blatantly engage in racial profiling, and non-Japanese face discrimination in both hotel lodgings and housing.

There is a good(?) reason for this: Japanese society functions exceedingly well because it is exceedingly homogenous.  98.5% percent of people in Japan are native-born citizens.  They all share the same social assumptions about correct behaviors and act accordingly.  The introduction of a foreigner (in Japanese: 外人 gaijin, literally outside person) throws a wrench in the workings of this well-oiled machine.  Gaijin may not know how to act properly in Japan…or they may know perfectly well, but choose to act differently.  Consequently, the Japanese are never quite sure what to expect of foreigners.  This “not knowing” creates nervousness concerning non-Japanese, which leads to stereotyping, then to prejudice and eventually becomes racism.

Racism affects foreigners differently based on their origin.  Those of African heritage–regardless of nationality–are the hardest hit.  “The Japanese,” wrote Karen De Witt in the New York Times, “do have stereotypical images of black Americans, gleaned from American television and press accounts. Some of them assume that blacks are either entertainment or sports figures or slow, lazy, strong and destructive.” Some housing contracts in Japan have clauses that state “no blacks and no animals.”

Natives of other Asian countries also face hostility, especially people from Korea and China.  However, this seems to be more of a general prejudice against “Koreans” or “the Chinese”, rather than active condemnation of any particular individual.  As former territories occupied during Japan’s empire-making stage, the successfulness of China and Korea in the modern era hits a soft spot in Japanese pride.

People with Caucasian features–again, regardless of nationality–experience what is sometimes called “positive racism”, however oxymoronic that phrase may be.  We are always and forever honored guests.  You receive the best of Japanese hospitality, but you are also an outsider, no matter how long you’ve lived in Japan, how well you speak the language or even if you gain Japanese citizenship.

As a foreigner, you unconsciously adopt some Japanese social customs.  Certain actions become engrained, either through repetition or osmosis.  I have spent so much time bowing, taking off my shoes before entering homes and actually waiting at crosswalks that now these behaviors are almost compulsions.  I can’t not do them.  Assimilation has caused me to feel uncomfortable when gaijin are present in unexpected places.  I avoid eye contact with other foreigners at all costs because it creates an awkward social situation.

Sometimes however, gaijin choose to disregard certain social norms.  During meals, I always wait to start eating until everyone at the table has been served, even though that could mean 10-15 minutes in a typical Japanese restaurant.  I also talk to strangers, which embarrasses my Japanese friends.  Once I was in a ramen shop with Yuko and Nik at around 4:00am, resting our aching dancing feet and trying to stay awake until first train. Seated at an adjacent table were two English-speakers. Something I overheard in their conversation piqued my interest, and our shared tired misery made these two random strangers seem more like compatriots. So I spoke up and joined their conversation. When the couple left a while later, Yuko immediately turned to me and asked, “Do you always do that?!”.

As a matter of fact, I do. For all our flaws, we Americans are known abroad for our openness and geniality.  I choose to uphold this tradition.

the toilet post

No blog about Japan is complete without the wackiness of Asian toilets.  To start, please watch this introductory video.

Random fact: In Japan, 3.7% of household energy consumption is used to power toilet seats.  That’s less electricity than a typical kitchen requires, but more than TVs.

Step 1: Press start on the Flushing Sounds Machine
This machine makes a type of flushing/white noise sound so that no one can hear you tinkle. This crucial step prevents embarrassment for you and for those in surrounding stalls.

Step 2: Squat
No, this is not an in-ground urinal; this toilet style is used by women too.

Alternate Step 2: Sit down
A heated toilet seat is one of the great pleasures of Japanese technology; fuzzy seat covers on public toilets is one of the grossest. Can you imagine how many germs are on that thing??

The squat position is not as hard on Japanese people because they learn to sit like this from childhood.

The squat position is not as hard on Japanese people because they learn to sit like this from childhood.

WARNING: Don’t squat on sit-style toilets!!
This sign is actually from a ladies’ room in Indonesia, not Japan, but hahahahahahahaha!!!!

Step 3: Do your business
Once again, hahahahahaha!!!

Step 4: Clean your bits
Spray vs. bidet? Spray is for everyone; bidet is ladies only.

Step 5: Flush
You get to decide: big (大) flush or little (小) flush?

Step 6: Wash your hands
To conserve water, a lot of toilets have sinks over the tank. Clean water is pumped into the tank, so you can use it to wash your hands and avoid waste.

And here’s one last bit of wacky care of my former apartment’s common area.  Enjoy!

お寺 vs. 神社

So what exactly is the difference between a temple and a shrine?  Working both at a church and as an English teacher ensures I am posed this question at least once a week.  First, we have to realize that when used in Japan, the words “temple” and “shrine” don’t follow standard English usage.  Typically a shrine is conceived of as a small altar or holy place devoted to a holy person or deity, whereas a temple brings to mind a larger edifice built primarily for the purpose of communal worship.

In Japenglish however, “temple” and “shrine” indicate a differentiation that doesn’t exist outside Japan’s particular cultural context.  Here, a shrine refers to a Shinto place of worship, and a temple is a Buddhist place of worship.  These particular meanings are specific to English spoken in Japan.  On a practical level, how can you tell the difference between a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple?

Things you see at temples:

Buddhist-style gates

Buddhist-style gates

statues of the Buddha

statues of the Buddha

Kannon-sama, the lady buddha of compassion

Kannon-sama, the lady buddha of compassion



How to pray Buddhist style: offering incense

How to pray Buddhist style: offering incense

Things you see at shrines:

Shinto-style gates, called torii

Shinto-style gates, called torii

water for ablutions

water for ablutions

How to pray Shinto-style: clapping and bowing

How to pray Shinto-style: clapping and bowing

Taoist dieties

Taoist dieties

Things you see at both:

Jizo - Many women or couples in Japan who have terminated a pregnancy, suffered a miscarriage, or had a stillborn baby choose to honour the soul of this child through a practice called mizuko jizo. Mizuko means ‘child of the water’ and is used to refer to the soul of a child who has been returned to the gods. Jizo is the name of the Buddhist god who protects and guides that soul on its journey to another world.

Jizo – Many women or couples in Japan who have terminated a pregnancy, suffered a miscarriage, or had a stillborn baby choose to honour the soul of this child through a practice called mizuko jizo. Mizuko means ‘child of the water’ and is used to refer to the soul of a child who has been returned to the gods. Jizo is the name of the Buddhist god who protects and guides that soul on its journey to another world.

Simple wooden buildings.  This is the Awesome Club, the "not kids but not old and married" group I started at church.

Simple wooden buildings. This is the Awesome Club, the “not kids but not old and married” group I started at church.

Brightly painted buildings.

Brightly painted buildings.

Ema - wooden tablets to write prayers on

Ema – wooden tablets to write prayers on

Special books are available to collect the official seals of shrines and temples.

Special books are available to collect the official seals of shrines and temples.

Both temples and shrines have seals.Both temples and shrines have seals.

water for ablutions

water for ablutions

Mon, the Japanese equivalent of a family crest

Mon, the Japanese equivalent of a family crest

No place in Japan is complete without a vending machine or two.

No place in Japan is complete without a vending machine or two.

Japan doesn’t Noah the Bible.

Yesterday, my genki little four-year-old English student took great pride in showing me his newest toy. It was a large wooden boat that contained a plethora of animal species, two of every kind, one male and one female. Sound familiar?

I asked my tiny pupil and his parents if they knew the story behind the boat and its menagerie, but as far as they were concerned, it was just a strange floating zoo. So my English lesson morphed into Sunday school, which may have caused a stir in the US education system, but is considered cultural exchange in Japan.


There was an interesting addition to the animal collection, a specimen not typically associated with Noah and his arc: a pair of dragons.


I can’t believe… 2

Man obu sutiiru

I just saw the new Superman movie, and the experience has convinced me that I’m possibly home sick in the head.  My favorite part of the entire film was the three seconds when Supermam is wearing a Royals t-shirt.  Not kidding.  In second place is the tornado scene. I guess it’s supposed to be suspenseful and elicit trepidation from audiences, but I was like “Natsukashii!” which is an expression used when something evokes fond memories.  (And yes, sometimes I speak to myself in Japanese.) Maybe I’ve been in Japan too long…