Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rote Memorization and Literacy

I'm not sure if studying psychology gives one an interest in understanding the underlying causes of things or vice versa, but one thing about my time in Japan is that it has offered me the opportunity to find new human behavioral puzzles to ponder. For instance, why don't the Japanese wear shoes in their homes? The Japanese like to conclude that they're such wonderfully clean people by nature. As someone who grew up in a multi-cultural society that embraces nurture over nature, that's an explanation I reject. Japanese people may be clean because they grew up in a culture which embraces cleanliness at a deeper level, but it's no because it is encoded in their genes. The best guess is that it has to do with the fact that they have eaten, slept, and sat on the floor during their history and what is on the floor is of paramount concern. If they'd have developed furniture which had legs, they might be wearing shoes inside as well.

Before anyone protests that they are Westerners and also do not wear shoes inside, let me say that this isn't about wearing shoes in the house (and keep in mind that the usual temperature of one's area has a huge impact on this point as well). That's actually a topic I addressed in my previous blog. It's simply an example of a cultural difference which is interesting to reflect on past the self-important or self-deprecating conclusions that are usually offered as explanations for behavioral differences.

Recently, my husband and I have been listening to psychology lectures (for university classes) and one point the lecturer made was that memory is influenced by literacy rates and the availability of reference materials and the perception of intelligence was related to the ability to memorize. In the middle ages, for instance, people with excellent memories were seen being important and very bright because few people could read and write and books were in scarce supply. The lecturer also noted that, because of ready access to information via the Internet and modern publishing techniques, we no longer see the ability to remember facts, quotes, passages, etc. as a reflection of intelligence. If we can access the information at any time, then memorizing it is a waste of mental energy. We have come to value what we can do with the information more than retaining it perfectly.

Anyone who has taken a few moments to look at the Japanese education system knows that one of the biggest features is an emphasis on rote memorization. Teachers want nothing more than for students to commit facts to memory and spit them back out when tested. There is a rigidity to Japanese thinking as a result of this which makes teaching languages cumbersome. Japanese people are conditioned by their education system to endorse the idea that their is one right answer to each question. I've actually had students insist grammatically incorrect sentences must be right because they followed some pattern the student learned which a teacher said was the "right way". Japanese learners are most comfortable when everything follows the rules, expectations are clearly understood, and there is a correct reply that they can offer which you have given them previously.

The converse of this is that students often become uncomfortable in situations where the answer was not clearly given, but is hidden in the overall content or must be derived logically from the given information. Time and again, I've had students insist the answer simply was not there because it was not overtly stated. They don't naturally make inferences because that is not something they spent a lot of time doing in school and aren't accustomed to doing it. That doesn't mean they are incapable mentally, but rather that they were simply not taught to do so and, in fact, they may be punished in school for doing so in some cases since they are taught not to question the teacher's answers or assertions.

(Note: I speak about general tendencies here and not about specific people. Clearly, there are exceptions and people are located along a continuum in their tendencies, so please don't pepper my comments with anecdotes that "prove" I must be wrong. I reach these conclusions based on having dealt with teaching and working here for two decades and also having been coerced to structure information in textbooks I wrote to cater to the most comfortable way of learning for Japanese people rather than the most effective way for speaking English well.)

I never really thought much about the value placed on fact regurgitation in Japan except that I felt it had to do with status, authority figures, possibly linguistic patterns, and Japan's political history. Yesterday though, the point in the lecture about the value of memory and literacy rang a new bell in considering this issue. Becoming literate in Japanese is a fairly daunting task with 2 phonetic alphabets of over 50 characters and thousands of logographic characters. Literacy itself is only achieved through a daunting amount of memorization and it takes about 4 years more for a Japanese child to reach the same level of reading that a Western child, who only has to deal with 26 characters, to memorize.

I started to wonder if another part of the high premium placed on memorization is the time, complexity, and difficulty the Japanese must face when becoming literate. If the perception of intelligence, the ability to memorize and literacy rates are related, then a culture where one has greater difficulty mastering the written language would certainly place a premium on memorization. While Japan currently has one of the highest literacy rates (if not the highest) in the world, that wasn't always so and this is a culture where changes in priorities come at a glacially slow pace. Even if the value of memorization when weighed against the value of a more analytical or deductive way of learning has diminished, there is likely a cultural precedent which will keep the focus on rote memorization in place.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fifteen Minutes

I'm guessing that a least a few readers are thinking I'm talking about Andy Warhol's famous line about fame with this post. Thankfully, that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. I can't think of anything I'd like much less than being famous.

For quite some time, I've been trying to add a few things back into my life that had fallen by the way side and having no success at it. I've also been struggling for various reasons to keep some good habits (like exercise) in my life due to physical problems, and having difficulties with that as well. Part of the larger issue is that my time is incredibly fragmented. I teach students face-to-face about 12 hours a week these days and do 2-6 hours of freelance work on top of that most weeks. This is all for the good because I feel very lucky to have the work that I do. It is the difference between quite modest additions to our saving and rather generous ones. However, it's not like my schedule is compact.

Adding to that part-time work is the mix of being a housewife. People who think being a housewife is just another word for hanging around the apartment and doing a little housework or cooking aren't doing it right. In order to make our current life situation as successful as possible, a lot of time has to be spent cooking, shopping, and cleaning rather than doing what is convenient and expensive. Until you cook three meals a day (and prepare lunches, make homemade bread and baked goods), clean up after them (without a dishwasher), and shop for them, you have no idea how much effort and time it takes. I don't mind doing what I have to do, but it does introduce more fragmentation of time into my day.

At some point, I decided that a little was better than none. The only way I was going to be able to add certain habits back into my day on a regular basis was to do them for small amounts of time. Starting last week, I went on a "15 minute" plan. My hope is to do a quarter hour of Japanese study, exercise (twice a day for 15 minutes, hopefully), something creative, and, eventually, meditation. So far, I've got the Japanese study back in there and the exercise. I do spend the time on creative things if you count blogging, particularly on the snack blog. However, I'd like to do skill expanding things rather than just blogging so I'm hoping to develop that habit as well.

I know that fifteen minutes isn't much time to devote to something, but sometimes tiny steps will get you there (or at least stop you from falling back). I realized that the way in which my schedule works right now requires me to achieve some goals in pretty small bites rather than big ones because it's too daunting or difficult to manage otherwise. I have often encouraged my students to do something related to English study for just 15 minutes every day rather than cram a few hours in once a week because betting exposure often is more important than for a long time. I decided that, if that advice is good for them, it's also good for me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Behind Every Apologist

Lately, there's been a bit of a flap amongst those who are paying attention about an article in the Japan Times (an English language newspaper here) from an 72-year-old teacher who asserts that discrimination is "right" for Japanese people. I'm not going to talk about the article as it speaks for itself, albeit rather inaccurately at times as some of the "examples" that are cited are factually incorrect.

Recently, my attention was brought to a response to this article by a particular blogger who I used to follow. This blogger was someone who I tried to be supportive of and assist during some difficulties during her early time in Japan, but she had some emotional problems and I decided it was best to separate myself from her and stop following her writing. I was directed to a post by her today, however, that supported the article.

At first, I was really angry. Somehow, reading this made me feel as if my energy and good intentions were wasted on someone who clearly did not deserve them. After all, if you advocate the random suffering of others based on prejudice (which is itself based on superficial and arbitrary factors), then you're sowing a bit of karma for your own random suffering. I wanted to write a response making my feelings clear, but I didn't have the guts to do it and was apprehensive about spreading negativity to no useful end.

After stewing and ruminating on this a bit, I reached some realizations about apologists in Japan. While I already knew that Japan very much does not have the market cornered on prejudice and discriminatory behavior, I do believe that it is somewhat rare among developed countries in that there is little or no societal imperative to censor one's bigotry or prejudicial responses to those who are different from oneself. This last thought propelled me along a line of thinking which has been most enlightening and educating. It made me feel that all of the emotional turmoil I experienced over this situation was worthwhile, as something meaningful was gained.

There are a lot of foreigners who are apologists for bad behavior in Japan. I always felt that this was a form of self-loathing, the manifestation of immense insecurity, or intellectual bending over backwards in order to assimilate with the culture (if only in their own minds) because of weak ego integrity or self-identity. The realization I reached was that the desire to rationalize and justify discrimination against one's own ethnic group is something else entirely, at least in some cases.

Those of us who grow up white in countries that are predominately Caucasian grow up with guilt over any feelings of prejudice that we experience. We may find ourselves growing up next to neighbors of a particular ethnic group and be rubbed the wrong way by them until we form a prejudicial stereotype of that ethnic group. Essentially, we experience the concept of familiarity breeding contempt. This prejudice cannot be acted upon because our culture instills in us a strong sense that such feelings are wrong and should not be acted upon, particularly if those feelings are possessed by someone who is from the majority holding most of the power in the culture (in many cases, the Caucasians). That doesn't stop people from having those feelings. It mainly stops them from expressing them or acting on them. I'd be surprised if there were any people in multi-ethnic democratic countries who didn't repress feelings of bigotry at some point in their lives.

Imagine those people coming to Japan where they are now the minority that is the target of unfair prejudging. For some people, this is a situation which they feel is unfair and they rage against it. They apply the empathy that they felt for minorities back home to themselves now. They develop a better understanding of what it is like for an entire group of people to be punished for the behavior of a random few. For others, the response is different. For them, this situation is an opportunity to express their repressed prejudice without appearing outwardly to be bigots. If you advocate discrimination against a group other than your own which is treated unfairly, you're a bigot. If you advocate discrimination against your own group, you get the intellectual satisfaction of flexing all your justifications for being a bigot without appearing to be one. After all, saying your own group should be treated with prejudice doesn't make you a bigot.

I realized that behind every apologist is a repressed bigot. Being a minority which is discriminated against in Japan allows you to advocate discrimination freely and provides a visceral satisfaction for the inner racist to trot out all the arguments she'd like to make for her prejudices without having to deal with any of the guilt or accusations she'd experience if she made those arguments against minorities back home. In the end, I realized that anyone who advocates discrimination against foreign people in Japan isn't acting on any beliefs in regards to prejudice that they didn't already have before coming here.

(If you want to know more about the article and read an intelligent response, you can check out Black Tokyo's reply.) Google Reader recommended this blog to me about 3 weeks ago and it's a real winner.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Little Big Man

Several times in the past few months, the movie "Little Big Man" with Dustin Hoffman has aired on one of the cable channels. I've never sat through the movie in its entirety, but seeing glimpses of it has brought back a memory from high school that I've failed to lose in the shuffle of images in my mind.

Some time when I was in tenth grade, I had an English teacher who was one of what I'm sure was an uncommon breed in my rural town. He was cool, but not in the way that some teachers try too hard to be hip or cool. He was "cool" because of his utter indifference to adhering to the standards of other teachers and his inconsistency. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to this teacher as "Mr. N."

Mr. N. was so cool that he was completely bored by any work that the students did which merely fulfilled requirements. He wasn't interested in our demonstration of our understanding of the material or our general proficiency. Being entertained was part of what he wanted. If our work was competent and showed we worked hard, it wasn't enough for him. Mr. N. wanted us to show our originality above and beyond regurgitating facts. Word around the school was that he was also a big pothead. He certainly acted like one on occasion, but I wasn't really in a position to know for sure considering I was more familiar with the behavior of alcoholics than druggies (and I had no first hand experience with any substances).

Besides English, Mr. N. also taught a speech class. I remember that he liked to give us fairly eclectic assignments like getting up and doing a commercial for a product or a news show. I recall my group did a wry, clever, and dryly humorous news show that he approved of. Our group was followed by three girls who hung out together all the time and generally spent their time mocking and harassing those outside of their clique. They did a news show which mainly used the words "gay", "homo" and "fag" repeatedly and amused them endlessly. In fact, they so entertained themselves that they constantly broke out laughing and struggled to do their show. I recall that no one else laughed, even at a time when people were not nearly as open-minded or enlightened about homosexuality as they are now. The main problem was that it was all a big "in" joke for their group and the humor of their buzzwords was lost on us.

At the end of their news show, Mr. N. ripped them a new one. He spent several minutes describing exactly how obnoxious, unfunny, and stupid their work was. He reduced them to tears by the end of his evaluation and he failed them to boot. Since these girls were a thorn in multiple sides, including mine, I experienced a huge helping of schaudenfreude at that moment.

Getting back to "Little Big Man," in one of the English classes Mr. N. assigned every student in the class a different book to read. Most of them were given the normal crap that we all have to read in school like "Animal Farm". Every single person was given the type of book that ran 200 pages or so. Some of them were given books that were puny, but I was given the gargantuan "Little Big Man." I can't recall exactly how many pages it had, but it was at least 400. After class, I went up to Mr. N. and noted that I was being asked to read this monster book which was far more than anyone else had to deal with and it was about a subject I had zero interest in it to boot. I asked him if I could read a different book, and he essentially told me that I was more capable than the other students so I could handle it.

You know how in movies the teachers are always challenging their students in order to help them realize their potential and to make them feel more confidant? Real life isn't like that. I already knew I was more capable than the other students both in terms of my ability to read quickly and write well. "Challenging" me didn't reveal anything I didn't already know about myself and I slogged through that annoying book and wrote an indifferent report which stated how much I didn't like the story or the character. I felt like I had been punished for being more capable than the other students, not rewarded.

In the end, I wonder if Mr. N. just had a list of books and he was too lazy to assign me a different one. Maybe he had to go down to the school's paltry library and found 22 books that were an appropriate level for our grade and he didn't put one more extra book on the list so I got the shaft. I figure that was far more likely than he really gave a toss about expanding my horizons or helping me understand how capable I was.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What's In a Name

Back when I was teaching up to 32 telephone English lessons per day, I'd occasionally get someone who would offer up his name "backwards". That is, he'd give his family name first and first name second as is the style in Japan. When I gently reminded him that when speaking English, we gave the family name last. Most students just accepted this and moved on but some insisted that they were Japanese and must give their names in the Japanese way. No amount of explaining that they would confuse business associates and friends alike if they followed Japanese convention while speaking English if they did this could convince them to give their name as first then last.

These guys (it was always men) viewed how they stated their name as a cultural turf war and they refused to give up the battle, even if the consequences could result in their confusing others or even screwing up a business deal. Keep in mind that I only taught business English back then. They wouldn't even go for the "when in Rome" argument. That is, when I speak Japanese, I follow the Japanese convention of last name, first name so as not to confuse the Japanese people and likewise they should follow their convention as long as they are speaking Japanese, but not when speaking English.

The only thing worse than a Japanese man who refuses to follow logic because he's so insecure that he feels he has to "win" a pointless cultural victory is a foreigner who when discussing some Japanese person with (only) English speakers feels the need to use Japanese naming conventions. Recently, in a discussion of a piece on Digg about Ken Shimura, one person used "Shimura Ken" in a sea of comments (and an article title) that said "Ken Shimura". These people (and it's almost always men) are all about showing you how they know something about Japanese culture that you don't and that they are either culturally acclimatized or demonstrating pointless and misguided cultural sensitivity by following the Japanese way when speaking a language and to an audience which is not Japanese. Never mind that doing so accomplishes nothing except make people think his family name is "Ken". Well, that and it shows that the speaker is, at least on some level, a douche bag.

Friday, January 9, 2009

24 Cans of Chickpeas

Back when the CH and I first started buying from the Foreign Buyer's Club (FBC), they only sold food in complete cases and a lot of the items they offered were not available in Japanese markets. With access to food we hadn't seen for awhile came a lot of purchases of huge quantities of items. More often than not, canned items that we'd enthusiastically embrace at first would languish under our shelves for years until they grew rusty and outdated. I hate to imagine how much money we wasted on food that was thrown out.

These days, the need to buy an entire case of some food has been greatly lessened by the plethora of imports in run-of-the-mill Japanese shops and the FBC's changed shopping options which allow you to frequently buy single items. We try not to buy a case of anything unless we're sure that we'll eat it regularly enough to finish it off. In some situations, however, there is such a vast discrepancy between the cost of an item as a single unit in a Japanese market and the per unit price when buying a case from the FBC, that I'll leap in and buy more than I think I can make.

That is where this post comes in. When I decided to make hummus for some guests awhile back, I picked up a can of chick peas (garbanzo beans) for a whopping 400 yen ($4.39 USD). The hummus was a huge hit, and I wanted to make it again for a more reasonable price. I also wanted to be able to make Chana Masala occasionally, but not at such a high cost for something which is so low on the food chain and really should be part of a cheap, vegetarian meal. The FBC carries a store brand of garbanzo beans for about 160 yen a can, but you have to buy 24 cans at once. Before I allowed myself to buy so many, I had to make a commitment mentally to using them at regular intervals, even if it meant making a special effort and trying a variety of new recipes. The situation, incidentally, is complicated by the fact that my husband won't eat chick peas.

The first new recipe I tried was Butter Chickpea Curry, though I modified the original recipe a bit as it includes condensed tomato soup and I both do not have it available and don't like using pre-prepared food if I can avoid it. It turned out very well, but I want to make something other than hummus and Indian dishes. It's not that I don't like them, but rather that I'd like to use a variety of flavors.

I'd tried making chick pea patties once before with pretty bad results. They tasted okay, but the texture was gummy and unpleasant. This time around, I got a much better result, one that is worth keeping around and making again.

Chick pea (garbanzo bean) patties:

2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1/2 small onion, diced
1 very, very small green pepper (piman), finely diced
1/2 large tomato, diced
1 15-ounce can of garbanzo beans/chick peas
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4-1/2 tsp. coarsely ground pepper (to taste)
1/4 tsp. cilantro
1/4 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. parsley
1 egg
1/2-3/4 cup dry, unseasoned bread crumbs
canola oil and butter for cooking

Heat enough canola oil to cover the bottom of a skillet. Saute the garlic over medium heat until softened and fragrant. Turn up the heat to high and cook the onions until softened. Add the peppers cook them until softened. Finally, add the tomato and cook the mixture until most of the moisture has cooked away. It'll resemble a coarse paste when finished. Stir the salt and pepper into the vegetable mixture. Keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn't burn. Turn the heat down if necessary. The moisture of each added ingredient should keep it from burning.

Put the vegetable paste in a small bowl food processor and add the parsley, cilantro, and oregano. Drain and rinse the garbanzo beans. Add them to the food processor and process it into a rough mixture. You may need to scrape down the bowl a few times. Add the egg and process until the mixture becomes a wet, loose paste. Turn this mixture into a larger bowl and stir in bread crumbs. Mix in 1/2 cup at first and allow the mixture to rest for 5 minutes and see if it is firm enough to form patties. If it's still too wet, add another 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs. It shouldn't be sticky, but it should be soft and hold its shape.

Separate the dough into 4 parts and make a flat patty from each part. Heat butter in a skillet (use oil if you like, but it'll brown and taste better with butter) and fry each patty over medium-high heat on each side until cooked through and nicely browned.

I ate mine with fresh homemade bread and butter. I think that they'd be good with mayonnaise and mustard in a sandwich, too.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Little Morning Project

One of my students once remarked that she thought that I was "good with (my) hands" because I did things like build my own simple monitor stand and paint or cover pieces of furniture on my own. Given that I have little regard for my skills in these endeavors, I thought she was giving me far more credit than I was due. Nonetheless, I do enjoy doing such things even when the results are hardly noteworthy.

When I was younger, I used to do these sorts of things all the time. Some of them were pretty good and others rather so-so. Mainly, I liked to paint murals on my bedroom walls, though I was also handy with pen and ink drawing, calligraphy, and making montages. I also used to embroider, crochet and to a much lesser extent, knit. Unfortunately, I don't remember how to do any of those things anymore.

Still, there's something very gratifying about doing something creative with your hands, even if it's unimportant or someone else's idea. This morning, during my usual time wasting on the Internet, I ran across instructions for an oil lamp made from tangerines. With mikan season in full force, I thought I'd give it a try. The instructions are here.

Taking pictures in the dark is hard, so please don't judge my blurry picture too harshly.

The main problem I have with a lot of on-line information, particularly projects and recipes, is that a lot of people aren't entirely honest about the ease, shortcomings, or desirability of the results. I'm pleased to say that this was one occasion where the project pretty much lived up to its potential. It took me about 10 minutes to do this, and about half that time was spent eating the contents of the mikan.

I made my candle about an hour ago (pictured above in its early stages) and it's still burning fine. I have a few notes though about how it burns, however. First of all, my patterned center hole looks kind of cute (at least for a first try), but it was too small. The inside of the pattern started to darken and smelled a bit burnt. I recommend cutting a bigger hole. With mine, I removed the top and just cut it larger once it started to darken up. Also, the top starts to dry out after about 40 minutes and it will look darker around the top when the lights are out and it's illuminated, giving a less even glow. With the lights on, it's still pretty much uniform in appearance, but if you want a uniform glowing ball look, you'll want to light these later rather than earlier.

The site that I got this from said that it smells faintly of orange while burning, but mikan don't seem to do that. I'm guessing other citrus fruit might do better on the aromatic front. Obviously, it's safest to put this on a plate and you absolutely have to keep an eye on it. The bottom of the mikan absorbs the oil pretty rapidly and I don't know what the consequence of this will be after hours of use. Note that I used canola oil rather than olive oil since it's cheaper and I have more on hand.

I think that 6 or 8 of these placed in a double row in the center of a table would look great for a romantic dinner or for a holiday dinner (as long as other lights like candles were on the sides for more illumination). I'll note that mine burned very dimly at first but got a good deal brighter as time went by.

Update: As the burning approached the 2-hour mark, the bottom of the mikan started to burn (like a larger wick) and the oil started to bubble and smell like burnt oil. Clearly, you can't burn these for too long, but they're good for about 90 minutes.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Old Year, The New One

I've said before that I don't make New Year's resolutions, and I don't and I didn't. I think change has to be gradual and built up to, not declared and seized by the throat. At least I believe that is the case if you want the changes to actually stick.

Depending on how you look at time, I'm either "only 44" or "already 44", and I've learned from my own life that change, particularly internal personal change, is a long, difficult and slow road. I'm not the person I was when I was 26 or 30, but I'm probably pretty much the same person I was last year. The only question is whether I've inched ahead over the last year or crept back. I'd say that in most ways I've inched ahead.

On a personal level, 2008 was, by and large, a very good year. Nothing spectacularly bad happened and that probably makes us rare compared to a lot of people who had a very bad year, particularly economically-speaking. Nothing spectacularly good happened either, but if I ask myself some important questions about personal growth, I'd say it was certainly an improvement over the previous year. Those questions mainly would be about whether I was spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually richer this year compared to the person I was in previous years, and I believe I can say yes on all three counts. By no means am I perfect, but I think I'm better than before on these points. I ask about these points because I think they're the only ones that can possibly be carried with me after this life has ended, if anything can be carried and if there is anything after this.

On a more concrete note, I will leave you with my very first meme. I have avoided memes in the past, yet I enjoy reading the replies others give in them. I guess it's simply the idea of interviewing myself rather than writing out what I have to say which has made me resist, but I'll say that I'll give that little emotional barrier up this year.

This was most recently pinched from Helen, but I've seen it on many other bloggers sites recently as well. I'd enjoy seeing this on everyone's site if they have the time or inclination to do it:

1. What did you do in 2008 that you’d never done before?
Visit a Japanese shrine on New Year's Day.

2. Did you keep your new years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I don't make resolutions.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
No, and I'm pretty sure they're all happy about that given their respective ages and situations.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Thankfully, no.

5. What countries did you visit?
None. I didn't even leave my neighborhood last year.

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008?
Better health. More free time.

7. What date from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
November 4, 2008 - the day Obama was elected.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Managing to cook most everyday rather than ordering take out food or delivery once a week as had become a bad habit of ours.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Being too dependent on my husband for the vast majority of my happiness.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A new and very cheap PC a month before my old one died.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My husband's. He has the patience of a saint and rock solid emotional stability.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
The press and media, who have seemed to delight in spreading as much gloom and doom as possible and lowered their standards steadily.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Rent and food.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The announcement of Diablo 3.

16. What song will always remind you of 2008?
None, as I don't listen to music.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
i. happier or sadder

About the same.

ii. thinner or fatter?
About the same. (You can tell a woman created this meme by the presence of this question.)

iii. richer or poorer?

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Creative work.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Reading the Internet.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
I worked and knew I'd be working.

22. Did you fall in love in 2008?
I'm always in love with my husband. This never changes.

23. How many one-night stands?
Now I can tell this was written by a single woman. :-p Not applicable.

24. What was your favorite TV program?
The Adventures of Robin Hood from 1955, which I discovered late this year.

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

26. What was the best book you read?
Walking Through Walls by Philip Smith

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?

28. What did you want and get?
Kindness, compassion, and friendship

29. What did you want and not get?
Better health.

30. What were your favorite films of this year?
No new films really jumped out at me.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I don't remember well, but I think I was just lazy and had my husband do everything.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
A new and healthy body.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?
I could care less about fashion (and this is the third sign that this meme was written by a woman).

34. What kept you sane?
My husband, sister, and friend, Shawn.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Oh, please. (Now I wonder if this meme was written by a 15-year-old girl.)

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
I've spent most of my year trying not to get too stirred up politically, but I'd say that the lack of adequate welfare policies to assist the poor, homeless and those suffering job losses in several major developed countries has troubled me on and off all year.

37. Who did you miss?
My former boss, Darryl.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
One of my new students who is fun to discuss a variety of topics with.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008.
That death comes as a surprise no matter how old you or those around you are. No one leaves this existence happily of their own volition.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:
This is tough since I don't listen to music anymore.

Monday, January 5, 2009


My life in Japan has gone through phases. Most people only know me as I live in my current phase of life here in Tokyo. In the current phase, my focus is on domestic life, particularly on cooking, cleaning, and working from my apartment. My hobbies tend to center on the computer and dealing with my health issues as best I can. However, there was a phase in my life when a lot of my interest and hobbies revolved around sumo wrestling.

For several years, my husband and I would watch sumo as much as possible when it was shown on television. At the very least, we watched the Japanese language "Sumo Digest" which aired late at night on weekdays. On the weekends, we watched the bilingual (English and Japanese) sumo matches that were aired live on NHK. The earliest matches we watched included the great Chiyonofuji, though we saw him more toward the end of his career.

Later, we started to go to the kokugikan in Ryogoku to watch the matches in person. We had to get up very early in the morning and wait in a long line for 2-3 hours to get one of the 300 or so cheap (about ¥2500) tickets that were sold the morning of the matches, but it was worth it because we could really enjoy the atmosphere of the experience as well as pick up souvenirs. We still have a few cups in our cabinet from that time and some reproductions of the framed photos of champions that hang around the kokugikan in our closet (which were pretty expensive). After a few years, we were able to make a connection with a magazine editor of an English language sumo magazine called "Sumo World" and buy his press box tickets sometimes. His box included 4 seats with Western-style chairs and a table which was at the back of the first level of the two-leveled stadium. The tickets were about ¥8,000 each and we had to buy all 4 for the day, but it gave us a chance to invite friends along to enjoy the matches with us. At that time, sumo was very popular so getting tickets was difficult. We went sometimes even if there were just the two of us. I'm sure that we blew a lot of money on sumo in those days.

As our enthusiasm for sumo grew, we started to write reports about each day's matches for an online bulletin board service called GEnie. It would take hours to detail the matches. During this time, we also took part in a tour of a sumo stable (Tomozuna beya) that allowed us to watch a brutal early morning practice session, see the inside of a stable, and eat chanko nabe with the head of the stable. After seeing the practice, it is easy to see how a wrestler might die from injuries inflicted during practice (as has happened in the last few years) because it's rough and they get hit with a stick.

As the years went by, the "old guard" of sumo that was fighting when we first became interested in it gave way to a new group that included Wakahanada (later Wakanohana) and Takahanada (later Takanohana). As these young wrestlers became more popular and successful, the tone of sumo changed. Their stable, Futagoyama beya, had many good wrestlers in the top division. Since wrestlers from the same stable don't fight one another, Waka and Taka as well as their stable-mates didn't have to face as many tough opponents. Sumo became less competitive and consequently less interesting. Also, as proud Japanese fans embraced the young brothers as champions, they became more overtly racist in their responses to foreign wrestlers like Akebono and Konishiki, who are both from Hawaii. When one of the Americans lost a match, the Japanese crowd far too often went wild with glee roaring their approval and tossing their cushions at the ring.

The ugliness of the racist reaction and the lack of strong competition eventually caused my husband and I to lose interest in sumo after being ardent fans for about a decade. These days, we don't watch sumo at all. One of the reasons for this is that there is a lot of corruption and "fixed bouts" (yao-cho), but the fact that the number and type of competitors are controlled to make sure foreign wrestlers can never become too dominant leaves a bad taste in our mouths. When Akebono and Konishiki were both competing, the sumo association changed the rules to make it more difficult for foreigners to compete by making the age at which someone could join a stable much lower (19, I believe). This made it far less likely that a foreigner would be recruited since most of them join when they are older. This rule may have since changed, but it was such a blatant effort to control foreign competition that it demonstrated that the sumo association was more interested in promoting their agenda (making sure Japanese wrestlers were highly ranked rather than good competitors were involved in bouts) than making the sport compelling to watch.

We still know a lot about the sport, but we don't watch it anymore. In fact, it's the only aspect of Japanese culture which we know far better than most average Japanese people. We'll always have fond memories of the time when we were fanatical about sumo and I'm sure it helped us learn a lot about Japan in our earlier time here. I'm also pretty sure that it fueled at least some of the CH's interest in reading kanji and perhaps is one of the reasons why he reads Japanese better than he speaks it.

I also remember that time as a point when the CH and I formed our first mutual interest in something together. Up until then, all of our other interests came into our relationship fully formed and few of them were entirely mutual aside from record collecting (and even then, we collected different records). There's something really satisfying about being able to prattle on about something you both are completely into and sumo was our first experience that involved something other than ourselves which allowed us to do that.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Golden Screw

Quite some time ago, I read a book about the history of IBM. Back when computers were mysterious behemoths residing mainly in laboratories or corporate computer rooms rather than compact little boxes on the desks of the average person, IBM ruled the computer roost without challengers.

One of the things they used to do to keep production streamlined was make one fully functional monster machine model which they sold to all customers at different prices. Depending on the functionality the customer required and how much they were willing to pay, they disabled parts of the machine to customize it to the specifications the customer ordered. That meant there was a computer with far greater functionality sitting in offices that was intentionally hobbled so as not to do all it could do.

When the customer was ready to pay for an upgrade, an IBM technician was called in to perform the task. While the companies believed they were getting new software or hardware installations, the truth was that the tech person was actually just turning "the golden screw". That is, they enabled some functionality which was always there but turned off. This way of doing business allowed IBM to get additional revenue while investing very little in the products they'd already sold. They called this turning the golden screw because it was profitable and literally sometimes involved the turn of a screw, though it probably also at least carried the subtext of gouging the customer.

Recently, I have experienced my own firsthand encounter with a golden screw though not at the hands of IBM. My experience was at the hands of Apple. The CH bought an iPod Touch around spring of last year and has been using it for its basic functions since then. He told me that he'd have to upgrade its OS at a price in order to enable it to use other applications. While I'm accustomed to paying for OS upgrades on my computer, I pay for them in order to get the OS itself to acquire new functionality. For instance, you get an back-up utility, a better search function, faster operation, or a better interface. The OS itself is improved and it has nothing to do with running other software as the OS generally doesn't hold you back from running other programs made by other companies. It's the responsibility of Adobe, for instance, to make Photoshop run under the current OS, not for Apple to make their OS so it run Photoshop.

I have never needed to upgrade a device or computer in order to be able to run someone else's software. In the case of the iPod Touch/iPhone, one has to pay for an OS upgrade in order to get the device to run third party apps, not because some new desired functionality is coming with the device's operating system. That means that Apple is essentially turning the golden screw. The device's hardware is capable of running such apps, but it is hobbled in its ability to run other software until you buy an upgrade you don't want.

Yes, I know there was some added functionality with the new OS, but it's mainly for Apple's benefit like being able to use the AppStore and MobileMe (essentially enabling us to pay for more services by paying for an upgrade) or fixing some of the shortcomings of previous versions of their software, particularly the e-mail and web browser. In other words, we're paying to get what should have been in place from the start, rather than getting some great shiny and new stuff with a very few unexciting exceptions. The only "improvement" we wanted was to enable third party application installation.

Frankly, this strikes me as incredibly lame on Apple's part. They squeeze another 1200 yen out of us because we want to be able to read books using free software like Stanza. If we were getting some great new OS capability on the iPod Touch, that'd be one thing. If Apple were selling us Stanza, that'd be another, but they're just wheedling a little more money out of us so we can install a third party application and can offer some software polishes for some imperfectly implemented apps with the customer footing the bill. Apple used to offer OS upgrades for free, even major ones. Now, they dominate the MP3 market sufficiently to give us the golden screw just like IBM once had the mainframe market in its back pocket.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Justifiable Conclusions

Several weeks ago one of my students told me that a friend of hers, who is also Japanese and 31 years old, married an American while residing in Texas on what I'd guess is a student visa of some sort. This is certainly not peculiar on the face of things. The odd thing is that the man she married is 24 and still a student, and her friend only works part-time. That means she married a person with no income and she herself has a limited income as a teacher of some sort of musical instrument.

My student did not approve of this arrangement and felt that her friend, well, actually one of her acquaintances from high school, had acted imprudently. I'm sorry to say that I'm just as guilty of judging the people in this situation without knowing much about them. I judge them by their age discrepancy and employment status (or lack thereof). I reach conclusions about her motives based on the circumstances and his intelligence and sophistication based on the fact that he's from Texas and married while still in school.

This post isn't about whether or not my conclusions are reasonable or justifiable, but rather about the fact that I shouldn't be judging them at all. While the circumstances are peculiar and appear ill-advised, I don't know either of these people except a few bare bones facts. Beyond that, their life choices aren't there for me to weigh in on and I'd hate it if someone had done the same thing to me when I chose my partner. Okay, the truth is that other people did do the same thing to me when I chose my partner.

In fact, it's been so long since the CH and I first fell for each other and our relationship so wildly successful that I rarely reflect back on all the warnings and fear for my future that were sent my way back when I fell head over heels for a guy I'd never even met face-to-face or talking to in real time. For those who weren't following my old blog and don't know this tale, the CH and I were penpals who exchanged cassette tapes and talked to each other back in the days before VOIP, instant messaging, or even e-mail. Friends to whom I revealed the situation felt I was making a huge and glaringly obvious mistake, particularly when I went off to Japan to spend a month with this person whose eyes I'd never looked into but to whose voice I'd spent countless hours listening.

Given the surface facts, I'm sure my friends reached what they felt were justifiable conclusions, but they were wrong. They didn't know him at all and perhaps they didn't know me well enough. They certainly didn't know what it was like when we interacted. So, I'm going to wag a finger at myself for judging this couple who I've never met based on a few facts and try to remember that the same was once done to me and everyone's expectations of the worst were wrong then and I'm probably wrong about this couple now.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Dining With the "Enemy"

Earlier this week, the CH and I had dinner with his brother and his Japanese wife. This is the brother-in-law whose behavior contributed directly to the demise of my former blog and is essentially responsible for the birth of a different blog. I've had problems with him during most of my time in Japan, but he suggested to the CH that we all get together and I wanted to at least try for the CH's sake.

To be honest, I was surprised that the brother-in-law suggested a get-together. Despite the fact that my back problems have kept me from working outside the house and have seen me be essentially bound to my immediate neighborhood for the last two and a half years, I think he believes our not visiting his apartment for social reasons is a personal affront, though hopefully my telling him that I haven't left a limited area for a long time will make him understand that it isn't personal. However, it's generally been the case that he hasn't believed my claims in the past and this is one of the reasons he hasn't suggested coming by our place much. I believe he wants the mountain to come to Muhammad as often as the reverse and he feels he's done more than his share of trekking to our particular mountain.

At any rate, he seems to be rather oblivious to how his behavior has affected me or has decided to pretend it all didn't happen now that time has passed so we all got together and tried to make the best of it. There were some high points and only one low one. The high points mainly related to the fact that his wife may yet "train" some of his more obnoxious behaviors out of him.

One of the problems I've had with my brother-in-law in the past has been with his tendency to treat possessions like they are part of a status competition. That is, he mocks and makes fun of old items in our apartment like our ancient 15-year-old CRT television, old computers, or even the speed of our modem. When he started in on that the evening of the dinner, his wife mumbled something about her not wanting him to do that anymore and him saying he'd try not to. I was glad to see that she was pointing out his bad behavior and attempting to get him to stop it, though he did say the CH and I were "family" so he could do what he wanted.

Rather than get angry at his competitive possession fixation this time, I simply said that I'd rather have an extra $2,000 in my savings account than a new television and that television quality really wasn't that important to us. Since he mentioned the T.V. twice, I responded with this twice and his wife was shaking her head in agreement both times. The brother-in-law has a fixation on high-priced man toys, and I have a feeling that his wife may not feel this is for the best. Clearly she is not the sort of person who cares how new your gadgets are when dealing with others and I really respect that. Another brief discussion of taking one's own lunch to work rather than eating out again seemed to indicate that they may not concur 100% on how money is handled in the relationship as she agreed with us that its fiscally more prudent to carry your own rather than patronize local fast food.

Generally speaking, my brother-in-law showed the same levels of opinionated selfishness that I have come to expect, but having his wife there really helped. She's clearly more sensible and down to earth than he. Though she didn't go out of her way to be confrontational with him (as would be expected), she also didn't hold back on agreeing with us on various points.

The "low points" for me included my slipping up and saying he was "close minded" about the effect of things like reiki treatments (which his wife studies and practices) and therefore it would never work with him as he would actively block any benefits to validate his strong view that it doesn't work. He contended that it came across as a generalized comment that he's close minded about everything and I asked the CH if this was so and he said he believed it could be seen that way. I apologized for having spoken in a manner which could be viewed as a big insult and got a very ungracious, loud and overly exaggerated "thank you" for it. It was clear that he felt this apology was some sort of victory on his part rather than me saying I misspoke and regretted the impression it created. Once more, it's as if this was a competition and he felt my apology was a "win" in his column and I got a bit of "victory cheering" from him for my troubles.

Other than that, we were treated to rants about how the public services, particularly the trash not being picked up during the holidays, were a major inconvenience to him. I guess the idea that these people doing these unpleasant jobs should be entitled to enjoy their holidays along with the rest of the country (including him) wasn't important to him. We were treated to arguments that the shops managed to stay open and that there was no reason they couldn't do some sort of rotation or temporary service so he didn't have to hold back his trash for a few days. My response that trash handling is probably more complex than post card delivery and that people want to be with their families while the family members are also not working fell on deaf ears. After all, he was being slightly inconvenienced.

I'd say the dinner went well. The food I made, pork roast and Welsh onion, potato soup, and carrot salad, was a big hit as was the wine choice we made, though my husband got a big headache later from the wine. They also generously brought us several gifts including cookies, bread, caramel pastries, and a cheesecake (though the cheesecake was real "cheese" flavor and not cream cheese so it's pretty weird). I don't know if I made any progress in healing the relationship with my brother-in-law, but I did learn that I like his wife and have hope that she'll file away some of his social sharp edges through time and, at the very least, I don't think things have gotten any worse.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year 2009

Salesgirls offering up good luck charms for the coming year pose amiably for my CH.

No, I haven't fallen off of the face of the planet, nor have I abandoned my blog. I've just been so busy during December that I felt like I was going to drop over from exhaustion and lack of sleep (due to back pain and related problems). However, hopefully, I'm well on my way to normality and can come back to blogging.

This year was pretty much the usual for the CH and I. We took no note of the festivities around us at night and he ventured out and took photos the next day. The full collection (of which the pictures here are but a sampling) can be accessed via my Picasa web gallery. You can access the Asagaya 2009 collection in this post or you can use the links to the galleries on the right.

At the shrine, there was the usual surreal mix of the trivial with the spiritual as exemplified by this chocolate covered banana stand just outside the entrance to the shrine.

One has to wonder if prayers go more smoothly with colorful sprinkles on one's banana.

This seemed a big year for dogs to be taken to the shrine. If you peruse the entire collection of pictures, you'll see a lot of people dressed their dogs for the occasion. Of course, the dogs above were rather indifferent to the surroundings and did what dogs naturally do.

People write their wishes on the back of these wooden placards (only 500 yen/$5.51) and hang them near the shrine.

This year is the year of the ox, or the cow if you prefer. The CH bought me one of these placards (the more stylized one) as well as a small ceramic cow bell to add to my collection. I have a dragon and a tiger already since I was born in the former and the CH in the latter.

I want to write a post about the past year and the upcoming year, but I don't have the motivation after uploading and dealing with the web album. However, we did buy a fukubako ("lucky box") this year and I reviewed it on my Japanese snack reviews blog. If you'd like to see what goodies were in this year's Mister Donut box, you can mosey on over there and read it.