Saturday, May 30, 2009

Cultural Adaptation, What It Is and Isn't

Lately in America, there have some pretty stupid assertions about names and how they are to be pronounced. I haven't followed the details, but at one point some lame politician insisted that a Chinese person simplify their name so it's be easier for "Americans" to pronounce and someone else more recently said that Supreme Court justice nominee Sotomayor should allow people to mispronounce her name if it was easier for them to do so.

Personally, I think America is multi-cultural enough and most people are smart enough to learn how to correctly pronounce a name and these issues are just lame publicity trumped up to pander to people with an extremely narrow notion of what "American" means. There are fewer of these myopic sorts than most non-Americans think, and more of them than most Americans would like to believe.

At the root of issues like this are notions of cultural adaptation (or worse "assimilation") of those of what they view as external origin. In a country like the U.S., which is full of nothing but the relatively recent descendants of immigrants, the notion that a name is "American" or not is laughable. In a country like Japan, which has a largely homogeneous population with a similar cultural heritage, it's an entirely different kettle of fish.

That being said, I think a lot of people who live in Japan for awhile are not clear on the concept of what cultural adaptation is and is not. Most of them think that adapting means allowing the Japanese to do and say whatever they want because it is the Japanese way to treat foreigners in a manner which objectifies them either positively or negatively. People who embrace the notion that "prejudice is a right for the Japanese" would fall into this category.

Cultural adaptation in Japan is a matter of following the same rules that the Japanese do when dealing with the Japanese. That is, you need to say your name backwards because that's the way it is done in this country, and you need to write it and say it in a manner which suits their phonetic alphabet so that they can pronounce as close an approximation of your name as possible. You need to at least try to curb the tendency among those in your culture to be blunt and straightforward and communicate your intentions indirectly so that you don't offend people unnecessarily. You also need to follow the neighborhood rules in regards to trash handling, noise, etc. And you at least have to expect to communicate in Japanese with them when you are applying for services or dealing with the bureaucracy.

Cultural adaptation does not include having to eat Japanese food all the time, enjoy their entertainment, or take part in cultural activities like tea ceremony or flower arranging. It doesn't mean you have to make Japanese friends or try to integrate with Japanese people. You should get along with them, but you don't have embark on a futile attempt to become one of them. Adaptation only applies to your behavior in society where it is important that you endeavor not to trouble other people or place a burden on them which is not placed on them when dealing with the Japanese. It does not apply to your private life or interactions with friends, family, or how you spend your time when you're alone.

It also doesn't mean the Japanese have the right to treat you with prejudice because you're different and you have to defend it or accept it with good grace. The Japanese have the right to treat you like other Japanese people, which granted is sometimes not very nice. One of the big mistakes foreign folks sometimes make is assuming they are being treated badly because they're foreigners. Sometimes, the Japanese treat each other badly and they're just doing the same to you.

The notion that adapting to the culture means you have to surrender your identity or tolerate prejudice is one that those who have identity issues and are desperate to be accepted spout on a regular basis, but the truth is that choosing to be more like the Japanese in every respect has nothing to do with cultural adaptation. The person you are in the privacy of your own home has nothing to do with Japanese people or getting along in their society. It's really none of their business.

Trying to be like the Japanese in every respect is a matter of cultural and personal validation, not adaptation. The Japanese love foreigners who love their culture because it makes them feel that their culture is important and attractive on a global scale. Foreigners who get praised for their Japanese ability, chopstick prowess, etc. feel that they are personally valued and accepted. In both cases, it's more about an insecure individual receiving a reassuring pat on the head than about adapting to life in a different culture.

If we're going to measure people's cultural adaptation, then let's use a yardstick that matters rather than sets of arbitrary criteria rooted in the personal psychological issues of each individual. Let's look at how they get along with the outside world and not how they make us feel about our personal tastes and choices.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Mother-in-law's Keeper

When I was growing up, there were certain inequalities of life of which I was acutely aware. For instance, I noticed that one of my many aunts, Judy, had a house which was much bigger than my family's. I also noticed that she had nicer furniture, a much, much newer car, and brand name snacks were always in the house. From a kid's point of view, having a relative who always had Hostess Ho-Ho's on hand or my favorite brand of barbecue potato chips was pretty significant. My family was scrimping together returnable bottles for their deposits and hunting up stray change at the end of every month so they could afford milk, and her refrigerator was always fully-stocked.

Though I wasn't aware of this so much as a child, my mother was always competing with my aunt in a battle that she could never win. That is, a lifestyle battle. She overspent and got my family into debt because she wanted to keep up with Judy, but Judy had an edge in more ways than one. For one, her husband wasn't disabled and living on social security benefits like my father. For another, she lived with my grandmother and grandfather whose pensions helped augment her family's lifestyle in numerous ways.

It was the latter which I think galled my mother most. My aunt Judy was constantly being helped out by my grandmother from funds to finance a nicer home with better furnishings to new cars to free babysitting and support for her children when they were born. I think it was more upsetting for my mother because Judy was "the baby" of their large family and always had been my maternal grandmother's favorite.

All that being said, my aunt Judy paid a price for the relative affluence of her life. My grandfather was bedridden and had to be looked after all the time. He had worked in coal mines and suffered from black lung disease. He died when I was still too young to understand just how much of a burden this would have placed on those living in my aunt's house, but, as an adult, I now see the hardship clearly in retrospect.

As the years went on, my maternal grandmother also became increasingly weak, sickly, and somewhat senile. In the end, my aunt ended up having to look after her as well. To be fair, my other aunts and my mother did their best at times to stop in and look after their father while he was alive to give my aunt Judy and my grandmother a break. My mother actually lived closest, so she helped out more often than most.

At any rate, one lesson I learned from my upbringing was that the children who end up living with their parents benefit immensely for quite awhile materially, financially, and in terms of support for their young children, but then end up bearing a burden for awhile as well. My family was poor and lived in a really terrible house and my aunt lived in a nice, middle class place, but she also had a lot of the responsibility and stress as both of my grandparents became enfeebled.

As of late, this situation has come to the forefront for my husband and I, but not through my family. It has become an issue with my husband's family. His sister has been living with their mother and father for the past 19 years and now their mother has developed a degenerative disease which has left her showing increased signs of senile dementia and unable to walk or look after herself. She needs round the clock monitoring, careful scheduling of medication, and assistance with many basic needs like using the bathroom and washing.

My sister-in-law at first was not intimately involved with my mother-in-law's care, but merely gave breaks to my father-in-law. Now, her role has expanded greatly and she's become increasingly frustrated and stressed out by the responsibilities coupled with my father-lin-law's resistance to complying with her method of caring for his wife. She has two brothers, but both of them are residing in Japan so they cannot help in any measurable way. It's simply logistically impossible.

Usually, I don't get very involved in my in-laws' lives because the truth is that they have never had much interest in us. About 16 years or so ago, my sister-in-law needed some help with Photoshop and both my husband and I tried to establish a cordial relationship with her via e-mail. After she got what she wanted though, she begged off on further correspondence claiming she was too busy to really keep up much of a written conversation.

Additionally, and I believe I have blogged about this before, but I'll repeat it as a reminder. My husband and I were flat out refused when we asked to temporarily reside with them when we lived in California. We lived with my husband's best friend's family instead. When we left for Japan, his father begrudged storing some of our boxes in his garage and wanted us to put our items in paid storage. In other words, his family has not done much to support us when we needed help nor shown more than a cursory interest in our lives, particularly if maintaining a relationship with us has required any more effort than talking on the phone.

As of late, my sister-in-law has been pelting my husband and brother-in-law with long, detailed letters venting and explaining about the details of her situation with her parents. She has even intimated that, if her parents exhaust their copious financial resources, she may call upon my husband and his brother to bear some monetary burden. The ludicrousness of that can't be overemphasized. Both my sister-in-law's husband and my father-in-law make a great deal more money than my husband and I combined.

At any rate, my husband doesn't have a talking relationship with his sister from a distance for the aforementioned reasons, but my brother-in-law does. Today, my brother-in-law called my husband to vent about a conversation that he had with their sister. Apparently, she expressed some anger and resentment that she is bearing the brunt of the care of her elderly parents and is increasingly burnt out from coping with it. She is especially put out by the fact that she's had to put "her" life on hold to deal with these new responsibilities.

While I do feel empathy for my sister-in-law, I also know that she has benefited greatly from living with her parents from free babysitting services for her two kids when they were younger, to free food when they used to have meals together, to having the opportunity to invest in and live in a piece of prime real estate in one of the most lucrative areas in California, to a certain level of support and security, she has had benefits that one brother (my husband) was overtly and specifically denied and the other has not been present for.

Because I grew up around extended family who had such a markedly improved life via their association with my grandparents, I have always been aware of both sides of the coin. It strikes me that anyone who benefits from cohabitation with their parents should see that the road ahead is likely to end in a particular way, but some people are too self-involved to realize that they had it better than their siblings and too selfish to realize that their responsibility will be proportionally greater when the time comes.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

When Confession is Bad For the Soul

A lot of my tales from working at a Japanese office will likely focus on what other people did rather than one what I did. However, I don't want anyone to think I believed I was perfect and didn't make my fair share of mistakes. One of the problems one has working in a cross-cultural situation is that there are varying expectations on both sides and each assumes the other knows the score and will act accordingly. This results in a lot of disappointment on both sides.

I'm of two minds about cross-cultural working. One is that a company which employs foreigners must understand that they are not Japanese and cannot be expected to comply with the unspoken "rules" of the company. Any part of the culture which they want foreign employees to adhere to should be explicitly stated before a work contract is signed. Unfortunately, one aspect of Japanese business culture is that they don't see contracts as binding nor do they feel it's necessary to offer up an accurate job description.

The other part of my thinking on this matter is that those who live and work in foreign cultures should do their best to try and compromise in reasonable situations to fit with the culture. However, I've seen far too many situations where those who make the compromise are simply walked all over or expected to abandon their principles entirely. Just because Japanese employees are willing to offer up their free time to the company without compensation and to take less than half of the holidays they are entitled to is no reason to expect foreign employees to do so as well. I don't mind the expansion of job responsibility to include things like helping clean up around New Year's holidays, or even requests to work extra hours and be comped for them later, but I draw the line at becoming the company's bitch.

At any rate, after I'd worked at my former company for quite some time, I was able to better anticipate certain things. I knew what the Japanese wanted in certain situations and had the choice to comply or not. To be honest, more often than not, I didn't comply because I felt fairly disconnected from the rest of the company due to the fact that I was treated as the mentally deficient stepchild that was to be locked in the basement when company came round. Neither my boss nor I were treated to the perks of the Japanese staff, yet we were expected to carry out the same responsibilities. You'd be surprised how not offering someone a carrot will make them fail to respond to the stick.

One aspect in particular that I learned to predict after about 6-8 years with the same tinpot dictator of a president was how he would respond to mistakes. That is to say, he'd overreact and behave in the most hysterical fashion, particularly if that mistake was made by a foreigner. For example, one temporary employee came in and ate a carrot for breakfast at his desk one day and wasn't admonished. When that same employee took the further step of eating a bowl of cereal at his desk, the president went off on him and docked him a half hour's pay for his failure to understand that this was just not done. Mind you, I think that the president had every right to admonish him for having a sit down meal on the company's dime, but I think that there was a better way to handle it and that docking someones pay that much for what probably cost the company no more than 10 minutes was over the top. He could have simply asked him to make up the 10 minutes by taking a shorter lunch or staying 10 minutes late. Going ballistic didn't really do much in the way of smoothing cross-cultural understanding.

After years of the president's overreactions and sledgehammer punishment for minor infractions on the part of foreign employees who unwittingly made mistakes, I knew what sort of response certain errors might receive. Unilateral punishment for very human occurrences or misunderstandings in which everyone paid the price were not the least bit uncommon.

On Saturdays, I worked completely alone in the office so no one was around to witness an accident I had one day. I was eating lunch at my desk with a bottle of Diet Coke when I bumped the bottle and about 1/3 of it spilled into the keyboard on my ancient PC. Note that the foreigners were using 10-year-old (or more) Windows '95 computers while the Japanese staff had updated Windows XP machines. That meant that I couldn't have easily purchased a replacement keyboard, nor could the company without some digging through shops that kept antiques in stock.

I knew that there was a chance that the keyboard might dry out and work fine if I turned it upside down, let the Coke drain out, and allowed it to dry thoroughly. Because I had to work the rest of the day, I borrowed a keyboard from a computer that wasn't going to be used by anyone until the following Monday and set mine aside to dry. As I processed what had happened, I decided that it would be best if I did not confess in the event that the keyboard was ruined.

Before I go any further, let me say that, except for this one incident, I never failed to own up to a mistake I made on the job. If I screwed up, I told my boss that it was my error. And the truth is that I would normally confess to this type of accident as well and pay for a replacement out of my own pocket in the event that the keyboard was ruined. I had no problem with that possibility.

The almost certain possibility that I had a problem with was the type of punishment that would have followed a confession. That is, the president would almost certainly ban all foreign employees from drinking anything at their desks. Since we were conducting tests with students by telephone which required us to talk for hours, this would be a pretty serious punishment causing discomfort for all. Dry throats and mouths were not the least bit uncommon. If I told the president that I spilled a drink and ruined equipment, I was sure everyone would suffer for my little bump of a Coke bottle.

At the end of the day, I reattached my moist keyboard to my powered down machine and put the intact one back on the computer I borrowed it from and left for the weekend. When I came back on Tuesday, it had dried out and was working fine, so there wasn't a problem. However, had it failed to work upon my return, I would have simply claimed that the old thing had given up the ghost after so many years of use.

I'm not happy that I was planning to lie. Lying is completely not in my nature and I am awful at it. When I think about this incident though, I believe that it illustrates all too well how some people bring out the worst behavior in others by their abuse of power or disproportionate reactions to very human mistakes. If the president weren't so overbearing and unfair in his responses, I would never have pondered hiding the truth. The reason I could always own up to every other mistake I made without hesitation was that work errors were reported directly to my Australian boss and not to the president. Since he was a good boss who knew that no one was perfect, I never worried that any admission of an error would garner a disproportionate response from him.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Japan is so much more special when you're stupid

Some time back, I had a commenter who was new to Japan who I tried to be supportive of and help out as she repeatedly freaked out over her troubles in Japan. As time went by, she turned into one of those foreigners who finds everything in Japan so precious and unique and ragged constantly on her home country (which happens to be America).

I quit reading her blog, but occasionally something will compel me to take a peak back and see if she's found some balance in her life here. Unfortunately, I can't say from my latest peak that she has. While certainly it is any person's right to bash their home country and praise Japan as being just so precious and wonderful, the lengths to which some people go leaves me flabbergasted.

One of the recent posts by this person was bubbling over about sugar syrup for coffee and how wonderful it is that you can buy little plastic tubs of it in Japan and pour in your cold beverages to sweeten them. 'Why doesn't America have this syrup,' she exclaims. Well, America does have sugar syrup for cold drinks. In fact, America has far more of it than Japan does. You can get such syrup in dozens of flavors and as both a sugar and sugar-free version from more than one manufacturer. One of the ones I buy it from (via the FBC) is Da Vinci. The main difference between Japan and America on this front is that the Americans have a vastly greater variety of it and the Japanese have it in one flavor (plain) only and sell it in excessive packaging.

Certainly, there are things that Japan has that can't be had in other countries, but the gaijin Uncle Toms are so myopic that they either don't know their own country well enough to know what isn't worth gushing over or simply are so blinded by their infatuation with Japan to see reality. I try to be patient with people, but these people get my goat because of the ridiculous lengths to which they go in order to keep Japan on a pedestal. And yes, this is the same stupid person who was clapping her hands at an article that said that racism was right for Japanese people. One of these days, I swear I'm going to pop by and find her talking about how wonderful it is that Japan handles prostitution by essentially sexually enslaving women from other Asian countries. I'm sure she appreciates that it keeps more Japanese women out of the profession, and the Japanese are the important ones, aren't they?. :-p

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Most Contrived Pose Ever

The Japanese company I used to work for had what must have been a thousand color, A4 size (about the size of a US letter sheet of paper), multi-page brochures made up during the years of the bubble economy. I'm sure it cost a fortune at that time to make so many large color booklets to hand out to customers, but they were produced back in the days when Japanese companies were buying up real estate in America and artwork from around the world. Everyone had money to toss down the crapper on frivolous expenses.

There were a few things which I will never forget about the brochure. One thing was that it featured a panorama shot of young foreign people who supposedly worked at the company in front of the skyscrapers in Shinjuku and that none of them actually worked there. Another was that the founder and president (at the time) was shown smiling on one page and had written some long-winded statement about the business. The rest of the booklet was liberally peppered with pictures of people supposedly working around the office. All but one or two of those pictures showed someone pointing at something. They were so exceptionally fake and unnatural looking that we couldn't help but make jokes about them.

It's not that people don't point at things. Obviously, sometimes they do. However, pointing in photos when there is no focal point always looks, well, stupid. It doesn't help when the people who are posing are clearly uncomfortable holding the pose for the camera. They know pointing at phantom objects for the sake of the camera looks lame. That leads me to the political flyer that was left in our mailbox:

Look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Godzilla!
(click on the picture to see a bigger version)

This brochure takes the whole posing and pointing concept to it's nadir. The three guys posing with hands on hips and one hand pointing in the air look more like a stiff chorus line preparing to do a jerky choreographed routine than politicians leading the way into Japan's new direction in the future.

The guy in the center is the son of a former Tokyo governer. His dead eyes and stiffly set jaw make him look like he's a teacher pointing at a badly behaved student and admonishing him for texting in class. The guy on the left looks like he's having difficulties holding the pose and the one on the right looks like he feels embarrassed and is just counting the seconds until the humiliating photo session is over.

I realize that all promotional pictures for politicians are contrived and posed for, but this is one of the funniest ones I've ever seen in Japan. I really want to find some outlet to post this picture and ask people to make up a caption for it as there is so much fertile capacity for making up ridiculous descriptions. I guess I'll have to settle for privately mocking it. My husband plans to take it to his school and talk about it with his students to get their take on how it looks. I'm sure their responses will be interesting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Trek Movie (Japanese flyer)

The images are much bigger than they appear in this post. Click on the small versions in this post to see a full-size version.

About a week and a half ago, my husband went to see Watchmen at a Japanese movie theater. They showed a trailer for the new Trek movie and flyers were available for it. My husband noticed that Spock did not make much of an appearance in the clips at all.

I'm not sure why Spock isn't in it, but I also noted that he doesn't make much of an appearance in the flyer either. It's my guess that the Japanese promotional material is focusing on the blond-haired, blue-eyed captain. Most promotion in Japan comes with a pandering slant. For instance, all of the advertisements for Battlestar Galactica here focused heavily on the Asian actress (sorry, I didn't watch BG so I don't know who she is or who she plays). Also, the commercials for Law and Order: SVU showcase and talk about B.D. Wong a lot because he's Asian. Note that I've never seen ads for either of these shows featuring any of the other actors in those shows.

The back of the flyer mentions that there is a Japanese blog for Chris Pine. There are no other blogs for other actors. This further fuels my feeling that the pretty boy has been chosen to appeal to the Japanese audience. The fact that the header graphic has a big heart on it and he's posed like some boy band idol doesn't do much to dissuade me from my conclusions.

One interesting point for those of us who followed the original Trek series here in Japan is that two of the characters have regained their original names with the reboot. In Japan, Scotty was called "Charlie" in the original series broadcast here and the brochure now lists his character as "Scot". I don't know why his name was changed to Charlie, but the thought always amused me. Also, Sulu was called "Sato" in Japan. This is likely because "Sulu" is not a real Japanese name. He is listed as "Sulu" in the brochure.

I hope you enjoy the scans. Note my marvelous stitching together of the center! The seam running down the center is the fold line in the brochure, not a flaw in my Photoshop work.

A little postscript: There's a mention on the back of an "ID card neck strap" which one can buy for 1,300 yen (about $13) which shows Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. I'm not sure what the point of this is, but it's a limited edition movie souvenir.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reality-Media Disconnect

Lately, I've been reading a lot about how the bad economy in Japan is forcing prices downward and how this is such a terrible thing. Supposedly, with consumers keeping as much money in their tight little fists as possible, competition is pushing merchants to lower prices which leads to lower profits which in turn means they lower wages and layoff staff.

I'm not a consumer of high-priced goods, and only buy big ticket items like computers, televisions, etc. when something breaks down or is outdated enough to cause great inconvenience, so I can't speak to how the market for luxury goods or pricier bags, shoes, clothes, and adult toys (no, not the dirty kind) is working. I can say one thing for absolute certain and that is that the prices of daily necessities has not been dropping. In fact, as of about a month ago, the price of dairy products and milk in particular went up yet again.

About three years ago, a liter (about a quart) of milk could be had in Tokyo at most markets for about 170 yen (about $1.65). The price went through incremental increases and was hanging at around 198 yen (about $2.00) until recently when it went up to 208 yen ($2.10). Similarly, 200 grams (about two sticks in America or 1 cup) of butter used to be available for around 260 yen ($2.60) and now you're exceptionally lucky if you find it on sale for as low as 300 yen ($3.00). Usually, the price hangs around 388 yen ($3.80) for the equivalent of 2 sticks.

The dairy prices are particularly curious in light of the fact that I read recently that Japanese dairy farmers are crying that they can't make a living raising cows. In part, I can see where their problems are coming from. Feed prices have gone up due to fuel prices (though gas prices have gone down) and increased global demand for grain products, particularly corn, as alternate fuel and manufactured products material. However, prices have continued to go up so it's hard to believe that they aren't compensating for increased grain costs through these hikes.

One of the farmers who was saying he couldn't profit in the dairy business said that he is going to switch over to the rice growing business instead. The reason why this is curious is that Japan is awash in a sea of rice. The government has so much stockpiled that they are actively encouraging people to eat more rice and to return to traditional Japanese cuisine to consume rice, which is relatively cheap in comparison to other grain products like pasta and bread, and vegetable starches like potatoes. If Japan is full to the brim with rice, why would it be profitable to become yet another rice farmer? The answer is that rice is subsidized by the Japanese government so it's a more secure choice. Also, you don't have to depend on the price of animal feed if you grow rice.

I find it relatively frustrating to read articles again and again about how prices are going down only to find that things at the market continue to creep up. Starting about 3 years ago, rather substantial jumps in prices for all sorts of staple goods occurred, and this was in anticipation of oil price increases and conglomerates buying up supplies, not in response to these changes. Toilet paper that used to cost 198 yen currently sells for 258 yen, for instance, and it has not budged along with changes in fuel prices.

My feeling is that companies know there are certain daily use products that people will buy because they have to or are extremely reluctant to give up and that they continue to take advantage of the average shopper by keeping those prices high. As Japanese consumers grow increasingly frugal in response to news of more job losses, diminished bonuses, and stagnant wages, they continue to shy away from buying new "stuff" that they don't need, and focus on the basics. My guess is that, given that this is the only area where people can't really hold back on their spending, the much publicized decrease in prices isn't likely to hit such items any time soon.