Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dating and Relationships in Japan

Long time no see! Enjoy my face talking at your face for six minutes.

Or, enjoy a short video I took of the beautiful Tateyama mountain range this afternoon:

Monday, August 31, 2015

Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep

Recently, I had the very unfortunate opportunity to attend my first Japanese wake, known as tsuya (通夜, literally "passing through the night.")

While I didn't know the man personally, he was husband to a wonderful, warm teacher, and father to two young boys, all of whom I know very well. The oldest son is a college student, and the youngest still in high school. He passed quite suddenly in his late 50's, so it was a shock to everyone to hear the news.

When I heard about the wake that morning, I realized that more than anything I wanted to support my friends in their troubling time.

And I also realized that I had no idea what the customs of attending a wake in Japan were.

I sought out the help of my teachers and Google and went to work.

The first thing was to buy a special envelope used only for funerals. The office in my school was selling some so I bought one. It looked something like this:

Inside the envelope is where you place condolence money - anywhere between 3,000 and 30,000 yen (between 30 and 300 dollars); the amount depending on how well you knew the person or the family. Since I was a coworker I gave a standard 5,000 yen (a little less than 50 dollars). Even here there are rules: you are not supposed use new bills, but somewhat crinkled bills. 

Envelope and money intact, I then sought out another teacher who was going and we agreed to meet a half hour before the wake.

It's a good thing we did, because the minute I stepped out of the car and met her in the crowded parking lot, I asked her: "Is this bag okay?" (It was tan, not black, like the rest of my outfit. I don't own any black bags). "Nope, put it in your car and give me your stuff."I had also worn my hair down, which I just read online should have been put up, but nobody said anything, so meh. 

We walked into the hall as I mentally recited, "I'm sorry for your loss," in Japanese about 50 times. Go shuu shou sama desu. Go shuu shou sama desu. I'm sorry for your loss. Go shuu shou sama desu.

Upon entering the receiving area, where the envelopes with the money inside are collected, I burst out with "I'm sorry for your loss," to the wrong people. But I knew the receivers and I'm sure they understood I was nervous. They took the money and I got a gift in response.

Oh, yeah. If you go to wakes and give money, you get gifts, apparently (that are worth about a third of the cost of the money received). This is a "thank you for helping us pay off the funeral" gift. Because you see, Japan has the some very expensive funerals; at the end of everything you can expect to be out around 20,000 US dollars (~2.5 million yen). Compare that to the average US cost of $7,000 for a funeral. 


After getting my gift bag, it was time to actually give my condolences to the family. 

I got like a ton of dried seaweed...pretty solid present, but I'll probably pass this on to someone who will be more likely to use and eat it.

Here's the thing. My mother and I are known to have this horrible habit of being able to make people cry by looking at them (that is to say, in sullen situations such as a funeral; we don't walk around with weeping people flanking us wherever we go). It is literally the shittiest super power in the world. A friend told me I have "projective" eyes; when you look at me you can tell exactly how I'm feeling. Maybe that's it. 

As you may imagine, it does not help the funeral situation.

I went up to my friends and watched their faces crumble the moment our eyes met. We began our bowing war to see who can bow their heads more, my eyes already filling up with tears at seeing them. In America, it'd be natural to hug them, to pat my friend's shoulder, to console them. But in Japan all I could do was bow eternally and say, "I'm sorry for your loss," in a quiet tone I didn't know I was capable of. 

More people were on their way so my teacher and I went into the receiving hall where cushioned chairs were lined in rows all the way down the long room. "Well, that was horrible, and it hasn't even started yet," I said to my teacher, who nodded in agreement. We took the side for non-family members, somewhat near the front, where I took in the scene before me: a portrait of a smiling man with crinkled eyes; stands upon stands of flowers, fruit baskets and snack basket offerings with the names of the senders written in a pristine hand; enormous wreaths hanging down the left side of the hall; and three thrones facing it all, waiting for the monk who would send off the recently-departed (who had passed only two days before; wakes are done as soon as possible in Japan) and the monks' apprentices. Above everything was a wide model of a shrine, made with a light-colored wood and stretched pearl-colored paper, and a scroll of who I could only guess was Amaterasu, Shinto goddess of the sun. 

But wait, aren't funerals in Japan Buddhist? Eh, whatever. Most of the time the line between the two are pretty blurred anyway. On reflection, it may have been Buddha, with light beaming off of him like Amaterasu. Well, it was someone, and it was pretty.

Most fortunately, there was no open-casket. Which is possibly one of the most unsettling, disagreeable Christian customs I have ever had the misfortunate to participate in. I guess it's not uncommon in Japan either, but either way I was glad. 

The air was heavy as people filed in, finding seats among the endless rows of chairs. The irrepressible sadness that comes with the death of a loved one transcends all languages and customs. I could feel the mourning sorrow in the room the same way I had once felt the bubbly happiness of weddings that I catered; insurmountable, as if left alone it could consume everyone on the planet. I talked in hush tones with the teacher I came with, having already borrowed her tissues since I left mine in the not-black purse I abandoned in my car.

The lights dimmed and light, yet anguished music began to play ("Oh no," I started, grabbing more tissues), and the family walked down the aisle between the benches, turned to all of their guests and bowed before sitting. A brief movie began to play, highlighting pictures of the deceased man, smiling alongside his wife, his sons. 

The reality of death sunk into my bones and chilled my heart. He was here on this planet only a few days ago, feeling perfectly fine. He was probably stressed with work, but had weekend plans with his family. He had worried and loved and lost and regretted, but he had hopes and dreams and slept at night with the solid assurances he would wake up again. I saw my friends' shoulders shake at the front and tears blurred my vision. 

Sometimes, there's just nothing to say.

The priest walked in, followed by a man and a woman, all dressed in beautiful robes and glittering gold slippers - I couldn't take my eyes off of those slippers, I suddenly really wanted a pair - and thus began the very long ceremony. We received books to follow the Buddhist sutras and incantations, written in an incredibly old Japanese that my teacher assured me even she could draw very little of, but I listened and watched as kanji for "light," "heaven," "heart," and for some reason the number "five" often came and went, turning the pages as the chanting continued in the monk's drawn-out, exaggerated wail that vaguely reminded me of a bird like a stork or a heron. 

Once some of the chanting was over, it was time to take part in the incense bit. The family stood up and   went to the front where there were bowls of ash; they proceeded to take a bit of the ash in their fingertips, drop it into a bigger bowl, put their hands together and bowed their heads before stepping back, bowing, and returning to their seats. Which is pretty much what the rest of us did, but add more bowing to the family and the priests before the ordeal. According to my online research, usually people place incense and don't move around ash, but one of my teachers had said that Toyama has different customs, so maybe that's part of it.

We all sat again as an incredible amount of people filed through to pay their respects and drop ash into a bowl (there were at least ten lined up across the front of the room so it was a fairly quick process). I recognized a lot of people walking by; people from town hall, teachers from other schools, students of mine. How many people are affected by a single death in town. 

And then the priest continued chanting his sutras. One sentence stuck with me from this part: "Let your hearts become one." Before it was all over, he began to speak about life and death and a whole bunch of other ramblings, his eyes closed the entire time. Which seemed normal to me until it was about 20 minutes later and guests seemed to get a little restless and began talking in quiet undertones saying that they didn't know what he was going on about.

I was phased out for a lot of it. I kept watching the family, thinking of my own family back home.  Of my 66-year-old father and almost 60-year-old mother, neither of whom are no longer spring chickens (sorry guys) and how lost I would be without them in my life. I thought long and hard about how death was around the corner from us constantly, lurking just out of sight, and how we humans disillusioned ourselves into thinking we are immortal, or dismissing death's inevitability from our minds whenever the gloomy thoughts plague us. It makes sense, of course, that we don't like to think about death; think too hard and it could emotionally cripple us to the point that we would no longer be functional or useful. But how many of us take death seriously? I remembered that scene from When Harry Met Sally..., one of my favorite movies in the world. 

Harry: When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.
Sally: That doesn't mean you're deep or anything. I mean, yes, basically I'm a happy person...
Harry: So am I.
Sally: ...and I don't see that there's anything wrong with that.
Harry: Of course not. You're too busy being happy. Do you ever think about death?
Sally: Yes.
Harry: Sure you do. A fleeting thought that drifts in and out of the transom of your mind. I spend hours, I spend days...
Sally: - and you think this makes you a better person?
Harry: Look, when the shit comes down, I'm gonna be prepared and you're not, that's all I'm saying.
Sally: And in the meantime, you're gonna ruin your whole life waiting for it.

Eventually, the sutras and the priest's discussion was finished, and it was time for my friend - the deceased's wife - to talk. 

I gripped my tissues hard in my left hand. I really couldn't take much more of this emotionally. Yes, I am generally a very sensitive person - I always have been, since I was very young. I remember crying over a worm that kids had killed on the playground when I was in kindergarten. I was lots of fun to be around. But I have always been empathetic to a fault; hell, I can summon tears just by thinking about something sad. I knew this next part would ruin me before the microphone was even turned on.

Listening to the now-widow's speech about what kind of man she had married, through teary words and a cracking voice, about how he would always say in the consistently cheery tone, "And we're home!" whenever he'd get out of the car, or how he would help go grocery shopping and buy snacks for the kids...I was a wreck. Tears flowed over my eyelids and down my cheeks, and I gave up on wiping them away. It was painful watching my friends dissolve into emotion before me and feeling helpless to do anything except sit there and cry across the room with them. 

Soon, her speech finished, and the now-sniffling masses stood to leave. The family left first, going around to the front, and we all herded after as I tried to inconspicuously shove my used tissues into the gift bag I got (stupid girl pants and their no-pockets bull shit).

As we filed after everyone else (being in the front of the room, we had to wait a little bit), I turned to my teacher and asked about hugging. Would it be weird if I hugged her? I explained to her how it felt cold to just see someone cry and not go to console them, but only bow and say a few words. 

"It's not usually done...but if it's her, I think it's okay." She said, seeming to understand that I come from a very different country where affection is shown under all kinds of circumstances.

We faced the family again right before leaving. I wanted to tell the sons to take care of their mother, but the words wouldn't come. I bowed a half-dozen times, and when I faced their mother, swept her into a one-armed hug, and held back tears as she returned it. It's definitely not customary, nor at all common to hug in Japan. 

But there are some customs that I just don't give a damn about. 

We got ANOTHER gift bag as we were leaving, and my teacher and I parted ways. 

Gift bag number two...cookies, tea, and some baked dry rice crisps. Much more to my liking.

After everything, I was left tired and feeling heavy. I went to my Kyudo dojo where my friends were practicing and told them about the wake and how sad it was. I hadn't wanted to go home right away, but would rather be among friends for a little while. One of my team members brought his kids to the dojo as he came to pick up something, so I chased them around and hid around corners and scared them when they came by. That lifted my mood a bit. Nothing like scaring off the looming threat of death by mindlessly running around with some youths. 

Finally, I came home, exhausted. I cracked open a beer in honor of my fallen friend. I can only imagine how the family feels. My thoughts are with them. 

A Japanese wake was not so different from an American one; a few customs here and there, are different, sure. But at the end of the day, a person who mattered to many has passed and left an undeniable sorrow behind him. The world will always be a little different without that person; will always be a little darker to those who had made him important in their lives. 

Anyway; until next time. I hope my next post won't take so long to appear, and will be a little happier. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

38 Things My Students Didn't Know About America, And You Didn't Know About Japan

The other day I made a popular post on an Ask Reddit thread that asked American teachers abroad what the craziest thing their students thought of America was. I responded with a list of various things, and ended up diverting into a bunch of differences between America and Japan. Thanks to Reddit, I got over 7,000 hits in just a single day. I'll post the things I wrote there now, and hope to make another blogpost soon with some new information about my life. :) Enjoy!

Some things my students have assumed about America are...

1) All Americans are fat (tried to convince them this wasn't true, to no avail), and almost everyone is Christian (squashed that pretty quick).

2) We only eat hamburgers. (Would if I could.)
3) All Americans keep their shoes on in their homes (Lots of gasps when I explained this was only half true. I think my mom would go into Cardiac Arrest if we went into the house with our shoes).

4) Everyone carries a gun (again, only partly true. It turns out that 1 in 3 Americans own a gun).

5) I've been asked if I know any cowboys.

6) It's expected that we take baths every night like the Japanese do; I'm often told that I'll "catch a cold" by only taking a shower and not warming up in the bath.
7) They didn't realize how expensive visiting a doctor in America is. In Japan, a doctor visit and prescribed medicine runs about 30 or 40 dollars. In America, that number is always in the hundreds. Also, Japanese medicine is very weak when compared to American medicine.

Etc etc. But since the post became so popular and people keep asking me to link it to them, I figured I may as well list some more things people might find interesting. 

More things that my students have been surprised about America:

9) We don't often eat fish or rice, and when we eat fish it's usually fresh water (for those not near an ocean)
10) We own many cars (every member of my family has one to get to work), with wide yards, wide roads and driveways, often have garages, and basements. I explained we need basements in the Midwest in case of tornadoes but also for storage and piping.

11) The size of our refrigerators is ridiculously big to them, as are our Christmas trees, our food and drink sizes.
12) People decorate their houses with lights for Christmas (in Japan, mainly shops, companies, and parks etc are where you can see "illumination.")

 And, some things people probably don't know about Japan...

13) Japanese people really don't drink that much milk. Many of my students detest the stuff. It makes me weep milky tears. Also, cheese. Not many kinds in Japan and definitely not great quality overall, unless you go to a special shop where you can buy more expensive kinds of imported cheese. All kids, however, agree that ice cream is the bomb.
14) In place of milk, many Japanese people drink lots of cold and hot teas instead, depending on the season. I rarely see a Japanese person drinking water, even when working out. This always baffles me, even three years later.

15) I don't know if it's because my students are young, but many of them think that America is older than it is. This is probably because Japan has a history that goes thousands of years back (they're credited for writing the "world's first novel," The Tale of Genji, back in the year 1008), while the America we know today is still fairly young, less than 250 years old.
16) There's a present culture (omiyage) in Japan where if you travel somewhere you're expected to bring gifts back to your coworkers and friends (I brought back a bunch of Reese's peanut butter cups for my teachers, lots of comments about how sweet and salty they were compared to Japanese chocolate). Very fun but gets very expensive. I once went to Disneyland in Tokyo with a friend and she was being really stingy with her money all day, until it was night and we were about to leave, and she bought about a million omiyage for her family and friends. A very sweet gesture from a girl who really didn't have that much money to spend.

17) On Japanese work ethics: Their contract will say 8:15 to 4:45, for example. But they will often work extra hours without extra pay. This will be because teachers (or public office workers, or salary men, or whomever), have to come in early to prepare their work for the day, and stay late to impress the boss. Some people fall asleep at their desks and aren't chastised because it's a sign they were working very hard. Teachers are also coaches of clubs and often work weekends and go to practices after class. On top of grading and writing tests and lessons. They are very, very busy and I do my best to support my English teachers all that I can. (Anyway, it's no wonder that "death by overwork" is a thing in Japan.)

18) In Japan, there's something called PuriKura, which comes from the words "Print Club," or a photography club in Japan. It's a fancified photo booth where you take a bunch of pictures and can personalize them and edit them to look just as you want them to. Many of them automatically widen your eyes and brighten the colors.

19) Japanese teachers and business men etc do not often have tattoos or piercings. Especially teachers. They do not have dyed hair or painted fingernails or anything of the like. This is because if it's not allowed for the students, it's not allowed for the teachers. They are also not allowed to have long hair unless it is pulled back in a ponytail. (I'm an exception with long hair I usually wear down and a tragus and forward-helix piercing. My kids like to ask about them but my teachers generally ignore them.)
20) The anti-tattoo culture is so strong that I've even heard it said you might not get a job if you have a tattoo. And since health checks are mandatory every year in Japan, doctors may make a note if they find a tattoo on your body even where you can hide it. Your employers and potential employers can see this and make a decision based off of such information. (Many Americans seemed surprised to hear that your company has access to your medical files. This is true.)
Can you believe I have even more things to say about the differences between Japan and America??

21) My students were surprised to learn students aren't always in clubs (tennis club, brass band, etc), whereas in Japan they are practically mandatory.

22) They were also surprised to hear that we don't have "cram school" at night for more studying.
23) They couldn't believe our cafeteria options; a la carte, salad bar, a main meal, chips, chocolate milk Japan, you have one hot meal, and everyone eats it (Elementary and Junior High, anyway).

24) High school in Japan is very difficult, with lots of tests and homework, while college is much easier with less work. Generally in America, the opposite is true.
25) We don't have Christmas cake in America, we eat pie, while in Japan EVERYONE eats Christmas cake (generally a sponge cake with pretty frosting and decoration, a small 5" can run about 30 dollars).

26) Christmas is a day for dates in Japan, a very romantic holiday for couples. Meanwhile, Americans spend time with their families and have a nice dinner. Some Japanese people go with their families to KFC - you have to make a reservation months in advance to have hopes of getting food there that day. Also, more and more people are having Christmas parties with their friends. Food, drinking, good times. Only 2% of the population of Japan is Christian.

27) New Years is a three-day holiday in Japan spent eating and drinking with family. Japanese kids get "otoshidama" which is a present of money from their parents and family members. Many gasps are had when I explain American kids don't get money on New Years, but that we get presents and sometimes money for Christmas. I also explained "the ball dropping" on New Years but they didn't really get it. In Japan, they watch a end-of-the-year TV special and finish off with the ringing of the gong at a major shrine, I think 108 times it's rung?

28) In Japan, people stress that your blood type affects your personality. You can even list your blood type on facebook, it's become such a thing. I'm type A but everyone says they'd think I'm type B. It's not really accurate so much as it is like a "horoscope" thing in Japan. You can read more about this here.

29) Japanese TVs are bigger and cheaper than in America. Probably because the stores are local, but also stay-at-home mothers have made many grassroots organizations to keep prices low, especially in the entertainment industry.
30) In America, we visit our friends' houses often, but in Japan homes are seen for family only. They often go out to meet friends at bars, karaoke, restaurants, parks, libraries, stations, or whatever.

31) They were surprised to see many Americans have their own swimming pools. Due to limited space, this is a very rare, if not impossible to find, thing in Japan.

32) The fact that there are many Spanish-speakers in America (enough that it's written on many signs and available as phone options), surprised them.

33) In Japan, they forbid phones and other recording devices from concerts. Also, for the ones I've been to, people mostly stand around and watch and don't dance or sing along, etc.
34) Many Japanese workers go out at night with their coworkers to drink. This means they work from 7 AM to 7 PM, then go out for drinks, then come home very late. No wonder the birth rate is declining...

35) On January first, many people will visit a local shrine to pray for a good year. This includes pulling fortunes and tying them up for them to either come true or to ward away bad luck, make a wish and hang it up for it to come true, and lighting incense or candles.

36) Japanese people carry cash everywhere and hardly ever use credit cards. It is not uncommon to carry around 300 dollars (about 30,000 yen) on you at all times.
37) Many people leave their cars running when they go into the convenience store, knowing their stuff is safe, because Japan. They also use their phones and wallets as "seat savers" in theaters or restaurants. Unheard of in most Western countries.

38) People with tattoos are not allowed in hot springs because of the association with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Hot spring culture is not big in America, while is it very common and enjoyed by all ages in Japan.

Such information got incredibly popular on Reddit, and it made me really happy to see how many people were interested in the differences between Western and Japanese cultures. I hope I've done a little more enlightening today. Cheers, and I'll post again soon!