Monday, April 27, 2009

The Quarter Pounder with Cheese has appeared in Hamamatsu...

I hadn't eaten a Quarter Pounder in more than twenty years... before yesterday. McDonald's in Japan is very similar to McDonald's in America, but there are a few exceptions. For example, the ebi burger (shrimp patty), the teriyaki burger (regular burger in teriyaki sauce with lots of mayonaise) and the seasonally-available tsukimi burger (a hamburger with a fried egg on top). But the menu didn't feature the ever-popular Quarter Pounder until fairly recently. And when it finally made its Japanese debut, it was available only in Tokyo.

Now, here in Hamamatsu, we have both the regular edition Quarter Pounder with Cheese and the ridiculous Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. They both come in a neat little cardboard box which I'm hoping is environmentally sound in some way. And, Pulp Fiction aside, despite Japan's being a metric nation, McDonald's has done nothing to adapt this burger. It's a Quarter Pounder in a country where most people don't know what a pound is.

Here's a totally unrelated "Happy Set" commercial:

Interesting how a lot of the descriptions on YouTube for Japanese TV commercials include the qualifiers "creepy," "surreal" and "effed up!" Surreal isn't problematic, because it doesn't imply a value judgement. The other adjectives are cute and all and probably for the most part well-meaning. They're just becoming tiresome. Why were they specifically chosen, and who has the time and energy to refute these things endlessly on message boards and websites?

Certainly, many of these commercials are entertaining in a way not usually seen in American or European TV spots, but because these are Japanese they're under that extra-special scrutiny reserved specifically by Westerners for all things Japanese. There seems to be a prejudiced mentality that what we see every day at home is the base normalcy for the rest of the world and variations on that are wrong in some way, and Japan seems to be many people's favorite "other."

I can't support slandering an entire nation of millions of people as "weird" or "perverted." Pointless and quite incorrect generalizations based on ignorance at best and racism at worst. It'd be more beneficial for some of the people expressing these views to hold that same mirror up to their own societies, or try to look at the familiar with an outsider's eyes. It's not that Japan doesn't have its share of wacky, wild, out there stuff, but the glee with which these things are scrutinized also bears examination, and should come with the admission that our own cultural stuff is just as effed up and creepy. In some cases even more so because they come appended to a level of hypocrisy and self-delusion that's beyond belief.

We might deplore the perceived Japanese sexual obsession with school girls, for example, but ignore Britney Spears' having made her fame playing the Lolita angle and disingenuously denying being sexually active-- essentially a deliberate tease and yet another provocative pose-- for a good portion of her early career, and the over-the-top fascination with Anna Kournikova and her pouting blonde teenybopper looks despite her spotty play as a tennis professional. I guarantee all those Hermione Granger fan postings on various message boards by older male fans aren't as innocently concerned with her... I don't know what her appeal is, actually; I'm sure someone on the Internet Movie Database can fill you in, and gladly so. Likewise, find someone to account for Hayden Panettiere's fanbase and the way the media handles her, please. And then there's Miley Cyrus or Hannah Montana or whatever the hell her name is. Do you really believe all her fans are pre-teen girls? Remember the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson "countdown to legality?"

Pervo is as pervo does.

To take another example, it's one thing to point out porn manga but it's another to realize you're the one also searching out and fascinated by this porn manga and that it's also being bought in the United States and other countries as well... and that Japan is not even the world's per capita leader in porn revenue. Okay, so it's number three (but the US isn't that far behind). China produces one third of the world's adult products and 80% of the world's sex toys and condoms. And the UK is evidently the world's fastest growing market for online pornography. And I don't even want to think about the stuff Americans are into. So being weird in some way is in the eye of the beholder, after all.

Remember-- while you're gazing at them, they're also gazing at you.

Well, that was certainly a digression. Hope it was a useful one. Hamburgers are on me, everyone.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"What's Wrong With Being Naked?"

So asked SMAP star Kusanagi Tsuyoshi as police arrested him for drunkenly appearing in the all-together in a Tokyo park. What's wrong with being naked, indeed? I've lost count of how many times I've been naked in Japan. Mostly taking showers, but there was that trip to the on-sen (hot spring) near Kakegawa. That was an interesting experience, just four old guys and me, naked in the hot water under the blue sky, a few cloud puffs blowing overhead and green mountains rising around us. From below, the sound of a river and families splashing together, high-pitched squeals from happy kids; the on-sen was in a campground.

And isn't that what we're all really asking? What's wrong with being naked? So get in touch with your more natural self, head to the park and strip off your clothes and ask the world, "What's wrong with being naked?"

Actually, I don't know too much about this guy. Strange way for him to introduce himself. According to the article, he's known as the "quietest" and "gentlest" member (those are always the ones who snap first) of SMAP, an extremely popular pop group whose members are all multi-talented. And they do all kinds of TV specials, practically non-stop. Especially popular with some of my school's students is their New Year's show.

Katori Shingo is the only member whose name I actually know. I saw him do a one-man comedy show (in English, no less) on TV my first year living in Japan and was very impressed. In the segment I watched, he portrayed a somewhat fey entertainment "journalist" who asked the audience their opinions about several rude rumors relating to Katori Shingo-- mostly about whether or not they thought he was too fat or had gained too much weight recently.

Katori is also famous for his cross-dressing antics as "Shingo Mama" on Sata Suma (Saturday SMAP), in a segment where he dons a wig and a frilly dress to surprise various families by filling in as their mother at breakfast. Hilarious Candid Camera-type stuff like this is hugely popular on Japanese TV, and Katori Shingo wouldn't be out of place on Saturday Night Live in the US. In fact, I wish he'd make an American film so Lorne Michaels would invite him to host.

Well, Japan is lucky if their celebrities are merely taking off all their clothes in public parks, and I think Kusanagi's sponsors are overreacting by pulling all his ads from TV (not that I've ever seen any of them, come to think of it). In America, we've got celebrities punching people in the face, killing their wives or being killed by them, or else driving haphazardly around looking for Starbucks and neglecting to strap their children into safety seats. And you can't even turn on the computer to check your email without spending hour after hour trying to track down their sex videos, checking site after site and growing ever more frustrated until finally you end up playing thirty consecutive games of "Scramble" on Facebook.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Interesting stuff on the J-List Side Blog...

Well, that's always true. Peter Payne, the owner of J-List, keeps a neat blog on the company's site. In it, he talks a bit about his family here in Japan and various things he's encountered, always with humor and insight. Personal stuff, high cultural stuff, pop culture stuff, things in the middle. The three most recent entries are particularly telling and worth your time.

First off, a day or so ago a large pile driver fell over in Tokyo, injuring the driver and some passersby. Payne uses this as a starting point for a rumination on Japan's obsession with safety, observing that whenever there's a construction project going on, the workers tend to wrap the entire building in a "cloth covering."

Currently, a building near my office is being renovated. When the project began, the workers (wearing the traditional baggy construction worker's uniform with the funky split-toed boots) erected steel scaffolding around the entire building, then covered it with a gray mesh cloth. The cloth, just as Payne reports, keeps us from being "hurt by a falling hammer," but unfortunately, prevents interested parties like myself from watching all the action. And it does nothing to muffle the noise, which is quite a problem when you're trying to teach English and both you and your students already have enough difficulty deciphering each other's language.

The cloth covering is gone, revealing some of the exterior work, but most of the scaffolding remains. Through my classroom window, I got to watch some of it coming down up-close. It was like watching one of those Discovery Channel programs on engineering marvels minus the overwrought narration.

Then, Payne writes a little bit about the carp flags. You've probably seen images of these colorful flags flapping away outside Japanese homes. May 5th is Children's Day and that's what these carp flags are all about. I think it's specifically a day for celebrating the birth of a boy into a family during the previous year. Here in Hamamatsu, this is one of the reasons for our famous Hamamatsu Matsuri, the annual kite festival. One of the reasons, because there seem to be a few others, not the least of which is getting completely shitfaced with friends and parading around for three consecutive nights making as much noise as possible with drums, bugles and whistles.

And finally, Payne discusses his daughter's entry into junior high. The school year starts in April here in Japan, so it's brand new and probably a little overwhelming right now for this year's crop of students. But the spring start time is just one difference between a Japanese kid's school career and an American's. Thanks to my hometown's school districting system, I knew what junior high and high school I'd be attending from my first day of elementary school, the same one as my older brothers. Here, you have to take a test to get into junior high and another to get into high school and yet another to get into a university. A few of our kid students recently made the transition from elementary school to junior high and they were really sweating out those test results. Now they have to learn all the rules and mores, choose the right club and make those grades... and probably do a lot of their actual learning in a juku, or cram school. Plus occasional tests on Saturdays! We're talking days that run from 6am to about 6pm, sometimes later, six days a week. With homework on top of that. I can't imagine that kind of pressure at 12 or 13!

They tell me it's all worth it because even though they work harder than American high school students now, they'll be able to loaf and take it easy once they finally get accepted into university while American coeds really have it tough. I'd hate to disillusion them by telling them not only are American high schools easier than Japanese, but also American colleges require practically no effort at all to get a degree... while providing the laziest, drunkest five or six years you'll ever spend.

Or was that just me?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My Favorite Time of the Year in Japan...

The cherry trees are blossoming like white clouds all across the nation, which means it's hanami time. And hanami, as you know by now, are cherry blossom-viewing picnics where people congregate in great crowds in every available greenspace featuring cherry trees-- sakura in Japanese-- and get pleasantly blotto while basking in the mild temperatures and hazy sun of early spring. The days are pleasantly cool, the nights a bit chilly. But that's not why this is my favorite time here.

What I especially love about the first of April in Japan is seeing the groups of new company employees in their brand new black suits. You can easily spot them not only because of this particular businesslike uniform they sport, but because they're always together and they're so impossibly young and fresh-looking. They also have these semi-amused/semi-bewildered expressions because their new companies are blowing their minds on a daily basis with huge learning curves and almost all of them are scared shitless they're going to screw up and be sent home at any moment to live a life of abject failure.

But that rarely, if ever, happens. And, secretly, they know they're going to fit in and do what's expected of them. They've been practicing this their entire lives.

College is over, all the tests and exam-related anxiety is finished. Now comes forty or so years of virtually guaranteed employment for the young men, and two or three years of labor before marriage for the women. Occasionally, there are some young women who want to climb the corporate ladder, but it's pretty difficult for them. Last year, prime minister candidate Koike Yuriko said, referring to a recent American presidential candidate, "Hillary used the word 'glass ceiling'...but in Japan, it isn't glass, it's an iron plate."

I believe this is because companies expect merely to rent their female employees for a few years at most before weddings and babies. Some ideas are seemingly hardwired into corporate (and personal) philosophies in Japan, and this is one of them.

Another thing you may or may not be aware of-- In America, we apply for specific jobs, at any time the need for employment moves us; in Japan, you apply for companies, and job hunting is done at the beginning of your senior year in college. You're hired up to a year in advance and with absolutely no idea of what you'll actually be doing once you begin working. Graduate from college in March, start your job in April. Everything has its time and place in Japan, and schedules should be followed as meticulously as possible. Then, the company assigns you to whatever position they feel you're best suited for, or for whatever they need you to do, qualifications be damned.

And I've seen them every day this week. Eating my early dinner in a train station restaurant yesterday, a great parade of new company employees passed by behind me. One young guy and girl had paired off together and were cracking up over a private joke. I get a kind of contact excitement, by wireless transmission, by osmosis, when I see them and their new adult haircuts, their hopeful, unlined faces some still with a bit of baby fat, their crisp dark suits.

A new uniform for a new learning experience.