South Africa envoy says Japan needs to reinvent itself | The Japan Times

South Africa envoy says Japan needs to reinvent itself | The Japan Times.

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I love mochi! I want to try out this recipe soon! It’s still technically January, so that’s New Years-ish right?

nihonomnom

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Kagami mochi 鏡餅 (Mirror Mochi) is traditional Japanese new years decoration for good luck. It is displayed in the family’s kamidana 神棚 (household shrine) throughout New Years period, up until the 11th of Janurary at which time it is eaten.

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Kagami mochi is made from two hard oval shaped mochi of slightly different sizes. The larger one is placed at the base with the smaller one stacked on top, finaly a daidai 橙 (japanese bitter orange) is placed at the peak.

After the new years period has passed, on Janurary 11th a ceremony called Kagami Biraki 鏡開き (literally. Opening the Mirror) is performed in which the Kagami mochi is removed from the kamidana and broken into small pieces to be eaten.

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Because the mochi has been sitting exposed to the air for several weeks, it becomes cracked and brittle because if this it is possible to break the mochi with…

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Itako’s First Snow Fall!

Today, I opened my door to beautiful surprise. Snow covered everything as far as the eye could see. My mouth actually dropped open in surprise. My neighbors were outside, too, looking just as shocked as I was.

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My street’s trees covered in snow!

In Itako, it maybe snows about two times a year. Usually, it’s only a slight powder that quickly turns into this gross brown mush on the sidewalks and streets. It never gets to the point where it can actually affect anything.

And yet for some strange reason, Jack Frost decided to pay us a visit early this morning, giving Kashima City its first snow day in who knows how long. Where I live, the school decided to have a late start, at 11 a.m, with only three class periods today.

Hinode JHS

My base school’s entrance

Back in Kentucky, this snow fall wouldn’t even be considered for a snow day, but Itako doesn’t have any removal teams. There’s no snowplows that go through the streets, just sometimes poor, unfortunate teachers and/or volunteers that come out with gardening shovels to remove the white stuff. Sidewalk salt is available at the drug store, but nobody actually buys it (until today).

All snow removal done by Hinode JHS teachers.

My school’s front car entrance and street sidewalks.

I love it so much! I wouldn’t want it to last forever, but this kind of snow reminds me of home.  When I went back to the U.S. for Christmas, I got to have snow. When I came back to mainland Japan, I felt instantly a little homesick because of the lack of snow. Not that I’d want to live in Hokkaido, the supposedly ever snowing north lands that could rival the cold of The Wall from Game of Thrones, but I missed the sight of snowflakes falling on the wind. I also found that I missed good ol’ fashioned snowball fights.

Luckily, some of my students were more than happy to hit me with a snowball today. I ended up going outside to welcome the kids for our late start. Some students looked absolutely pissed about the fact they were cheated out of a real snow day. Most kids, however, chose to get in as many snowball fights as humanly possible before they absolutely had to go to class. When I asked students how they were, most said, “Happy!” Some students playfully threw snowballs at me, so I shocked them by retaliating. We ended up having a small fight before they had to leave for class. I felt so, so happy, right before I got a shovel and started helping out my fellow teachers make the sidewalks snow free.

I will look back fondly on this day, but I will admit I won’t be terribly upset to see it go. I’m thankful I got to have a little fun with my students, and that I got a small reminder of home at my second home. Still, I know that just like back home, I would get so sick of the stuff within a week.

So thanks for the lovely present, Jack, but you can go now.

"You're welcome!"

Rise of the Guardians is amazing, by the way. Go see it!

The Return of the Flu Season

Last year, I nearly died, or at least I felt that way. My body was ravaged by a fever of 39ºC (sometimes rising to 41ºC) with a side of cold flashes, hot flashes, sweating, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and aches. I went through five boxes of tissues, praying the whole way through the experience that God be merciful and cut off the blood supply to my entire face.

Needless to say, the flu is not fun. It’s a horrible experience. I was one of those unlucky people who got the Type A, which is the more severe influenza virus. The Type A virus causes the big spreads of flu from person to person (and sometimes even from person to animal). Type B is the typical crud virus that might take you out for a day but you’re fine come the next morning.

Recently, many students at my base school tested positive for Type A. The school immediately took full defensive measures and put on the white mouth masks. I wore one off and on throughout this season, but when my Vice Principal actually sat down to talk with me about the issue with an English dictionary I decided to make it a permanent fixture on my face for the near future.

It’s interesting how some Japanese customs are similar and different from American ones in terms of flu prevention. Both recommend washing your hands as often as possible. Every classroom at my school has hand sanitizer and students are encouraged to use it the most when they’re sick. Both also recommend not going outside into the cold. If it is necessary to go outside, bundle up. Wear a jack, scarf, and mittens. It’s winter, for Pete’s sake, quit exposing your legs!

Winter Idiocy

However, Japan and other Eastern countries put on the mouth masks for protection from illness Americans generally don’t unless we’ve got some kind of lung condition that makes it necessary. Japanese people do it for everything: colds, flus, viruses, you name it. If there’s something in the air, the white masks go on the face. It was strange walking around my town this week since everyone wore one. I felt like I was in the midst of the movie Contagion, and I feared for my body.

Check out the one dude who's being an individual.

The fashion for winter.

Japanese people also have this habit of chugging health drinks. Vitamin D is especially popular. When I went to my local 7 Eleven a few days ago, the place was sold out of them. In America, people generally take the medicine a doctor gives them and not much else. Maybe an American might pop a Centrum pill in with the pharmaceutical cocktail the doc gave them, but health drinks aren’t really a thing.

I’ve also been told repeatedly by my co-workers that I should gargle. Apparently, gargling and spitting out all the crud from your throat and mouth supposedly gets rid of a lot of germs. Most Americans I know don’t put much stock in this piece of advice, and to be honest no study I know shows that it does anything. Still, I’d say if you’ve got a sore throat, go ahead and gargle with some salt. It’s a nice old fashioned home remedy that both countries agree will help get rid of the soreness quickly.

And, of course, Japan recommends drinking copious amounts of tea. America loves to drink water for hydration when there’s a flu outbreak. Japanese people will thrust green tea at you if you sniffle. All my teachers recommend drinking tea with honey, especially honey harvested locally. I know of no bee farms near me, so I just use the grocery store’s stuff.

Personally, I’m doing my best to avoid the flu. I do not want a repeat of the nightmare from last year, I hope everyone else stays healthy as well out there in the germ riddled world.

After all, the flu is out there, waiting, plotting it’s next move to strike when we least expect it.

Some Parts Assimilated. Some Not-So-Much. It’s All Good.

When I went through the JET Program orientation in Tokyo, I got a serious lecture about the stages of living abroad. Firstly, a foreigner will experience euphoria. Everything is new and awesome! I went through this phase for a while, but I hit the next phase around Halloween. Secondly, a very tired of all this new stuff foreigner will experience things such as culture shock, which should actually be called cultural fatigue. I hit this stage for only a few weeks, getting back into euphoria for December because it was Christmas time. Thirdly, there’s assimilation. This phase basically means you’ve moved onto the “same stuff, different day” mentality, which is actually a good thing. Getting into a sense of normalcy with the environment and people around you makes for a much better living abroad experience than being constantly amazed by it. Being amazed all the time gets exhausting.

I’m on my second year in Japan and I plan to stay at least another year (but I’m aiming for about 6-ish years). I love living here in Japan, even though Japan and I can have issues with each other on either a cultural or language level. I think it’s safe to say I’ve assimilated in the sense that I’ve developed a sense of normalcy with all the aspects of my new life. I surprise more than a few Japanese people around town with my Japanese or in other cultural ways.

For example, bowing is one of those little cultural things I picked up easily as most people generally do. Bowing is a simple way of showing respect, humility, and apology all at the same time. I use it around strangers the most. If I don’t know someone, I’ll be moving like one of those toy bird water dipping things over and over again. I also tend to use “Gomen (ne)! ごめん (ね)!” all the freaking time. Saying “sorry” over and over does the same cultural functions as bowing. I use bowing and sorry together a lot over here.

I’ve used it so much it’s become an automatic reflex. When I hit the atrocity that is the Chicago O’Hare airport around Christmas time, I bumped into people. Now, a normal American might say, “Oops, sorry!” or “My bad!” and proceed onwards. My reaction was to come to a full stop bow and say “Gomen! ごめん!” I believe the man I said that to thought I must’ve been insane. I tried to recover (as in run away and never look back), while mumbling “Sorry…” with a huge embarrassed blush on my face.

Bowing like a boss

Like this, only with more panic.

What I did falls under the reverse culture shock part of living abroad. Reverse culture shock basically means when a foreigner becomes so accustomed to a foreign culture that he or she has to readjust to the home culture. Some people can go through this after the cultural fatigue part of living abroad, but I didn’t. It wasn’t until I went back home that it really hit me. When I got back, I did little things here and there that showed I was going through reverse culture shock.

Once, I made friends uncomfortable with some accidental “silent treatment” as we were hanging out. I realized that I’d fallen into a nice comfortable relationship with silence. In Japan, people don’t talk over one another, and if there’s nothing to talk about then nobody talks. They just sit there and listen or enjoy the company. In America, people have this avid fear of silence, so people tend to talk over each other, interrupt, and talk for the sake of talking more than Japanese people do. Since I had been away for so long, I had honestly forgotten about some of these things I did in America.

But really in Canada!

If you get the joke, give yourself a cookie.

However, parts of me are still intensely American, and those parts will most likely never die. For example, Japan tends to deal with people not well liked in a passive aggressive manner. I once watched a cashier smile the entire time a woman harassed her over some grocery prices, never once breaking her genki mask. I was very impressed, because I can’t do that very well. As I’ve mentioned before, “genki” isn’t just a word that means “happy” but also a kind of cultural aspect of Japan wherein people put on this kind of exterior image and hold it no matter what the circumstances. It’s all about not being impolite and shoving your unwanted positive or negative emotions onto people.

I don’t deal with people I don’t like in a genki manner. I get mean. I’ve had a couple incidents wherein I’ve utterly lost my temper, and both incidents taught my two things. 1) I sound far more intimidating than I ever did in Japan and 2) Japanese people have no idea what to do when you get really angry with them. My first big incident happened in a club in Tokyo. A Japanese guy got way too aggressive and demanding while I was dancing with him. When I refused to give him my email, he called me “a bitch gaijin” and I lost it. Security watched in amusement as the guy backpedaled his way off the dance floor while I yelled at him in a mix of English and Japanese I’m not entirely sure made sense.

My aggressive behavior, which I don’t even think is actually all that aggressive, scares Japanese people. For most of them, people only yell when they absolutely have to. Meanwhile, I’ve had screaming matches with my Sigma Tau Delta crew (a haughty English Majors society in University) about fictional characters and the problematic ending of Wuthering Heights. For me, aggressive sometimes equals fun and interesting.

For Japan, aggressiveness is generally viewed as a sign that someone is an “angry person” or “bad person” that should be avoided. I can’t tell you how many times during orientation people told us not to get angry at work. It causes all kinds of problems for an ALT to be viewed as an “angry foreigner.” If an ALT gets that label, then they’re often considered also as “hard to work with” and “unprofessional” and “creates problems in the workplace.” Even if there’s only one incident, it can make an ALT’s life very hard while he or she lives in Japan.

Thankfully, I’m not expected to “act Japanese” since I’m American. This lack of expectation makes it easier to find a balance between who I am as an American and what I wish to accept into my own identity while living abroad. Little by little, though, I’m starting to realize that some of these little changes might be a bit more permanent than I thought. Sometimes I get scared when I think about the bits and pieces changing without my full awareness. I don’t want to lose my original identity, but I’m not about to become a shut in to keep it. I’ve heard of people that can’t assimilate. They hole up inside their homes, never learning Japanese, just counting down the days until they go home. I don’t want to be like them. I also don’t want to go to the other extreme end of the spectrum and become that person who acts, thinks, and talks only Japanese.

Finding the balance is tricky, and there’s a lot of compromise involved. I wish someone had forewarned me about that part. Some things can’t exist in the same space, so I’ve had to deal with accepting some parts of Japan on an academic level but not taking them in with my own identity. Now, for me, that can be done easier than the other way around wherein I take in something Japanese culturally and in a sense replace something from my American identity. I’ve done it a couple of times. For example, I made the conscious effort to start walking over driving everywhere I go. When I had a car, I used it at first like an American would use it. I drove pretty much anywhere and everywhere that was outside of my house. I began steadily using it less and less until I walked more than I drove. It was an interesting change, but one I felt made me healthier and changed me for the better.

I think that living abroad and/or studying abroad provides a very unique experience for people. It can mold them into someone they never knew they could be. Learning about cultural differences can teach a person much about his or her own cultural biases. Cultural identity can be tricky to maintain, and putting yourself in a position that forces you to change isn’t for everybody.  Still, I recommend that to someone if he or she is thinking about it to try it out. It doesn’t have to be Japan, either. Heading out to Germany, China, Brazil, or wherever can grant a different perspective as well. Assimilating, learning to change, can be one of the most rewarding experiences. Missing out on that experience would be a downright shame.

Hint, hintity, hint

Do it!

On that note, if you live in Kentucky and want to study abroad, you should check out the KIIS (Kentucky Institute for International Studies) Program! I studied abroad in Japan for one month using the KIIS Summer Program. Apply online by Jan. 20, 2013 to save $100 off of any KIIS summer program fee. It’s like a $100 scholarship for every student. Plus those with complete applications on Jan. 20th are eligible for early acceptance. The regular application deadline is Feb. 15, 2013. You can also sign up for other programs that let you stay for a whole semester in a foreign country.

You can apply online at www.kiis.org.

New Years for Japan

New Years is the most important holiday in Japan. My friends and co-workers never really understood my love and affection for Christmas. All of my co-workers had to work on Christmas, which surprised me. My co-workers didn’t seem to care. Instead, they asked me about my New Years plans, of which I had none. It was their turn to be surprised, since they had big plans to go to shrines and eat lots of food with their families. Their break was for New Years. They were all about the mochi and the soba noodles coming their way on New Years Day. A few of my teachers planned to go to Tsukuba-san for the hatsuhinode (初日の出), the first sunrise of the year. This is not to be confused with hatsumōde which is the first trip to a shrine or temple. Many people visit a shrine after midnight on December 31st or sometime during the day on January 1st. I did this last year with a good friend of mine. We went to the Kashima Shrine for food, purification for the new year, and to buy spiritual charms.

Kashima Shrine New Years Day 2012

Kashima Shrine New Years Day 2012

My students couldn’t have cared less about the one puny gift they get on Christmas since they were getting money on New Years.  Otoshidama (お年玉) is handed out in small decorated envelopes called ‘pochibukuro.’  My students told me they all wanted to get money for cool things their parents wouldn’t get them. My students hoped to get a lot of money, and I’ve heard it’s not uncommon to get about ¥15,000 as a gift. My students had plans for their money.

Everyone was excited about the whole New Years postcards, too. In America, Christmas and New Years cards are traditional, but the tradition of New Years cards in Japan is intense. The end of December and the beginning of January are the busiest times for the Japanese post offices because everybody sends New Year’s Day postcards (年賀状 nengajō) to their friends and family. The whole point is to send these postcards so that they arrive on January 1st or it’s not as awesome. It’s kind of like getting a present after Christmas. It’s cool, but just kind of not as much.

Around November,  nengajō hit the shelves of stationary stores, bookstores, convenience stores, and so on. Most of these have the Chinese zodiac sign of the New Year as their design, or conventional greetings, or both. Sine this is the year of the snake, which so happens to be my year, there were a lot of really cute snake designs and snake stickers for nengajō. Famous characters like Snoopy and Disney characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse are really popular.

Ain't it cute?

A Year of the Snake postcard for New Years

The common nengajō greetings include:

  • kotoshi mo yoroshiku o-negai-shimasu (今年もよろしくお願いします) (I hope for your favour again in the coming year)
  • (shinnen) akemashite o-medetō-gozaimasu ((新年)あけましておめでとうございます) (Happiness to you on the dawn [of a New Year])
  • kinga shinnen (謹賀新年) (Happy New Year)

My neighbors and co-workers would tell me “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai. よいお年をお迎えください。”  while my friends said “Yoi otoshi o! よいお年を!” which means “I wish you will have a good new year!” in Japanese when they saw me close to Christmas time. It was a little strange since I’m not used to hearing “Happy New Year!” before Christmas. Many people said, “Merry Christmas!” to me as well, but not as much as “Yoi otoshi o! よいお年を!”

This year, I went back home for Christmas and New Years. Last year I went home for Christmas but came back early for New Years. I had myself a grand old time eating lots of food and seeing all my family and friends back home. I hit the theaters to see all the cheap movies I possibly could. I saw The Hobbit (twice), Django Unchained, Rise of the Guardians (also twice), and a couple of others. I ate an extremely unhealthy amount of junk food and ate Luck Charms every single morning. Seriously, Lucky Charms doesn’t exist in Japan. The only cereal I can find is the healthy stuff, corn flakes, and frosted flakes. I also ran around enjoying the ability to communicate with everyone and being able to read. You know, the little things. I also went shopping for clothes, because nothing in Japan fits quite right. Leaving hurt a bit, but knowing goodbye doesn’t mean forever is comforting. I’ll still miss every one something awful.

Coming back from Christmas and New Years in America, I felt like a zombie. Jet lag sucks. I can usually avoid it by sleeping on the plane, but I had a child kicking my seat nearly the entire way back so that didn’t happen. When I arrived in my new suit to school, I could tell my Japanese co-workers weren’t exactly fully awake either. Apparently, nobody likes to come back from a break.

We did our opening ceremony for the New Year, which took a freezing hour to complete. Japan doesn’t believe in putting heating or air conditioning in gymnasiums so everybody stood shivering while people gave speeches. First, the Vice Principal goes up to the podium. Second, a representative from each year level (1st, 2nd, and 3rd years are the equivalent of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders). Third, the Principal comes up to give a speech, and usually Principals take the longest because they’re the most important person. Luckily, our Principal got right to the point and finished quickly, telling everyone to keep healthy since everybody and their mother has the cold or flu right now. Lastly, everyone sings the school’s anthem. I usually just hum along and sing only the parts I know.

I told some of the teachers “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. あけましておめでとうございます!。” with a small bow. I messed up on more than one occasion, but my teachers helped me out. Japanese people say this phrase as like “Happy New Year” to a person the first time they see him or her in the new year. “Akemashite omedetou. あけましておめでとう。” is the more informal form that’s used between friends. Since I’m not Japanese, I didn’t get this greeting very often, but my teachers seemed to appreciate it. There was also my usual exchanges of “Hisashiburi! 久しぶり!” with people  which means “Long time no see!” in Japanese. Every time I switch schools I get this greeting. It’s nice to be missed and it’s good to be back.

I hope this New Year will have some excellent adventures. Since I’m staying in Japan another year, I hope that I can get a chance to explore some more. It’s not really a resolution, but I’m making some plans. I hope this year is awesome for everyone else as well.

Happy New Year! あけましておめでとうございます!