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Dear Gaijin Girl,
I really really want to learn Japanese. How do I do that?
My advice is don't. However, if you really really want to learn Japanese nothing I say can stop you, you poor and unfortunate soul.
With that in mind, I highly recommend you watch Japanese dramas. They are the perfect guide to speaking Japanese like real people. (Forget that anime stuff unless you want to sound like you are perpetually ready to either burst into tears or attack pocket monsters.)
You also want to watch live action dramas so you can understand the grammatical value of Japanese facial expressions and what they mean. In order to speak Japanese like a native it's important to learn the fine art of being expressionless. When you master this, you will then able to not react to anything that you perceive as negative or unfavorable. As we all know, in Japan, if you ignore something you don't like, it will eventually go away like the homeless man masturbating in the station, the foreigner trying to get the station manager to stop the masturbating homeless man or the wife at home. It's a handy skill to have when dealing with the police and the NHK man. (And you will deal with them more than you ever wanted to)
Japanese dramas are hour long shows that run for three months and then they are over. If the dramas are popular, they may have a second or third season the following year but that is pretty unlikely.
Japanese dramas are always called dramas, even if they are comedies because if the network were to label a show a comedy they would also find the need to fuck it up with story stopping gags. I'll admit to watching and loving two Japanese comics take turns hitting each other as hard as they can in the shins with metal park swings for half an hour but I wouldn't watch an hour of it every week for a season. It is unfortunate that most Japanese comics on TV have very little or no control over their material or their career and make very little money doing it. If you ever wonder why the contestants on Japanese gameshows are never civilians but are always comedians trying to win things like cheese and ham, it's because they are broke and hungry. They are literally working for food.
Japanese dramas also let you in on some important and commonly held beliefs in Japan. The first being that if you are caught in the rain without an umbrella, you will get sick and probably die. A strange pair of shoes in your genkan or entrance means your significant other is cheating on you. A half eaten boxed lunch means a husband no longer or never did love his wife. Anybody with a necktie around their head is a drunk asshole over 50. Any drama with Kimura Takuya or Kimutaku in it is good. (Though the theme music will be bad.) Any drama where the lead is a female is antifeminist propaganda. Japanese people who speak English too well are evil. (American movies are also guilty of this. In them, the devil is always a white guy ridiculously good at speaking Russian or Chinese.) Marriage proposals are never romantic and if you fall in love with the wrong person (or your ordained by the gods soul mate) you will also fall into a coma or go blind.
Enjoy and good luck,
A friend from the States is visiting me in Tokyo. What is the most Japanese place I can take them?
I am so glad you asked this question. Skip the temples, the sakura and the sake. The most Japanese place on earth is Tokyo Disneyland, possibly Tokyo DisneySea. I know you're probably thinking this is American imperialism at it's worst. It's not. In true Japanese fashion, Japan has embraced the brain child of my fellow Kansas City escapee and infamous chain smoker, making it her own. (It was bound to happen. Mickey's head and ears are so circular they are positively zen like and the Japanese love smoking more than Don Draper.)
For starters, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneysea are crazy crowded but never chaotic. People wait quietly yet excitedly for hours at a time to ride the latest Disney miracle with zero complaints or whining. (The only whining or crying I've ever seen there is by foreigners or children too small to feel the collective burning shame radiating from society.)
The park is ridiculously clean, even by Tokyo standards. Sure, you will find a bit of popcorn here and there.The physical evidence of a small child losing their mind when meeting the absolutely gigantic Mickey Mouse. Unlike Western toddlers, they seldom scream or cry in the faces of Mickey, Minnie or even the Frozen chicks. Instead, they silently implode. That is why the park smells of anticipation. That is to say that the park smells of strawberry and caramel popcorn farts.
The staff are so polite and accommodating to guests every single need that after I left the park, I found it frustrating when my taxi driver was unable to read my mind. Even cast members hauling trash bags full of dirty diapers smile and wave at guests and tourists with a grace and gusto that puts royal families to shame. If you drop your purse or wallet under a seat in a ride or on Main Street, U.S.A it will show up in lost and found within minutes if not seconds and all of your credit cards and cash will have remained in tact. (Unless you'd just come from the souvenir shop. In which case, you wouldn't have anything left to steal anyway.)
If you've spent more than five seconds in Japan, you know how imperative it is to be or have something cute. Life just does not get any cuter than it does at Tokyo Disneyland or Disneysea, nor could it be more embraced by every gender and age. Everyone dresses cute there, it doesn't matter if you're 4 or 400 years-old. You've got your Lolita on. ( I've seen the roughest, toughest pinky missing, pubic hair perm wearing "family man" in an oversized Winnie the Pooh hat giggling into his soy sauce and butter popcorn Donald Duck bucket. (Yes, that flavor exists.)
Each character has his/her own herd of groupies with season passes, many of whom remind you of the groupies depicted in Almost Famous. Many of these teens,twenty somethings and kyoiku mommas would let a character have their way with them behind the rocks of Thunder Mountain if Mr. Big Yellow Shoes only asked. Sadly, the characters are not allowed to talk. Plus, it is damn near impossible to tell at a glance which groupies would take up an indecent proposal because Japan does not make a distinction between dressing cute and dressing sexy. They are one and the same. FYI, to stop dressing cute is to renounce one's sexual activity once and for all.
Just so you know, every one of the Japanese kids in the Disney character drawing class is going to kick your ass. (especially since erasers are banned) Just accept that and enjoy your glorious mistakes. You will be complimented on your "creativity" and "skill" by the teenager sitting next to you with a flawless replica of Rapunzel as if your making Rapunzel look like she was chewing tobacco was a deliberate social statement on gender equality. Smile and say, “thank you”. Some of those kids think you have direct access to Disney himself. (You've got a better chance at being actual kin than they do) Maybe you are an undercover quality control expert or an animation talent scout for the next Toy Story movie. Ready or not, you will become apart of their Disney experience. Don't assume they are being sarcastic and resist the urge to pop their Fantasyland bubble. (I still have bite marks on my lips for my last visit a week ago.)
The Japanese have temples and shrines but Disneyland, Disneysea and the Apple store truly is Church. It's where people gather regularly, if not weekly, to worship with varying levels of devotion. If the Japanese like something or someone they like them forever (For example, Mr. Big is still big in Japan) maintaining a devotion and intensity that can be both charming and alarming. I once saw a what looked like a 6 year-old girl on her father's shoulders in tears screaming between hiccups, " I love you so much!" like Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GIyTFl4Cb4) as Cinderella passed by in the electric parade. Her surfer father, looking eager but unsure of how to support his daughter in her emotional outburst, thrust two shaka signs in the air screaming, " Hell yeah, we love you Cinderella!" It would be a pity for anyone visiting Japan to miss that.
Ask Gaijin Girl: Brilliant Advice From a Bitter Woman Always Ready to Help you With Your Life and Relationships Because She Never Has One
Dear Gaijin Girl,
I’ve bee invited to my coworker’s Wedding in Tokyo. What should I expect?
Be prepared to be poor! Just so you know, Japanese weddings come in parts of three and they don’t come cheap.
The first part is the actual ceremony. It is the exchanging of vows in a Shinto or Christian style shrine, church, chapel, hotel or beachfront. This ceremony typically lasts no more than twenty minutes and only the bride and groom’s closest family and/or friends attend. ( Count yourself lucky that you are not close friends because that makes things even more expensive for you along the way.) None of these ceremonies are legally binding, by the way. All the legal documents are handled a month or more before or after the ceremony at City Hall in the Department of Marriage, Death and Divorce, where the employees there make bets on why you’ll be visiting them next time.
(I’ve seen Mickey and Minnie sign as witnesses on a Marriage Certificate in a ceremony at Disneyland. I can’t think of a shakier foundation for a marriage unless the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had signed instead. ) The ceremony might last up to an hour or more at a Christian church. At one wedding I attended, the pastor told a long story about how the love between the bride and groom reminded him of the love a child with Down’s syndrome had for the local life guard. I don’t remember what happened in the story other than it was very long and touching but I do remember the bride and groom looking at each other throughout the whole story as if to say, “So, am I the kid with Down’s syndrome or is that you?!”
The second part is the main event and is a cross between a fancy five course dinner and a community theater talent show starring the groom’s company boss. It is customary/mandatory that you give the couple $300 in a special celebratory envelope you can buy at you’re local 7-11. Be sure not to buy the envelope for funerals right next to it. It sends a mixed message and delivers bad juju to the newly joined couple. (You really don’t want to jinx the marriage, because if your coworker divorces and then marries again, you have to gift yet another $300.) Japan’s Got No Talent/Why I Kept My Day Job Showcase part of the ceremony can go on for hours as selected coworkers, friends and family sing songs, act out hastily written comedy sketches, present PowerPoint presentations on how the bride and groom first met while ancient relatives live Skype simultaneously their congratulations and guilt trips for not having a wedding party closer to their respective hometowns. Tears flow freely and often. (Mostly because of the guilt trips.) Not to worry, so much good food will be coming your way that you’ll be too busy cutting your steak into bite size pieces to notice most of the waterworks. (I always am.) The grooms boss at some point will make the equivalent of the best man’s speech, only duller. Japanese style speeches leave much to be desired. They don’t like to get to the point. They would much rather beat around the bush until it’s obliterated. Fortunately, by time the bossman goes to the podium to speak, you’ll be too drunk to care. As you leave the party, one of two things will happen. The bride and groom will give you either a”Thanks for coming” gift, such as a candle or a fancy photo frame, or they will give you a catalogue of gifts ranging from jewelry to home appliances to sports equipment for you to take home and choose a “thank you”to be delivered to your home. (The gifts range in quality from Cracker Jack toy to Argos.)
Part three is the “after party” that will cost you anywhere from $20-$100. It is usually a bar with an all-you-can-drink 2 hour plan. Typically, there is one table for boys and one table for girls. Welcome to the 8th grade with alcohol. Hardly anybody hooks up because of or at a Japanese wedding party. (That includes the bride and groom) Under no circumstances are you to dress sexy. Cute is the order that rules the land. Dress as you would for senior prom circa 1955. There will be very little or no dancing or mingling, just a lot of people asking you when you are getting married again, planning to have a child, and exactly when you plan on retiring to raise your still nonexistent children. In other words, bring a book.
Dear Gaijin Girl,
I’ve just started working at a Japanese office and I have been invited to go to a cherry blossom viewing party with my colleagues but I don’t like to drink. What should I do?
Oh my poor, sweet and ridiculously silly Tom. If you do not like alcohol, why in the name of Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker and Shirley Buddhist Temple are you in Japan of all places?! Did you fly in direct from Salt Lake City or what?
In Japan, alcohol does not merely help lubricate social and work events, it is the fuel that propels society, family and business into the future. As an employee and team member you will be required to eat and drink with your boss and colleagues more often than you ever will with your spouse. You’ll be obliged to pour your boss’s beer again and again whenever the tiny glass threatens to go empty. You are never allowed to pour your own drink. Someone else will be in charge of filling your own glass, probably a coworker that is three years your senior and already hates your guts because your English is much better than his and you get paid slightly more than him as you are as considered part guest, part circus sideshow and part office pet, in that you aren’t expected be around in two years time. This man will do everything in his power to oblige you to bow to the social pressure of drinking too much and then eating ramen until you are projectile vomiting all over your boss at the train station. (A sublime job perk not mentioned in your contract. )
Sakura (cherry blossom) season is upon us. It’s the time when the nation collectively responds to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” with “Who cares?! Look at the pretty flowers! Here, drink this and when you feel sick just be sure to aim away from the blue tarp. We don’t want anyone thinking it’s a monjayaki buffet.”
There are a lot of Japanese people who do not drink. They are a silent minority that frequently “pass” as drinkers in order to escape being socially and ultimately monetarily punished for not “being a team player”. Many pretend to be wildly drunk, dancing around the bar or izakaya singing Elvis Presley until everyone looks as uncomfortable as George Bush did when Koizumi had a religious experience in Graceland.
Women have it easier in that they are not expected to drink nearly as much but also have to sidestep comments from male and female colleagues about their breast size, backside and speculation as to whether they’d be maguro (move like a dead fish) in bed. There may or may not be any groping to contend with. Oddly, I’ve been groped by Japanese women far more than I’ve been groped by men. Women have grabbed or “honked” my breasts on a train platform in the middle of the day. I’d yell at them, “What are you, crazy?” Stop it!” They wouldn’t. My offended reaction egged them on so I learned through exasperation that the only way to make them stop was to grope them in return. If a woman “honked” my boob, I’d honk them right back. If they grabbed my ample life raft of an ass, I’d manage to get a handful of their nonexistent one. It worked.
Once, I was groped on the street by a man on a bicycle. I had just stepped out of a taxi and turned around to go up the street and suddenly this bald dude that was sweating alcohol was in my face. He gave my boob a hard squeeze. I screamed, he grunted and then he took off on his bike. If you have to be sexual assaulted, that’s the kind you want, quick and relatively painless but it really irked me that someone could be so mentally ill and have such good coordination and balance skills at the same time. It’s just not fair. In hindsight, I wished I’d been grocery shopping earlier and had a tin can of tomato sauce to hurl and dent the other side of his bald head with as he rode away. Call me a romantic, it’s just a better end to the story.
Anyway, you will sooner or later be required to drink with your coworkers, clients, and future in-laws. Japanese style bars frequently have plastic potted plants near the table for you to discreetly dump your drink if you want. Learn how to act drunk. Also, develop a repertoire of different kinds of drunk, ranging from mildly tipsy to wandering naked in a park so you are ready for any occasion or alcohol level. Don’t be afraid to get yourself in embarrassing situations. Japanese love nothing more that to be told a story about how you woke up at the station in a pool of your own vomit, decided to write your bicycle home where you lost control, hit the curb, fell off face first into the sidewalk, breaking your jaw. They LOVE stories like that because it’s what their wife did last week after the PTA meeting. (Actually that example came from a Japanese grandmother. That jaw break earned her all kinds of street cred and is now considered a legend in her community.) It’ll bring you closer together as coworkers and comrades.
I don’t judge you for not liking drinking. I don’t drink much myself. (My drug of choice is sugar) It’s just so much easier to fit in Japan if you do. I’m not saying you’ll be any happier or more financially secure. I’m just saying people will be less annoyed with you and see you less as an outsider. I guess what I’m saying is, “ If you’re not planning on becoming a drinker, GET OUT OF HERE!" If you don't, it's only a matter of time before you're cleaning up your inebriated coworker's urine puddle at the station with spare tissue you found at the bottom of your briefcase, on a Saturday night. I seriously doubt your company pays you enough to put up with that.
Ask Gaijin Girl: Brilliant Advice From a Bitter Woman Always Ready to Help you With Your Life and Relationships Because She Never Has One
Dear Gaijin Girl,
I’m a first year English teacher at a primary school in Iwate. I’ve just been invited to attend the funeral of our principal’s husband. What should I expect?
Just so you know, it doesn’t matter if you teach English at a primary school or not. If you are a foreigner in Japan, you are an English teacher. It’s only a matter of time until your pillow talk includes an exasperated explanation on why you said, “Do that thing I like.” instead of, “Do this thing I like.” that will kill the romance faster than a chopstick up the nose. As grammar takes up more and more of your conversation and he takes note of new vocabulary words you’ve unwittingly dropped, you will soon begin to wonder if he is using you just to improve his TOEIC score and get that coveted, swanky overseas promotion at work. Trust me, it feels better to be used for sex. At least sex is sexy. Having to explain what predicates are while having sex? Not so much.
Sorry to hear about your principal’s loss. That’s a shame but from a cross cultural perspective, it’s kind of cool. You get to experience Buddhism in all off it’s cyclical pond paradise glory. ( I recently walked by a Buddhist cemetery that had on it’s wall an advertisement for the love hotel next door to it. On the other side of the love hotel was a crematory. That busy block represented the circle of life not found as an attraction at your local Disney park.)
You should know that you will be expected to bring money, ¥5000 (about 50 bucks) in a special “Sorry he/she died” envelope. (You can buy the envelopes at your local convenience store for a buck or more. Be careful not to choose the “So happy he died!” implying celebratory envelopes right next to them. These envelopes can look virtually identical unless you can decipher the handwritten style Kanji on the flashy chord embroidered faces. Bring a Japanese person with you to make sure, you don’t want to be the one who lets the cat out of the bag and confirm what everybody is really thinking, that nobody really liked him. Plus, it’s bad juju.
The Japanese aren’t as much religious as they are superstitious. (Though they are beyond fine with opening umbrellas indoors. So much so that if I were superstitious, I’d point a finger at all the rows of open drying umbrellas in schools and apartment buildings and, like a mechanic with his butt crack showing, pronounce, “Well there’s the cause of all your earthquakes and disasters right there.”)
I was recently in a building on grounds that were used as a prison for war criminals. Plus, it was the site of several executions during and after WWII. The building is now a shopping mall called “Sunshine City” and many people working in it are convinced it is haunted with ghosts. When our elevator stopped, opening at the 4th floor when nobody had pushed a button for it and there was no one waiting to get on, the two women in the elevator with me agreed it must have been ghosts and commented that if you were there all alone in the building at night, you could hear the ghosts marching and/or screaming. Interesting for sure, but it doesn’t answer the more pressing question, “Why would a ghost need an elevator?”
Back to funerals, don’t put anymore than ¥5000 in the envelope, or you’ll look happy he died. Also don’t wear anything shiny, hair clip, tie clip or otherwise. This is also considered a celebratory, “yay he’s dead” gesture. Wear all black, and I mean all black, preferably a bit shitty too. If you want to wear jewelry, an unflattering single string of fake pearls is your only option. Men wear a black suit, white shirt with a black tie, a la Blues Brothers. When in doubt, just think “What would I wear or do at a jazz funeral” and whatever your answer is, don’t do that.
Be prepared for very few tears and a lot of smiling and laughing by friends and family before and after the ceremony, particularly if the deceased is old. Everyone will appear to be happy in a “I never thought he’d leave!” kind of way. Some will be, for sure. Generally, the waterworks tend to flood at home after the funeral. The smiling and the laughing are a brave show to a room full of people who are also a little bit drunk or can’t wait to be a lot drunk at the after party.
If you attend the wake, expect shitty food, usually stale finger sandwiches from a catering service specializing in shitty food for funerals and wakes. (Again, if the food is good, it’s the mark a celebration. Plus, grief is a lot like flying in that your palate is shot anyway.)
A super expensive Buddhist priest with pop up midway through the ceremony, put his Rolex watch to the side and then chant a bit, 15 minutes or so, he may or may not wave around a horse hair whip, put his watch back on and then promptly disappear.
You will probably be expected to pinch ash, (not the deceased, something akin to incense ash) and raise it to your forehead with a quick prayer for the deceased.
You might also help place statues of wooden Buddhas and the deceased’s favorite flammable things, pictures, cigarettes, anime figurines, and that sort of thing in the casket before taking it to the crematory. The crematory is usually a private bus ride away from the funeral home, creating a chicken exit for those not able to stomach watching someone go into and out of an oven where guests are expected to help place the biggest bits of the remains in a box via chopsticks. (I recommend skipping this bit if your chopstick skills aren’t up to snuff. You don’t want to be the one who accidentally flung Grandpa’s backbone clear across the room and into a bin.)
Oh yeah, before you leave, you’ll be given a gift. Usually something boring and dull (hints of celebration be damned unless it's alcohol related) like buckwheat tea or new bath towels. I have a stack of these towels in my closet. No matter how hard I try and as nice as they are, I just can’t bring myself to use the “Dead Man’s “towels. I can’t shake the feeling he can see me use them. I guess I’ll have to ask him if he can the next time an elevator door at Sunshine City opens for no reason.
Dear Gaijin girl,
My 45 year-old son isn’t married and still lives at home. How can I get him married or to move out of the house?
Sincerely sick and tired,
For the love of Buddha and the wife and child he abandoned, stop doing your son’s laundry! Stop cooking for him! Stop providing him a rent and utility free existence that enables him to buy enough electronics, game consoles and porn to ensure he doesn’t have to have any real human interaction until there is an electronic apocalypse or too many blisters on his right hand.
I also want you to ask yourself a few questions. If you are married, do you enjoy your marriage? Have you, at any point and time, told him that the only reason you are in the marriage was for your son’s benefit? If you have, you’ve got nobody but yourself to blame by giving him absolutely nothing to look forward to. The relationship between parent and child is typically stronger than between husband and wife in Japan. There was a time when this was necessary for survival but not anymore. (I seriously doubt your husband is a samurai riding horseback around the country burning down temples and shrines. If he is, well done. That’s much sexier than a salaryman getting drunk with his coworkers and projectile vomiting in the station.)
In the West, as you grow older, you gain more and more freedom along with control over your life. In Japan, it’s the opposite. As you grow older, you lose your freedom. That’s why a child under the age of 5 in Japan can resemble a wild animal. Once they enter the school system, the social pressure to conform is as swift and as intense as Anne Sullivan teaching Hellen Keller how to fold a napkin. In a way, life peaks at the age of 6 in Japan. You are surrounded by educated adults whose primary concern is your welfare. Kindergarten and elementary school teachers typically work past midnight every night (unpaid mandatory overtime) to decorate classrooms, put together activities and festivals in a manner that puts Broadway production values to shame. The typical elementary school classroom resembles Disneyland with desks and slightly better food. (F.Y.I. Disneyland food sucks balls) University is the last shot at freedom before entering a life sentence of doing desk work in a gray office in a gray building in a gray suit while being financially responsible for a family. Ask the average Japanese university student, “What are you reading?” They will reply, “What do you mean ‘reading?’ Why would I be reading? I’m going to Thailand to eat mushrooms and buy a T-shirt in a language I don’t understand that says, “I took home an exotic dancer and all I got was this pukey t-shirt.”
In the West, it’s completely different. Most parents swiftly kick their children out of the house when they are 18 and turn the child’s room into a gym or a dungeon filled with geriatric fetish furniture to host munches. This may seem harsh at first but the nice thing about kids being kicked out at that age is after they leave home, you never have to see them ever again unless you really want to and isn’t that a nice choice to have? You’ll be much less tempted to kill your son in his sleep, which is another option albeit a messy one. I should warn you that freedom works both ways. An American friend living in Japan complains about his mother in New Jersey constantly calling him asking him to visit. I tell him he doesn’t know how to leave a country right. He should have never given her his number.
Your son is fully aware of the fact that life can’t possibly get any better for him than it is right now so make life more difficult for him. Kick him out. Make him pay rent. Try and initiate sex with your husband in front of him. You don’t have to do that but try to rekindle the romance in your marriage anyway. A pickle tickle wouldn’t hurt you none. Frankly, you probably need it. (Oh and stop calling your husband ‘Dad’ your son doesn’t need the reinforcement to call him that anymore plus, it’s unsettling.) If this seems too difficult, move. Move away or get on the Peaceboat if you like just leave all your son’s stuff in garbage bags in front of the home you’ve vacated and don’t tell him where you’ve moved to for at least a year. That’ll get him out of the house and into a pachinko parlor or soapland but at least he won’t be your problem anymore. You’ve been a great mom but now is the time to cut the crusty cord and to stop fantasizing about the death of a person you are supposed to love before you end up on a wideshow for CO poisoning everyone in the house.
Dear Gaijin Girl,
I’m 16 years old, live in Iowa and want to learn Japanese. What’s the best way to do that?
Dear sweet Lori, I know exactly how you feel. You see a Kurosawa, an Itami film or some anime and are blown away by how exotic and mysterious the people and culture seem to be. Whenever people make a list of all the places they’ve visited on their website or in conversation, Japan is always mentioned last because it is culturally and technologically the closest you can get to the moon. Hell, you could have gone to the moon and set up a self sustaining colony there and people would still say, “Really? You’ve been to Japan? That’s fascinating!”
Let me save you hours upon hours spent scribbling thousands upon thousands of angled pretzels into little green boxes or conjugating infixes. Don’t bother learning Japanese, nobody is saying anything interesting.
I studied Japanese for three years in high school, four years in university (it was my major.) before coming to Japan to find out no one is debating the meaning of life or how many reincarnations it takes to reach enlightenment. They’re talking about how much cuter their rhinestone Hello Kitty smartphone case is compared to the “old” one they bought two months ago. (and that’s just the men)
One of my Japanese language classmates translated a book and some letters written in pre-Word War II Japanese into English. Because of this, he won an award and got to meet the emperor and empress. (He said they were nice and cordial enough but that their heads were so disproportionately large compared to their tiny little bodies that they looked like bobble-heads on a dashboard.) The night before he flew back to America we took him out for a drink that turned into several. Then this man who I looked up to and whose Japanese ability I absolutely envied said, “Why the hell did I study Japanese! Where can I go? Where will this take me other than Japan?! I should have studied Spanish or French, I’d be able to travel around Africa independently if I spoke French! Where the hell can I go with Japanese?! “ At this point, a Japanese friend and classmate raised a glass proposing a toast in his nonnative English, “May you never remember your time here forever!” “Here, here!” said my my award winning classmate as glasses clinked. Last I heard, he became a best-selling science fiction writer. I have no idea if he translates his books into Japanese himself, but somehow I doubt it.
By the way, just so you know, many Japanese people don’t want you to learn Japanese. It’s much more charming and romantic if you don’t. One summer, I went to the ocean. A twenty-something woman and her two friends approached me in the water.
“Where are you from?” she asked in Japanese.
“From the States. “ I answered.
“Cool, here, you can use my inner tube. Do you like Japan?”
“Sure, it’s great.”
“Your Japanese is pretty good. How long have you been here?
“Thanks, I’ve been here twelve years.”
“Ugh! Give me back my inner tube. You’re not any fun. You know too much about us!” she said as she took back her flotation device and swam in the direction of Westerners with tattoos on their forearms. Fat chance they’d been in Japan longer than a week unless they loved wearing long-sleeved shirts year round.
If I still haven’t deterred you from studying Japanese even after I tell you that unless you live in California, Hawaii, are Asian or work as a translator for a Midwestern soybean farm, people are going to assume you are pretentious and loaded since you have the time to study such a seemingly superfluous language. I recommend you have a “Japanese and…” plan. You can only learn a language effectively if you have something to talk about so pick some skills you can master, get paid for and then talk about. Do you like Japanese manga or anime? Learn how to draw and research the words and phrases that come up during rape. Do you like politics? Practice throwing people under the bus and then become proficient at avoiding direct questions about it. Maybe one day, you’ll be the American ambassador to Japan and when a dispute over whether Japan, Korea or China owns a particular island, as well as, the natural resources under it, you can bust out a pair the binoculars on the first bullet train to Kyoto and say,”My, what beautiful temples you have here!”
My advice? Learn how to code.
Dear Gaijin Girl,
My American husband and I are going to have a baby in ten months. I want to quit my job to be a full time mom. My husband wants me to go back to work soon after the baby is born. I’m confused. I thought he was supposed to take care of me? What should I do?
First of all, congratulations on bearing the fruit of unprotected sex, as well as, not having anywhere near enough communication on what you or your husband expects, needs and/or wants out of marriage ahead of time. You are going down a path so bilingually beaten you’re actually standing in a queue.
I have some news for you, Yuri. You’re going to be a full time mother whether you quit your job or not. That baby is going to take up more time, energy and money than you ever knew was possible. It appears that your husband is aware of this though he may not be aware that your office is expecting you to quit because it’s easier (and cheaper) for them to throw a farewell party and buy you a bouquet of flowers than grant maternity leave or offer flexible working hours. Japanese companies and medical institutions have a long way to go when it comes to women in the workplace/modern world . (After examining me, my male Japanese gynecologist while still looking at my who-ha, slaps me on the inner thigh shouting, “Good girl!”)
By the way, don’t tell Westerners when you’re 9 and 1/2 weeks pregnant that you’re 9 1/2 weeks pregnant. You’ll scare the shit out of them. They don’t know that you count from the last period instead of the last missed phantom period you were “supposed to have”. It sounds somewhat superhuman, like you are going to give birth to an action hero whose only weakness will be math.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, Yuri but ain’t nobody going to take care of you except you. Don’t misunderstand, I am not telling you to simply look out for #1 nor am I telling you to help your husband look out for #1. I am saying, “Welcome to world of readjusted life expectations!” You might want to take notes with an erasable pen.
Hopefully, you two will learn to look out for, live for and take care of each other. I’m not exactly sure how that works as I am never in a relationship due to my zero tolerance to bullshit. However, as far as I can gather from the 3% of healthy couples around me, this is a learned skill that develops over time through earnest trial and error, as well as, honest and consistent communication. Yuck! I know, it sounds hard and not anywhere near as sexy as the muddled montage of dubbed Beverly Hills 90210, Little House on the Prairie and Full House episodes that has been playing in your head since elementary school subconsciously shaping your international marriage expectations and priming you for epic disappointment. I suggest watching reruns of Roseanne, Married With Children, Raising Arizona and old family movies of my uncle at dinner desperately trying not to laugh while near deaf Grandpa hocks an epic and deep-seeded loogie a foot away from the table before announcing to all that I, his granddaughter, was not a picky eater as a baby, in fact, I “never did let go of that tit.” These are not accurate depictions of what family life should be like either but they will make you feel better about your current situation.
Good luck Momma, you are going to need it,
Always Ready To Give You Advice On Life And Relationships Because She Never Has One Dear Gaijin Girl, When I was dating my American husband two years ago, he said he would move back to the States and take me with him. Now he says that he never wants to go back but I want to live in America. What should I do? Troubled in Tokyo, Megumi
Dear Megumi, I can see where you are coming from, but have you been watching the news lately or ever? If you haven’t, let me fill you in on a tinny tiny development, America has done lost its mind. If you see a restaurant advertisement in the States proclaiming the food will “blow your tastebuds away” it’s because the chef can’t handle criticism, can’t afford his meds and carries a concealed semiautomatic gun at all times. And unless you plan on living in New York City or downtown Chicago, you are going to have to buy a car. Buying and maintaining a car in America is like having a financial caesarian every five to ten years: It’s ridiculously expensive and there is always the possibility you might die in it. ( Because somebody shot you.) Oh, and if you move to America, you won’t be able to save a seat at Starbucks by placing your brand new iPhone 6 on the table anymore because people STEAL SHIT there. In Japan, people aren’t robbed so much as we are collectively screwed over blind and we take comfort in the knowledge that everyone is screwed over together, keeping the paramount virtue of harmony perversely in tact. Oh yeah, and being screwed over in Japan doesn’t involve getting shot. That’s a lovely thing about Japan. If someone doesn’t like you, they don’t shoot you. They just make your life so miserable that you want to kill yourself. Anyway, it is easy to project our hopes and dreams onto a country that we’ve never lived in but think we know a lot about. I’m guilty of that myself. I thought I’d move to Japan, meet a nice man and be embraced by his family. Instead, well, let’s just say that did NOT happen and I’m kind of glad my Japanese isn’t good enough to understand every single racist and sexist slur hurled my way. One day on a Tokyo train, what looked like a 6 year-old boy told his father he thought I had pretty hair. The father turned to his son and said, “Don’t you ever bring a white woman home!” before going off on a tirade on how a woman like me would walk all over him, take all his money and leave him with nothing!” When he finished, I walked up to them, look at the little boy in the eyes and said in Japanese, “Listen to your father. Do exactly what he says. He knows what he’s talking about.” and got off the train. I wasn’t upset, I was too flattered that I was skinny or even remotely pretty enough to remind him of the Russian hostess that stole his money. I think you need to evaluate your relationship. Did you marry your husband because he looked like your love handled green card to America or did you want to build a life with him wherever you may be? If you REALLY want to live in America, you don’t have to marry or be married to an American to do it. You can figure something out. One more thing, if you decide to leave your husband and go to America on your own, don’t date a drug dealer, and don’t let them keep drugs in your house/apartment. I know too many Japanese women who got mixed up with drug dealers and ended up in American jail for two years before being deported back to Japan. (And by too many, I mean one.) Life is not a movie or a music video. (That said, her English got really, really good as did her Spanish but don’t you finish this letter thinking American jail is the new Rosetta Stone.) Good Luck, Gaijin Girl
Always Ready to Help You With Your Life and Relationships Because She Never Has One Dear Gaijin Girl, My American Husband and I have been married for three years and have two children. My husband still expects me to have sex with him. Is this normal? Sincerely Stumped, Mizuho
Dear Mizuho, I completely understand how you feel. Actually, no, that’s a lie. I cannot understand why you’d want to turn down a reliable and ready source of the coitus unless it’s your husband is really bad at sex or you don’t know how to enjoy it. In the West, sex is always considered a dish on the marital menu that may or may not be ordered every day but is never completely removed from the bill of fare unless the restaurant burns down. (Even then, I’m sure some people would roast marshmallows over the still burning flames of the building hoping against hope that their charred bits of sugar fluff will taste like sex or at least, a hand job.) As I told the Japanese wife of a Welsh neighbor, “If you want to have a long and happy marriage, learn how to like sex because your husband is going to want to have sex with you until you die and probably after.” (The Welsh husband smiled, nodded and drooled in agreement.) There are many resources you can go to to learn more about how to enjoy sex but I recommend staying away from Japanese porn or anything else that suggests woman are not voluntary participants in the act or involve girls so young they technically haven’t been born yet. Contrary to popular belief, your sexual prowess does not peak at twelve years-old and a satisfying sexual encounter does not have to include tears. If your husband is just plain bad at sex, I have nothing but sympathy for you. Men are very sensitive about their penises. It’s very hard to talk to them directly about how they use it. Japanese people often assume that Americans are super direct about everything, we’re not. The Russians are. You could probably tell a Russian man he was bad in bed and he wouldn’t get upset or take it personally. He’d just wonder why you expected anything positive out of life in the first place. For women, sex is 90% mental and 10% discovery. (You want to put what WHERE?!) I think your safest bet is to practice getting your head in the right space for sexy time. Try to practice fantasizing about things that will really get your juices flowing. Picture him paying all bills on time, for once. (That’s in my spank bank but you might want to aim for something a little more realistic and attainable.) This will take time to figure out and that’s ok. You’re married, you’ve got nothing but time. I suggest trying sex with a side of intimacy. It’s an item on the menu more exotic in Japan than whale, plus you won’t have to worry about Sea Shepherd documenting and live streaming your sexual exploration for the world to see. Good Luck, Gaijin Girl
Dear Gaijin Girl, Even though I divorced my American husband last year and we haven’t lived together for three years, he still calls and wants to visit. What should I do? Sincerely Stunned, Kimiko
Dear Kimiko, I understand your frustration, I really do but you need to LET THE MAN SEE HIS CHILDREN. You’re ex-husband is not calling to talk to you. He does not want to visit you. He is calling to talk to his children, let him talk to them, let him see his children. Let your children have a father. I am assuming that your ex-husband is not abusive. If he were, you wouldn’t be writing me, you’d be calling the police getting a restraining order which they pass out like candy. Since you’re not, I am going to assume your ex-husband is not dangerous. He’s just an idiot for not doing research before making a deposit in your marital sperm bank. He didn’t know that as a foreign man (or any man) in Japan, once divorced, has zero rights and is expected to sever all ties with his children once and for all. He didn’t know that some mothers, in an effort to make themselves more marketable on the 2nd marriage scene, have their parents adopt their children and raise their grandchildren as their mother’s siblings. It worked for Jack Nicholson and Eric Clapton, but who really wants their child to grow up to be an actor or musician? Your ex-husband has no idea that the millions of yen he is spending in legal fees to fight for the right to merely see his kids will be wasted until the judge pulls him aside and says,”Why are you wasting your time with this? You should be enjoying your time in Japan. I hear Disneyland is very nice.”(That conversation actually happened.) The bottom line is, if you want to continue to cut your children’s father out of the picture, the deck is stacked in your favor but is that what’s best for the children or you? Most likely, no. Your kids need a father and you need help raising your children. Is it uncomfortable? Sure, sometimes. Does it involve confrontation? Absolutely. Is it better for your children? Without a doubt. It’s crucial for your child’s development that they maintain healthy relationships with both parents regardless of your marital status. International marriages are hard. Both sides bring to the table latent and often contrary cultural expectations of what the marriage should be that don’t manifest themselves until after the mortgage papers are signed and the babies are born. Remember, in the beginning of your relationship with your ex, when not sharing a native language was a good thing? You didn’t fight or bicker, not because you didn’t want to but because neither of you had the vocabulary to do so in the other’s language so you let it go and had sex instead. That’s a great way to make dozens of babies but it’s a horrible communication foundation to have with your life partner. It might seem impossible to believe, but you might even develop a better relationship with your ex-husband as a fellow parent and caretaker if you let him. It's not going to happen right away, of course. It’s important to remember that your ex-husband is not the Devil, he’s just an asshole and he’s an asshole that deserves a shot at being a loving and supportive parent. Sincerely, Gaijin Girl
I’ve just finished reading an article about one of Japan’s latest food scandals. Yesterday, a Japanese woman said she found “dental material” in her hamburger bought at McDonald’s in Hokkaido this past September. She also said she initially thought the crunchiness was due to sand or stones in her burger. http://www.japantoday.com/category/business/view/woman-finds-dental-material-in-mcdonalds-japan-burger
There are so many things I already love about this woman. For starters, when she encountered a crunchiness not associated with hamburger, she thought it was sand and kept chewing long enough for her to reassessed her tastebud results and then decide that her burger might be filled with stones, resulting in her chewing some more. Tenacity is a precious personality trait that I think should be recognized and valued for all its jolie laide glory here.
On top of that, we are just hearing of it now when the culinary experience happened all the way back in September. I am going to guess that it’s taken her three months to come to terms with getting over the embarrassment of admitting to “eating sand or stones” and being ok with it. (Not that I can fault her. I recently ate a soap laced stew that I knew tasted wrong in every way but was too hungry to care. I think we’ve all been there. No? Nevermind, I’m fine now, thanks for asking.)
McDonald’s did not confirm if the “dental material” in fact was inside the hamburger but insisted that no employees had any teeth problems at the time. The above mentioned woman also denied having any dental problems. Well, now we know somebody’s lying. Everybody has problems with their teeth most of the time if not all the time. We know we are supposed to go to the dentist every six months but go every 6 years instead because going to the dentist is expensive and just plain sucks. Dentists don’t even like being dentists. They have a higher suicide rate than in any other profession. My point is, nobody goes to the dentist and McDonald’s doesn’t know if any of their employees had dental problems unless they sent them all to the dentist immediately which they wouldn’t because that’s expensive and sensible. They’d rather hire another lawyer. http://www.businessinsider.com/jobs-commit-suicide-2010-10?op=1
McDonalds has had quite the year when it comes to food scandals. A human tooth was found in a french fry. A strip of vinyl was found in a chicken nugget. A kid cut his mouth on a piece of plastic found in a chocolate sundae. Takehiko Aoki, senior vice president at McD’s Japan announced at a press conference that their new goal was to “make such cases zero”. That’s a great New Year’s resolution. It’s a clear, measurable and attainable goal that I’ve managed to maintain without even trying.
Aoki also said, “I am confident that my family can eat McDonald's products. "I will eat McNuggets." "I will feed McNuggets to my children. I have no doubts." Well, that’s one way of saying he doesn't particularly like his family, especially his children.
Dear Gaijin Girl, My American boyfriend talks during sex, is this normal? Sincerely Startled, Makiko
Dear Makiko, Yes, verbal communication before, during and after sex is common in the West though it is optional in Japan. You haven't elaborated on what he was saying so I will give you some guidelines as to what is acceptable for him to say on the futon floor and what's grounds to run screaming in the direction of your local koban. Acceptable things for him to say: "Oh Makiko!" "Your so hot!" "I just love your little (body part)" "I can't wait to put my throbbing (body part) in your little (body part) Note: His sentences might be peppered with other auto racing verbs, as well as, rude words in the four letter range, often starting with ‘f’ and ending in ‘ing’ . Unacceptable things for him to say: "Pull my Finger" "Oh Keiko! (or another woman/man/anime character’s name)" "I just want to cut/slice/dice you into pieces. (-ing forms of these or similar cooking verbs are also not ok.)" It is very possible that your boyfriend will want you to talk to him during sex. Things to say: "Your (body part) is so Big! " "Oh yeah!" "Don't stop!" Things best left unsaid during sex even if you really want to say them: “Would you like rice or bread in your bento tomorrow?” “You good?” “Wake me when you’re done. There’s a drama I want to watch on in 15 minutes.” “Your nose is so big!” “Dad? Is that you?” “(Ping) Ooh! A text!” “I have an English question. Do I say, ‘A boyfriend was bigger.’ or ‘All my boyfriends were bigger?’”
Keep a pencil and a pad of paper nearby so that If he says something that makes you uncomfortable you can write it down. It’s important to remember that when someone from a different culture says or does something that seems offensive, you have to give it a day and consult with people more knowledgeable than yourself before deciding that they are an asshole that deserves to be dumped. If you are really worried, I strongly suggest that you record what he says with an iPhone App or similar. Call his mother, playback what he says and see if she thinks his language is appropriate. I’m sure she’ll have a detailed answer either way, particularly if she is racist. The important thing to remember is that there are plenty of fish in this manmade reservoir of Tokyo and if you really want to be happy, dump your boyfriend and buy a cat. Sincerely, Gaijin Girl
Before I came to Japan, I was told that Japanese people were incredibly mature about the naked body. Not so. The first time I went to a public bath, within seconds of disrobing my boobs were poked and prodded by old ladies like I was an exotic animal at the petting zoo. I was met with a barrage of questions. " Why are your nipples pink?" " Why do your boobs move?"
When I had knee surgery in Japan. I had to have all my vitals checked beforehand. This included a heart monitoring. The head nurse, brought in a group of nursing school students to watch her hook me up. As I sat half naked on the table, the nurse, a woman in her forties, started to put petroleum jelly on my chest. She then stopped, looked a bit perplexed and said, "Forgive me." as she flipped my boobs over, one at a time, to finish applying the jelly. "I've never had to do that before!" she whispered into my ear. Even though it was a whisper the entire room heard and the nurses, students and doctors giggled till they cried as they attached the monitors.
Later I was told I would have to be naked during my knee surgery "Umm... how many people are going to see me naked? " I asked. " Oh, lots of people." The nurse giggled.
My favorite naked in Japan story is a friend's. Japanese gym locker rooms typically have two sets of lockers stacked on top of each-other. My friend was getting something out of a bottom locker when she felt, what she thought was a strand of her hair, tickling her cheek. Since her hands were full and the gym was so crowded, she attempted to get rid of the hair with a cock-eyed blow or two. When that didn't work, she turned her head to find out that the buck naked woman using the upper locker's bush had been tickling her face the whole time! The next time people try to tell you the Japanese are mature and polite, don't believe them.
Being a Westerner in Tokyo has it's perks. One of my elusive favorites is spotting famous people from back home. Stars look so cool, calm and "king of the world" until they arrive in the Land of the Rising Sun. Once they come through customs where they've been shown a picture hard core porn and heroin needles and asked, "Did you bring this with you?" A look of, " What the fuck is going on!?!" sets in on their faces and doesn't go away until they are back sleeping in their own beds in the old country. My first hour in Japan, I saw Sting. Rather, I would have, had I not been in the toilet. All of the other exchange students saw him walk through the gate. ( Apparently, he owns a house in Japan somewhere.) One of the students yelled, " Hey Sting! You're great!" Sting looked at him, decided the student wasn't dangerous, smiled, waved, and disappeared into the crowd. ( Yeah, it's possible for white people to do that here.)
One of my friends stood behind Ray Charles in immigration for a minute until an officer recognized him and called him by name as they opened up a new line for him.
Another friend saw Aerosmith spill out of a McDonald's one morning in Kabukicho, Tokyo's pink district.
I will forever have warm feeling for Downtown's legendary Matsumoto Hitoshi for telling Janet Jackson she never " wanted to talk about anything interesting on his show. Will you please talk about the nipple slip!? You know that's all we want to talk about!" and how well the interpreter managed to ask her something about the weather instead.
I will never forget how a reporter asked the then Governor of California Shwa-chan, who was on a tour to promote California produce to " take off his shirt and flex his muscles for us." (He would not.)
My biggest celeb sighting was a few summers ago at Shibuya crossing. The busiest crossing in the world with over a million people using it a day. shibuya crossing The area is full of 25 year-old girls in micro-mini skirts year-round. Not a single one of them has cellulite, not even a hint of a dimple. I know that because when, in the corner of my eye, I saw cellulite in motion that didn't belong to me, it stopped me. I had to get a better look at this otherwise skinny person in a hot pants. That's when I realized I was looking at Tayor Swift then with a string of flowers in her hair and her entourage flanking her. At the time, she wasn't that famous in Japan but the poor bodyguard treated every single passerby in the crossing like a potential threat. He really need not have worried about them. He should have been walking behind her.