Congratulations to Takuma Sato. The first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race. Here are some more photos of the Race.
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The Yakuza, simply put, is the Japanese mafia. It is Japan’s infamous organized crime syndicate. Like their Italian counterparts, they have been elevated to legendary pop-culture status through countless movies, TV shows, and anime. I don’t really know much about them other than the tattoos and pachinko parlors. I am not really fascinated by them as much as I am with other aspects of Japanese culture. However, I am familiar with their Italian counterparts by default
I am both Italian, and from Chicago. Two fun facts that lead people to assume the following:
It is amazing how many times I am asked about this outside of Chicago, especially in Japan and Europe. God bless Michael Jordan for giving the rest of the world something else to associate Chicago with. I can assure you that being Italian and from Chicago does not give me any special insight into organized crime. Which becomes painfully obvious from the story I’m about to tell.
One Saturday morning in Nagoya Japan, I walked down to my favorite grocery store. It was not my favorite because or its selection of fresh Japanese foods, It was my favorite because it was literally under the weight of every railroad track shooting out north of Nagoya Station. Including the Shinkansen (the bullet train). It was worth the walk just to see all the trains rocketing out of the station.
On my way back from the store, I turned down the street just before my apartment. It ended, or started in my case, at the red brick wall of the Toyota Commemorative Museum. As I walked down the street with my two bags of groceries, I heard someone yell in the distance behind me. I turned around as I continued to walk. There was a man yelling from the back window of a long Mercedes Benz that had stopped along the red bricks. It was a black 4-door mid-90′s Benz with tinted windows. He opened the door, got out, and began waving his arms as he started to walk toward me.
I comically turned in the other direction to see who he was waving to. The alley-like street was lined on one side with a long tall schoolyard fence. The other was lined with various sides of buildings. The residential part did not start until the smaller street began just up ahead. That was my street. Some quick surveillance revealed a quiet and empty area.
I turned back to the guy. He was very wide for a Japanese guy. He walked toward me and waved his arm, yelling, “Hey… Hey….” My first reaction was that he needed directions. Perhaps he was lost or trying to find some building.
As he picked up his pace, my Chicago instincts began rapidly kicking in. Something was not right about this. He was now close enough that I could see his face. Most interesting, is that he did not look Japanese. As he picked up his pace to jogging speed, I saw another man get out from the front door of the Mercedes. He was wearing a black suit and glasses.
I was quickly processing all the information. Why would a guy in a Benz need directions. Why would you ask an obvious foreigner for information. In fact, most Japanese are terrified to even sit next to me on a train, why would one run after me to get directions. And now the final troublesome fact: You don’t need TWO large guys to run down an empty street to get directions.
Conclusion; – Trouble.
Solution; – Run
The Karate Kid has his “Crane Kick”. I had my “Rabbit” maneuver. Which is a cool martial arts way of saying I turned and ran my ass off.
The big guy went into a full sprint and was on top of me in seconds. He grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me to a stop. We were both huffing and puffing when he started saying something to me. His large hands let go of me and he gave me the international, “calm down, I’m-not-going-to-hurt-you” gesture. At this point I was under the assumption that I was being robbed, or mugged, or whatever the Japanese equivalent is. It did bother me that my “Rabbit” maneuver did not work. How did he catch me so fast? I realized that he had already been running full speed when he caught me, revealing the first flaw in my “Rabbit” technique. But now we were both at a complete stop… Interesting.
He began saying ok… ok… and was doing the “calm-down” gesture. I nodded and said,
ok… ok…. and gave him the “I’m ok” gesture.
Then, I turned and ran my ass off!
It was brilliantly timed. All those years of soccer training. The speed. The quickness, The timing. It was like my own “wax-on/wax-off” training that the Karate Kid did. It payed off for him in the end, and it’s paying off for me now.
Then I felt the big guy tug at the back of my shirt again. It did not seem like an eternity. It was not in slow motion, like in the movies. It seemed only seconds because it was. How could he have caught me so quickly? This revealed the second flaw in my technique: I was still holding on to all my groceries.
Unfortunately, at no point in my long soccer career had I trained with 2 bags of groceries in my arms. In my nervous condition, I not only forgot about my groceries, but I had been actually gripping them so hard, that when the bags flew from my arms, I was still gripping pieces of them in my hands.
They flew from my arms because this time he was not giving the international “calm-down” gesture. This time he came with a full Mortal Kombat take-down, followed by an elbow to my head that mashed the side of my face along the street and left me flat on the ground. In his left hand he had grabbed my shirt and twisted it tightly up to my neck. In his right hand was a clenched fist. The international gesture for punching someone in the face. (See image above for accurate dramatization.)
“No more run” he yelled at me. “No more run”
He was pulling on my shirt and wanted me to get up slowly to avoid me from running again. We both slowly rose to our feet with our eyes locked the entire time. I finally got a good chance to look at him. He was definitely not Japanese, He was Brazilian.
There were a lot of Brazilians in and around Nagoya. Another American born English Teacher had explained it to me like this; When the Japanese were kings of the world in the 80′s and 90′s, they started hiring other people (Brazilians for some reason) to do the “3K jobs” (kitsui, kitanai, and kiken – hard, dirty, and dangerous.) These were labor-intensive jobs that they no longer wanted to do. Most of these jobs were in the Nagoya area, and that’s where most of them settled. He said, “The Brazilians are the Mexicans of Japan.” (No offense to my Mexican pals.) But when the Japanese economy sizzled in the late nineties, the Japanese wanted their jobs back. This left many Brazilians on the streets wondering what to do. So, in other words, the socio-economic implications of this are now being worked out on my face.
He was a big guy. Not much taller than me, but he was wide. He wore a black track suit and had obviously mastered some kind of martial art; Japanese, Brazilian, or both. He started yelling at me in what I assumed was Japanese and then Portuguese. Both of which I have trouble speaking when under pressure. Then the occasional English word would pop out.
In my cloudy judgment, I figured Portuguese is similar to Spanish, which is similar to Italian, which was similar to what my Grandmother would say. Aside from the main problem of that making no sense at all, my dear ole Grandmother actual swore like a sailor.
Its funny how people are much more comfortable swearing in their second language. Things that they would never say in their native language just come blurting out in other languages. My Italian Grandmother, and I wish I was exaggerating this, swore in both languages all the time. Everything from yelling at me and my siblings to swearing at my Mother and Grandfather. The words that I learned from her would just make this guy more angry.
“Where you live?” He eventually asked. I did not want to tell him that I lived around the corner. So I pointed in the opposite direction.
“Where you go?” He yelled. I pointed at the various food items that were now laying all around me. He looked around me. It seemed obvious where I just came from.
“Saifu? Saifu? Passport?” He demanded.
“No comprendo… No passport” I said.
He pulled on my shirt again and now was searching me for more information. He reached around and grabbed the wallet from my pocket. So here we go, I thought, I’m getting robbed. I was scared out of my mind but I was not in fear of my life. I knew in the back of my mind that this was Japan, and people are just not murdered in the streets. Like… say… Chicago.
My wallet was actually loaded with cash from a teacher who had just payed me back for a loan. Nothing crazy, but there was over 200 US equivalent dollars. This is going to suck I thought. After the big guy got my wallet, he pulled down on my shirt to make me sit down on the ground.
“No more run.” He yelled again, and raised his fist to remind me of the consequences.
As I was looking at his fist, the black suit and sunglasses of the Mercedes driver appeared over his shoulder.
The Brazilian guy was flipping through the cash in my wallet when he realized the other guy was next to him. He handed the wallet to him immediately, cash and all. This guy was older, mid forties maybe. He was clearly Japanese. He had a cigarette in his mouth and sunglasses on.
The Brazilian guy said nothing as the Japanese man flipped through my wallet.
“Nihongo hanashimasuka?” The Japanese guy said. I was not sure what he asked, but I heard Nihongo (The Japanese language). I shook my head to indicate that I don’t speak Japanese. The Japanese guy took the cigarette out of his mouth, blew out the smoke, and slowly looked around with a pissed-off look on his face. He thumbed through my wallet, passed all the cash, and was looking at the ID’s and credit cards.
“What name?” The Japanese guy asked putting the cigarette back in his mouth.
“Richard.” I answered.
Now that I was able to catch my breath, I was starting to think that these guys were the worst robbers ever. Why all the questions? Whats with the suit? The cash is right there, just take it and lets get this over with. That’s when a horrible sinking feeling came over me. Something else was going on. These guys had no interest in the cash in my wallet. This guy was not a robber or a petty criminal. He was Yakuza, or something like it. They keep asking for my passport, which I was not carrying. Perhaps this was some kind of fake passport ring. They were collecting them and selling them in some kind of black market scam. If they take my ID’s then I could be deported or something.
Because I was working in the country, I had a “Gaijin Card” (foreign resident card), so I did not need to keep the passport on me at all times. But these guys seemed like they were not looking for the Resident Card. I had another US government issued ID that actually had a photo on it. Perhaps that would help. I pointed to it in my wallet. The Japanese guy pulled it out and read it. A look of shock came across his face. He stepped back and yelled,
“Firearm! Firearm! Where is your firearm?
The Brazilain guy sprang into action. He pulled on my shirt and twisted while grabbing one of my arms.
“Firearm?” I said. Do these guys think I have a gun? My voice started getting higher and faster.
“No no no… No firearm…. No gun… No comprendo!”
What the hell is going on? My best friend is a Chicago Policeman. He had taught me how to say “drop the weapon!” and “do you have any chewing gum?” in five different languages. He said knowing this would get you out of the most difficult situations. I was actually thinking of this at the time. What I had NOT practiced, was a situation where I had the weapon and the chewing gum.
I realized that the photo ID he was looking at was my Illinois issued Firearm Owners Identification. Or F.O.I.D card as its referred to. I got it a few years ago so that I could go to a shooting range with my father. I brought it to Japan because it had a photo and thought It might come in handy. What the heck, It can’t hurt right? Across the top of the card in big bold 3rd-grade English was written, “FIREARM OWNER”
Ok. Hold on. I can explain this in Portuguese/Spanish/Italian-Grandmother.
“I have no firearm.” I said slowly and clearly while I gave the international, calm down, I’m-not-going-to-hurt-you gesture. Exactly how the Brazilian guy had done it for me.
“We are in Japan…” I pause for effect. “No guns in Japan… No guns here.” Pause again as they try to understand me. “That card is from America. No guns here.”
“America?” The Brazilian guy said out loud. He turned and looked up at the Yakuza guy.
“America?” The Yakuza guy repeated as if he was answering the question.
“No guns in Japan. I am an English Teacher.”
“You are English Teacher?” The Brazilian guy repeated more as a matter of fact then questioning me. He looked up again. This time the Yakuza guy said nothing. The Brazilian released my shirt and arm. He stood up, took a few steps back, and looked around the area as if he was checking to see who was around.
The Yakuza guy took the cigarette out of his mouth.
“Where do you teach Englsih?”
AEON Nagoya, I said. As if this prestigious company would explain everything.
“America” He mumbled to himself. “What city you come from? ” He asked in a conversational tone.
“Chicago.” I replied.
There was a short pause, and then a smile came across his face.
“Chee-ca-go… ” He said, pronouncing the “chi” like in cheese. “I know this Chee-ca-go… many firearm in Chee-ca-go. ” He said as he looked at my F.O.I.D card and placed it back in my wallet.
I guess Chicago does have a lot of guns, I thought to myself. But compared to Japan, Disneyland would have more guns. “Michael Jordan was there too.” I mumbled under my breath.
“Do you like Chee-ca-go?” He asked with a strange sincerity. As if someday in the future, he would like to go to engineering school there.
“Yes I do. Its a good place.” I said, defending its honor while also trying to put the good word out.
The Yakuza guy flicked his cigarette away and lowered his hand as a gesture to pull me up. I was not sure if it was some kind of trick. I looked up at him and then over at the Brazilian guy who remained motionless with a disappointed look on his face. I looked back at the Yakuza guy, grabbed his hand, and he pulled me up. He handed me back my wallet and then strangely dusted the rocks and dirt from my shoulders.
I then stood there in amazement, as he walked around me to grab all my fallen groceries and place them back in their bags. He handed the bags to me, and said.
“Suminasen” (I apologies). He turned and started walking back to the Mercedes. He pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and blew a big puff of smoke into the air. The Brazilian guy soon turned and followed him a few paces behind.
I stood in the empty street holding my torn grocery bags. Everything was still in my wallet. My face was skinned and bleeding and I was wondering what the hell just happened. Curiosity alone drive me to do the next thing.
I yelled, “Scusi… Scusi…” and started running after the brazilian guy. When I caught up to him, he neither stopped nor turned to look at me. He just continued his walk back to the car.
“What the hell was all that about?” I said in my best teacher-polished English.
Now what do I do? Should I call the police? Tell them I was mugged by two guys who took no money from me, but roughed me up and rearranged my groceries. Maybe warn them that there is a Brazilian guy who lives in this neighborhood who looks like me, but borrows a lot more money. Perhaps tell them that the bad news is; I got beat up by the Yakuza, The good news is; I have never been beat up with such respect and courtesy.
I told the other Japanese teachers on Monday how I got all the scrapes and bruises on my face. They were all shocked and verified that the guy was some level of Yakuza, and that I should call the police. In the end, I did not call the police, or even call home for that matter. I figured it could have been a lot worse in Chicago. They could have just shot me and then found out I was the wrong guy.
As with all the stories on my True Stories Page, I ask myself the same question after it happens. How the hell am I going to explain this to people back home? Start a blog perhaps…
Top photo – Kurosaki from the manga Dengeki Daisy (電撃デイジー) by Kyosuke Motomi. Painstakingly rendered in color by yiny-chan from Deviant Art.
Running Photo – Ryuuichi from the manga Full Contact (フル・コン) by kabuto kitahama and Shinobu Minazuki.
Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat Wiki
Police Cars – Riding Bean(ライディング・ビーン) by Kenichi Sonoda
Gunsmith Cats (ガンスミス キャッツ ) by Kenichi Sonoda
The Quiet Don (静かなるドン) by Tatsuyo Nitta
Okinawa Japan was recently named one of the Top 10 places to visit in 2013 by Coastal Living Magazine. Claiming that Okinawa “Has what it takes to be the next big thing!” I think they are right, and I think the people and government of Okinawa are doing everything they can to make that happen. The extremely generalized article mentions the beaches, jungles and shrines. But they don’t go into much detail, which is a little frustrating considering they choose this location over thousands of other coastal locations around the world.
Another frustrating thing about Coastal Living is that their online article is actually a smaller version than the already mini print write-up. Which at least mentions the two new resorts; The 97-room Ritz-Carlton Okinawa, and the 46-villa Hoshinoya Resort on the island of Taketomi.
I have recently come back from my first trip to Hawaii and was a little disappointed. It has tropical beauty, unique locations, and fun things to do. but it is also still part of America, and with it comes their piss-poor service and constant attempts to rip you off. I will give more details about that in a more extensive post. These are things that Okinawa does not need to worry about as they become more talked about as an tropical island destination.
Photo credits: Japan National Tourist Organization
You can read the coastal living mini article here.
Natto, along with uni, and konnyaku, make up the top three Japanese foods that scare the bejesus out of people. None of these foods actually tastes bad. I think they are scary due to their strange textures. I have read countless websites and books that say these foods are an “acquired taste”. Acquired taste is a cheap way of saying people don’t like them. And by not liking them, you need to explain yourself.
Uni is sea urchin. It is a yellowish fishy tasting paste that looks similar to roofing caulk. Just when you were getting comfortable at that sushi restaurant, just when you where getting the hang of raw fish and chopsticks, someone orders uni to humble you.
Konnyaku is a slimy translucent potato like substance with shapeshifting powers. Sometimes it looks like noodles, sometimes it looks like a bar of soap. Either way, you always see it in your meal and ask yourself, “what is this stuff?”
But we are here to discuss the granddaddy of all scary Japanese foods; Natto.
I stole this line from Will Ferguson; Writer, Japan observer, and all around inspiration of mine. He says it in his book Hitching Rides with Buddha. Though I read it more than 10 years ago, that line still makes me laugh. I say it to myself every time I eat “strange” Japanese food. Will uses it to describe konnyaku. By I feel it applies nicely to all three of these foods.
“Natto” is soybeans that are fermented with a bacterium called Bacillus subtilis natto. Thus the name. It is infamous for its strong stinky-cheese like smell and slimy texture. The main difference here is that the Japanese proudly eat all Japanese food. That includes uni and konnyaku. But natto is the shining stand out. It is the only Japanese food I’ve found that even the Japanese detest. They love it or hate it. For most foreigners in Japan, it seems to be the main litmus test by which the Japanese will judge you.
You will almost certainly be put in the following situation, at least once, on a trip to Japan: A Japanese person will ask you if you like Japanese food. If you answer with a hesitant “No”, then no further questions are asked. This is the answer they were expecting.
If you answer “yes”, they immediately follow up by asking you if you like natto. If you are unfortunate to have this conversation in a restaurant the next thing that happens is that natto shows up and you are put to the test. After you try it you will then be asked again; “Do you like natto?”
This is where you have to be careful. The correct answer is “No, I’ve tried it, but I do not like it”. After this is established a round of drinks is ordered and everybody celebrates their new friendship with this kind and honest foreigner. If you say “yes I like natto”. You are obviously lying and just saying that to impress the girls, or worse, the girl’s mothers. You are, from that point on, cast in suspicion and therefore not to be trusted.
Most Japanese people I talk to either like it or want nothing to do with it. Natto seems to be the only polarizing food that the Japanese eat. Its not polarizing for foreigners. they see it, smell it, and say no way.
But the health benefits of natto cannot be underestimated. It is the rare food that combines both types of Vitamin K. Which was a shock to me because I did not even know there was a Vitamin K.
The list of Natto’s health benefits is staggering:
COME ON! Are you kidding me. What is this stuff? The Japanese already eat a much healthier diet than most cultures, and natto could arguably be the healthiest food in Japan. So we are talking about the best of the best here, A health food powerhouse. This is in a country with a life expectancy that dominates the world. Not just top 10, They are number one. That is based on a mind-blowing 127 million people. You are welcome to double-check my health benefits list. I’m sure some of them are still being studied. But I’m telling you I did not even write down a definitive list.
There is a Japanese proverb; 良薬は口に苦し (good medicine tastes bitter.) It might as well say good medicine is slimy and stinky. I’m sure this saying has been brought up many times in conjunction with natto.
I find the whole thing fascinating. So in an attempt to understand more about this contentious food, and help other people understand it. I am officially launching…
I will attempt to eat every brand of natto I can get my hands on, and then review it accordingly. I will also try the different foods that use natto as one of their ingredients. I welcome any ideas, advice, or recipes that you think are fun to try. Please keep in mind, I am not a food critic, I’m not Japanese, and I don’t particularly like natto. Thus making me the ultimate unbiased tester. Please come back and check on my progress as I eat my way to understanding the Japanese culture.
WARNING: To novice chopstick users (or hashi as they are called in Japanese). Grabbing small slimy round beans with two thin sticks maybe the most frustrating eating experience you will ever have. Please don’t let this influence your opinion of natto. If you hate it, hate it because it smells awful, not because you can’t pick it up. I don’t say this because I’m an expert chopstick user. In fact, I am left handed and do that curl-my-wrist-around thing. So when I eat natto I look like Barrack Obama signing a bill into law. My dirty secret is when nobody is watching, I use a fork.
TESTING EQUIPMENT: I start with plain white rice in a bowl with the natto placed on top. My bowl is a standard ceramic rice bowl acquired from a “hyaku yen” shop (dollar store). It is made in Japan and has cute Sakura flowers on the side to impress the ladies. This, however, has no effect on overall taste. My hashi (chopsticks) are handmade. An omiyage (gift) that was given to me for my birthday. (Hashi make great gifts to give people back home) They also have no effect on the taste.
NOTE: If you’ve reach this page because you misspelled NATO, I just wanted to assure you that we are a peaceful organization. I am member of JNTO, (Japan National Tourist Organization). This has nothing to do with NATO, but after all it’s your bad typing skills that got you here in the first place. You might as well look around and learn a little something about the country of Japan.
This is an ongoing series where I explain concepts of the Japanese language through words that you already know; Japanese car names. (Car Names Main Page)
Lets use Honda to explain Hiragana.
Written Japanese is made up of four alphabets that are mixed and matched in Japanese sentences! Here are the four written in English, and the same words written in their equivalent “alphabets”.
Hiragana is the fundamental alphabet of Japanese and is used as the foundation to learn the others.
Hiragana (and its similar little brother Katakana) are technically not called alphabets. They are syllabaries. This means that the letters are used to form a convenient prepackaged sound. A whole syllable, instead of the sound of one letter. So all the letters in the syllabary are made of two Roman letters. The only letters that have the power to stand on their own are the five vowels and the letter “n”.
Lets see an example of how this works. The name Honda is first broken into its syllables. and then shown with the Japanese Hiragana letters that make those syllables.
There are 48 characters in the Hiragana Library. Each letter contain a consonant and a vowel. The only exceptions are the vowels themselves and the powerful letter “n”. As you see demonstrated in the word “Honda”.
The heart and soul of Hiragana is its 5 vowel sounds. they have no consonant letter attached to them and are used to construct all the other syllables sounds.
Putting a “k” in front of them.
Putting a “s” in front of them.
If you know the 5 vowel sounds, you can pronounce all the other prepackaged sounds.
It is important to remember that there is absolutely no variation in the five vowel sounds. As an English speaker this is somewhat unbelievable. In English there are 12 different letter combinations just to represent the “oo” sound; food, truth, rude, fruit, blue, to, shoe, move, tomb, group, through, and flew. This concept of trying to figure out which letters to use for each sound is not an issue in Japanese. In fact, once you take the 30 seconds to pronounce the Japanese vowels, you will never mispronounce any words in Japanese. By this same rule, you should never misspell any Japanese words.
This may be a little confusing at first, but it is actually a very predictable and dependable system. Unlike English, there are very few exceptions.
These Hiragana letters are then put together like building blocks to form the Japanese words that you see and hear. This is what gives them their rhythm and obvious identification when observing them as a foreigner.
He are some motor company names with their syllables and their corresponding Hiragana letters.
So lets get crazy and start mixing and matching Hiragana with the other alphabets. The different alphabets each perform a different function that all combine to make a typical Japanese sentence.
- Kanji are the character alphabet that uses symbols for nouns and verbs. (I will use a different car company to explain Kanji.)
- Katakana are the stick like characters that use the exact same sounds as the Hiragana syllabary. They are used to denote foreign words and names. ( I explain Katakana in detail using Toyota.)
- Romanji is basically the ABC,s that we know and love. They are not technically part the the Japanese language, but they are used so extensively throughout the culture that they are also taught in school. (I will use a different car company to explain Romanji.)
Here is a easy Japanese sentence. don’t get intimidated… stay sharp. Don’t worry about understanding its meaning. Just try to identify the Hiragana from the other alphabets.
You probably have a lot of the same questions I had when I first saw a sentence like this. Your eye, no doubt, initially goes to the only character you recognize; the “CR-V”. This is “Romanji”. One of the four alphabets mentioned above. Since there is no way to accurately write this in Japanese, they just use the good ole ABC’s.
They next thing you’ll notice is that there are no spaces in the sentence. This ads a bit of an intimidation factor to Japanese writing. There just doesn’t seem much room to breathe in that sentence. At least if there were spaces you could break down the parts into smaller bite sizes pieces for better comprehension. Instead you just have to dive into the deep end.
The Hiragana’s swervy and curvy lines should be easy to identify. The Katakana stick-like alphabet is also easy to see in contrast with the curvy Hiragana. What’s left is the Kanji characters which are the complex square shaped symbols.
Rather than putting the spaces in between the words, I will keep it as is, and color code the different alphabets.
I will begin this post about Japanese garbage, trash, and litter with a soccer story. It was the 1998 World Cup in France. The Japanese national soccer team had qualified for their first World Cup ever. Their fans had arrived in numbers never before seen by the international soccer community. They were not treated well. Over 12,000 Japanese fans fell victim to a French ticket scam. Leaving them ticket-less and halfway around the world.
Many ended up repaying for scalped tickets that were outrageously over priced. The Japanese soccer team played their first World Cup match against Argentina on June 14th. The 33,000 plus game attendance was 70% Japanese, with an additional ticket-less 10,000 outside the Toulouse France stadium watching on a large screen. Despite their 1-0 loss, the Japanese players had said that it had felt as if they were in the National Stadium in Tokyo.
It was after the game that the Japanese showed their true colors. Dealing with the frustrating ticket scam and first-game loss, the Japanese fans still gave the world a lesson in courtesy, respect, and class by actually cleaning the soccer stadium seats. That’s right. They picked up all the trash around them whether it was theirs or not. To the point that some people were observed picking up the small pieces of confetti thrown after the game. They then walked out and deposited the trash in the garbage cans before exiting.
Finding the Japanese supporter areas cleaner after the game then it had been before astonished the stadium authorities. This in turn astonished the French media. Which in turn astonished the FIFA World Cup Organization.
And now that you’ve heard the story… you may also be astonished, as I am. This was not a group act of protest. There was no group message to pick up the trash. There were no signs telling them to do so. This is just the Japanese simply doing what they always do; picking up after themselves and not putting the burden on someone else.
The all-around cleanliness of Japanese mega cities comes as culture shock to people coming from other big cities in the world. This tidiness is not due to millions of tax dollars spent on street cleaners and “Let’s-cleanup-our-city” campaigns. It’s not due to effective public works or community service. It’s due to one simple thing: They don’t throw their garbage on the floor. This unique and rare concept to westerners allows for both huge cities, and rural areas to stay neat and tidy.
The pack-it-in, pack-it-out garbage mentality that the Japanese follow as a matter of common courtesy is a message that the U.S. finds virtually impossible to get across. America is a country where surveys consistently point to the fact that 80% of the litter that you see has been thrown on the ground with “notable intent”. Which is a governmental phrase meaning: people don’t give a shit. Ironically these same people then pay 11 billion dollars a year to have it cleaned up via taxes.
The public signs in America threaten, beg, and fine people to just put their garbage in a can. Surveys also point to the top 3 reasons why Americans litter. 1) Laziness. 2.) There is already garbage on the ground. 3.) Somebody will pick it up. These are reasons that never even occur to the Japanese. In Japan, they want you to “not litter”, but they also want you to keep your garbage and take it home with you.
To reinforce this behavior, the common signs in Japan ask people to take their garbage with them. Then, to reinforce the sign, they usually have no garbage cans in the parks. So when faced with the choice of throwing their garbage on the ground or keeping it with them, they keep it. They don’t need a “Don’t Litter, Keep Japan Beautiful” sign. They have been doing it their whole lives and are used to taking their garbage with them.
On the other hand, when Japan does decide to have garbage cans, they go crazy. Putting in literally dozens of cans in certain key locations. Not only allowing you to get rid of you garbage collection but also allowing you to separate your garbage into its respective types. (Key locations being when you get off trains, or out of cars.)
There are other cultural elements that help make a clean Japan. Most Japanese carry a handkerchief with them at all times. Thus eliminating the need for tissues and napkins. As the girl at McDonald’s carefully packages your lunch and places it in your to-go bag, the last thing she puts in is a napkin. Even then, she does it as an afterthought. As if I’m not sure why I’m putting this napkin in your bag, but the American management has told me to do so, so that’s what I’m doing. The quality of the napkins themselves seems like they are made as an afterthought. They feel like slices of wax paper with no absorbing qualities to them whatsoever. Filling napkin dispensers in Japan seems like a task that’s done once a year.
When I need a napkin or towel and don’t have one. Japanese people are quick to offer their handkerchief to a hapless gaijin. Many times they insist on giving it to you, worried that you will not last the day without it. The Japanese seem keenly aware of the differences in international napkin and tissues culture.
Another key factor is that in Japan it is considered rude to eat while you are walking. This seemed to be rooted in a cultural behavior form the old days when food was scarce. To walk by poor people while you were eating was very inconsiderate. Many of those old customs still apply today. In Japanese cities where everyone is constantly moving like they are about to miss their train, everything is set up to stop, eat, and quickly move on. So there is no trash to throw out if you don’t have any with you.
How about the popular vending machines? There are more vending machines in Japan than there are people in Los Angeles and Chicago combined. This would seem like a perfect source for bottles and cans to litter the streets with. But most vending machines in Japan have a recycling bin right next to the machine. Again, the Japanese don’t eat or drink while they walk so many people drink the beverage right there and throw out the empty bottle. If they keep it, they will keep it until they find a garbage can.
The Japanese don’t litter or throw their garbage on the floor for several reasons. The most important being it’s just common courtesy. They make it look easy because it is.
This is a sign outside of the small town of Gobo in Wakayama Japan. It makes for a great Kanji quiz, as all destinations are 5 characters long.
But it is more notable for its strange translation. I quote funny man Andy Moore, one of Gobo’s greatest educators and a member of legendary Gobo 5.
“This photo really brings back the good ole days of living in Gobo. Sitting on tatami mats, eating sushi, and experimenting on chickens.”
They say that once you are able to talk to a barber and a cab driver in a foreign country, using a foreign language, you are now considered fluent. Of course until you reach that skill level you are considered a jackass (rough translation). Generally, the service industry is the front line of any country or culture. In Japan, however they have taken it up to a level that is difficult to comprehend for most western self-obsessed societies.
For example, here is a clip from my gas station story:
When you go to a gas station in Japan (to get gas mind you), a team of uniformed attendants converge on your car like trained mechanics from a Formula 1 pit crew. They fill, clean, and check your car so that it leaves just short of it’s purchase day condition. I was even asked once if I would like a special water resistant spray put onto my windshield because, “He thinks it might rain”. The final member of the pit crew will then dart out into the busy street to hold up his hand to the oncoming traffic using the international “HALT” gesture. The cars all slowdown and stop with no protests. He then gives you the international “ALL CLEAR” gesture by waving his hand down the now open street. Just when you think that one day you will blog about this because nobody back home will ever believe it, you look out your window back at the gas station. Along the gas pumps, the entire crew have lined up with their heads down, bowing to you as you drive away. Now I love exaggerating just as much as the next comedy writer, but this is no exaggeration. This is just how things are in Japan. Not just one time! This is what happens every time I get gas!
This kind of service is pretty standard throughout Japanese business and culture. It was the one concept from my culture shock list that I had the hardest time explaining to the folks back home. Everyone knows what a pain in the ass it is to use chop sticks, but the whole gas station crew bowing as you leave… who the hell is going to believe that?
With this in mind, I will try to explain the Japanese barbershop. I may not be the best person to gauge the differences in technique between U.S and Japanese barbers. Because, I must admit, I have never been to a barber. Any barber. Anywhere. Ever.
It may sound strange, but my uncle is Tony Colucci, the famous Italian barber who is known throughout Chicago as “The Guy”. In fact, my Italian side had a long lineage of famous Italian barbers going back to the immigrants leaving Italy. Why would you go to some local shop or hair salon when your uncle is “The Guy”. He would cut my hair right at my house when I was a boy and later I would just go to his shop. I’ve been going to him since the Norman Rockwell days. When waiting kids would get different flavored Tootsie Rolls and waiting men would get Playboy magazine. Because he was “The Guy”, and I was his family, I never made appointments or paid a dime. I showed up, he’d stop everything, throw his arms open, hug me, shake my hand, and make all the other customers wait while he cut my hair. This went on for 30 years. I just didn’t know how good I had it. I also didn’t know what customers actually “paid” for.
The day before I left for Japan he came over to my house and cut my long hair. As my godfather and “barber”, he became a important roll model for how I communicate and interact with people. All people. Including Japanese people. He is “the guy” who transformed me into a clean-cut corporate gentleman. A cultural ambassador to make America proud. It had never occurred to me, that maybe I should have asked him for some advice. What happens at a barber if you don’t know “The Guy”?
My first trip to the Japanese barber is its own crazy story (read it here). When I first started going, I had little experience to bring to the table, or the chair as it were. Now that I have had my haircut in Japan for a few years, I can confidently say this: Every time I walk into a Japanese barbershop, it turns into a two hour salon marathon that leaves me feeling like it’s my wedding day. And every time I walk out, I end up looking like Martin Sheen. Not Charlie Sheen mind you, there is too much controlled blow drying for Charlie’s look. I’m not sure of the reasoning for why I always end up looking like Martin Sheen. I have been to several different barbers, in different parts of the country, and I could tell you that it’s a cross-platform technique.
The Japanese barber, like their blue-collar cousins, the gas station attendants, feel the need to give you your money’s worth. All the barbers I went to possess the very common Japanese ability to look like they are rushing, yet take twice as much time. They always perform some kind of meticulous blow-drying and styling to my hair. I tell them in my best broken-Japanese, that I would like to keep the same low-maintenance hairstyle that I came in with… only shorter. But that always seems to translate into looking like Martin Sheen.
I imagine that all the barber schools in Japan have a textbook entitled; Learn the Rules Before You Break Them – The Martin Sheen Haircut. From this book, they study. I also imagine that Martin Sheen himself is there to give the speech at the school graduation ceremonies. I can see him at the podium donned in a black robe. A twisted red, white, and blue barber-pole tassel hangs off his square hat. His speech goes something like this:
“You’ve trained hard and practiced everyday. Now you will go out into the world and make everyone look like me. I’m proud of you… good luck, and godspeed!” He walks off the stage, as barber school students yell frenzied chants of “Martin… Martin… Martin!”
Choosing a barber in Japan is easy. I pick the one closest to where I’m living. It seems like there is a hair salon on every block in this country. Every third one has a barber pole. I think it’s the second oldest profession. (Probably better than having the first oldest profession on every block.) The Hair Stylist and the Barber have two different licenses. The barber needs an additional skill to allow for straight razor shaving.
A friend of mine in Japan has a different way of choosing a barber. His method is a little more particular. He chooses a barber he feels sorry for. Maybe his shop is never busy, or he is old, and young guys won’t go to his shop anymore. Once, when in his neighborhood, I inquired about the quality of the barber around the corner. He said,
“I don’t know… I go to the one-eyed barber on the other side of town.”
I paused. That was not what I thought he was going to say.
“Why would you go to a one-eyed barber who is not even conveniently located? Is he a Pirate?”
“He’s a nice guy, I feel sorry for him, ” he said with compassion.
“I would feel sorry for your haircut.” I mumbled. The English teaching biz is about 95% Japanese women; I can’t afford a haircut with no depth perception. If I can barely speak to these girls in their native language, I feel grateful to come out looking like Martin Sheen.
Very few of the Barbers I went to spoke a word of English. So the burden is clearly put on you (The long-haired person reading this post). I highly recommend visiting the old-school barber shop as a real-world test of your Nihongo skills. If you could talk to these barbers, not only will your Japanese language skills improve, you will probably get a wealth of information along with your Martin Sheen haircut.
As I approached the shop, I saw an old man outside the shop door. He was standing in the small street with a 7 iron carefully gripped between his hands. You could see the concentration on his face as he slowly pulled back the golf club in a big circle. He was thinking,
“I’m in the rough, but if I could put this drive on the green, I’ll birdie the hole and win the tour.”
I practically step on his feet before he notices me, and then startled, he almost hits me with the 7 iron! He apologized, and caught his breath. I nodded politely as I pointed at the barber poll and then to him. His face totally changed as it slowly dawned on him that this gaijin with the messy hair, had arrived to get his hair cut. With his face still in astonishment he began bowing to me as he rattled off a stream of words in Japanese. He led the way toward his shop door with the 7 iron.
The barber shop itself was a small cluttered room with two large barber chairs toward the walls. As we entered, the old man began yelling,
“Takash Takash.” He rested his 7 iron on one of the many dresser-like cabinets in the shop.
“Dozo dozo dozo!” (please follow me) he kept politely saying as he cleared a path through the shop. Again he began yelling, Takash Takash. I did not know what “takash” means in Japanese. Maybe it is some kind of barber battle cry. A “Let’s-Do-This” kind of thing. Very interesting I thought, I have obviously come to the right guy. He ran through the shop in a flurry as he flipped switches, turned knobs, and pressed buttons. Again he yelled Takash Takash. This time I thought about joining in with him, maybe with an arm-raised fist pump. Lets Do this!
Just then a head popped out from behind the dirty Mt. Fuji printed curtain in the back of the shop. It was a young man. He had chopsticks in one hand, and a bowl of instant noodles in the other. A long piece of ramen was hanging from his mouth.
“Takash” was not a Japanese battle cry, it was the old man’s son; Takashi. He was as shocked as the old man was to see me standing in the middle of the barber shop. He wiped the noodles from his face and rushed into the shop to flip switches, turn knobs, and press buttons. The old man bowed to me and left the room. Takashi introduced himself as he showed me to one of the barber chairs.
Takashi looked a lot like T.M. Revolution, or at least his hair did. T.M. Revolution is a Japanese pop music singer that started getting popular in the late 90′s. His name means “Takanori Makes Revolution”, which is comical on several levels. But his hair is what I noticed the most. Like T.M., his hair was long in the front and ended in lighter red-ish highlights. I told Takashi this and he was very thankful. As if finally somebody had noticed.
Takashi and I established very quickly that we did not know each others languages. Luckily, I had memorized some Japanese barber vocabulary in the event that this situation should arise. Some common terms like; short (mijikai), long (nagai), and hair (kami). I also learned the word nai (not), in case I needed to explain them in negative. But my crowning achievement was to memorize the word for sideburns; “momiage”. I had asked several Japanese co-workers to help me pronounce it correctly, and felt confident enough to use it.
Everything was fine until I began to speak. When Takashi asked me how I would like my hair cut, (Or I assumed that’s what he was asking me.) I went right to my vast hair vocabulary, and my sideburn-removal request.
“Omiyage nai” I said with confidence. Takashi stared at me. “Omiyage nai” I said again with a slightly higher tone.
Takashi paused for a moment, and said “daijoubu… daijoubu…” (Its ok) and shook his hands in a “no” fashion. Which I took as him saying that I should leave the sideburns, that they look fine. But the side burns were the main thing I wanted to get rid of.
“omiyage nai” I said again with more conviction. This time I pointed to them on the side of my face and made a cutting motion. Takashi stared at me again.
“Ah… MO… MO-miage”, he said. “Momiage deshou… side-o-burno desu.”
In my nervous state of mind I had forgotten the all important “m”, and had blurted out the very common Japanese word “omiyage”. I had in fact been telling Takashi that “I had no gift for him.” He had been responding by saying that a gift was not necessary. I had then proceeded to “insist” that I did not have a gift for him. The strange thing being that it would not be that unusual to bring an omiyagi (small gift) to somebody you are just meeting. Or to someone that is helping you with something as a thanks ahead of time. But in this case it was another one of my classic Nihongo (Japanese Language) screw ups.
With that information established, he scrabbled around the room collecting everything he needed to get started. Most interesting is when he went to his CD player. He looked at me and then froze, a smile came across his face. He then started flipping through all his music. A stack of cd’s here, a row of cd’s there. He obviously had a certain album in mind for this occasion. Born in the USA perhaps… or the Barber of Seville? After he found it, he gave out a big, “Yataaaa!” (the “I found it” expression.)
I had a brief chance to see the cover as it flashed by. It seemed strangely familiar. But it was not until he popped the cd into the player, and set the case down that I recognized the unmistakable primary colors of Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual.
Cyndi Lauper… That’s what he was looking so diligently for? This was the music that puts English speakers at ease during a hair cut? I had another what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here moment.
Takashi showed me some Japanese hair magazines. He would pick one up that had a bunch of Japanese guys and with different haircuts. He would look at one and then look at me. His face would have no expression. Then there was a pause and he would repeat the process with a different magazine. It did not take him long to realize we were going to have to work outside the book.
He meticulously dressed me in all the barber “stuff”. Towels, paper strips. smocks. None of them too tight, none of them to loose. Then started in with the cutting and combing. This soon led to trimming everything from nose and ears, to a tight trimming of the eyebrows.
I had another how-am-I-going-to-expalin-this-back-home thought, as he ran his fingers through my hair while listening to “Girls just want to have fun”.
After what seemed like hours, he took a steaming towel out of a small refrigerator-looking thing in the corner. I assumed it was steaming hot, and not steaming cold. He walk toward me and lifted it to my face. I’ve only seen this in the movies… when they are trying kill somebody. I also recall, in my short time here, that the Japanese have a tolerance for hot water that is markably higher than the rest of humanity. Whether its making tea or bathing, it was always just below the boiling point. The effect that this could have on my cold Irish/Chicago blood may leave permanent scars. I tried to act as though I knew what was going on, and did my best tough-guy imitation. But when the towel touched me it took only seconds before I squirmed and practically jumped out of the chair. He was surprised by the reaction and apologized profusely.
When he came back with a slightly “cooler” hot towel. I began to wonder why I needed a hot towel wrapped around my face for a haircut. The answer was revealed after the towel was unraveled from my face. He was sitting in front of me with a straight edge razor and a coffee cup. He stuck a brush in the coffee cup and started mixing up the contents. He pulled out the soapy brush and smacked it all over my face. With an old-school razor in his hand, he began shaving my face. It was another thing I had only seen in the movies. I remembered the shaving scene with Clint Eastwood, In High Plains Drifter. I did not know this kind of shaving was still done outside of cowboy movies. I might remind you, that was also a scene in which they were trying to kill him.
During the shave, It had dawned on me that I am not sure what I am paying for. I am not sure what services I am getting because I did not ask for any services. At the rate I was mispronouncing Japanese words, who knew what Takashi had in store for me.
I could say, “You look like T.M Revolution.”
and he hears, “I am getting married tomorrow morning, please make me beautiful!”
Even if he asks me about “barber things”, I would not know any better because this is the first time I have been to the barber. Everything I know is based on what I have seen in the movies. I cursed myself for not talking it over with Uncle Tony. I decided to just go with it and let Takashi do his thing. My only fear was that it would cost me my whole paycheck. The shave was followed by a long shampoo and conditioning session. Of which my head was placed face down into the sink. A difference I had not noticed until I went to other hair salons.
We were now into the deep cuts of Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 classic. It seemed like I knew every song on that damn album. Had it been that long since I spoke English to anyone? Do the smallest bits of my cultural upbringing surface in full detail when they are threatened with extinction? Does the face of massive cultural diversity put more value on the information you’re familiar with? I even started to wonder how “sideburns” got their name. I’m sure there must be a movie about that I thought.
Then the blow drying began. This is where Takashi works his magic and does all the subtle twist and turns until I magically begin to look like Martin Sheen. After what seemed like another 2 hours, he picked up a mirror and held it behind my head. I looked into the mirror… that looked into the other mirror… that looked back at the mirror. Somehow through this maze of reflections I was looking at the back of my head. Everything looked good to me. Takashi asked me something in Japanese that I did not understand. He gave me a look that said, “If you don’t look exactly like Martin Sheen… I swear to that barber pole, that I will have my father come out and hit me with the 7 iron until I have done it correctly.”
I assured him that Martin Sheen was more than I had hoped for, and thanked him. I was assuming we were done and was wondering why I was still wrapped up in towels and things. Just like when I thought things were done in my gas station story, we must remember we are in Japan.
Takashi then loosens the towel around my neck, and begins giving me a shoulder massage. This honestly startled me like a hot towel to my face. It took a few minutes for me to adjust and “relax”. It was not just a shoulder rub, he spent about 20 minutes on my shoulders and arms as if I had just finished a triathlon. I began to wonder if this is what happens at all the barber shops in America. Perhaps the world. It was just another thing from Japan that has helped me shed light on my own experiences. Or, I should say, the lack of experiences.
After the massage, I was dusted-off with baby powder, and helped up. I was like a new person. I felt like taking the old man out golfing and asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The whole thing cost me about 60 U.S. dollars. Which was very high for me at the time, but not as crazy as I thought it was going to be.
Takashi bowed to me and gave me a small box. An “omiyage.” Inside the box was a high quality nail clipper with the name of the shop on it. I was not sure if he gave it to me because he felt bad for my gift-giving language screw-up, or if every customer gets one. I bowed and thanked him.
As I was walking back home I took the clipper out and examined it more closely. It was heavy and looked very expensive. It says, “理容サトウ.”
理容 (riyou) – Barber
サトウ (Satou) – Family Name (written in Katakana)
On the box it said, “Made in Japan.” I still use today.
I survived my first trip to the Japanese barber shop. Unfortunately I moved before I was able to go back to Takashi. In fact, I never went to the same barber twice in all my time in Japan. Those stories are compiled in a collective story called – The Japanese Barber Shop.
This story is part of my True Stories series.
Copyright info: She’s So Unusual. Album art Copyright Portrait Records. TM Revolution photo. The images are is used as the primary means of visual identification of a topic in article.
This is an ongoing series where I explain concepts of the Japanese language through words that you already know; Japanese car names.
The mid 1980′s started what I like to call; The Cannonball Car-Logo Run. It’s like The Cannonball Run except all the colorful characters were car logos. They were all scrambling to get ready for world dominating globalization.
Some car companies were better situated for this mad dash. Honda needed only to shine-up their classic logo. But some like Mazda, did not even have a logo to shine-up. Some were swallowed-up like Datsun. And few, like Toyota, used it to redefine the company and set a new design standard for the modern-day logo.
The third and present day Toyota logo would actually win any design contest it was entered in. Toyota knew that the Katakana logo it was using from Part-2 had limited international appeal. It was not used much outside of Japan. This led to inconsistent use of the Toyota name and branding methods at a time when they were starting to sell cars all over the world.
Toyota’s website is loaded with frequently asked questions that, ironically, no one would ever ask. There you can find information on the looping “T” logo that you see on cars today. I quote Toyota;
“What does the Toyota logo represent?”
“In 1990, Toyota debuted the three overlapping Ellipses logo on American vehicles. The Toyota Ellipses symbolize the unification of the hearts of our customers and the heart of Toyota products. The background space represents Toyota’s technological advancement and the boundless opportunities ahead.”
I’m not even sure what that second sentence means… Though, If you can somehow turn empty space into boundless opportunities, think of how many golf clubs you can fit in a trunk. They could have just said, Its a “T”, because we are Toyota, and we would still think it’s one of the coolest logos we ever saw. By the time its wrung through the marketing-hype-machine, it sounds like they are trying too hard.
The looping circles have some obvious features like forming the letter “T”. and having a globe like shape. Others are a little more hidden like the fact that it has all 6 letters of the word “Toyota” present within the logo. My favorite one is the reference to the loom making days from Part-1, with the subtle needle and thread reference. (not subtly shown in the top graphic)
Katakana (the alphabet used for foreign words and names) is used generously when talking about the car model name. Aside From the Kawasaki Ninja or the Suzuki Samurai, Most model names are not words in the Japanese vocabulary. Thus, they are usually written with Katakana. This makes for great practice, as you try to figure out what each model name says while zooming past signs in Japan.
Toyota Corolla is fun to say, but what does it meeeeeean? I will explain (try to stay with me on this one):
The Toyota Corolla (1966 debut) is not a Japanese word, it is Latin for “small crown”. This should not be confused with the Toyota Corona (1955 debut) which is Latin for a regular sized “crown”. Which should not be confused with the Toyota Crown (1955 debut) which is an English word for “crown”. Which should not be confused with the Toyota Camry (1982 debut) which is the Japanese word for “crown”. Whew…
My point here is that it does not matter if it’s a Spanish City or a French Mountain or an English Monarch, they are all written in Katakana. Only the Camry is a native word, yet it is also treated with same Katakana letters to stay with the theme.
Here are all four model names written in Katakana. Can you figure out which ones are which? (Answers at bottom of post)
Here is an interesting photo. It relates in several ways. These Katakana syllables sound-out English words that you have seen a zillion times. You could probably guess what the first line is. The second line is driving related. Now that I’ve given you that hint, you could probably guess what that line is also.
Here is the sign broken into its Katakana syllables. As you repeat them faster and faster, they will start to sound familiar. When you say them at ludacris speed, as fast as you say the English words, then you are speaking Japanese.
Answers: 1.)Camry 2.)Corona 3.)Corolla 4.)Crown
Please keep coming back as I continue to use more car company names to explain more Japanese language basics and cultural insights. Remember, as they say at the Japanese car wash, Wax On!
All Toyota logos are copyright Toyota Motor Company.