Category Archives: Ranting

Ranting

What would doubling the JET program look like?

Recent news reports suggest that the LDP is planning to propose doubling the JET Program in three years and placing JET language assistants in all elementary, middle, and high schools within a decade. There are around 38,000 such schools in Japan, so that’s a LOT of ALTs!

According to internal affairs ministry statistics, in fiscal 2012 there were around 4,300 JETs in the country, so the plan is apparently to increase that by a whopping factor of nine. According to the statistics that METI keeps on language schools, there are 10,000 or so full- and part-time language teachers working for regulated schools. I believe that does not count the large number of contractors like the teachers working for ALT placement agencies or the poor devils at Gaba, university instructors, and certainly not the many student teachers or anyone operating their own eikaiwa that does not fall under METI’s purview. But even generously allowing for a teacher population of say 30,000 total (around 3 for every train station), in ten years this number will be more than doubled.

The program is designed to place youthful foreigners, generally native English speakers, in Japanese schools (and to a smaller extent, local governments) for up to five years with two explicit goals: supplement English-language education and promote international interaction at the local level. Another key benefit is that the participants often go on to take influential Japan-related jobs, be it in foreign governments, Japanese companies, or companies that do business in or with Japan. Having a stable of Japan hands around seems pretty necessary at this point, given the relatively poor state of English language ability among the Japanese population. Unlike normal employment situations, JET offers a high level of support in the form of a reasonable salary, free housing, and a network of fellow JETs and regional coordinators to help with problems.

I get the feeling that a ninefold increase in the JET Program isn’t realistic—could they even recruit that many people to come and live in Japan, or would they maybe just cannibalize the entire existing eikaiwa-for-kids market? Still, some increase in the program along these line seems like a fairly simple way for the Abe administration to make a bold move in the direction of “internationalization” that won’t run into much political resistance.

Regardless of your views on the merits of the JET Program or the Japanese education system in general, you must admit that even just doubling the size of JET would have a pretty profound impact.

For one thing, that is double the amount of people coming in each year. That means more foreign faces on the street and more non-Asian foreign exposure for the Japanese public at large.

It also means more “Japan hands,” maybe even double, and this can cut in different ways. I feel like Japan is sorely in need of talented Japanese-to-English translators, so an influx of native English talent that could eventually progress to ace-translator status is a good thing. At the same time, the increased supply in the market could put pressure on prices, and who knows maybe some whipper snapper could come after my job some day.

I think it would also revive the option of teaching English in Japan for graduates of US universities that (from my admittedly limited perspective) seems to have died down a bit in the wake of troubles in the eikaiwa market and competition from China, a bigger and perhaps more intriguing destination. I can envision a near future in which young men see the Tokyo Vice movie and become inspired to chase thrills and excitement in Japan.

And it would necessarily boost the number of international marriages and the resulting children, bringing Japan that much closer to becoming the Grey Race.

On the negative side, the JET Program might have to loosen standards to attract talent. Even if they don’t, the sheer number of additional people will likely result in an increase in the problems that occasionally befall foreigners in Japan – crime, drugs, suspicious visa activity, ill-advised YouTube rants, you name it.

JET is a net good, but not for Japanese people’s English ability 

I say bring it on, mainly to bolster Japan-related talent. Unfortunately, my support of the program is not for its value as an English teaching tool (disclosure: my application for the JET Program was in fact rejected. I am not bitter about it because I handed in a terrible application, but nevertheless I feel like I should own up about it).

I have spoken with/read about perhaps dozens of JET teachers and students over the years. The teachers by and large do not have a particularly high opinion of the job’s value in terms of English teaching, but they almost unanimously credit the program for giving them a great experience. And while the students might not master English thanks to their JET, in many cases they remember them being a friendly adult who helped make school more enjoyable.

From what I gather, the job of an ALT is generally to supplement a Japanese teacher of English by helping with pronunciation and various other tasks. Maybe I just don’t get around enough, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone even try to argue that they are an essential part of the learning process or that what they do has an appreciable benefit to the level of English ability in Japan. I don’t think that is really a problem though because of the program’s other upsides.

On the other hand, what I have heard and experienced is that ALTs can help inspire students to discover the joys and rewards of learning English or encourage them to keep going. I think the value of that should not be underestimated because it is life-changing and the ALTs deserve huge credit for it.

This is kind of an aside, but basically I do not share the government’s fascination with trying to make the entire country proficient in English because for most people that is just not necessary. The way things stand, the biggest result of the current system seems to be the long list of Japanized English loan words that are often such a headache-inducing component of the Japanese language.

To have a more realistic and beneficial impact, I would rather them focus on establishing separate programs for the kids who excel at languages and giving them a place to shine on their own (and while they’re at it they should devote resources to helping returnees re-integrate when they come back while maintaining their language skills). That would hold out the hope of producing a larger population of Japanese adults with near-native English skills.

I feel like there is negative feedback loop whereby most Japanese people are in an environment where the norm is to not be good at English and therefore most people choose the path of least resistance. Separating out the kids that have a real talent and placing them in a more encouraging environment might keep them from missing out just because they have to go along with the crowd.

All in all, JET seems like a worthy program for giving kids a glimpse at a world outside of Japan and the teachers an interesting start to their post-college lives in a way that usually ends up benefiting Japan in some way.

PS: This independent video guide to the JET Program is very well done. If you are reading this and considering doing the program yourself, it is definitely worth a look:

Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 

  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English

  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.

  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

LDP presidential candidate Hayashi: “Let’s play kabuki”

This morning’s NHK Sunday political show contained a disturbing reimportation of the term political kabuki.

The candidates for LDP president were debating their stances on US base relocation, and one, Yoshimasa Hayashi, made the comment (if memory serves) that if Japan cannot deliver progress in negotiations then the bilateral talks would be nothing but political theater.

Specifically, he said they would turn into “let’s play kabuki” (レッツプレイカブキ) apparently referring to the tendency for the US media to refer to kabuki theater in this sense.

Ugh. My least favorite media cliche is now being adopted by the highest levels of Japan’s political establishment.

***

I don’t even really like this show that much because it tends to be nothing but unsurprising political bromides, and whatever value they have is directed at the politicos in Nagatacho, not a general audience. I always end up watching though because it comes right after one of my favorite shows 小さな旅 (“Little Adventures” is how I prefer to translate it). It’s a fun travel show but I especially like it for its amazing theme music, written by Yuji Ohno of Lupin III fame. Here it is thanks to the magic of YouTube:

Some impressions after getting a herniated disc in Tokyo

So the last week and a half has been pretty harrowing. The morning after an official company function I woke up with excruciating pain running down my left leg, like something was stabbing me from my thighs down to my toes. It was persistent, constant, and intense. With the help of Mrs. Adamu I was able to just barely walk out to the street, call a taxi, and get to the orthopedist.

Because I had recently been on a long bike ride with my full weight on the seat for about 4 hours, I was sure I broke my tailbone. Turns out that was not the case—the doctor said I had a herniated disc! The prescription: a bunch of drugs, plus a regimen of stretches and an order to lose some weight.

By the time I reached the clinic, most of the initial pain was gone, reduced to mostly an aching in my Achilles area. Since then it has tended to be worst in the morning, easing off gradually from there. The pain has dulled a bit each day, and now I feel much much better.  According to the doctor, I am one of the lucky cases whose hernia will likely be eradicated by my white blood cells. Otherwise I could need vascular injections or even major surgery. Here’s hoping that won’t be necessary.

Since this happened in Japan, the experience is perfectly germane for MFT. So here are some observations:

  • The doctors were not the horror story I hear about – My doctors (I started with a young doctor and then switched to the clinic director) were patient, listened to my bad Japanese (and explained things to me and my wife very clearly in Japanese without making a big deal of it), and gave advice that seems to have worked perfectly.

  • Japanese painkillers are weak, on purpose – The pain drugs they gave me didn’t seem to do much. For those first four days I just basically ached without relief. This is by design, apparently. The clinic director explained that in Japan the consensus is that painkillers should not be over-prescribed to avoid their side-effects, specifically stomach irritation. This experience plus some other doctor visits have confirmed this tendency. It’s enough to tempt me to trot out that line about Japan having an “endurance” (gaman) culture. My mom was not happy to hear this and told me to take extra Advil if necessary, but for the most part I stuck to the doctor’s advice and toughed it out.

  • Japanese hospitals can be crowded – After hearing that the clinic did not open until 8:30, we waited until around then to show up. Big mistake. By the time we arrived, the waiting area was already packed with patients, mostly elderly (understandable in an orthopedist). Thankfully the pain had become more manageable by then, because we ended up having to wait hours and hours to see someone. Which brings me to my next point…

  • The iPhone rules (and so does the iPad) – On that first day, I used an iPhone app to call the taxi, e-mailed and called coworkers to let them know my situation, looked up possible diagnoses while I waited, and generally killed time. Then over the next few days when I was basically stuck on the couch, I used the iPad (and TV to a lesser extent) to entertain myself with My Chinese Bride, YouTube, and Twitter. A laptop would not have worked in my case because I needed to remain in one position to stay comfortable.

  • Commuting with a disability is NOT easy – After four days out of commission I was ready to try commuting to work, initially with a crutch for support. My office was very understanding of my situation and nice enough to let me come in late all last week to avoid rush hour, which was a godsend. I have a new appreciation for anyone out there riding public transportation with any kind of physical disability in Japan. The society is not built for them, and the infrastructure built to help them is generally not respected. Healthy people storm the elevators, meaning that slow people like myself always have to wait for the elevator to make a second trip.
    And that brings me to the train situation. As anyone following my Twitter feed will know, finding seats on the train has been probably the most frustrating part of this experience. Even with a crutch, it is a crapshoot as to whether anyone will offer you a seat. I counted four kind souls in total, which according to one of my Twitter followers is a pretty good batting average. Due to the pain, eventually I stopped waiting and just straight up asking people as soon as I got on. Usually people complied readily, but I could see how the disabled could feel worn down by having to grovel to strangers just to get from point A to point B.
    Eventually, I stopped needing the crutch but brought it around with me anyway to avoid confusion when asking for a seat. And speaking of seats…

  • The “priority seat” system is stupid and should be abolished – As visitors/residents of Japan know, almost all Japanese trains set aside a section of seats as “priority” meaning that the elderly, physically disabled, and pregnant women should be given priority to sit there. But this doesn’t work and is a misguided idea to begin with. For one thing, when the seats are full of healthy people and a disabled person comes on, you have the problem I described above.
    But the worst part about these is that it corrals the people who need the seats into one section of the train. For whatever reason, the train companies decided that the physically disabled etc. don’t deserve to sit anywhere else on the train. Why not just make all seats “priority”? In my experience, I never knew which section of the train would have priority seats, and in many cases they weren’t near where I got on. So instead of limping over to the priority area, I would just go ahead and ask someone in the regular seats to get up. According to Wikipedia, Hankyu and a few other railways have figured this out. And last but certainly not least…

  • Having a caring and understanding wife is the best – Mrs. Adamu has been my lifesaver through all of this. She accompanied me to the hospital and took care of me when I couldn’t get around freely. That was awesome.

So thankfully I seem to be getting better and might not have to worry about this stuff for much longer. But I have definitely gained a newfound appreciation for a lot of things, not least the medical system and the people who have to ride the trains with a disability.

I am interested to hear your Japan medical stories in the comments. Is my case the norm or more of an outlier?

Passport blues

I have procrastinated for months in getting a new passport, even after my old one expired at the end of June, because the cover came off and it therefore counts as too damaged for a postal renewal. So, I finally found my birth certificate and biked over from my nice new (as of just over a week ago) residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn down to the very lovely main Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, where the most convenient all-day-long passport application center is located.

Upon arrival, I realize I forgot my printout of the application form at home, but no matter; I can easily fill it out again. After all, it would be silly to go all the way back home for my neatly printed printout of the filled-out-online PDF version of the form. And so I fill out all the forms again, whereupon the agent checks my documentation, She is at first suspicious that my birth certificate is merely a photocopy, and therefore invalid, but I show her—no ma’am, you can see that there is a faint, but genuine raised seal upon the surface—and she acquiesces.

But then a curveball. I am told that because my state ID ((Non-driver’s license state ID. Yes, that is something I never did at all.)) is less than 6 months old, the State Department does not have the updated records and it is therefore not a complete and valid form of identification, necessitating an alternate and more comprehensive approach to the application process. My options are laid out: I need to either go home and find the expired ID card or make an affidavit application.

What is an affidavit passport application you ask? I have heard of affidavit voting, you may think. All you have to do is fill out one extra form attesting that you are not a lying scoundrel, and they will put your vote in the pile that they will look at if they get bored. Surely an affidavit passport application is no more of a burden? In fact, it is.For you see, it is not the applicant who completes the affidavit, but the witness attesting to the applicant’s identity. That is, I would need to bring a relative or long-standing acquaintance with me to the application office, this person would need to present his or her identification, and sign an affidavit swearing to be a relative or long-standing acquaintance of mine, whereupon my application would be accepted.

Having no desire to subject another individual to such a dreary procedure, I cycle back home, stopping only shop at the Duane Reade for sundries I have been delinquent in purchasing, and being a frantic search for the expired card. Having just moved over a week ago I expected the search to be fruitless, but luckily I discovered the card in a matter of minutes, on a table, unexpectedly laying underneath a hat.

And so, the story ends with far more annoyance than drama, yet another example of the seemingly endless procedures to which all we citizens are subjected by the splendiferously tentacled bureaucratic state, and an anecdote which I hope will prove to be of some small amount of education to the reader.

Japanese “Western” style weddings are awesome

I recently saw someone tweet this:

The Japanese are brilliant at creating unnecessary rules and rituals for adopted western ceremonies. Particularly weddings. Urgh.

Many apologies, Zee-chan, but your statement has inspired me to say something about Japanese weddings. Essentially, that thing is this – I understand the frustration, but for all the ritual and pomp and circumstance, Japanese wedding ceremonies serve a worthy purpose that deserves respect. In fact, the rigidness and ritualistic aspects are kind of the whole point!

Again, I don’t want to single out Zee-chan. I don’t know her and it’s just one tweet, so I have no idea what she is thinking in detail. She just got me thinking about the topic.

But I will say this – I personally have long had complaints about the typical Japanese “western” style wedding, and I know that many other Westerner expats have them too. They tend to consist of sentiments like:

  • Japanese Western weddings are phony-seeming because they are held in a Christian chapel even though the couples and families are rarely practicing Christians

  • It’s weird that they hire white people to act as fake priests

  • They are unnecessarily expensive

  • The cash gifts requested of guests are too high

  • Rules for how to hand out gifts, greet the bride and groom, etc. are too rigid

Many of those criticisms are all well and good, but in general I want to just tell everyone to give Japanese weddings a break! People all over the world have a need for ceremony, and it isn’t fair for outsiders to be dismissive of the necessary rituals for marriage.

For my wedding to Mrs. Adamu way back in 2007, we went through a very conventional wedding planner, but insisted on doing things very simply and in our own way. We had no “ceremony” to speak of since we are not religious. Instead, we skipped directly to the reception and invited only close family and friends to a restaurant of our choosing. We asked one of our close friends to em-cee, created the invitations and audio-visual content ourselves (an MP3 mix and PowerPoint presentations!)

We did this first and foremost because we wanted things to be more intimate and customized to our style, in order to make it more memorable. But another reason we insisted on doing it this way was because we hated the Japanese “Western” style weddings so much and didn’t want to do full Japanese-style either. We openly thought the Western ones were stupid, especially the fake priest thing, and even tried to convince some of Shoko’s friends of this (unsuccessfully).

Well, we had the ceremony and it was a success beyond our expectations. We dressed in kimonos, Mrs. Adamu’s friends performed for us at the after-party, and we were able to bring the two families together (my immediate family flew into Tokyo for the occasion).

We were so proud of how it turned out, and we look back at that day very fondly. But after everything went down, it dawned on me – in terms of the benefits, our wedding was not that different from other Japanese couples who went the more traditional route. Here are some of the good things about having a “proper” wedding:

  • It lets the people in each circle (family, friends, coworkers, bosses) know in a very public way that the two of you are coming together, and it gives the people a chance to meet the other person as well as the other side’s family members

  • More critically, it is a public meeting of the two families to show (and usually give a speech explicitly stating) that they are in favor of the union

  • It gives everyone a chance to celebrate the union and in a way say goodbye to the single person they knew – the speeches and performances by friends are part of this

  • For the couple, it is their chance to know that they are accepted, see that people are happy and celebrating, and thus feel like a real married couple

  • Doing all this formally and in public makes it all official – this was hard for me to appreciate before having gone through it, but if you’re young and not married this is a bigger deal than you might think. For example, my father died a while after this, and for whatever reason I feel better knowing he was able to see me get married.

  • Oftentimes, the gifts collected exceed the cost of the wedding itself, and thus help fund the couple’s new start together

  • It is the bride’s day to live her dream, dress up nicely, and be the complete center of attention on one very special day.

  • And of course, the proceedings are documented on video and in thousands of pictures, to share with the people who couldn’t attend and to look back on years later.

These will definitely vary for each couple/family (and of course it’s somewhat idealized), but I think it’s a decent approximation.

And for all this, it doesn’t really matter what specific form the ritual takes, as long as people recognize it as an official and real wedding ceremony. So if it takes hiring a random white person, signing a fake contract, or whatever, so be it.

It might go without saying, but a wedding day isn’t all about the couple getting married – it also has to (at least mostly) meet the expectations of the guests, especially the parents. And in the case of many Japanese people, that means checking off all the boxes on the “wedding ceremony” order form. It might be expensive, gaudy, “fake,” etc, but it fulfills a very real social need.

This is mostly my own tale of coming to my senses and growing up about the importance of the wedding ceremony. So I am not sure how much this applies to other people, but at any rate I wanted to get this story off my chest.

Why raising the consumption tax is a good idea AND good politics

The following is a lightly edited version of my e-mail reply to a friend who asked about the ongoing fight over passing a hike to the consumption tax. As of this writing the bill has passed the lower house but has still not become law. See Japan Real Time for a good breakdown of recent events:

The consumption tax was definitely too low for a country with such generous welfare benefits, so raising it only makes all the sense in the world. I almost wish they had put in a delay mechanism in case the economy is still in bad shape in 2 years, but hopefully that won’t be the case.

Fiscally, I think it is a drop in the bucket, and the short term economic impact is definitely not great. That is why there is such a strong knee-jerk negative reaction among the public. They either run or know people who run small businesses that will get hurt, but more importantly it’s one of the few policies that stares average people in the face every day and is easy to understand. Everything you pay for will get more expensive.

But at the same time it’s vital to get the house in order so to speak, or else Japan really is in for a hard landing. The social programs that Japan has are great and they need to be maintained. So they need to be funded in a way that’s not too onerous, and this seems like as good a way as any to me.

I have basically come to the conclusion that inflation is unlikely in Japan over the long term because there isn’t a fundamental basis for it. People are getting older fast and are just going to spend less. And productivity gains aren’t going to be fast enough to make up for that (economics isn’t my strong suit… but isn’t it the case that inflation is at least supposed to track economic cycles?) Japan isn’t going to necessarily have another growth boom, but what it can do is enjoy a comfortable and proud status as a rich nation. That is, they should be able to if people in their prime now can actually feel some security and expect a reasonable retirement not too different from what their parents had.

In terms of the political situation, there are a lot of people saying that Ozawa “won” but I don’t really see it that way. He didn’t stop Noda from doing what he wanted to do – there has effectively been a Grand Coalition in place since Noda came to power (note how close to unanimous the jail-for-download law was, or the postal reform bill, or take your pick) and for all the blustering among the parties they are pretty much united on a lot of policy measures because they are a) consensus among the Serious People muckimucks like the finance ministry and media opinion makers, and b) the subject of gaiatsu (I believe the IMF has been dogging Japan to raise the consumption tax).

And although Ozawa technically has the power to basically an early election through defecting, he is too afraid to do it because he knows that his clique is even more exposed to getting voted out than the others because it contains so many first-termers. It seems pretty shrewd for Noda to NOT punish the defectors in that case because it prevents the election from happening and lets the de facto grand coalition continue with him running the show.

If there is an election the DPJ will lose, the LDP will win (though maybe not get an outright lower house majority), Komeito will maintain, and Hashimoto’s party might make a serious splash, though Hashimoto himself has said he won’t run. So in that context I think all the established parties, especially the DPJ, have an incentive to delay an election as long as possible. Once Hashimoto has his foot in the door of national politics life won’t be the same. Every little thing will be a fight that can’t be worked out by getting drunk together at a ryotei.

Make no mistake, though, this is a big deal. This type of potential split in the DPJ was months in the making, maybe even years because Kan might have pushed for the tax hike had there been no earthquake (remember how he for whatever reason ran on that issue in the Upper House elections?).

And there is always the need to point out that this agenda of raising the tax was pushed by the finance ministry. Politicians in general are empty shells with voting power, and they need to get pushed in a certain direction by the people who they think will help them keep or increase that power. This time it was the ministry of finance because it is a permanent bureaucracy that has a political agenda that’s informed by its mission as the steward of the Japanese government’s finances.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because if there is one thing that the DPJ coming to power has taught me is that it’s dangerous to allow people with zero expertise being responsible for governing convince themselves that they know what’s best for the country. It feels like all they are good for is posturing and fundraising. The DPJ made the critical mistake of making enemies of the bureaucrats instead of cultivating them and influencing them in the subtle, glad-handing way the LDP mastered. Or at least they could have brought in people with talent and real ideas.

Best ways to cope with routine gaijin questions? A reaction to Debito

Debito’s latest creation is a column about “microaggression,” which is his new term for the routine, repetitive questions and lines of conversation that Japanese people commonly have with white Westerners (“You can use chopsticks?” “Can you eat natto?” etc). He says they add up to a form of soft discrimination. It’s one of his better thought-out and organized pieces in a while, so I heartily recommend reading it.

I will admit at first the column touched a nerve because I easily tire of hearing these questions and have many times cut conversations short rather than continue (partly because my Japanese sucks). But while I agree with the basic framework of the idea—that people treat gaijin this way because they are different—I ultimately don’t think it’s worth calling that out and out discrimination and prejudice.

He goes into lots of details, and if you want to get into the finer points of his column in the comments, I will be there with you. But for now I just want to point out my biggest issue.

Boring, repetitive conversations are had all over the world. It just so happens that when Japanese people see a Western face, it calls up memories of learning English in school, the images on TV, and the experiences they or their friends have had with foreigners in the past.  It’s all completely natural and utterly mundane. A shout-out and a thank-you go to those rare people who can break this mold and have lively and fun conversations.

Rather than a small form of “aggression,” in my experience people who do this are almost always just sticking to the script of safe, polite conversation. Most people are not great conversationalists, so they gravitate to what’s easy. Doctors always hear the same questions about their job, so does that mean they’re being discriminated against?

I am totally on Debito’s team when it comes to being pissed off at ignorant prejudiced people. It’s just that while the ignoramuses do engage in the routine rote questions, doing so isn’t a capital offense, socially speaking. You will screen out a lot of perfectly decent people if you denounce everyone who ever mentioned your chopstick skills.  For one thing, talking about food is probably the best ice-breaker for intercultural encounters, so it’s kind of unfair to try and rule that out!

In the column Debito mentions “coping skills” like it’s a dirty word. But coping skills are absolutely essential for living in Japan, and they don’t need to involve trying to change the whole society. There might be a time and place to discuss with Japanese people the absurd repetitiveness of some of these conversations, but it’s probably not worth “resisting” someone you are meeting for the first time.

What are some go-to ways to cope with these situations? As I said I am not good at this, so my most common method for complete strangers might be to politely answer the questions and then clam up, thinking, Hurry up and finish cutting my hair! But when I am feeling festive, I’ll sometimes turn the question around, or even better—change the subject! People usually move on. Ken on Twitter had a good one: “Best part of being ambidextrous is as soon as I get [the chopstick] compliment I issue the challenge to use them lefty.” Really, this is an area where I’ve fallen into a pretty unfriendly routine, so being better able to deal with it would probably brighten these people’s days, not to mention my own.

Update: While Mr. Arudo’s column was worth our unqualified attention this time, our “no Debito” policy lives on in the comments section – our hope against hope is that you try to avoid talking about the man himself and his approach and blahblahblah

Why I don’t have an iPad: Son-san, are you out there somewhere?

I want one, and I’m willing to pay for a data plan. But Softbank will not give it to me.

I have used a Softbank iPhone for a while now—since July 2009, to be precise. Softbank has generally been pretty good to me. When the iPhone 4S came out, they essentially upgraded my iPhone 3GS for free in exchange for a two-year contract extension, and I was happy to take that offer. And their “packet-hodai” deals have been a very cost-effective way to stay in touch while traveling, often coming out cheaper than using hotel wi-fi.

When the new iPad was released last month, and Softbank offered a sweet deal for the 4G model (no money down, and less than 3,000 yen per month for up to 100 MB of data), it seemed like a good time to break down and buy one. I switched job functions a few months ago and now have to do quite a bit of traveling and client presentations, so having a nice big portable Retina display would be more useful than ever.

So I started my online application on the evening of March 18. The application is quite long. I had to input all my information (which Softbank already had) and agree to a few different lengthy form contracts.

Finally they asked for my credit card information, which I duly entered.

“ERROR: The name on your credit card must match the name on your application.”

I knew that my middle name was on my Softbank account, so I had entered my middle name on the first screen of the application. But my credit cards don’t have my middle name. Figuring that was the problem, I canceled the application and re-entered everything without my middle name. This time my credit card was accepted.

Two days later, I received a link to upload a scan of my identification. I started by trying my driver’s license. The upload had to be a JPG, and the scanner at work only produces PDFs, so I scanned a PDF, took a snapshot in Acrobat, and pasted it into Windows Paint.

A few minutes later I got another email. “Your ID has been rejected because it does not match the name on your application.”

Doh! Must be because it has my middle name on it.

Next try. My health insurance card does not have my middle name. Neither does my credit card. And health insurance card plus credit card is listed as an acceptable combination. So I scanned, copied, pasted, saved, and uploaded again.

A few minutes later I got another email. “Your ID has been rejected because it does not match the name on your application.”

I growled, picked up my phone and called customer service. After 15 minutes on hold I finally got to an agent and explained what had happened.

“OK,” she said. “I have your phone number. Can you confirm the name on your account?”

I gave her my name.

“Um,” she said, “that’s not the name on the account.”

I explained that my original account had a middle name on it but that I couldn’t use it while applying through the website. She put me on hold for a few minutes.

“Can you upload ID without your middle name on it?”

“Like I said, I already tried that.”

She put me on hold for a few more minutes.

“So… you tried using ID with your middle name, and then without your middle name?”

“YES,” I said.

She put me on hold for a few more minutes.

“OK, what you need to do is go to a Softbank store and request a change of name…”

I hung up on her and fumed on Facebook. One friend suggested that I complain to Masayoshi Son on Twitter. And I did, which sort of made me feel better. He never replied, though.

At that point I was willing to give up on my iPad dreams, but the deal still seemed too good to pass up. So on Friday, March 24, I walked up the street to the nearest Softbank store and told them I wanted an iPad. The guy at the counter checked my ID, asked for my mobile number, and produced a one-page printed application for me to sign.

“Is everything in this application correct?”

That’s when I noticed that my name was screwed up: the space between my first and middle names was in the wrong place.

“Well… that’s how it was entered in our system. I guess it was probably an error when they set up your account.”

I sighed. “I would have noticed it then. But OK. Can you still process the application?”

“Sure we can.”

“OK. And how long will it take to actually get an iPad?”

“Something like a week, probably. We will call you when it’s ready.”

The next week passed without a call. Yesterday (Monday), I tweeted Softbank customer service asking if there was any way to check the status of the request. They promptly responded that they had no way of checking and that I needed to take it up with the Softbank store.

So I went back to the Softbank store today, gave them my name and asked for a status update. The lady at the counter went into the back for a few minutes and then returned.

“We don’t know what the status is.”

“You have no idea how long it will take?”

“There is a huge backlog. It could easily take a month,” she said. “We request the iPad from Softbank, Softbank requests it from Apple, and there are probably some other steps involved as well.”

Seriously? Is it so hard to take my money and give me a product?

I am tempted to cancel the application and buy a Wi-Fi model at the store, but I know that I will want access to mobile data from time to time. Not enough to warrant a full-blown e-Mobile subscription, though. That’s the most frustrating part of this experience. Why can’t Softbank get its act together?

My Japanese sucks and always will

Not as good as this guy’s

Just want to get something off my chest. I’ve been studying Japanese for almost 15 years, spent two of them studying abroad, lived in Tokyo for five years now, passed the JLPT 1 and the Securities Representative exam in Japanese, worked as a Japanese-English translator for around 7 years, and on and on. I’ve done a lot of stuff that would seemingly require near-native fluency, and yet…

My Japanese still sucks. I feel like no matter how much I study or live in the country I am always going to have a rough accent, a low working vocabulary, and generally limited fluency. My reading will always be much much slower than a native, and I will forever be looking up kanji on my iPhone even to write my own address half the time. My wife will be afraid to let me go to the doctor alone lest I misunderstand some important detail. I’ll never feel comfortable speaking in public or leading a group conversation among natives. If someone doesn’t feel like being patient with me there’s not a whole lot I can do to take control of the situation.

I feel like I have improved a lot and developed a pretty good working use of the language, but on an objective level it’s just terrible. I’d like to go around thinking I have really achieved something by learning another language and making a career of it, but I need to be honest.

In the US there is a very simple standard for English fluency – either native or foreign. You don’t get any prizes for having 50% fluent English or even 90%. But of course here, Japanese people tend to be overflowing with praise for a Westerner who speaks the language. They make it sound like it’s such an amazing achievement. But anyone who grows up here will learn Japanese – it’s just a way for people to communicate. I don’t think knowing it means you deserve any special credit. I guess I should be grateful that the bar is so low and so many people are willing to be patient with me.

I can only speak for myself, but I get the feeling that a good deal of the long-term Western residents are like me. They’ve developed a good working fluency but will probably never really reach native level. I think that’s great and worthy in its way, but for me I don’t want to lose sight of reality.

There are ways that I could improve, maybe, and I do want to get better. I want to just live a normal life without worrying about the language barrier. It’s demoralizing to stutter and fumble words at my job or even just trying to ask a store clerk something. Having better Japanese and the social skills to use it (a big one here) would make it much easier to disarm situations where people are uneasy about dealing with a foreigner. I have definitely not been in the habit of actively trying to improve my Japanese for quite a while now – at this point in my life (almost 30) my priorities are work and spending time with Mrs. Adamu. Spending extra free time writing kanji is not my idea of fun anymore.

People laughed Debito’s column about not having male Japanese friends, but I actually kind of identified with it to an extent. I don’t hang out with many Japanese people, and next to zero men. Unlike Debito, however, I don’t really blame Japanese people for not being sophisticated enough to understand me. I instead put most of it down to the language/cultural barrier and my own social awkwardness. There are lots and lots of people with similar backgrounds who have successfully integrated, either going native or on some other terms, and they can just make it work in a way that I haven’t been able to.

Maybe what’s made things worse is that my Japanese has improved to a level where I know what it means to speak at a native level and the difference when someone falls short. At the risk of comparing myself to people with real problems, it’s like a disabled person who knows what it’s like to walk but just can’t make his body do what his brain is telling it.

Anyway that’s something I have been wanting to post on Mutant Frog for a while now because I don’t want to put out this image like my Japanese is so amazingly awesome when it’s not. That’s definitely not how I used to feel (I think I have written that I “get” Japan better than other people on more than one occasion) but I am way overdue for some humility.