Life in Lockdown

Sometime last month, Japan went into a full-blown state of emergency. What did this mean? Well, actually not much. There were changes to daily life. Restaurants closed or became takeout only. I believe most bars closed as well, ditto other entertainment places like malls, arcades, karaoke, and pachinko parlors. Even Disneyland and Universal Studios closed! Businesses that had the technology to let employees work from home, did, while ones not so equipped (read: 99% of companies) still had their employees come in. For schools, we still did the ol’ “students don’t come but teachers do” trick. Since ALTs are governed by different rules, however, we have been able to stay home for the entire last month. So, besides grocery shopping and one trip to the city to replace my broken glasses, I haven’t gone anywhere at all. When I have been out and about, though, places didn’t seem significantly more crowded or empty than normal, just maybe more social distancing in the way things were laid out or how people waited in line. The government and powers that be have no actual authority to enforce a lockdown beyond suggesting to people this is what they should do. For the most part, everyone has been obedient. I had seen some people having barbecues or congregating in karaoke bars that are still open, but eh, I dunno.

What with this plethora of free time I’ve had, I haven’t done too much. I’ve just been watching movies, unfortunately playing a lot of video games, but I’ve also written two short stories! The first, “Our Man in No Man’s,” is set in the German trenches of World War I, a lieutenant’s search for a missing private who also happens to be a huge prankster. The second, “The Man Who Killed Today,” chronicles the beginning of a 3000-mile journey across 1980s California as a hard-boiled detective teams up with a serial murderer. Anyways, especially recently, it is obvious that Japan is eager to start their “return to normalcy,” ramping down testing so much that for the last four days we have had *zero* new cases. Wow! Classes are starting back up this Thursday the 21st, and I myself will be back in the teacher’s chair come June 1st. So, very soon, the adventures shall continue!

 

Coronavirus Hits 1,000; Titanic Iceberg Soccer

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Saying goodbye to Siseko, pictured here whispering South African economy statistics. Credit goes to Julie S. for this photo.

You know that scene in Titanic where it’s just struck the iceberg and people are playing soccer with the ice chunks? That’s the kind of the spirit of this post. Since my last one, cases in Hyogo prefecture have trickled up to just over 100. I have a bad habit of underestimating/making light of disasters, and this one seems to be no exception either. A lot of the world is shutting down now, and it became more real when recently one of my closest friends here (together with two other people) all decided on Tuesday to quit their jobs, with four days’ notice to their schools, to move out of their apartments and fly out of the country on Sunday.

Japan, God bless it, REALLY hates change, and it is really resistant to corona-chan’s attempts to affect day-to-day life. Schools did close a week early for spring break, but they are still stubbornly going ahead with opening school as normal in April. Just yesterday, we had a sort of orientation for the incoming freshmen, with hundreds of kids running around the school all day. And as a “compromise” between exposing kids and closing schools, the usually-daily club activities have resumed practice, but *only* four days a week (instead of 6) and no more than two hours a day. Wowee! “Social distancing” has not yet even been recommended here, though the government does still come out to say “don’t travel between this and that prefecture unless necessary” every so often. A second motivator is that Japan really does not want to postpone the 2020 Olympics, so rumors are that the government is undertesting to keep numbers low. I have heard thirdhand (so take that with a grain of salt) of two JETs being told by doctors “you probably have coronavirus, but we won’t test you. Just stay home for two weeks,” and whatever reason for that your guess is as good as mine. UPDATE: As I wrote this post, it looks like Prime Minister Abe did admit they’ll have to postpone.

So, almost three months since corona began, Japan still isn’t shut down, and cases still haven’t exploded exponentially like they have in, say, Italy. As of writing, Japan has about 1,000 cases spread over the country. Businesses are all still open. Markets haven’t run out of anything, although toilet paper has become quite scarce and face masks disappeared since the beginning of this epidemic. Other than that, if you just totally ignore the news you’d never know this thing is going on in Japan. However, it’s only a matter of time until things really go south, given the total lack of any significant response or widespread quarantine practices, and the fact that around the world “it took 67 days… to reach 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000, and just four days for the third 100,000.” (source) Either that, or we find out that the quaint Japanese tradition of totally eschewing hand soap actually builds mega-immunity. I’ve already tempted fate once, because my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival may very well have been ground zero. As I have said to many people in the ad nauseum conversations about it, what a crazy time to be alive. So, to the one person reading this, be thankful the ship hasn’t started leaking yet, but it DID hit that iceberg and it’s probably better to be padding those lifeboats than kicking ice around.

 

 

Coronavirus Strikes Japan!

I have lived through many health scares, from avian flu to zika virus (that is, they existed while I was alive), though they have never personally affected me. I thought coronavirus would be much the same, but little did I know that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would create some ripples on Thursday the 27th by suddenly requesting ALL SCHOOLS in Japan to close the following Monday. This sent schools into a panic, in a bureaucratic system where I am required to submit “travel reports” for a 200-yen ($2) train fare that must be stamped by hand by me, office staff, the principal, and the board of education before I get it deposited back into my account weeks later. Not only that, but many schools are still finishing up final exams, and some haven’t even had their graduation ceremonies yet.

Yet, today, Monday, students are still streaming into schools. In fact, from what I heard most schools hated the move. Many, including mine, agreed in contravention of Abe’s advice to have one or two more days of school to finish up exams, and then close. And guess what, schools being closed just mean students don’t have to come. We teachers still have to.

This has been a rapidly developing situation, and it has finally given me enough material to make a blogpost about it. Although it had been happening all over Japan, first nearer Tokyo, and then down as close as Osaka, I thought it was only a matter of time before a case popped up in Hyogo. And one did, just last night! My local community center has cancelled all events for the next month. Trains were a ghost town on Saturday night, and as always, people are wearing surgical masks (which, by now, are almost impossible to find in stores). It has affected bigger things too, for example the Grand Sumo Tournament in March being closed to spectators. Things are happening, but there is no widespread panic you see in day-to-day life as the news are implying. At the end of this all, I hope that if nothing else, back in the West this’ll bring masks into vogue, because what’s not to love? They cover half your face and look good too! More to come soon, of course, as coronavirus starts to ravage Hyogo.

A Japanese Disaster Drill

A massive earthquake has struck Akashi. Or perhaps, a tsunami. Evacuate! To your nearest disaster center! And this area’s happens to be my very own Higashi-Harima High School. Today* was a mass disaster drill, where students gathered in the gym and practiced things like using blankets as stretchers, getting a taste of hinanshoku, or disaster food, and how to make platforms out of boxes, I guess. Green-jumpsuited members of the Nihon Bousaishi (Japan Disaster Prevention) Society were also present to look cool and show us the proper way to do things.

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“Everyone’s dead, hooray!”

 

It started in the morning, with all the kids running onto the school field to line up and take attendance. The atmosphere was very lively, kids were chatty and laughing, and we even had a few photographers there as if this were a really exciting, commemorable event. Everyone was in their athletic clothes, except for me in a shirt and tie. Opening ceremony was supposed to be the same day but it got cancelled for some reason.

After that, we went onward to the gym. Several members of the community had also shown up, mostly the elderly since this was a weekday morning. The good Bousaishi people (whose logo is the photo atop this post) gave us a peppy lecture about proper disaster practices. I couldn’t pick up much, sorry to say, so far all I know they could’ve been saying “cleanse the sinners with tsunamis” or “ALTs should jump into earthquakes” and I would just be nodding vigorously.

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Despite this being a drill, we were still given real disaster rations and encouraged to consume them. It was a bottle of “Postonic Water,” basically like unflavored Gatorade, and some incredibly bland fried rice. I think there was some chicken, vegetables, mushrooms? But almost no flavor at all. Even plain Japanese rice has more flavor– the Bousaishi people explained that disaster food should be easy to digest and as inoffensive as possible. Looks like the only disaster that day was the food, haha! Really, I appreciated it, of course. It was homemade by volunteer moms, and they had to have made hundreds of these for all the students and community members attending.

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After the distribution of blankets to each row of kids, the bousaishi members demonstrated how to make them into improvised stretchers– lay a kid in the middle, and roll it up on both sides towards them. Wow!

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Then, how to make platforms from cardboard boxes. Put together, they are surprisingly capable of supporting several schoolgirls, or schoolboys. Perhaps it’s for an impromptu hospital bed. Whoaaaa!

Anyways, that’s pretty much it. Stay safe out there!

* This actually took place a month ago, but I hadn’t published it till now.

Akashi Living & Reflections, Part 2

* This is the long awaited sequel to Cherry Blossoms & Reflections. Credit goes to Rika M. for the postcard cover photo.

With the last blog post, I had a startling realization, that had I not recontracted and this were my first and only year on JET, then all I would have to show for my experience is 20-some travel-guide-esque blog posts. The concept of just blogging about *me* and my feelings, etc. is so difficult to me that I only feel comfortable writing instructional-esque material, and even have personal posts in their own category. Although, I suppose, technically all my posts still fall under it.

Anyways, as my one-year anniversary of my arrival in Japan approaches, I thought I should dedicate a post to the city that so graciously houses me and to whose children I am “teaching” English, Akashi City. I know that in the past it’s been a little confusing as to where I actually live, but again, my school is in the town of Inami, despite it being called East Harima High School. I live, however, in Akashi. It is on the south coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, pretty much smack-dab in the middle between Himeji to the west and Kobe to the east.

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Also home to Akashi Castle (Ruins), demolished in 1874 and never rebuilt.

Nearly every city in Japan, be it Tokyo or a countryside town where trains run only once an hour, has some random claim claim to fame or some other kind of specialty. For example, Akashi’s neighboring Awaji Island is known for its onions, as well as the place where the gods pulled Japan out of the sea. I have a friend who lives in a modest rural town of 40,000, and their claim to fame is being located in the geographical center of Japan, as well as having connections with the Australian Olympic ping-pong team (no idea why). Tokyo, besides being the capital of Japan and all that, is also apparently known for its bananas, because the special souvenir snack you can only buy there is always “Tokyo banana,” despite the fact the amount of Tokyo banana plantations may be close to zero.

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Credit goes to Rika M. for this photo.

As for Akashi, we have three! First and foremost is Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Funnily enough, when I was visiting my girlfriend in 2017, she took me to this bridge as a day trip. It was a 2-hour drive from her place in Osaka, and at the time I thought it was, well, pretty neat. It passed out of my mind and I never imagined I’d be back one day.

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Secondly, and in fact the thing I pull out the most when people ask where I live, is that Akashi is where the national time of Japan is set, at the Akashi Planetarium.

Thirdly, Akashi has its own special dish called Akashiyaki, which is a fried ball of batter, heavy on the eggs, with a piece of octopus in it, dipped in dashi, a light fish broth and the base for nearly all Japanese soups, from miso soup to ramen. It is, in fact, the precursor of the now much more famous takoyaki that was invented in Osaka.

With that out of the way, I want to dedicate this post to some of the negatives of living in Japan. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll have to take everything with a grain of salt because I think I am pretty positively biased towards Japan. Nevertheless:

 Asian in Japan

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More relevant than you think. This is, of course, from King of the Hill.

The experience of being a foreigner in Japan is probably talked about and blogged about more than the weather. Is being a foreigner in Japan indeed like being in the seventh circle of Hell, where instead of a lake of boiling fire it’s constant passive-aggression, or is it a land of infinite friendliness, hospitality, and adventures, of being invited to carry a sacred shrine at a festival, just for being a cool foreign dude who happened to walk by?

For me, it’s not really either. I’m stuck in between the two worlds– I’m not Japanese, but I’m not the *cool* or *interesting* kind of foreigner either. I can’t help but feel some kids were a little disappointed to hear they were getting an American JET, only to find out that it’s some Asian dude. In fact, when I sent a self-intro video to a fellow JET for his school’s intercultural project, his kids had apparently reacted with just “he’s American?” and not much else. The general image of Americans in the Japan is still the good ol’ all-American Joe Football, tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Either that, or to a lesser extent, African-Americans. Outside of major cities, my foreign friends who fit this bill still get a lot of attention, like getting free food at restaurants or excitedly asked for pictures of with drunk salarymen. I, on the other hand, am free to blend in and stand out as I please, which brings me to my next point.

Can Asians tell other Asians apart? Yes, they can, to a certain degree. However, most of the time, I blend in– restaurant staff always look to me as the group’s interpreter, despite the fact that I am often the one with the lowest Japanese ability among everyone. People don’t stare at me on the train. I see cashiers occasionally switch to English for my friends but speak in Japanese to me. After all, in a country that’s 98.1% ethnically Japanese, it’s pretty safe to assume that any light-skinned Asian person is most likely Japanese too. Other times, though, people can tell I’m not Japanese right off the bat, or they find out from the moment I open my mouth. The problem is, when people find out I’m not Japanese, they usually assume I’m Chinese.

Six months into the program, there were still teachers at the school who thought I was Chinese, despite having mentioned my Thai heritage in the many self-introductions I had to do when I first arrived. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting your ethnicity confused; it happens, but the problem is that if people in Japan are prejudiced, the most commonly disliked group is the Chinese. Perhaps it stems from the history between the two nations (fuel for the older generation) and the huge amount of tourists, who often are seen as having horrible manners (fuel for the current generation). The hate is so mainstream and fairly accepted that I once saw a TV show all about “look at what those Chinese are doing!” featuring things like people dumping trash in public or jaywalking and almost getting hit by cars. Pretty crazy that something like that could be allowed to air on TV at all. in the screencap below, an expose on Chinese manners, the captions say something like “They bought some dango, touched it, ate it before paying, and then said they didn’t want two anymore!”

In the top right, “Chinese tourists manner faux pas!”

Anyways, as a result of that, I am always hyper-aware and paranoid of breaking any social rules, be it as minor as standing on the wrong side of the train door or putting money into someone’s hands rather than on the table at stores. I never want someone to look at me and think to themselves, “Oh look, it’s one of those BAD kind of foreigners,” especially since I’ve already lost my chances on being the cool foreigner from the cosmic lottery. For this reason I try to hide the fact that I’m a foreigner as much as I can in most situations, for example never, ever defaulting to English first and responding “that’s okay, no problem” to questions when I have no idea what they said. Yeah, that’s my life, I am way too caught up in the opinions of strangers.

But to conclude, although I still will never feel like the “good” or exciting kind of foreigner, at the end of the day, I am happy to blend in. I’m also happy that even when I don’t, I can give Japanese people an opportunity to learn that Asian-Americans do exist, and yes, they can be pretty cool too!

What NOT to Do in Japan, According to Their Signs

There’s more to the signage in Japan than just poorly translated English. There’s also Japanese signs in perfectly-translated JAPANESE, warning you about the strangest things or otherwise just being really cute. All captions are translations/rough translations, not my commentary:

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“Please don’t feed the deer, it makes them get sick.”
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Beware of your valuables when visiting relatives’ graves. There’s thieves about!

 

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Train emergency stop button.
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Train manners: don’t block the doorway like this chameleon.
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Watch out for your baggage bumping into people.
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No right turns, but going straight and left turns are okay.

26 Things You Can Do and See at a Japanese Convenience Store: From A to Z

To see the heights to which the concept of convenience can reach, look no further than the humble, ubiquitous konbini— the Japanese convenience store. To avoid saying konbini 800 times, I will just namedrop all the chains I’ve ever seen. Here are 26 things you can see/do should you ever find yourself in one:

  1. American dogs. Konbinis feature both American and Japanese junk food. At the hot food section, you may be able to buy an American dog, i.e. a corn dog.

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    A bento lunch from 7-Eleven. Includes rice, pickled radish, Hamburg steak (basically Salisbury steak), a piece of fried chicken, a potato croquette, a piece of salmon, and tamagoyaki (rolled omelette). Will set you back about $4.70.
  2. Bento boxes. They’ll heat it up for you, too!
  3. Cash withdrawal. Every konbini has an ATM, which are necessary in the land where banks close at 3 PM on weekdays, are not open on weekends, and are much less widespread than 7-Eleven and friends.
  4. Dine in. Some konbinis have small dining areas so you don’t have to wait another moment to enjoy that steaming bento box!img_3801
  5. Erotic literature. Are you, too, a Harvard-educated man/woman who still enjoys the high-class art of printed pornography? Then support your local giant-boob artist and head down to Lawson’s today.new doc 2018-12-14 08.35.01-1 (1)
  6. Fried chicken… for Christmas. Did you know that traditional Christmas dinner in Japan is… Kentucky Fried Chicken? Reservations open weeks in advance, and if you miss the deadline then it’s okay, you can still go with the equally-as-good konbini versions.
  7. Get your Amazon package. You can order things online and have them shipped to your local Sunkus for pickup instead. This may be beneficial because deliverymen will not leave packages if you are not home, you have to deal with the dreaded redelivery notice instead.
  8. Hot bottled drinks. In addition to cold bottled drinks, there will also be a hot bottle section to get your portable tea/coffee fix.5f960e39-540c-42d8-a6c1-c63117a3f26d
  9. Instant ramen. If you weren’t really a fan of it before, you’ll probably become one once you’re here. From seafood to curry to Pringles, the possibilities are limitless.
  10. John Player Specials. Likely one of the coolest-named cigarettes ever, konbinis also offer an outside smoking area where you can enjoy it. Unlike the US, where smoking is allowed nowhere indoors but in practice is allowed EVERYWHERE outdoors, Japan is the opposite. Smoking on the street is a kind of no-no, but there are many designated outdoors smoking spaces and indoor smoking rooms.

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    This bag includes 3 miso Kit-Kats! See bottom right.
  11. Kit-Kats. It’s popular to bring back strawberry or green tea kit-kats as a souvenir for people back home. But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg– there’s flavors that we in the States cannot even fathom, from pumpkin to miso and wasabi.
  12. Lemon Coke. And to round it out, there’s peach and even coffee Coke!
  13. Mail packages and lettersScrew the post office, come to Daily Yamazaki instead!
  14. Nigiri sushi. I believe American 7-Elevens also sell sushi, but for some weird reason I can’t figure out, there’s just something about sushi in Japan that seems less shady. And would you believe, in general I have found cheap sushi in Japan to be just “OK,” not much different from cheap sushi in the US.
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    Utsunomiya City omiyage. These are rice crackers in the shape of gyoza dumplings, which they are famous for.
  15. Omiyage. Omiyage are regional souvenirs, usually in the form of individually-wrapped cookies, rice crackers, pastries, etc. with a flavor/design unique to that region. It is a societal expectation to bring back omiyage for your coworkers whenever going somewhere. For this reason, many konbinis in touristy/well-traveled areas will sell such souvenir boxes.
  16. Postage stamps. You can buy stamps at the konbini too, how exhilarating!
  17. Quaff a beer or three outside. Public drinking is not against the law in Japan, so aside from perhaps a few glances, you are free to sit on the curb and slug one back with the tomodachi, unharried by policemen.
  18. Rice balls. Onigiri (Japanese rice balls) are the grab-and-go equivalent of the sandwich. They come with different fillings from mere seaweed to salmon to bulgogi or pork and mayo.img_2625
  19. Strong. Even better than beer is Strong, a vodka-based carbonated cocktail-in-a-can, boasting percentages as high as 9%. If you’ll be drinking in Japan, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be pre-gaming with a Strong or two. That’s the strength of two standard drinks for less than $2.
  20. Trash cans. Public trash cans, like out on the street, simply do not exist. You don’t even find them in most public bathrooms (which is why many people still carry handkerchiefs). Even people climbing Mount Fuji are told to take their trash to the peak and back with them. Why so few trash cans? Apparently, they were taken away in response to a 1995 terrorist attack involving nerve gas bombs being dropped in places on the subway– it’s one less place for terrorists to plant something in the future.
  21. Utility bill payment. Your utility bills come with bar codes that can also be scanned and paid for in cash at the local konbini. That’s how I keep my water, gas, and electricity flowing every month.

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    The Ponta Pointo card, used at Lawson’s.
  22. Verify your point balance. Every chain has their own rewards card, of course featuring a cute animal mascot. You can earn points towards future purchases, and even win prizes like stuffed animals during special promotions!
  23. Warm up. Found yourself woefully underdressed for winter? Stop in FamilyMart and equip yourself with some gloves, a beanie, or a scarf.
  24. Xerox a document. Most konbinis have printer stations.
  25. Yogurt soda. Carbonated Yakult? Yes! Yes!
  26. Zoo tickets. Concert tickets, sports tickets: anything you can buy online, you can also arrange to pick it up at the konbini.