Posted by: Menzie | April 23, 2009

Notes on language and customs

My roommate is a graduate student and Spanish GA at University of California, Berkeley. As he was grading Spanish essays the other day we got into a conversation about language. One of the main points we came to was that when you use a foreign language you can’t use it as you would your own. Meaning, colloquialisms, phrases, metaphors and manners of speech don’t always translate directly, or at all. His classic example is a student who likes to say cabrón casually, the same way he would say fuck casually. Trouble is, the Spanish don’t do that. The closest thing to what he wants to say is cabrón de la chingada, which he explained to be like “what’s with this fucking thing.” Even that would only be used with friends. Simply saying cabrón is like saying fuck your mother, and while we Americans might be able to say that jokingly, expect to lose a few teeth if you say that to a Spanish speaker.

Similarly, there is a lot of the Japanese culture in the language. Insults and profanities don’t function the same way because it’s more about the situation of how you disrespect the person rather than the actual word.The politeness factor of the culture factors in heavily here as well. The most insulting thing you can say to a person in Japanese is a word that means “you are so worthless you shouldn’t even exist.”

When you speak the language you want to try to put yourself into the mindset of a Japanese person. Though it may be difficult, this will help to be better understood. If you don’t, expect some misunderstandings and some difficulty relating to others. There’s a good deal of leeway being a foreigner using the language, but you can’t always rely on that. The best advice to have is imitate native speakers around you and use your best judgment.

Posted by: Menzie | April 21, 2009

Every morning she shouts at me

When you enter a store, especially a smaller one like a convini, one of the clerks will shout at you. It’s not because you’re a dirty foriegner and they are telling you to leave.  This shouting is actually a good thing.

The clerk is shouting “Irashaimase.” It’s a very polite form verb, and as such can sometimes be difficult to find in a pocket dictionary. Assuming you can understand the pronunciation, as it is often said quickly. It is being used here as a greeting, like saying “Welcome to our store.”

You don’t need to respond, but if you want you can reply “domo.” At least now you won’t have to stare back blankly thinking “I have no idea what you just said to me.” Like I did.

Posted by: Menzie | April 13, 2009

My Favorite Japanese Word



Nomihodai translates to “all you can drink,” and yes, that means alcohol. For somewhere between 1000 to 2500 yen you get all the beer, wine, shochu or well drinks you can handle for a period of anywhere from one to three hours.  Most of us Westerners can put away enough drinks in that amount of time to make it well worth the money.  Not every bar or izakaya has a nomihodai plan, though. Some will advertise it outside the bar, others you simply have to know about. To be sure, it never hurts to ask your bartender. “Nomihodai arimsau ka?” (Do you have all you can drink?)

The most important place you find nomihodai is at the karaoke parlours. Always take advantage of this. It only cost you an extra 100 to 300 yen per person per hour, sometimes less on the overnight rentals. An attendant will bring pitcher upon pitcher of beer and glasses of well drinks all at your beck and call. You are certain to get your money’s worth, and you’re expected to drink something at karaoke parlours anyway.  And really, what goes better with karaoke than alcohol?

Posted by: Menzie | April 8, 2009

The Tray

This is a small quirk of Japanese shopping culture. In Japan you don’t hand your money to the cashier. If you try to, some will look at you funny while others will take the money but feel a little insulted.



At every register there is a small tray with a rubber bottom. The cashier will usually slide this in front of you after telling you the total for your purchase. You put your money in the tray, which the cashier then takes, counts, and puts in the register. Any change is then put in the tray which you, of course, will take.

If you forget your change in the tray you can often expect the cashier to call after or even chase you as you leave the store. Even for amounts as small as five yen.

Posted by: Menzie | April 6, 2009

Convini my Salvation

What would I do without them?

What would I do without them?

When you are first getting settled in Japan the convenience stores (or convini) will be a Godsend. If it were not for the Family Mart at the end of my block while I lived in Yamagata, I don’t know how I would have survived. There was a legitimate risk of starvation during those first jet lagged days. Living in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language can be overwhelming at the least. The convini makes things a lot more bearable.

The first thing to note about Japanese convenience stores is that unlike their American counter parts, they are actually convenient. Family Mart, Sunkus, Lawson, 7 and Holdings (7-11 to the rest of us) and others are all open twenty four hours a day seven days a week. There is one located near any major train station, shopping district or major intersection. Cashiers are attentive, friendly and very helpful. Prices are clearly labeled and tax is always included in the price (by law.) Since the register has a digital read out facing the customer, you don’t need to understand any Japanese. And the cashier always gives you correct change.

Anything you will really need can be bought at the convini. Eggs, milk, juice, yogurt, fruit, toiletries, soda, beer, whiskey, hangover cures, energy drinks, DVDs, magazines, porn and stationary can all be bought day or night. They also have fresh meals prepackaged meals that range from 300 yen to 1200 yen. Things like beef bowls, tonkatsu, sushi, curry and rice, or soba noodles. And they are all very good. The cashier will even offer to warm them up for you when you purchase it, no extra charge.

Without these, I would have starved

Without these, I would have starved

That’s not the end of it. 7-11 allows you to upload documents on and print them out at a local branch. Lawsons has a service for buying tickets to museums and concerts. You can ship letters and packages from any convini like it was a Fedex. You can pay your utility bills and sometimes your cellphone bills at the register, too. You can buy a good umbrella for around 350 yen (useful for when yours gets stolen, and it will.) International phone cards can be purchased, and most convini have payphones with phone card slots outside of their store. The three common disposal / recycle bins can be found outside too.

There is not much you can’t do at a convini. When hungry, sober, lost or out late, the convini can help you. Conveniently so.

Posted by: Menzie | March 30, 2009

The Japanese Toilet Experience

There are two kinds of toilets in Japan: Japanese toilets and Western toilets. Neither of these are really like anything you are used to.

Japanese Style toilet
Japanese Style toilet

Japanese toilets are also referred to as squat toilets. They are called squat toilets because that is how you use them. Imagine a tall urinal installed in floor instead of in the wall. You have to balance yourself over the toilet, squat, and do your business. Many Japanese consider this to be cleaner, as you never touch that actual toilet. Given the precarious act of balancing over a toilet while you relieve yourself I never quite agreed with them. If it were not for the pipe at the head of the toilet that I clung onto for dear life I would have fallen in many times.

Western style toilets. With buttons. BUTTONS!
Western style toilets. With buttons. BUTTONS!

Western toilets are what we Americans are generally accustomed to. You sit down, do your business, and proceed on your day without any bathroom trauma. Generally. Except that some Western toilets in Japan come with remote controls and buttons. I will not begin to debate why I think toilets should not have buttons, let alone remote controls. Rather, I will explain what they do because pushing buttons on a toilet when you don’t know what they do can have some negative results. There are usually three functions with levels of intensity and placement.


The first is a seat warmer, to keep your bum nice and toasty on cold winter nights. This may be a nob rather than a button on some models. This funciton is rather pleasant as I’ve noticed many bathrooms in Japan, both public and private, are not always well heated (if at all.)


The second comes in different forms, but all has the same function. The idea is a white noise generator. The button will run some water, or play the sound of running water, or play music or a gentle humming sound. All there to disguise what you are doing on there (as if it’s some big secret.)


The third –and most important- button is the bidet, or washer. Sometimes the same button and sometimes separate buttons, the idea is the same. Water will be sprayed at your ass. By looking at the button you wouldn’t immediately know its purpose.


I cannot tell you how many people, including myself, have pressed this button out of curiosity and met with a big surprise. Precisely for this reason I warn you. I had more than one friend / coworker exit a bathroom with a look of horror and mutter something akin to “I think the toilet just raped me.”

Some toilets also come with blower functions to dry you off from the bidet.

One final note, bathroom but not toilet related. When you go to wash your hands afterwards (which for sanitations sake I hope you do) you will be hard pressed to find paper towels. In any public bathroom. Ever. Outside of major cities such as Osaka or Hiroshima you’re unlikely to find electronic hand driers either. Sometimes even in them. This is because most Japanese carry a handkerchief with them at all times to dry their hand with or wipe their brow when sweaty. It’s best you get one too. That is, unless you enjoy moist hands.

Posted by: Menzie | March 23, 2009

Dude, where’s my bicycle?

Japan is perhaps the safest industrialized country in the world. The crime rate, especially violent crime rate, is incredibly low. Theft is incredibly uncommon as well. The sense of goodwill is so great that I’ve known strangers to chase you down if you drop your wallet and convenience store cashiers to run out of the store to give you seven yen you forgot at the counter.

When it rains, however, all bets are off on bicycles and umbrellas. Thefts of these two items are extremely common. The part that perplexes many foreigners is the Japanese individual does not view it as theft. Once the rain is over or they have reached their destination they don’t keep the umbrella. One assumes they view it as borrowing, though don’t expect them to return the item to its owner or where they found it.

The same is true of bicycles, whose disappearances are not exclusive to the rain. As soon as they are ridden to the destination (usually the train station) they are abandoned. Consequently, many train stations have a section that while once may have been a bicycle parking lot is no more of a bicycle graveyard. There are few sites like one hundred plus abandoned bicycles crowded together.

A fair warning though: Many foreigners in the past have used this grave yard to get a free bicycle. I’d advise against this. While the bicycle may have been abandoned, it probably wasn’t by its owner. Knowing that some foreigners take the abandoned bicycles, it is incredibly normal to be stopped by a police officer and for them to ask about your bicycle and its registration. It happened to me about once a month, my coworkers more, and we all bought our bicycles first hand. You don’t want the police to find the bicycle you’re riding is registered to someone else and listed as stolen. And yes, they register bicycles in parts of Japan.

Posted by: Menzie | March 18, 2009

You Will Get Lost In Japan

You will get lost in Japan. I guarantee it. It’s empirical fact. I don’t care how good a sense of direction you have. You will get lost. So when it happens don’t panic. It’s no fault of your own. There simply are no street name signs in Japan.

There are no street name signs in Japan for a very good reason. With very limited exception (Kyoto being one of them) streets do not have names in Japan. They are just streets. They are just there. Like trees. Do your trees have names? I didn’t think so. In many cases where there is a street name, it may not be an actual street so much as a path along several streets. And that is just terribly confusing. How the hell do people figure out where they are going?

I’ve never been able to get a direct answer on this from anyone while in Japan. The response was generally “they just know.” They use landmarks and maps and generally become very familiar with the town or area they live in. Whenever going to somewhere nearby they are not familiar with, such as a restaurant for a company party, a little map will be drawn at the bottom of the invitation. If you aren’t a member of the Cartographer’s Guild of America before traveling abroad, this can prove to be a bit of a challenge. Luckily, Japanese hospitality extends pretty far, and many Japanese are happy to give directions to a stranger or help you with the map. The directionally challenged such as myself do best to just ask a coworker to meet them at the train station and go with them.

While I’ve never confirmed this, the understanding I have for this street nameless system is because you are not supposed to enter a city as a stranger. Either because of the Japanese hospitality ethic, or due to a fear of the foreign, it is expected that the first time you come to a new city there will be someone to greet you and show you around. With the exception of major cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Hokkaido, Hiroshima and Osaka, people don’t really travel to cities where they don’t know anyone. Kyoto, being the cultural capital of Japan, is the one place everyone travels to (along with Tokyo, but they barely have any named streets.) This may be why almost every street in Kyoto is named. For the most part, just be ready to wander around until you are familiar with the area. It can be fun.

Posted by: Menzie | March 18, 2009

Why Am I Writing This?

The obvious question. As I mentioned in my introduction, in August of 2008 I left for Japan on a short term teaching contract. While I knew a bit about Japan I didn’t know what it would actually be like to live there. I picked up a book titled Live and Work in Japan, directed specifically preparing foreigners for living in Japan. I read through the book and it seemed fairly useful. That is until I arrived in Japan

While much of the book was useful, just as much was common sense and not so much about living in Japan as it was about the moving process. Some of it proved to be out right false, and other parts obviously applied only to Tokyo. The entire book was rather Tokyo centric, and if you’re living in the agricultural capital of the county like I was it becomes a lot of wasted reading time.

Since living in Japan I’ve read a number of travel guides, books on Japanese culture and books on Japanese living. While useful there always seem to be certain things missing. There are many small but important parts of everyday life in Japan that, as a foreigner, are unexpected and take a while to get used to. Some of these I learned from the anecdotes of friends who had studied in Japan or were stationed there in the military. Others I had to learn on my own. These are rarely touched upon except at times as an aside, and are what I was really hoping to get out of that book.

Right now one of my friends is preparing to teach English in Japan through my old company. Since I had the benefit of my friend’s knowledge of Japan before I left I want to give the same to her. I started writing short e-mails to get her ready for this new adventure and it kind of grew into this. I realized there was a lot to talk about, and that I enjoy writing about it. Hopefully, some other people will get a kick out of reading it here, too

Posted by: Menzie | March 12, 2009

Yes, another guy writing about Japan

Hi, I’m Menzie and I’ll be your white boy obsessed with Japan for this blog. I know there are plenty of us out there, so some credentials might be in order.

A little bit about my  background:

I was born and raised in the Boston area, and grew up in the same town as Masako Odawa, the crown princess of Japan. We went to the same high school but at different times. Ripples of influence could be felt in the town. We called them tour buses.

My first grade teacher married a survivor of the Hiroshima bombings. Consequently she incorporated Japanese language and culture into our normal lessons. This gave me my first exposure to the culture and a drive to learn more. Universities such as MIT and Harvard drew a large international influence to Boston, so I was able to continue delving into my curiosity for Japanese culture easily. At this point more focused on the pop culture side. Harvard Square was very good for that, as was the small Japantown in Inman Square. My interest turned more academic as I entered college. I took courses in Japanese film, Japanese literature and Japanese Language. I’ve always done a bit of research and reading on Japanese culture, religion, popular culture, music, film and history for my own interest and that continues to this day.

After college I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and In August of 2007 I began a six month contract position as an Assistant Language Teacher, returning to the San Francisco Bay Area after its completion. I lived in Yamagata, in the Tohoku region. The most landlocked you can possibly be while in Japan. I traveled to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Sendai. I journeyed with friends who came to visit, visited a high school friend who is a native Japanese living in Tokyo, and basically balanced living my life and exploring.

Since returning I look at things a little differently. Any big journey will do that to a person. I still keep in contact with some of my former students, teachers and coworkers  from Japan. I can’t help but compare life here and in Japan. The sad reality always shines through. When I’m living in one place, I miss the other.

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