22 July 2000
17 July 2000 - Return to Tokyo
Samurai in the Bangkok airport - "They should all be destroyed!"
I was one of the first to arrive in the waiting room and took a seat in front of the CNN broadcast. The room slowly filled up to standing room only. Someone in the back of the room began to speak outloud. He was speaking broken English with a Japanese accent. Japanese men sometimes speak unnaturally loudly as if they are slightly deaf so I didn't think much of it. The man began shouting, however, and I turned around to have a look. He was Japanese and wearing sunglasses. He was sitting erect - if slightly leaning to one side- and speaking to himself or else the rest of us. He had dressed for the night flight; he was wearing a blue kind of yukata (a loose fitting Japanese robe)with loose black pants, white socks and flip-flops. A semi-traditional Japanese costume (minus the shades and plus a sword.) He shouted a few semi-coherent statements: "They should be destroyed!....People are everywhere...like apes and dogs!...they should all be destroyed!...they should all just disappear!...in 10 years..." A young Thai lady was sent to confront the man and ask for his papers. He immediately said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I won't do it again." and he kept his word. One night in Bangkok seemed to have opened his eyes to another (perhaps psychotropic) reality.
Arrival in Tokyo
The flight from Bangkok took less than five and a half hours. We left Bangkok after 11 pm; we lost two hours to the time difference and we arrived in Narita airport on Monday morning around 7am. I didn't need to change money so I went straight to the train station to buy a ticket to Tokyo. There were two lines one for the Skyliner (Kinsei line) the other for the Airport Express (JR). I asked the man behind me if they were the same. He said the Skyliner was better; it was cheaper and just as fast as the JR train. He later explained that the JR line was "like a snake" but the Kinsei line was straight.
Conversation with a Japanese ex-pat - Fuzzy Logic , Japanese Food, The Cold Tropics, The End of the Japanese Miracle
He had just flown in from Malaysia where he had been working for the past two years. He needed to communicate with the Chinese and Malays and so he wanted to practice English with me. He worked for Mitsubishi in the air-conditioning temperature sensor department. "Fuzzy logic?" I asked. He looked surprised and said, "Oh, you know." For those of you who don't know, fuzzy logic is an iconoclastic branch of mathematics/ science that has been elaborated by an American whose name I've forgotten. Essentially it replaces the traditional black and white, all or none logic with a logic of grays. If the theoretical side doesn't interest it has the practical advantage of "making machines smarter." I first met fuzzy logic when I moved to Japan. We wanted to know how to operate the airconditioner and the washing machine. We looked at the controls and saw nothing but Japanese characters and the obscure English words "Fuzzy Logic." I thought it was just another Japanese bizarre use of English as a decoration. Maybe a brand name. With the help of my SF Bay area roommates we figured out it was a proud high-tech label. I had read about machines using the Heisenberg uncertainty principal or something, but I didn't know they were called fuzzy machines.
If this is an American technology why are the Japanese using it and not Americans? Fuzzy logic has met a lot of academic resistance in America, but it was warmly received in the land Zen where Western logic has always been held at arms length. Fuzzy logic makes machines more efficient and effective; it helps save time and energy.
Do you like sushi?
So this Japanese man worked on thermostats for air conditioners at a Japanese Mitsubishi plant in Malaysia. His wife and two sons lived in Penang because there was a Japanese school there and he worked in Ipoh. He asked the second most favorite question of the Japanese: "Do you like sushi?" The most favorite question to ask foreigners (gaijin) is, "Do you like Japanese food?" To both questions my answer is "Suki." (I like). An answer that always makes the Japanese questioner happy. I went on to explain how disappointed I was with the Japanese restaurants in Singapore and Malaysia. He agreed with me. I asked if he ever ate sushi in Ipoh (Malaysia) and he said he was afraid to. He said the rice was very important and I agreed. This, in fact, was the biggest problem with the Japanese food I'd had in Singapore. The rice wasn't correct. Japanese rice is firm not soft and the grains are well defined but slightly sticky so that they are easy to eat with chopsticks. Plain rice is cooked without salt.
Rice for sushi is mixed with a touch of rice wine vinegar and (if I'm not mistaken) a little salt. Using first one hand and then two the grains are firmly packed together in the shape of a rectangle with rounded edges. In direct contrast to the Greeks, the Japanese despise symmetry. (Which, incidentally, explains why they've embraced fuzzy logic while Western folks have stood around with their hands in their hands in their pockets.) The carefully cleaned fish is cut into pieces somehow suggestive of the shape of a fish. The piece of fish is usually just larger than the rice it sits on. It's placed on top of the rice with or with out a smudge of wasabi (green horseradish stuff). The white grains of rice glisten under the fresh piece of fish. Most fish is uncooked (sashimi) but some is cooked. Sushi is also made with fish eggs, eel, shrimp, octopus, squid and oysters. Others kinds of sushi include Japanese pickles (esp. eggplant, cucumber), egg cooked with soy sauce and occasionally raw beef. The whole package is about two fingers big and once you develop a taste for them you'll keep comin' back for more. Many Japanese foods have this quality for the foreigner. They may seem strange or even gross at first, but if given the opportunity they can easily become a personal favorite.
The Cold Tropics - Air-conditioning in Singapore and Malaysia
The Japanese ex-pat also agreed that the air-conditioning was too cold in Singapore and Malaysia. He blamed this on the Chinese. He said that they didn't feel cold. He told his Chinese colleagues that their thermostat was broken and he should give them a new one (his job is thermostats). He said he always wore a windbreaker to work. I laughed and said that windbreakers and sweaters were also standard indoor wear in Singapore as well. When you realize that it's 80-90 degrees all year in Singapore you might laugh too. I was glad to hear that my Japanese friend in the air-conditioner business was concerned that this wasted energy and spoiled the environment.
The End of the Japanese Miracle?
He brought up a hot topic in Japan concerning the recent incidents of contaminated milk causing illness in children. He said, "Japan's not a safe country anymore." This was a reversal of the familiar refrain, "Japan's a safe country." I knew where he was going with this sentiment. The Japanese are losing confidence. "Bad quality control." "Japan technology is going down." "Japan's losing it's edge" is what he wanted to say. In December a panel of Japanese people voted on a Chinese character to represent their feelings at the end of the millennium. They chose a character that stands for "end."
Dislocations of Globalization
He wanted to know what I thought. I began by saying that Japan had been in an economic slump for a few years and people were down. My point was that the economy should spring back at some point. Japan however is going through changes. Employees are no longer life-long employees dedicated to one company. This lack of company loyalty will bring a corresponding drop in employee performance. Companies are also no longer loyal to their Japanese employees. Previously the Japanese economy was set up to enrich Japan at everyone else's expense. Their once simple formula has been complicated. Japanese companies are relocating offshore in cheaper labor markets. Like everyone else they are giving their jobs to third world women. I looked at the Japanese businessman and said, "Like your company right. Giving jobs to Malaysians. I bet you have a lot of Malay women working for you with their heads covered, right?" He gave a guilty nod.
I changed tacks. "Everyplace is changing." "Changing fast," he added."Japan is really lucky. Compared to the rest of Asia, Japan is lucky, yeah? Japan started to change a long time ago. The Meiji Period." 150 years ago Japan turned it's eyes to the West and began to systematically 'upgrade' itself. Japan, for example, began to make it's own movies before many European nations. Japan is modern but has also kept its traditions. Japan modernized over a long stretch of time while preserving unique aspects of its culture. This will give Japan an edge over the rest of Asia in the future because other Asian countries are changing so fast and drastically that they risk losing their identities. "Japan is all right. Japan has a very strong culture. Look at Malaysia. These places are changing overnight. What kind of culture is there? And the jobs and money. They're all from foreign companies. As wages rise the companies will move to cheaper labor and take the jobs with them. You said your company is going to India, right? And China. China's the big factor."China is revolutionizing itself once again. In 20 years Asia promises to be a much different animal.My friend said he was on his way to meet a man who knew alot about the Chinese market. In China, as in other places, however, it's not so much what you know as who you know.
No Place Like Home or Japan
The first thing I often say when someone asks about Japan is, "No place is like Japan." I asked the ex-pat to look out the train window at the fences running along the side of the tracks. Using my hands I said that the fence isn't broken, it doesn't fall in or lean over, there's no writing on it, weeds covering it nothing. I asked, "Can you see this in Malaysia? In Indonesia? Thailand?" We both watched the fence change from concrete to steel or aluminum and back again all the while standing straight and looking new when clearly it had been there for years. The fences were perfect. I began to feel a little embarrassed, they were too perfect. I said, "You don't even get this in America." He asked, "Really?"I said, "Really, only Japan." (My point was more symbolic than literal.)I noticed that he kept an eye on the fence and I eyed it too expecting some part to be crashed in or at least dented, but alas it was perfect. The perfect fences illustrate a strength and weakness of Japan.
Japan is unquestionably a comfortable, predictable, reliable, consistent, organized and hygienic place. In all the world it is probably without peer in answering to such a description. Singapore is attempting to build such a city/country, but it tries to coerce people with fines and police. In Japan babies are indoctrinated by their mothers and policed throughout their life by themselves. When someone feels they cannot meet their social expectations/ obligations they may very well jump in front of one Japan's high-speed trains. As bizarre as it seems suicide is very likely an important part of the social fabric of Japan. This trade-off or weakness in the system is what can be called the "up-tight factor." It's like stress, but different. Stress you can relieve; up-tightness is there when you wake up and when you go to sleep. If New York City is a rude stress machine; Tokyo is a polite up-tight machine.
Another problem with Japan is expense. Japan boasts near 100% employment. From what I understand this miracle is accomplished by giving people all kinds of jobs that have been eliminated in other developed nations. Jobs like elevator operators and half a dozen gas station attendants attending 4 pumps. The burden of paying all these extra employees raises prices. Not only that, but the government protects agriculture and other things by artificially inflating prices. Wages are high, but not high enough. Young people sit in a bar nursing a glass of beer for an hour or two only because they can't afford more than two at a time. Girls prostitute themselves to afford the latest fashions. Being poor is fine. Feeling poor sucks. In Japan, relatively wealthy people feel poor!
Good Walls Make Good Neighbors
Thinking of Japan's perfect fences I'm reminded of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall." As I recall the poem two New England neighbors meet each other along the stone wall that separates their property in a yearly ritual of fixing the wall. They agree, "Good walls make good neighbors." This is very New England and also very Japanese. I suppose when I was younger I thought the important line was, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The Japanese make good walls and good neighbors, but they don't know how to talk without a keeping a wall between themselves.
Quaint old Tokyo
I was surprised at what I saw and how I felt as we approached Tokyo. This was the undisputed king of the Asian metropolises but what did I see. Rows of low rises, stone-like fences, ceramic tile roofs. It wasn't hideous. It was almost rustic. Sort of quaint. Tokyo!? Quaint!?! The first time I rode into Tokyo by train two years ago I was surprised at how hideous it was. Irregular buildings sprawling endlessly towards the horizon that faded away in smog. Clothes hanging out to dry in the gray polluted sky. The scene before me now was the same, but my perception of it had matured. I'd been living in Asia for over a year and now Tokyo looked much different. Compared to other Asian cities as seen from a train window Tokyo had grace! Style. The irregularity of the urban sprawl was a welcome relief from the terrifying blocks of identical apartment towers that dominate the urban skylines of South Korea and Singapore. Malaysia and other countries are rushing to build more of these concrete bird houses (Jamie tells me that's what they're called in China). Tokyo has more class than it's younger siblings. Actually, it's in a class all it's own.
Return to Civilization - Italian Food and a Good Jazz on a Good Stereo
Listening to Ellis and Wynton Marsalis play Joe Cool's Blues on a stereo that plays loud and clear, sautéing garlic and onion in olive oil, salted water coming to a boil -- I have returned to civilization.I'm missing a glass of red but I can drink the tap water. I'm living in a house of a teacher from the American school. She and her family are in America for the summer. Accommodation was arranged for me by my employer.
Where I live and work - Little America
The house is Japanese size, but American furnished. That means clothes dryer as well as washer, two stereos, two computers, two bicycles, two phones, two guitars, TV, AC, carpeting and all other standard amenities. Amenities that I've largely done without for over a year now. The biggest amenity of all is the ground floor entrance. A regular free standing house with a small courtyard and front door. Whoa. And this is in Tokyo, less than 40 minutes from Shinjuku and Shibuya by train. Across the street is a small farm and around the corner is a huge forested park along a river. The American School is next to the park less than 5 minutes away by foot. That's where I will be working as an English teacher at the summer camp.
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