Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Notes from Japan

  1. You know how "Japanese tourists" is kind of a negative stereotype? Turns out this is a fantastic thing when you're the tourist. (It doesn't bother me in general, but for those it does, here's a flip side to recognize.) Not only are they not bothered by you taking a billion pictures of everything, holding up lines to stop and take another shot and such, they jump in and pose. Maybe it's a camera-specific thing to some degree; I've never seen so many people walking around with big fancy cameras and telephoto lenses.
  2. It's really hard to get around when you can't even recognize the alphabet (and thus can't recognize placenames phonetically, recognize two words as the same, etc.) It's a good thing I have a good sense of directly, and an even better thing that Hiroshima has several rivers to follow. I did finally find one location by matching characters tediously between road signs and picture I took with some vague directions on a sign, but that was hard enough even with a 3-character word... (and then if you add multiple fonts into the mix, you're really in trouble!)
  3. I expected to feel much more out of place than I did. I felt exceedingly out of the place for the one day I was in Morocco, and suspected that Asia in general would induce the same sort of feeling (like where you're a little afraid to move because you don't know if it might be offensive, and people look at you with a bit of a hostile undertone). But that wasn't so true in Japan, less than even in Britain. There are some strange formalities, like bowing to everyone to say thank you or hello or show respect in general, taking your shoes off everywhere, etc, but those are pretty straightforward things. And for the rest, they don't seem to hold it against you.
  4. What's with the shoe thing anyway? More strangely, why are the house shoes that are provided in various places so horribly designed? I couldn't make it two steps without one falling off. Is there a substantial difference in foot shape between asians and europeans?
  5. I also felt less bad not knowing any japanese except "arigato" than I did stumbling around in extremely primitive Spanish and German. Virtually no one spoke English (except at the university, of course), and they still seemed more entertained than annoyed at having to communicate with me with hand signs. And when I left with an "arigato" they invariably smiled warmly and said "hai, arigato [some other stuff]!" Germans are more likely to sigh, hold back an eyeroll, switch to English as soon as they detect your accent, and of course smiling is out of the question.
  6. I wonder why those anti-allergenic face masks haven't caught on in Oklahoma (or other hay-fever ridden places)? They're sure popular in Japan.
  7. I think part of the "Japanese tourist" stereotype actually doesn't have anything to do with their tourist habits. It's just that those gaudy items and attire sold in tourist shops are fairly similar in style to a lot of things worn on an everyday basis in Japan. So many random things have giant technicolor cartoons on them, it's bizarre. And I definitely saw two high school girls wearing sequined mickey mouse backpacks with ears that no one would wear outside of Disneyland in the U.S.
  8. Lots of people get around by bicycle. But, somewhat comically, they don't seem to have figured out that you can ride much more comfortably and efficiently if the seat is brought up to an appropriate height. A majority of people are short enough that it works out fine, but you definitely see plenty of lankier men riding around with their knees sticking out.
  9. I also only saw one road bike; the tall hybrid style is ubiquitous. Maybe there's a common explanation for this and the seat height neglect: the bike lanes are integrated with the sidewalks instead of the main roads, so you can't go too fast anyway. I actually think that's a better way to do things, since a vast majority of people bike so slowly, but for people like Matt (or even me) it would be incredibly frustrating.
  10. When an entire city is less than 70 years old, it becomes clear how bad late-20th-century architecture was. Although I'm sure the difficult economic recovery was also a contributing factor, as you also notice by comparing East Berlin to West Berlin post-war reconstruction.
  11. Know what's more depressing than a holocaust museum? An A-bomb museum. Hooooly crap. It was a fantastic museum though, outside of the emotional toll.
  12. In visiting Germany and then Japan, I really became aware of the fact that I never really formally studied 20th century history. Every history class I took went over colonial/revolutionary/civil war history in excruciating detail, but then ran out of time as we approached world war 1. Everything I know about the 20th century comes from a play we did in 5th grade on the 30s and 50s (the other classes did the other decades, so I don't remember those), studying the Kennedy assassination in 8th grade gifted ed, my own personal obsession with the space program in middle school, living through the 90's personally, and living in Berlin for 6 months, where every other destination has to do with WW2 or the cold war. I didn't know much about the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or Japanese involvement in the war in general, and still don't know squat about WW1 (or the decade before) or the 80s.
  13. Japanese and Korean food are my least favorite varieties overall (with notable exceptions), and I'm pretty skeptical of strange pickled and/or raw seafood, so my strategy was to get the cheapest rice balls at 7-11, hoping that price was correlated with strange seafood. That mostly worked out ok, except that when I ordered a set of three rice balls at a cafe, one had some incredibly potently gross ginger-pickled-seafood-something-or-other filling that I picked out. Dinner with the folks at Hiroshima university was entirely delicious, though (including the 6 varieties of sake and Japanese beer...) And okonomiyaki, which I had twice in Hiroshima, is one of the best local specialty foods anywhere. I photographed each step of the process (they make it in front of you on a giant griddle) so I can figure it out as soon as I get home.
  14. I saw exactly one non-Japanese person in Hiroshima who looked like they might actually live there. It's even more homogeneous than I expected (although I'm sure a lot of heterogeneity is invisible to me since I can't tell the difference between different east asian groups).
  15. There are vending machines for cigarettes on street corners, but I didn't see a single person smoking one.
  16. They sure love carp. If I interpreted a poster correctly, they have a baseball team named after it.
  17. I suspect that the head bowing habit produces a high level of respect between all individuals. That'd be nice to duplicate in the U.S.


  1. What an interesting blog! Even though you felt upon arrival that you were tired of traveling you really managed to squeeze a lot out of your stay here.
    Your comment about how depressing an A-bomb museum is drove home for me how the U.S. really lost it moral high ground in WWII when those bombs were dropped. Incomprehensible - though I suppose what the Japanese were doing in WWII was too, but still, all those civilians...
    About the head bowing: I think I would put it more in the category of British politeness - a cultural convention that doesn't have a lot of substance (necessarily). I really doubt it produces respect automatically.

    1. Yeah. The museum really did a very good job of presenting all the facts very objectively. I was aware of the rhetoric in favor of using the bomb (perhaps mostly generated ex post, I'm not sure) based on putting the quickest end to the war as possible, but was not so aware that 1) Japan was in a very weak position already, was negotiating a surrender, and just hadn't agreed to the particular treaty that the US wanted, 2) Russia was going to enter the war against Japan as soon as a three month period had ended according to some treaty between Russia and Japan previously, and the US was concerned that if the war didn't end before then that the resulting terms would be more favorable to Russia after the war, hence the extra political pressure to end it quickly, and 3) it was actively decided not to warn either Hiroshima or Nagasaki prior to the bomb, despite the urging of many scientists involved in the development of the bomb, partly because they wanted the purest possible test of the true power of the bomb (if I interpreted that part correctly - it seems too awful to be true, and a little strange since I'm not sure what they could have done to significantly alter the outcome other than to get civilians out of the area. although this certainly did determine the choice of target and the timing of the detonation - designed to maximize destruction, rather than to target militarily important targets).

    2. oh and 4) a big reason they wanted to use the bomb despite the war being nearly over was also to justify the enormous R&D expenditures on it.