Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Fiscal April - 4/07

April is the beginning of the new fiscal year.

It's also the time when jobs shift. I noticed all the new faces at the post office. Rats. I spend a lot of time there, and I had really grown attached to the old crew.

I have a friend at Town Hall who was in the Department of Education. She knew it was her time to go somewhere else, when the orders came through for Parks Infrastructure. A few years ago she was in Taxes. These are not promotions or demotions, just changes.

At larger companies employees switch from one department to another or to a new location. They may be given just two weeks to move to a different city, including finding an apartment/house, packing up the family and switching schools.

In education, April is the start of the new school year. Teachers and administrators change schools every three years. The changes are staggered, so the entire staff isn't completely new.

From a Western perspective this seems odd. Why create generalists when the world loves specialists?? From a Japanese view, these changes are part of the life-time employment, life-time training picture. Companies want their employees to understand every aspect of the business.

I should note that this system is prevalent in larger corporations. These guys get all the press. Small, family-owned businesses still employ 75% of the workforce and have different needs/approaches.

Regardless, I stood by as a grocery store check-out clerk struggled with the scanner. She had on a yellow arm band signifying her training status. I felt an affinity with her immediately because she didn't seem to quite know what she was doing and was clearly uncomfortable in her new role. I was wondering if she had come from Marketing.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Drinking and Driving - 3/07

"Are you driving?" is the question I hear whenever we go to a party. Be it a Sony event, someone's home or recently, Eric's class dinner party, I hesitate before answering. My host is hovering over me with a cold, refreshing looking bottle of beer and they won't pour if they know I'm driving later.

It doesn't matter that we won't be going home for several hours. And there's a giant meal being served. I'm simply not allowed to modulate my own drinking. If you're driving, nothing. If you're not driving, a vast quantity of first beer, then sake will flow all evening.

So I say "Dave's driving" and dive right in.

I'm really impressed about how seriously drinking and driving is taken. At Eric's class party, a table full of moms were making a big dent in the cache of alcohol (and put on quite a good karoke show). Dave's the only dad because Japanese men work til midnight, so I was starting to wonder how many cabs it would take to get a classroom's worth of mom and kids home.

Ah, then the bus pulls up. Impressive.

Here's my question. Does the bus drop each of them at their doorstep? to the train? to a group of cabs closer to home? I know it can't possibly bring them to their parked cars.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Funerals, weddings and ducks - 1/07

When the kids walk home from school, they routinely take a side trip to a canal where they visit a family of ducks. Sometimes they stop at a convenience store for a snack (okay, all the time) and select a roll or bun to share with the ducks.

One day, they was happily tossing bread crumbs to the quakers when an older Japanese man approached. The ducks greeted him enthusiastically, so he must've been on a regular visitor as well. He opened a tuperware container and started tossing left-over rice. The ducks were overjoyed and gobbled up the rice instantly.
Ducks like rice! Who knew??

Another day, we were walking together and saw a house spilling over with flowers, a line cars and people dressed in black. Ohhh, a funeral. I've never attended a Japanese funeral, but I've heard that most are Buddhist. They include a wake, cremation, a burial and memorial service. Japanese funerals are the most expensive in the world; they can cost up to $40,000. Hey, plots are pretty scarce, especially in Tokyo! It is customary for attendees to bring special funeral envelopes with cash to help families defray the cost.

Cash envelopes are also expected at weddings. Guests know that the money will be used to pay for the wedding costs. This isn't a free deal for the happy couple though, because they are obligated to give their guests wedding presents!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Lights - 12/06

Japan doesn't celebrate Christmas, as it's not a particularly a Shinto, Buddhist thing. New Year's is the major holiday and with it comes the family gatherings, special meals and celebrations.

Christmas Eve is a date night for young couples and the tradition on Christmas day is to have a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner. The Colonel must be a good marketer because it's not like THAT dates back to the Meiji period.

The stores do decorate and play cheesy Christmas music. We bought a small artificial tree to brighten our December, and put it in the front window. Shortly afterwards, a neighbor across the street put up Christmas lights. Then the neighbor on the other side did too. Gee, that was nice. When the third neighbor put up lights, I was shamed into going out and buying our own. Our road is quite cheery.

Then I noticed that the Christmas lights are an anomaly in our development. No one else on the other streets had them.

What great neighbors!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Heating with 30 amps - 12/06

Our house only has 30 amps of available power. Total. For all our electrical needs.

Japanese homes do not have central heating. Here in southern Japan, the homes are also not insulated. (I'm hoping this is not the case in snowy Hokkaido.) So, what to do for heat... We leased electrical wall units that are combination a/c -heat. They mount on an outside wall, and are fairly efficient. Unless you only have 30 amps.

The last few weeks were rainy and cold. Okay, only in 40s, but this Vermont girl would've had the woodstove cranking. So, you guessed it, every time we turned on one heater and something else, like the microwave, we'd overload the circuit.

Now being whiney Americans, we got on the phone and had the electrical folks come and up our amps (50!!!). Well, actually, Ian got on the phone (thanks, Ian). But it made me wonder how the previous occupants handled the winter.

First of all, I found out that we don't have the right kind of dining room table. The traditional table is low to the ground, with just enough space for your legs when sitting on the floor/cushion. Called a kotatsu, the table is fitted with a central heat lamp and there's a special quilted tablecloth that goes around the table and the diners to hold in the heat. No one ever wants to leave the table.

Kerosene heaters are also quite popular. Kerosene is cheap compared to electricity and the little heaters throw off a lot of heat. The best part is the kerosene delivery truck comes through the neighborhood to fill your tank. They play special kerosene music so you know it's them and you don't get confused with the produce truck and the roasted sweet potato truck. For the first month of cool weather, another truck drove around in the evening yelling out reminders for people to turn off their heaters.

Then there is the toilet seat heater. We do have one of those, so we're ready for winter now.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Ultraman - 11/06

A section of the Mitsui Greenland amusement park is called Ultraman Land where a 50-ft Ultraman looks down protectively at attendees.

The US has Superman; Japan has Ultraman. Superman is a lonely kind of guy. He fights all his battles by himself. Ultraman has a large family and adventures with his ultra brothers, ultra mom and ultra dad. Of course, there are commercial advantages to a big happy product family, but I digress.

Superman has super powers and he can perform all kinds of amazing feats. Ultraman does one thing. He fights monsters. He doesn't have any particular powers except that he is big. He is as tall as Tokyo Tower and weighs 40,000 tons. So, hand-to-hand wrestling is usually effective. Sometimes he has to finish the monsters off with his specium ray. But most of the time he calls on his brothers for help. Superman never asks for help.

The Japanese message is that you can rely on others and work as a team to get things accomplished.

He also commutes from the planet Ultra, so that probably helps the Tokyo commuters feel better.

Ultraman had his heyday in the late 60s (Dave remembers the show!). Superman has had a few comebacks since then. I'll be ready for the Ultra-revival in the states and will figure out how to be involved in marketing ultra-spinoff products.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Futons and students - 11/06

We lease everything for living - the house, the car, the linens, the coffee cups. The leasing company thinks our furniture should be western, which is fine, except the couch, dining room chairs and beds are horribly uncomfortable. Having learned our lesson from our previous stay, we requested futons this time. Very comfy. Only downside is that my back and knees crack during kid good-night kiss time.

We have futon closets, with a big shelf, where we're supposed to place our futon until evening after airing them on the balcony. Right.

I do hang the futons on the balcony, um, occasionally, on those gloriously sunny mornings. That's when I'll see the kids headed out to school. The only buses are for the private kindergartens and those are colorfully painted with Hello Kitty or the Totoro cat. Elementary students walk, junior high kids walk or ride bikes and depending on what high school the student has tested into, they'll bike or use public bus or train.

Bridget's school goes to 4:30, then an hour more for club activities -- and then the kids go to Juku (cram school). Cram schools are located near train stations, and are imperative in order to prepare for entrance examinations at all levels.

Sometimes I forget the futons, and well after dark, I'm just bringing them in. And I'll see the junior high kids walking home, in their school uniform. Long day.

At least the Ministry of Education eliminated Saturday school a few years ago. There's still Saturday juku though.