Friday, February 24, 2012

Macaroni & Cheese and Egg Yolks

Long before I came to New York, one of my sisters had a wonderful time in Spokane, WA, when she visited the United States for the first time during her summer high school senior year. When she returned, she brought back American souvenirs with her. Some of them were boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

She must have loved eating macaroni & cheese so much with her host family, that she wanted to bring some back to Japan to share her excitement with her own family and friends. Contrary to her expectation at seeing her friends and family crazed about it, she received a rather confused, sometimes even cold reply. No one seemed to eat it.

It was not because people expected a more valuable souvenir. Rather, it was the orangey color of the macaroni & cheese sauce. That macaroni & cheese sauce color signaled to the Japanese brain that it was extremely artificial and not suitable to eat. People asked her, "Did you eat that? Is that OK to eat?"

After I came to New York and familiarized myself with American food, I learned that even by American standards, macaroni & cheese was not exactly healthy food. The judgement of Japanese people who refused to eat the macaroni & cheese wasn't totally wrong.

Now another interesting example of a differing perspective about food. In Japan, egg yolks are more orangey than its american counterpart. This is due to Japanese people's strong preference to deeper colored egg yolks, as they believe orangey yolks are fresher than paler ones. As a matter of fact, the color of egg yolk has nothing to do with freshness. Rather, it is simply that when chickens eat red colored feed, they produce orangey yolks.

Neither of the coloring for macaroni & cheese or egg yolks harm people. And both of them are an orangey colored food. I do not know why egg yolk's orange is ok, but macaroni & cheese's orange is not ok. The only thing I can say is no matter how I may explain it, they keep believing what they believe.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cultural Galapagos Islands

Some people refer to Japan as a cultural Galapagos Islands. They say that Japan is so isolated from the rest of the world, that it brews its own unique culture. Geographic factors certainly contribute to this cultural Galapagos label. The Islands of Japan lie east of China and Korea, and further east of Japan is the vast Pacific Ocean. Since ancient Japanese history, progressive goods and ideas always came from neighboring highly advanced countries, China and Korea. Japanese people used them, internalized them, and sometimes altered them to suit their life style. But the culture, goods and ideas rarely exited from Japan to advanced neighbors. So Japan was like a terminal of final destination for this incoming culture.

There is an interesting example of this inbound influence in Japanese art. It is said that a pattern used in Ancient Greece traveled through the Silk Road, reached China, and eventually became a pattern called "Karakusa Moyo" in Japan (lower right in the picture below).

From upper left counter clockwise: Greek, Middle Eastern, Japanese, Chinese

Japan also has a unique mobile phone culture, even though they are gradually taken over by iPhone like smart phones. Japanese has been using their cell phones heavily for texting, emailing, and gaming. Teenagers and adults frequently embellish their messages with small icons called "Deco-meh". They look like the followings;
Cell phones are often decorated with dangling charms and stickers. Now the majority of people pay for train fares, first class fare, bus fare, and so on with cell phones, by simply bringing them closer to an electronic reading devices at entrance gates.

Even though Manga is enjoying worldwide exposures recently, most of those regional Japanese culture are rarely exported. You have to be there, in order to know these things. There are always something to be surprised every time I visit Japan.

Average Celebrity Faces in East Asia

I recently noticed that one of my blog friends was checking out an online Korean newspaper, which was comparing average celebrity faces in Korea, China, and Japan. Each of those faces shown here; Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, respectively from the left to right, female above and male below. While, I don't know how these sample faces were chosen, the result is very interesting.

Among Female faces, the Korean appears pretty but sad, the Chinese looks intelligent and willful, and the Japanese looks adorable. Among the male faces, the Korean looks gentle and kind, the Chinese looks good but lacks expression, and the Japanese looks masculine. Other people may take it differently, as this is just my opinion.

Those celebrity faces are compilation of idealized beauty in each culture. They are all East Asian faces and all look pretty in any standard, but each one gives different impression. This is because celebrities embody what people in the culture are looking for.

For instance, in Japanese culture, being young is consider to be one of the most valuable asset of women. Doubled canine tooth can only be a sign of poverty in American culture, but they have strong popularity in Japan, because clattered teeth in immature jaws give childlike appearance to women's face. This kind of strong preference of youthfulness in women also can be seen in Manga culture and adult obsession to cute character items, like Hello Kitty.

What makes people think beautiful is different. Idea of beauty always changes as virtue, economy, social system, and other aspect of the society change. The world would be boring place if only one set of virtue or aesthetics exists.

Recycle and Conserve

One of the striking aspects, which make a deep impression on me, every time I visit Japan, is its commitment to recycling and conservation. Because of the dependency of Japan for almost all natural resources to foreign countries, Japan committed to recycle and conserve its trash.

It's different in each municipality, but most places have pretty strict rules for sorting out household waste, such as PET bottles, papers, cans and bottles, food wrapping plastics, combustible garbage, and non-combustible garbage. On top of that in order to dispose of old furniture and appliances including computers, people have to pay the municipality first to have it haul those items away.

Most of the time, the Japanese follow the rules. People bring recyclables or garbage in approved plastic garbage bags to the collection pole during the designated early morning of certain days of each week. Sometimes, a self-designated volunteer lady is watching to make sure her neighbors are doing the right thing and if not to rat them out. Some places require individuals to write their name on the garbage bags before bringing them for collection.

It's not convenient to have 4 or 5 different bins at home to sort out waste, and confusing to figure out in which bin an empty bag of potato chips belongs to. But after you are doing that for a while, you start to think how to minimize your waste.

Many consumer products in Japan are actually designed with their final destinations in consideration. For example, a bottle of soy sauce will be dismantled to 4 different parts; a cap, a spout, a PET bottle, and the paper label. And many manufacturers write direction for disposal on labels, because that is one way to appeal consumers that the company is serious about recycling and sensitive to the environment.

Comfort Level of Japanese

One of the key aspects to understand Japan is the importance of group identity that plays in the comfort level of the Japanese. In this respect, the importance of group membership to personal identity is especially critical. Japan is made up of a compilation of numerous small closed societies in the form of associations, communities and subgroups.

Some are visible, easily identifiable communities such as towns or families. Others are less easily identifiable, almost invisible associations, such as a circle of friends, bunch of colleagues, or an old boys club. Each associated community has unspoken codes, secrets and comradely of its own. Many Japanese belong to layers of different groups or associations. Some of them are big and loose, while others are small and tightly knit groups. In either form, individuals believe that they are safe and protected, as long as they are in the group.

Unfortunately, this idea of safety in communities, groups, or associations is nothing but an illusion in this modern world. There used to be real communities in physical local neighborhoods and some still do exist in mainly rural areas, but many of those are already gone. Japan, like America, is now mobile. A transient society has now displaced the once stable, tightly knit, physical local community. And since Japan has been so dependent on them, the feeling of displacement is even greater.

What took its place, to fill the vacuum is communal associations. It may be a circle of friends, a bunch of colleagues, or mommy groups. Those types of communities exist even in the U.S. However, in Japan they take an even more important role in the lives of individuals. People are expected to show loyalty and not to disturb the internal harmony. Further, there is an expectation of conviction to this individual loyalty. That is why people tend to feel safe in these associations, and blindly believe whatever espoused as a fact by the group. There is a deep trust that someone in the group filtered and checked the validity of the information.

The process of individuals being accepted in these close knit Japanese communities takes time and effort. Individuals of the group must get accustomed and comfortable with any new comers. This is a demand of Japanese business groups as well. More than complicated international trade agreement or a different set of laws, doing business with Japanese and winning their hearts requires a deep level of commitment. However, the reward in obtaining this acceptance is great, as once you are in, you are really in, and the relationship will be sustained for many years to come.