Monday, April 16, 2012

Interest on English Language

I maintain both an English and a Japanese blog. Recently, I wrote in my Japanese blog about English language ability, as it relates to the TOEIC. I thought it was rather an ordinary story, which probably happened to many other foreign students. Students coming to the United States, enrolling in higher education, graduating, landing jobs after graduation, and continuing their lives in the U.S.

But, the blog attracted 10 times more traffic than usual, because one Japanese power twitter user retweeted it to her followers as the subject was also of interest to her. It was a surprise to me, because I thought the "learning English fever" was gone with the 80s and 90s. I was wrong.

The Japanese are still learning the English language, by masterfully not learning it. They simply stay in Japan learning English for narrow academic purpose or superficial use in a 100% Japanese environment.

The problems of learning English for Japanese and learning Japanese for Americans arises from the vast differences between the two languages. One European told me that the experience of learning Japanese was like learning to walk backwards. English and Japanese are quite different languages, as is the fundamental mindset of people who speak those two languages. Learning a new language is like learning a new perspective of the world. A leap too far for some people to make.

That being said, Japanese continue to make the effort to master the English language. Many Japanese think that in this global economy, learning English is a must. The choice of English as the language of choice may be taken over by other languages in the future, as the world changes. But for now, English is still the language with the greatest global use. I encourage Japanese who wish to get out of the country and do something truly global.

Meanwhile, I try to keep describing the differences, in both of my blogs, between the languages and cultures of the US and Japan in order to increase the interest and promote understanding among the two countries. After all, we are all connected in one way or another and as the globe gets smaller, we need to draw a bit closer.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Japanese Syphoned Coffee

Coffee in Japan tastes really good. It's not my national prejudice, because I heard the same thing from many Americans who visited Japan and had coffee there. According to a Japanese who lives in France, Japanese coffee tastes even better than French coffee.

There are many individually owned coffee shops all over Japan and many of them make one cup of coffee at a  time as each order comes in. The coffee is not actually brewed, but syphoned. I recently learned that a small number of American coffee shops started to use this method. Meanwhile, many small coffee shops in Japan have been making coffee in this manner, since the method was introduced from Europe over 100 years ago.

As you can see in the video, coffee is actually cooked in a vessel, and the essence is literally vacuumed out from the beans. The fragrance and flavor of the coffee made in this way is more intense than dripped coffee. Watching the process itself is quite interesting. As a matter of fact, many coffee shops show off this process to customers at the counter. The strength of Japanese coffee is somewhere between espresso and American coffee, but the flavor is more defined. Usually one cup of Japanese coffee is very satisfying.

Price for this type of individually prepared coffee doesn't come cheap. A cup of coffee in a small cup, just like in the video, costs about $5.00, depending on the location of the coffee shop and what type of beans are used. When you pay $5.00, coffee is not just a drink to give you caffein boost. No one orders coffee to go. It is slowly savored in a coffee shop.  For many Japanese, Starbucks coffee is the cheap alternative.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Healthcare in Japan

Unlike America, Japan has a universal healthcare system. Depending on the income level, every single person must join Japanese government's healthcare system. The currently people pay 30% of the actual cost, every time they receive some sort of medical care. However, that percentage has been increasing, because of the rapid aging population who don't pay premiums any longer.

Back in the 80's, when many foreign workers (mainly from Brazil at that time) came to Japan for quick money and bring it back to their own country, many of them refused to join Japanese healthcare system, in order to save extra money. They insisted that they wouldn't get sick while in Japan.

The idea of not having healthcare insurance coverage by choice was astonishing to me at that time. However, the number of people who are not covered by the universal healthcare system in Japan is actually increasing, among the people who belong to the lowest economic strata. Many of them don't even try to visit clinics or hospitals, for the fear of payment. Others try to visit emergency room, when the conditions get out of control. But it is important to note that Japan doesn't have a law similar to Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) in the U.S., because in Japan, everyone is supposed to be insured.

Usually the cost for the governmental healthcare is deducted from pay checks, but the people who don't receive pay checks, such as self employees, and people without benefits, such as part-time or contract workers, the payment has to be made to the government from the individuals. Therefore, if you don't make the payment to the government, you are not covered.

There is no penalty of not belonging to the healthcare system in Japan, but if you want to join the system after not making the payment for a while, you will be billed all unpaid bills. Healthcare is not by choice in Japan.

People still can get medical treatment, even if they don't belong to the healthcare system in Japan, if they pay for the full amount. The full amount of routine doctor's office visit is about $100, and monthly premium for a single person is about $200. Young healthy people wonder they might be able to do away with the government healthcare, but most of them pay anyway as they must pay the unpaid amount sooner or later, in order to rejoin the system.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Religions in Japan

It is interesting that many view Japan as a spiritual country, but most of the Japanese population doesn't practice religion. Sure, there are an assortment of Buddhists and Shintoists, but very few of them practice religion in the way many Americans do. Missionaries came to Japan from all over the world, sometimes risking their lives, but I haven't heard of a Japanese Christian population surge, yet.

We've never been crazy about Buddhism either. Every single Japanese family was forced to belong to a temple by Tokugawa administrations, but not by choice. Now we only go to temples when someone dies. It seems that Japanese Buddhism exists only to perform funerals and funeral related ceremonies.

Shintoism is even more distant from everyday Japanese lives. Many foreigners and even Japanese think of Shintoism as the religion of Japanese Emperors. It's not incorrect, but not exactly so, because genealogy of Shintoism is more complicated. Some Emperors were given gods' names and literally enshrined. However, Shintoism also considers ancient powers which opposed to the Imperial klan as gods. Anyway, regular Japanese people visit Shintoism shrines approximately once a year on new year's day, just because it's a new year's day tradition.

If I were asked what is the most significant religion in Japan, my answer would be animism. Unorganized animism still lives in the Japanese people's minds. Many Japanese believe or claim to feel spirits live in big trees, bathrooms, kitchens, walls, oceans, mountains, etc.

People don't expect religious experience by attending ceremonies. The majority of Japanese don't feel the need for organized religions in their lives. As a matter of fact, many Japanese see religions as poison. In that sense, Japan is an unusual country. Yet, Japanese people are decent, and Japan is well known for its low crime rate.

Here is an interesting example. When I was in Queens College, one instructor asked students, "Is religion necessary to personal happiness?" Many students answered "Yes." On the contrary, the majority of Japanese can't understand why religion has anything to do with personal happiness.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Communication Gap

I am a Japanese, and I admit that it is difficult to communicate with Japanese people. In Japanese society, being a good listener and read what the others really think is encouraged rather than express their own opinions. Particularly women who speak too much or express their opinion firmly will have a hard time in Japan.

So we all learn, at some point of our lives, to hide something we have internally, because it's a polite thing to do. Also, if someone freely speaks his or her mind in Japan, probably that person will be an outcast of the society. Being rejected in the communities he or she belongs is one of the harshest punishment for a Japanese.

No one can't change instantaneously just because they come to the United States. Despite the fact that expression of personal opinion is the must in American society, it is not easy for Japanese to shift the gear, because we are not trained to do that.

Some people might have read the oldest Japanese novel "The Tale of Genji". It was written about 1,000 years ago. Several versions of English translations are published. People take the story differently, but I think it's a perfect example to glimpse how Japanese mind moves.

The novel depicts internal turmoils of noble women who lived around Genji, a son of an emperor. The noble women at that time needed to find financially secure husband quickly for her household, because average life expectancy was around 35 years old. But the marriage system of the time was loose polygamy. While their personal expressions were limited to subtle and extremely stylized, women think, doubt, love, hate… intensely deep inside of their residences.

System of the society now in Japan is nothing resemble to that of Genji's time, and we also live much longer. But Japanese mind still works in the same way and act similarly. We just try to read other's mind without expressing our own spontaneously.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Beverage Bending Machine

When my husband arrived for the first time at the airport in Japan, he was surprised to see a lot of beverage vending machines. We hardly see them in the U.S., due to the fear of vandalism.

He was so struck by the strong presence of these Coca-Cola machines that I had to point out to him that Japanese consumption of soda, including Coca-Cola was far less than Americans. Japanese prefer tea, coffee, water, juice drink, etc. over soda.

According to Wiki, Coca-Cola Japan has the #1 share of soft drink sales in Japan (Unfortunately, this Wiki page is only in Japanese.), but they don't sell a large proportion of soda products. The company sells more green tea, chinese tea, coffee, sports drink, water, juice drink, etc., over soda, which accounts for the larger proportion of sales from the Coca-Cola vending machines.

Coca-Cola changes it's formula depending on the country, but in Japan it is even selling items developed in Japan for Japanese market, in order to suit particular taste and preference. Often catering to those Japanese taste for less sweetened or unsweetened products.

This is one of the most successful example of a multi-national company adapted to a regional culture and preference. Coca-Cola let the Japanese branch unleash its regional creativity. Japanese people still strongly associate Coca-Cola with America and American culture, just like other people in the world do. But when they drink canned unsweetened tea from a vending machine, they probably don't even know that it is one of Coca-Cola's brands.

Japan has complicated emotional responses towards America and American culture. These two countries have very strong ties at any level, but at the same time they are eager to differentiate themselves from each other. A little dose of American culture in Japanese society may be fun, but too much of it, inadequately addressed to local tastes, doesn't do well.