Japanese government expects foreigners to learn Japanese! Insanity!!!

Last week the government here evidently suggested the idea that there should be a Japanese language requirement for long-term residents. I say evidently because I missed this news, but the blog community sure seems to be talking about it. People seem to be entirely against it, but… I don’t know, it seems like a good idea to me. Doesn’t the US require some level of English ability for a green card?

I think some of the problem comes down to the difficulty of actually learning Japanese here. Many have said

Hanko, or personal seal

In Japan instead of signatures for important documents, they use personal seals. Called hanko (HAHN-KOW) or inkan (EEN-KAHN), these are stamps with your name, but don’t compare them to rubber stamps or you are likely to offend

New apartment

In my new apartment. Things are still kind of messy, but I took pictures to show what it looks like:

Right inside the front door is a huge shelf for shoes. Remember, shoes aren’t allowed in Japanese houses (or apts).

Being big on saving water, most Japanese toilets (the “Western” versions anyways) have a sink bulit in to the top so you can wash your hands with the water before it goes into the tank. Actually a great idea. The problem? It only comes out at one temp

Japanese Bedding: Futons

Sleeping on the ground with the Futon

The futon is something everyone knows about, but yet don’t know about. I’ll try to fill you in some of the details here. First, why? Well, space is at a premium in Japan. Something like 85% of the country is mountains and uninhabitable, so that doesn’t leave much for living room. As a result, houses and apartments are typically much smaller than they are in the West. Because of this, the Japanese have devised all sorts of ways to save space. One of them is the traditional Japanese bed – the futon.

As you can see in the photo, it really doesn’t bare much resemblance to the American version. I imagine the one we in the States came from an ex-army guy who was here during the war and saw the Japanese beds and decided to borrow the idea, but then took it in a somewhat… cheaper direction.

So… what is a futon?

It’s basically a bed that you put on the floor when it’s time to sleep, then pack up and stick in the closet during the day so you can reclaim that space for other use during the day.

Simple, eh?

It typically consists of a padding to lay down first, a mattress, a thick and extremely warm blanket, and a pillow filled with a special kind of beans that conforms to the shape of your head and keeps it warm at night.

There are other add-ons you you can buy too, including in the winter a large water bag for keeping your feet and legs warm (fill it with hot water before going to bed), a fleece blanket to attach to the mattress so you can lay on something warm instead of the cold mattress, and so on.

Is it comfortable…?

It may not sound comfortable sleeping on the floor, but actually they are really nice. This of course varies depending on the quality you buy, but even the cheaper variety I’ve bought are very soft and comfortable to lay on.

Other benefits

In addition to being comfortable, being able to pack up your bedand reuse the space for other things during the day is very handy. When you see how little space Japanese apartments and houses have, you realize just how handy that is.

Also, since they are relatively light and portable, they are easier to keep clean than regular beds. It is common to see futon shanging out windows and from balconies during the day. This airs out the mattress and blankets and lets the sun kill any germs on them. There is also a special beater (it looks like the old carpet beaters) that housewives use to furiously beat at them as they hang outside, trying to get rid of every molecule of dust, any bed bugs, and all that kind of thing. Or maybe just to get out their anger. Either way.

Current trends

From what I understand, many kids these days don’t like futons and beg their parents to buy them “Western Beds”. Often a few years later when they get their own apartments they see the advantage of Japanese beds and switch back.

A disadvantage

The only real disadvantage is that modern floors of woodor vinyl are very cold in the winter; as a result, the futon can becomes quite cold without things like extra padding beneath it.

Traditional Japanese houses used tatami (tah-tah-me) for the flooring.

Tatami is basically a thick straw mat. It is very soft, and also in the winter it absorbs heat during the day, so is warm even in very cold nights. Modern houses still have one or two tatami rooms, but modern apartments usually don’t. At the most, they will have very small tatami rooms that aren’t large enough to sleep in.

Conclusions

For most people the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, and so today the futon still remains more common and popular than a Western-style bed. I know I love my futon!

Chinese Zodiac

The Japanese use the Chinese Zodiac for counting years. This is a 12-year cycle, each year represented by an animal. Why the Japanese use it? Well, see back in the day every time the Japanese invaded China (all the time) they stole something or other. Kanji, Buddhism, tea, etc, etc. Along with the zodiac, they also took the Chinese new year, which might tell you why new year is such a big event here. Unfortunately for China, when Japan opened to the West in 1869 (or around there.. I

Celsius

It

Religion in Japan

My shrine visit on the 3rd was a lot of fun. It was packed full of people all praying for the new year, buying fortunes and good luck charms, and just generally exploring the shrine grounds.

If you look at Japanese people and try to figure out what religion they are, you may be very confused. They generally go to a Shinto shrine when born, have a Western wedding in a Christian church (tho it’s usually fake), then have a Buddhist funeral. To further complicate it, if you ask most Japanese people what religion they are they will tell you they aren’t religious. So what are they? Well actually that last one is a lie. The Japanese people are deeply religious but they usually claim no religion simply to avoid talking about it. For one thing, it’s complicated. Shinto and Buddhism have co-existed here for many hundreds of years, to the point where they have both borrowed things from each other and are now very inter-related. To top that off, Japanese Buddhism itself is a combination of Indian Buddhism, Chinese Confucianism, and Chinese Taoism (pronounced “daoism” by the way.). Complicated. The second reason they don’t want to talk about it is they have been taught all their lives that if you talk about religion it will offend people and start fights, so shut up about it.

I added a bunch of photos from my New Year’s shrine visit to my flickr page. I haven’t yet figured out an easy way to add them into my posts here (except the very time consuming way of going several clicks into each photo in flickr and finding a link to copy) so you’ll have to go there to see them.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/dbooster/sets/72157603629363557/

Click on the “view as slideshow” button for cool feature. Mouse over the main photo, an “i” will fade in, click it and you can see my comments for each specific photo.

New Year

Quick post… About to go to shrine myself to pray for the new year, so I thought I would post a short clip taken from one of them. This is the first thing I found on youtube. I’m sure if you go there and search “Japan new year” you will find more.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW1jeyPALZw]

Recent pictures, completely random

star wars figures

the star wars figure market is even bigger here than in the States. pic for Mark.

half-life 2

Half-Life 2, in the arcade. Wow.

matcha ice cream

Matcha ice cream. Matcha everything here in Japan, and this one is pretty good.

canned coffee

There are so many kinds of canned coffee here I’ve lost count. Most of them are loaded with sugar and so are too sweet for me, but a few are black, and those are good.

mds

Mini-discs! They are 3.5 inch recordable CDs. Never caught on in the States, but still popular here.

weird erasers

Japan is loaded with toys and wacky inventions. Here you have two erasers that attempt to always give you a corner to use, no matter how worn they are.

Go to my flickr page to see more recently uploaded pics from the sumo tourn I went to last July and from a park famous for it’s fall leaves I went to a few weeks ago.

Site updates and news

So I finally decided that if you do something you might as well do it well, so on my New Years holiday here I

Christmas in Japan

Christmas-time in Japan is a mixed bag. Perhaps thanks to globalization the Japanese now celebrate Christmas to a certain degree, tho no one is quite sure why they do if you ask them. People cover their houses in lights, buy and put up Christmas trees (usually only small ones), and buy gifts for each other and their kids. And stores have sales by the dozens and so are completely packed. That

Chicken pox

For the past two weeks I