First up: I updated my flickr page with photos of Nikko, which I went to this weekend. Really beautiful place, lots of temples. I went with my USC friend Ananda, who’s over in Japan for a bit, and my friends Jamie and Sarah.
One of the most common questions I get from you all in email is “What’s freaking you out most about Japan?” The answer is, by far, the fact that they drive on the left side of the road. I don’t know where to look to avoid being run over, I tend to cross by people on the incorrect side, and I have repeatedly thought I was going to die while riding in a car, because other cars were on the wrong side of the road.

But there’s a lot of other weird stuff, too. Here’s a list:

  1. Engrish. This is the rampant misuse of English. It’s so common as to not even register anymore. Seriously, 50-75% of the population wears clothing with poorly-translated English slogans on them. Even when they’re not poorly translated, they’re just strange. Amy got a shirt that talked about a band of mutant survivors in the year 3012. Other peoples’ shirts are like this bizarre form of lyrical poetry, asking what is important in life, while also proclaiming that Donald Duck likes to party all the time.
  2. Garbage disposal. You separate all your garbage into burnable, non-burnable, and 5 different types of recyclable, and they all go out at different times on different days. If you do it incorrectly, old Japanese women will rape you through your pants.
  3. There are no trash cans in public. You have to carry your trash with you until you get back home.
  4. People will just burn random tables and whatnot at the side of the road. You could dispose of corpses this way and nobody would bat an eye.
  5. Japanese people are really, really skittish. For example, Katie wasn’t allowed to swim in the local pool because she was wearing a tank top, although she had done so before dozens of times. Why? Some little girl on the other side of Japan had suffocated in a tank top a week ago. Not in a pool, mind you. In her own back yard. So, no tank tops on grown women. As a corollary, Amy was complaining about being kept home from teaching a couple days, as the doctors thought her TB might be flaring up again. Well, I reminded her, if a kid caught TB at her school, even if it was unrelated to her, the following things would happen:
    1. Amy would be fired.
    2. Our boss would be fired.
    3. Our boss’s assistant would be fired.
    4. Our boss’s boss would be fired.
    5. Our boss’s boss’s assistant would be fired.
    6. The doctor who inspected Amy when she first got to Japan would be fired.
    7. All of us who were left would have to get on television and apologize to the entire nation.
    8. Every teacher in Japan would be tested for TB the next day.
  6. Japanese people hate it when you speak Japanese. This is because they want to speak English with you. They will never tell you this, though. It took me three weeks to find this out, through very circuitous routes. No matter how hard it is to communicate, I have to use pretty much all English from here on out.
  7. That said, they expect you to have a high level of Japanese proficiency, as they will leave very important notices on my desk, written completely in keigo and kanji. If you ask, they’ll tell you what they are, but sometimes it’ll be too late. Say, for the notice that said that school lets out early today.
  8. Tattoos. Only yakuza have them. Thus, everyone who has a tattoo is yakuza. Including foreigners.
  9. There are Playboy logos all over kids’ clothes. I don’t think they know what Playboy is, but they like the little rabbit.
  10. Hello Kitty is destroying Japan. Cute mascots exist for EVERYTHING. It is completely out of control. My gas bill has an anthropomorphic flame and water drop helping the happy family with their household activities. I am not kidding. There are anthropomorphic blocks of tofu on billboards all across Tokyo. I think said tofu has its own TV show.
  11. TV shows are really weird. I watched the TV briefly, while waiting for some friends at the gym. There was a talk show which started off with a guy in a big frog outfit (looked like kermit) talking to the two guest hosts. His voice was weird, like he was sick, and they were asking what’s wrong. It looked like he had fudge or something in his mouth, when he suddenly jerked his head back and PROJECTILE VOMITED SCORPIONS ONTO THE HOSTS. Big plastic scorpions.
  12. Occasionally, when you are sitting at home, some random pushy Japanese guy will come to your door and try to come inside your house. This is the NTT television tax guy. He is supposed to collect a tax on anyone who watches television. It’s very hard to prove that someone watches television, so they’ll actually come inside your house and demand money if they see a TV. Hasn’t happened to me yet, but I haven’t been home much.
  13. They don’t separate out special ed kids from the rest of the students. It’s really, really hard to tell who’s “tokubetsu” (special) and who’s not, sometimes. I have kids who will get up in the middle of class and start wandering around. I have kids who are practically mute, and will cry if you talk to them. I have kids who will enthusiastically talk to me for HOURS, in simplistic english, while trying to steal my cheap-ass $10 target watch. Tokubetsu people also staff almost all the convenience stores and gas stations in Japan. They’re better behaved, but their Japanese is a bit hard to understand.
  14. There are no disciplinary measures in schools. No suspensions, detentions, whatever. Kids can sleep in class, talk while you’re teaching, you can’t do anything about it.
  15. There’s also no failing grade. Kids advance no matter how little work they do. Until they hit high school entrance exams.
  16. Japanese kids have some frigging weird games. Kancho, probably the most famous of them, involves folding your hands together with your index fingers pointing out, and ramming it up someone’s butt. It’s known as the Japanese wedgie. However, others exist. The ball game has the participants kicking each other in the nuts, for instance. They take turns. My schools don’t do this, yet. Kids are only kanchoing my armpits.
  17. Japanese kids get REALLY excited during their sports festivals, screaming and clapping and waving. These same kids are completely dead silent in class.
  18. All the teachers and students, after lunch, clean the school for 20 minutes. We do this to generally insanely annoying music. One school does it to the song from My Neighbor Totoro, though, which is awesome. That song is followed by an 11-minute Doraemon ripoff song, which drives me up the wall. Imagine the Lambchop lady singing in a cutesy, sing-song tone, about counting numbers. Now imagine her doing it for 11 minutes.
  19. Muzak is everywhere. Usually show tunes and Disney music. I swear to god I’ve heard a midi version of “Enter Sandman” at a department store, too.
  20. Japanese people have absolutely no understanding of religion, stepfamilies, or relative size of other countries. They don’t even have a word for “stepfather” or “stepmother” — it translates more closely to “guardian father” or “guardian mother.” They can’t comprehend that Japan is about as big as California.
  21. All the towns in Japan are SUPER close to each other, and routinely swallow each other up. The neighborhood I’m in, Nagayama, used to be its own city, but was swallowed up by Ryugasaki. This happened like 5 years ago. That’s what happened with Tokyo – Akihabara, Roppongi, Shinjuku, all different cities. Now just Tokyo.
  22. The better I get with kanji, the more I am translating things’ names into their English equivalents. The actual names of places often sound like they come straight from Tolkein. For example, I live in Thorncastle prefecture, Dragonfield city, Longmountain neighborhood, which is near Friend Department City and Big Washing Town. I work for Mr. Oldhusband. I am still waiting to meet Mr. King Under The Mountain.
  23. Everyone bows. All the time. In the car. On bikes. On the phone. Everyone.
  24. Everyone I talk to at bars will, without provocation, tell me where to find prostitutes in Tokyo. This happened three times in one night. I was talking to some guy about trucking (because that was his job) and suddenly, bam, he asks if I’ve been to Roppongi, and where I can get hookers there, and how much. Huh?
  25. Japanese toilets. You have to take your shoes off to enter the bathroom. About half of them are squat-a-pots. Some will spray your butt with water streams. Some can make fake flushing noises to cover up the sounds of your bodily functions. Some have internet access.
  26. Nobody has even heard of my favorite manga, Gunnm (Battle Angel Alita).
  27. Old ladies have purple hair. It’s some dye that they put in their hair. Don’t know what that’s all about.
  28. There is a traditional ceremony (possibly not followed through in modern day) of force-feeding the prefectural leader (daimyo or whomever) an enormous bowl of rice. If they can’t eat all of it, it’s bad fortune.
  29. All the big tourist attractions at shrines and whatnot are incredibly small. The famous see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, say-no-evil monkeys and the “sleeping cat” carvings are like a foot long.
  30. Everyone smokes, but looks at you in abject horror if you drink coke. There’s a rumor going around that coke melts bones.