Monday, December 31, 2012

Choosing a new fountain pen

At school in Tokyo

Twenty some years ago, when psychologist Jim Stigler was a graduate student, he went to Japan to research schools and learning. One day he observed a fourth-grade math class.

The teacher was showing the children how to draw a three-dimensional cube on paper. One student was having a hard time grasping the technique. Try as hard as he could, his cube was still askew. The teacher asked him to come up to the chalkboard to show his work.

Stigler suddenly felt nervous for the young boy. Stigler recalled that in a typical American classroom, teachers often called the best students to come draw to  the board as a way to show struggling students the correct way to multiply, diagram sentences, or draw a cube. Coming to the board was an occasion to showcase the talented students and embarrass the slower learners. Stigler felt quite awkward, not wanting to watch the teacher and students embarrass the boy for his slow learning. 

Stigler watched as the boy came forward, and start to slowly draw. His cube still looked off kilter. After a few minutes, the teacher asked the class if the boy had drawn it correctly, and the class shook their heads no. This went on and on. As the class resumed their work, the boy worked alone at the chalkboard.

As Stigler sat watching, he felt more and more anxious for the boy in front of the class. He imagined how embarrassed the boy probably felt, struggling in front of his peers over how to draw chalk lines showing perspective. Stigler expected the boy to break into tears at any moment. But he did not. He simply kept trying.  

To Stigler's relief, the boy finally drew a cube that looked right. When he finished, the teacher asked the class, "How does that look?" The students looked up from their work and said he did it well. Then the whole class clapped for the boy, whereupon he smiled proudly and sat down.

For Jim Stigler, who is now a professor at UCLA, watching the event was an eye-opener. He saw the juxtaposition of two cultures: on the one hand, he recalled how he felt, as a typical American, watching a child struggling with school work, and on the other hand he saw how a Japanese class felt watching a boy struggle with school work.

In a typically American setting, students see struggling with school work as a sign that they are not very smart. We think that smart children don't have to struggle; doing well in school comes to them naturally. We think that learning multiplication tables, drawing graphs, and writing essays comes easily to smart children. We think that children who struggle are simply not as smart.

In that Japanese school, however, students saw struggling with schoolwork as an opportunity to learn. There is no stigma or lower assessment of ability attached to that young boy based on how much he struggled to learn. In such a setting, everyone assumed that struggling to learn was a normal part of the learning process. Everyone was expected to struggle.

When that one boy was applauded for struggling to learn, the teacher gave the lesson that anyone struggling to learn deserves to be applauded. The lesson was that struggling is a chance to show that you have what it takes emotionally to overcome the problem by having the strength to persist through that struggle. Simply put, struggling is a given and struggling can be good.

--from Morning Edition on National Public Radio, as reported by the Rev. Dr. Blaine Edele, Union Memorial Church, New York  

Friday, December 28, 2012

Playground parking lot

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tokyo redefines luxury

We know what the world calls "luxury." Luxury is what the polished shops in the Midtown complex in Roppongi sell. Luxury is expensive things like a Cartier watch and a pair of handmade shoes (as opposed to a digital watch by Casio and a sturdy pair of Adidas running shoes). Luxury is experiences like an evening at a select inn the mountains like Seki-yo, with a bath before a beautiful dinner brought to your room by a sweet maid in kimono. Luxury is things and experiences that are not necessities but which will trigger fantasies for a long time after.

In Tokyo, there is luxury all around us, but everyone understands it is merely spectacle, not a part of our everyday lives, and there is something unreal about it. People inclined to luxurious living tend to congregate in neighborhoods like Den-en-chofu, where they know their neighbors won't snigger at their outsized foreign vehicles and their houses built of quarried stone, cut off from the world by iron gates of a baroque design. In Tokyo to show off in such an obvious way is gehin, unrefined, ill-mannered. 

But this doesn't mean that from time to time we can't indulge ourselves in luxury, just as we would drink Champagne while taking a ride on the Yokohama Ferris wheel or going to see the Vienna State Opera when it comes to town (although we know that tickets in Tokyo are much more expensive than in Vienna)--just to see what it's like, just to expand our vision of the world.

Tokyo people tend to think that luxury is not only needlessly expensive but in the end just nonsensical. Why buy a silver ballpoint pen and have your initials engraved on it when you can buy a no-nonsense ballpoint pen that works just as well for 100 yen? People who do so are obviously insecure and need help although they do not realize it.

We have no room in Tokyo to accommodate mindless luxury. Few Tokyo driveways can accommodate a Rolls Royce (which on the streets of our city looks as ridiculous as a great gray elephant, an Athenian temple on wheels) and anyway a sporty little Fiat 500 would be lots more fun and people would wave at you as to a kindred spirit. We don't have room in our closets for a new wardrobe every season and this is why there is such a healthy market here for used fashion: people must sell their familiar clothes to make room for new things. In fact, when you think about it, space in Tokyo could be thought of as the ultimate luxury, except that this is not the way we live. To us, a spacious room looks lonely.

If we know where to go, we can enjoy an honest, genuinely luxurious meal for not a lot of money, because with Japanese food simplicity and purity are the highest values. We aren't really comfortable with meals of multiple courses served separately, which seem calculated  to impress. Japanese know the world is somehow impressed by a first-class bento, which the world thinks must surely be a luxury but which Japanese take as simply the way it should be. We take fine workmanship for granted. Our toothpicks are the finest in the world--handcarved of bamboo or of polished pine with a finial. 

Now with winter creeping in and with few of our houses coddled by central heating, luxury is a warm snuggle, just as a warm bath will always be an everyday luxury to a Tokyoite. Of course we like to think it is healthier to live without being suffocated by dry heat, but we have to admit it is nice not to be pestered by the idea of Cold. I'm thinking of buying a mindlessly luxurious cashmere watch cap from Muji has perfectly serviceable woolen watch caps for a tenth the price, but what the hell. Isn't there something engagingly irrational about luxury? Luxury to most Tokyo people is the plaything of comedy.

-Zeke Suzuki

Friday, December 21, 2012

Shop window of a store specializing in upscale handbags

Thursday, December 20, 2012

To own a gun in Japan

Following on the recent instances of wild crazy shootings in the US and Norway by people allowed to own a gun, it may be of interest to know what you have to do to be permitted to own a gun in Japan.

First, you have to attend an all-day class and pass a written test, which are held only once a  month. Then you must take and pass a shooting range class. Then you must go to a hospital for a mental test and drug test, the results of which must be filed with the police. Finally, you must submit to a rigorous background check for any criminal record or association with criminal or extremist groups. Only then you will be permitted to own a shotgun or air rifle. You must tell the police exactly where you keep your gun in your home, as well as the ammo, both of which must be locked and stored separately. The police will inspect your gun every year and you must re-take the class and exam every three years.

- Rudolpho B

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Joining a Japanese company is something of an emotional commitment. Usually, you join immediately after graduation with a group of fellow recent graduates who have all been looking forward to joining the company for some time. There would be something of a formal ceremony in the company's lecture hall, highlighted by a few words from a top company official, after which you would be issued company uniforms and identification cards with your photo. 

We hear that Nippon Steel Corporation, after holding their formal welcoming ceremony, used to hold a considerably less formal ceremony on the foundry floor in which new recruits, having been issued helmets emblazoned with the company insignia, had their new helmets filled to the brim with the local sake, which they were then invited to down on the spot while standing, with the time allowed for them to complete this task being counted down.

When an old Nippon Steel hand was recently asked if this charming tradition endures today, he said: "Oh no. Oh no. Ohhh nooo," in a tone which suggested that there was some room for interpretation. "Anyway," he added, "the helmets these days are smaller."

- Myles NaGopaleen

Friday, December 14, 2012

manhole cover

Along the river

The drum at Tamagawa temple is being struck. My watch says four o'clock.  A thunderous thump.



Then the train goes by down the hill. Metal on metal. Is this an intrusion? Only  if you think it is.


The drum is now being hit very softly.  Ping.    Ping.    Ping.   Every thirty seconds.    Ping.   Can he be practicing? Who is listening besides me?

A couple comes by led by a dachshund. We nod.

In the evening the paper lanterns hanging here will light the way up the road to overlook the river.  Ah, the lanterns have come on. Drum practice continues. 

While I've been sitting here on this stone ledge, twenty trains have gone by. And the drum has been hit a hundred times. The number is unimportant. So then what is important?

The pings are getting closer together.

I guess I have to go. 


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Saturday, December 8, 2012

We will have an election on December 16, and the odds are we will elect a new prime minister, as we seem to do every year these days. Campaigning lasts a couple of weeks. On this board in front of the subway exit, a prime location, candidates are invited to put up a flattering poster of themselves with a slogan or two. Posters must all be the same size and they must go in the numbered space allotted them.
Post election follow-up: So yes, we have a new prime minister, who has been prime minister before. Now what?

Earthquake last night

Maybe around 8, the house began to shiver. Ah well, a quake. It seemed a bit stronger than usual, and it went on for longer. The house danced for a good 30 seconds.

But in Tokyo, we are used to quakes. They happen daily but no one pays any attention to most of them, which are feeble. And anyway, what are you going to do? I went back to eating my lonely bowl of chili.

After a while, I checked my email. My wife, at choral practice, had sent me a message: "Call me!" So I called her and she picked up her cellphone. I could hear she was right in the middle of some great, swelling choral run. An awkward time to get a phone call. All she said was "Are you OK?" "Sure," I said. And she hung up and went back to singing.

I wondered what all that was about.

More email messages. From sister-in-law in Washington, from daughter in San Francisco, from an old sidekick in Connecticut: "Are you OK?" I answered them back "Sure, sure." Must be the quake they're worried about. The news gets around quickly these days and of course TV has a tendency to dramatize. I went to bed early.

The next morning I searched "earthquake japan" and got dozens of stories. I checked out BBC and was treated to views of an office on the 19th floor of a building in maybe Shinjuku where the light fixtures in the ceiling were joggling and people were trying to decide whether they should get under their desk or not. We looked out the window and saw that the building was gently swaying and that the other tall buildings in the area were swaying too. A sedate dance.

The quake was judged to have been of a 7.3 magnitude, not insignificant, but there seemed to have been no serious damage beyond some books and files being nudged out of bookcases. Well, it certainly had a way of bringing people together.

I learn later that in fact this quake at 7.3 was far less significant than the quake last year that brought on the tsunami that devastated towns on the coast just 100 kilometers north of Tokyo. That quake measured 9 on the Richter scale, over 1,000 times stronger. I also learn that when NHK's huge building in Shibuya began to shake, the NHK announcer advised everyone to flee for their lives.

 - Alphonse Apricot 

Friday, December 7, 2012

As noted, Japan is 80% mountains and this is why Tokyo is so jammed together--the Kanto Plain is the only part of the country that can accommodate an urban conglomeration of this size. But this does mean Japan is heaven for people who love to hike through the mountains. This is Ibaragi Prefecture, a couple hours from downtown Tokyo.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Bus stop furniture

At bus stops in the posher neighborhoods, businesses sometimes put out benches so they can advertise on them, but the bus stops in less affluent neighborhoods are unlikely to be provided with benches so everybody has to stand. In this case people are likely to take matters into their own hands and make their own benches or to put out at their bus stop chairs and benches they no longer need. Thus, it would not be  unusual in a modest neighborhood to spot at the bus stop the comfortable chrome and black leather chair Uncle Taro used to sit in at his office at the trucking company to lord over whomever needed to be lorded over.

- Rudolfo B.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Glorious choruses

The Kohoku-ku Choral Society staged its annual free concert the other Sunday and about 500 people came. The eight-page carefully printed program listed twenty-two all-women choral groups and three mostly women groups with a seasoning of men. 

Every group of 20 or so wore their own long dresses of a distinctive color, with the men wearing formal evening clothes and bow ties ("butterfly" tie, we say in Japanese). Every group had their own conductor/teacher and their own piano accompanist and page-turner.

The songs performed were mostly old-favorites from Japan and abroad sung in Japanese, but several were psalms sung in Latin. One group sang three different versions of Ave Maria.

With twenty-five groups to perform, each group had only about eight minutes to get through their program, which they had rehearsed weekly for a year. Still, given the lengthy applause awarded each group and the twenty minutes allotted to the conductor/teachers to show how they could sing, the program lasted a good five hours.

The program listed the names of the forty-four dedicated people on the Kohoku-ku Choral Society's committee.

- Mitzy Mitsubishi, mezzo soprano