Safety first in Japan

Japanese people are very concerned with safety. One of the first Japanese words I learned after arriving in Japan was anzen (安全 ), the Japanese word for safety.

A well-known example of this concern with safety is the method of ‘pointing and calling‘, shisa kanko (指差喚呼), used by public transport operators in Japan. Japanese train drivers will point at every sign they pass, calling out its status. This looks very funny to Western eyes but it is proven to help keep focus and attention.

Foreign Toyota employees receive similar instructions when they first arrive in Japan. The Toyota headquarters in Japan are so large that they include roads with motorized traffic on them. During their initial orientation, the expat employees are instructed on how to cross the road when they are at headquarters: they have to point to the left, say yoshi (which means something like OK), point to the right, say yoshi again, and only then may they cross. The Europeans, with their disdain for rules, think it is silly and try to skip the yoshi yoshi whenever they can. The Japanese employees, however, diligently follow the safety regulations, much to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.

Another example of Japanese concern with safety is this group of school children. They are all wearing helmets, which seem to be part of their school uniform.

Japanese safety anzen

Safety first in Japan: helmets as part of the school uniform.

I guess a country that is frequently affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and the like, cannot be blamed for an emphasis on safety. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t also a huge contradiction in this concern with safety.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that many Japanese people watch TV while driving! While the Belgian government campaigns heavily against using the phone while driving, let alone watching television, in Japan it seems to be the most normal thing in the world to watch TV while driving. Many Japanese people have their navi system adjusted to also broadcast TV. While this isn’t exactly legal, as I’ve been told, many people do it.

Japanese people ignoring safety and breaking the rules? Just when you think you have things figured out, Japan throws you a curveball. Or is it allright to break the rules because the car is considered ‘private space’ (related to the honne – tatemae distinction) where you can do what you want? I would love to hear other people’s opinion on this. Please share what you think in the comment section!

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Japanese advertising slogans

I love Japanese advertising slogans. They often include English words that have been used in a very Japanese way. Japanese copywriters are clearly convinced that positive words are the way to go. I often see a collection of positive words thrown together in a way that no native English speaker would ever use them.

What do you think of this slogan to promote apple candy: ‘Health and beauty for your life’? The message that they want to bring across is clear but no Western copywriter would communicate it so directly. Reading this kind of Japanese advertising slogan instantly puts a smile on my face. It sounds so sweet and innocent and frankly I find it quite endearing.

Japanese advertising slogans

These apple candies will bring health and beauty to your life! Yes they will!

Have a look at some other examples:

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

freshness burger in Nagoya airport

Freshness burger in Nagoya airport

funny english in japan toiletpaper

Japanese toilet paper, bringing happiness to your life

Outgoing Japanese people

When Belgian people ask me questions about my stay in Japan, they often ask what Japanese people are like. From their questions, I gather that they believe all Japanese people to be quiet and introverted. When I answer that I actually met lots of Japanese people who were outgoing and easy to come into contact with, they react surprised. When I add that, in my experience, Japanese people are a happy people who laugh a lot, they look incredulous. I wrote about these prejudices more elaborately in the article ‘Japanese people are human too‘.

Today, as I was going through the pictures that I took when I was in Japan exactly four years ago, on May 21st 2012, I found a video that perfectly illustrates how outgoing Japanese people can be. I was visiting the indoor market in Kanazawa and noticed some live crabs laying on ice, who were still moving. As I stopped to film this fascinating scene, the vendor asked me what I was doing. I said that I was making a video of the crabs but that they appeared to have stopped moving at the moment. As you can see in the video, the vendor immediately reacted by prodding the crabs and placing some more lively ones on the ice. He even took a crab and held it towards the camera, which produced some screaming and hilarity.

This kind of spontaneous and humorous exchange was by no means an exception during my stay in Japan. It shows that Japanese people, just like people all over the world, can be outgoing and enjoy having a laugh!

Kimono fashion: Coming of Age Day

Coming of Age Day (seijin no hi) is a Japanese holiday held on the second Monday of January. It is a great day for kimono spotting. In day-to-day life in Japan, it is rare to see people in kimono. On Coming of Age Day, however, you will see them everywhere.

Coming of Age Day celebrates everyone who turned 20 years old (the age of majority in Japan) during the past year. It is customary for these young adults to wear traditional Japanese clothing, especially the women, who wear furisode kimono with long swinging sleeves. Most men seem to opt for smart Western suits, although some of them do wear kimono and hakama.

Coming of age day kimono

A group of youngsters on Coming of Age Day. The girls are dressed in brightly coloured furisode kimono with long sleeves – Image by Dick Johnson

coming of age day proper kimono fashion

Young couple in traditional Coming of Age Day attire

There are some young people, however, who have decided to put a new spin on Coming of Age Day fashion. A few days ago, I read a Japan Times article discussing ‘improper attire’ in the city of Kitakyushu. Apparently men have begun wearing brightly coloured hakama and women are dressing in a style of kimono that was popular with oiran, the high-class prostitutes of the Edo Period, showing lots of cleavage and shoulder.

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Girls trying on oiran costumes for Coming of Age Day

coming of age day oiran kimono fashion

Oiran costume on Coming of Age Day

If you want to get an impression of Coming of Age Day celebrations in Kitakyushu (the city discussed in the Japan Times article), I recommend the video below. It shows a mix of traditional costumes and the newer styles. The guys in the beginning of the video really remind me of the anime ‘Great Teacher Onizuka‘, which basically means they look and sound like 1980’s gangsters. Also don’t miss the guy in ladies underwear at the end of the video.

Judging from this video, it seems like a pretty raucous affair. Apparently the past few years it has not been not uncommon to have car crashes, fighting and vandalism on Coming of Age Day, although some places seem to be more famous for it than others. To be fair though, I think in most places in Japan people just dress traditionally, go to a temple and have a calm party afterwards with their friends. It’s always the excess that gets the most attention. I would love to have some reader feedback on this though. Please feel free to comment below!

But back to Kitakyushu. Apparently some people were scandalized by this new kimono fashion trend and the city of Kitakyushu has responded by setting up a webpage to educate new 20-year-olds on appropriate attire for the event. Unfortunately I can’t read Japanese, but I watched the video. It shows how a girl is supposed to walk, sit, enter a car and even go to the bathroom (if I am not mistaken) while wearing a furisode kimono. Where are the recommendations for the boys???

I wonder though, if the main problem is the new style of dressing or rather the vandalism and violence that sometimes seems to be associated with Coming of Age Day celebrations. And why do these young people go so crazy, both in fashion and behavior?

Several things come to mind. Firstly, innovations by younger generations are often perceived as shocking by older generations. This is a phenomenon as old as time. Secondly, I have come to understand that for many Japanese people, their early twenties is the only time they truly feel free. During their primary and secondary school years, they are under enormous pressure to pass entrance exams to get into good high schools and universities. After university, they enter the workforce and work long hours under strict behavior and dress codes. Or they start a family and are completely absorbed by their duties as parents (for many women this still holds true). During their university years however, they are free to do as they want. And finally, I do believe that Japan is changing. A new generation is emerging that is discarding the traditional ways and looking for their own way of doing things, much as happened in the West during the sixties. I am curious to see how things will evolve!

Nabe party

Nabe refers to a variety of Japanese hot-pot dishes. It is a typical winter food. All the ingredients for nabe are prepared together in a large clay or iron pot. The pot is usually placed on a burner in the middle of the table and the dish is cooked at the table. Everyone gathers round and picks from the pot what they like, as the ingredients cook. This makes the eating of nabe a highly social event and therefore a perfect excuse for a party, the so-called ‘nabe party’.

There are several stages to a nabe party, involving different ingredients that are added in turn to the pot. Many varieties of nabe exist, but it all comes down to a mix of different ingredients in a broth. The nabe that I will describe below consists of stock, lots of vegetables, tofu, fish cake, thin slices of meat and rice. Dipping sauce and an egg were also involved.

nabe party stock

The stock for our nabe party: water with pieces of kombu and bonito flakes in a tea bag (katsuobushi)

nabe party vegetables

Vegetables and tofu are placed on top of the stock. The vegetables are cabbage, spring onion and daikon.

how to prepare nabe fish cake

Fish cake, sliced

how to prepare nabe

Fish cake and more vegetables (spinach and carrot) are added

Japanese nabe party

The pot, filled to the brim, is placed on a cooker in the middle of the table

As the nabe is placed on the cooker, the party can begin. Friends gather round and wait for everything to start simmering. A perfect moment to enjoy a glass of wine and a laugh together. When the broth has come to a boil and the vegetables have shrunk somewhat, very thin slices of meat are placed on top of the nabe. Since the slices are so thin, they cook in about a minute.

Japanese nabe meat

Thin slices of pork for nabe

Japanese nabe meat

The meat is placed on top of the nabe and cooks very quickly

Now the time has come for everyone to dig in. You may take whatever you like from the nabe pot. This communal enjoyment of the meal creates a very cozy feeling. A nabe party is perfect for warming both body and heart during a cold winter evening.

You might have noticed the collection of sauces on the table. They are dipping sauces for the nabe, collectively referred to as tare. Everyone has two bowls for dipping sauces. As you take food from the nabe pot, you may dip it in the sauce of your choice.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left you see ponzu, a soy sauce based condiment with yuzu (japanese bitter orange) and gomadare, which is a sesame sauce. On the right are two types of paste that are added to the sauce for additional spice. I believe the green one is wasabi based but I am not sure. The red one is a seasoned chili paste called shisen toban jan.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left sesame sauce with chili paste, on the right ponzu with wasabi (?) paste

Japanese nabe party

Table setup for a nabe party: two bowls for each guest with dipping sauce. Food is picked from the nabe pot and briefly placed in dipping sauce, before eating.

When most of the vegetables are eaten and the pot is nearly empty, it is time for the second round. More vegetables are added to the pot and everyone continues eating.

japanese nabe party more vegetables

Second round of vegetables at a nabe party

At the end of round two, when only a little of the broth and some pieces of vegetable remain, cooked rice is added to the mix. The rice absorbs the taste from all the previous ingredients and gets a porridge like texture.

japanese nabe party rice added

Round three of a Japanese nabe party: cooked rice is added to absorb the left over liquid

japanese nabe party rice added

Stirring the rice

While everyone enjoys the first serving of rice, the rice left in the pot continues to cook and starts sticking to the bottom. A raw egg is added to this crunchy rice mixture, thus turning the dish into baked rice. This baked rice forms the end of the meal.

japanese nabe party baked rice

An egg is added to the leftover rice

japanese nabe party baked rice

Rice and egg baking together. Yum!

This nabe party was such a wonderful experience. Thank you to my friends for showing me this great piece of Japanese culture and for welcoming me in their midst!

friends at a japanese nabe party

Bellies full and smiling faces. What a great night!

Forest hike and Japanese tea ceremony

Today I wondered: what was I doing in Japan around this time four years ago? The answer did not disappoint me: I was hiking through a virgin forest and attended a field tea ceremony (nodate 野点).

Me and my aunt, who was visiting from Belgium, were invited by my lovely friends Nobuo-san and Motoko-san to go on a hike with them. Being avid hikers, they claimed to know the most beautiful spots for hiking around Toyota City. They took us to a beautiful virgin forest. It was kōyō (autumn leaves 紅葉 ) season and the light was gorgeous that day.

japanese forest

Our guides are leading the way. Seeing bamboo in a forest was very exotic to me.

japanese forest

The autumn light on the coloured leaves was spectacular.

japanese forest

Looking up the trunk of an ancient tree.

As if taking us to this precious place wasn’t enough, they surprised us with an impromptu tea ceremony in the forest. When we sat down in a clearing to have a little rest, Motoko-san started unpacking several implements that she had been carrying in her backpack. As I had no knowledge of tea ceremony at the time, we were very curious to see what all those beautiful objects were for.

nodate field tea ceremony

Motoko-san is unpacking her wares.

nodate field tea ceremony

She produced two gorgeous red chawan (tea bowls) out of her backpack, and some wagashi (Japanese sweets). The stop at the sweets shop on our way to the forest suddenly made a lot more sense.

nodate field tea ceremony wagashi

Seasonal wagashi

nodate field tea ceremony

Omnomnom. Wagashi are delicious. The bowl of tea is waiting on the bench to be drunk.

It was one of my first experiences with the Japanese tea ceremony and it made a deep impression on me. The spontaneous enjoyment of tea in that beautiful natural setting was such a special experience. That day I learned about the concepts of wabisabi (わびさび the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection, perfectly embodied by the fallen leaves, the rough table and the setting in general) and ichigo ichie (一期一会 litt. ‘one time, one meeting’, indicating the preciousness of meetings with people and emphasizing that every moment and experience is unique).

Thank you Motoko-san and Nobuo-san for that once in a lifetime experience!

Docile Japanese cats

Are Japanese cats more docile than other cats? Before having lived in Japan, I would have thought this to be a ridiculous question. Surely cats are the same everywhere? Cats are not subject to cultural differences, are they? But living in Japan, surprises are never far off. I have seen Japanese cats tolerate things from their owners that most Belgian cats would never stand for. There was that one time when I saw someone walking a cat on a leash in Okinawa. And then there was the time when I was walking through crowded Asuke village in Toyota City at the start of autumn leaves season and saw a guy having a walk while holding his cat. Can you imagine visiting a festival and bringing your cat along? I am not sure how the cat felt about it, but in any case it wasn’t trying to escape, which is saying something.

docile Japanese cats

Never mind me, just having a walk with my cat during a crowded festival

docile Japanese cats

The cat looks slightly dubious but remains calm nonetheless

docile Japanese cats

If you ask nicely, most people in Japan are more than willing to pose for a picture. Too bad my Japanese wasn’t good enough to ask him why he was carrying this cat around.

I am not sure why these Japanese cats are so docile. Are these just exceptions and are most Japanese cats in fact as ferocious as Belgian ones? Or were these particular cats treated like that from when they were kittens and have grown used to it? Or, the far more interesting possibility, are these cats somehow influenced by the calm personal energy that, in my opinion and compared to Belgium, is typical for Japanese culture? I would love to hear other people’s thoughts in the comments section!