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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People watching – Sexy mom

I never get tired of watching people in Japan. The way people dress and express themselves seems so much more varied than in Belgium. Although on the one hand, Japan is a society governed by rules, on the other hand I have the impression that Japanese people in some cases enjoy more personal freedom than Belgian people. Fashion is one of those instances where I feel there is more freedom in Japan than in Belgium.

Take for example the lady in the picture below. I ran into her in the mall and was impressed by the combination of her sexy outfit and the stroller.

sexy Japanese mom

Sexy Japanese mom. I found the combination of the short dress, the thigh length socks and the high heels quite provocative.

I don’t think there are many young moms in Belgium who would dare to go shopping in such an outfit. I’m sure self-confidence has a lot to do with it, but I also believe young moms would get a lot of negative reactions when wearing such an outfit, especially in combination with the stroller.

My interpretation of this situation is that this lady bravely wears whatever she likes and that Japanese society lets her. Hurray for Japan! But of course I realize that this is just my interpretation, influenced by my Western perspective. I would love to hear what other people (both Japanese and foreign) make of this sexy young mom. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section!

sexy Japanese mom

Here she is, waiting for the elevator. My apologies for the blurry picture. Taking sneak photographs without being noticed is hard!

Furry business

“Japanese women love to wear fur.” Why have I chosen this simple statement as the topic for an entire blog post? Because the difference in attitude towards fur between Japan and Belgium (and I think Europe in general) is a striking cultural difference.

A girl wearing a fur scarf.

In Japan, fur usually appears as a trimming on coats and gloves, rather than as a full fur coat. Fur scarves, as seen in this picture, are also popular. Image from http://www.tokyofashion.com

Two girls wearing fur collars. This kind of collar is very popular in winter fashion. Image from www.tokyofasion.com (click on image to go to site)

Two girls wearing fur collars. This kind of collar is very popular in Japanese winter fashion. Image from http://www.tokyofashion.com

I have had a lot of trouble explaining to Japanese women why most Belgians frown upon the practice of fur as a fashion statement. In Belgium, fur coats are usually only worn by wealthy, elderly ladies; possibly belonging to the aristocracy. Fur is simply not considered politically correct, of course relating to concerns regarding animal suffering. I think fur is also considered a tad decadent. We Belgians are a simple people (*insert self-mockery*).

Most European people, on the other hand, find it difficult to understand why Japanese people wouldn’t think twice about wearing fur. Here is a nation that cherishes the seasons, has dedicated vast amounts of poetry to the beauty of nature and is collectively overcome by a screaming fit of ‘kawaii!!!!’¹ if exposed to so much as the slightest hint of a furry creature; yet wearing fur is considered the most normal thing in the world. Indeed I have been scolded by a Japanese girl for admitting to occasionally eating rabbit, while she herself was wearing a fur scarf that looked an awful lot like rabbit fur. It is one of the many contradictions in Japanese culture that one simply cannot make sense of and that contribute to the enigma of this fascinating country.

As with most cultural differences, I have evolved from initial amazement and slight shock to a general acceptance of the habit. I even went as far as purchasing a pair of rabbit fur-trimmed gloves myself, my reasoning being that if I eat rabbit, I shouldn’t have a problem with wearing rabbit fur either. I did draw the line at the beautiful white coat in the picture below. I checked the label when I went to try it on, only to find out it was fox fur. My captivation with the coat was instantly dispelled.

Beautiful white coat trimmed with fox fur. That's a bridge I won't cross.

Beautiful white coat trimmed with fox fur. Although I think the coat is gorgeous, the fact that the collar is fox fur really put me off.

¹kawaii means cute

 

6 ways to keep warm during Japanese winter

Winter is in full swing in Japan and it is cold! While the average daily maximum temperature for the Nagoya region in January is 9°C (according to the Japan Meteorological Agency), this year has been particularly cold with many days where the temperature doesn’t go above 3 or 4° C.

Japanese homes, unlike Belgian ones, are not equipped with proper heating systems. While every Japanese home has a state of the art air conditioning system to get through the hot and humid summers, nobody in Japan seems to have ever heard of a ‘central heating system’.

Central heating radiator

This is a central heating radiator. In Belgium, every room in the house has one or more of these radiators attached to the wall. Warm water is circulated through all of them. They emit a constant and comfortable kind of heat, a lot more agreeable than for example warm air heaters.

How odd for such a highly developed country to not have a proper heating system for homes. Does anyone know why that is? In addition to that, Japanese homes are often quite drafty due to lack of proper insulation. Most windows, for example, only have single glass.

So how do we make it through this cold Japanese winter? There are several ways one can hope to keep warm:

  1. Japanese people often use kerosene burners to heat their homes. These however give off a slight to rather strong kerosene smell, depending on how modern the heater is. An alternative to that is a small electric or ceramic heating unit. These usually only suffice to heat one room, not a whole house. Fortunately, Japanese homes are quite small.

    Traditional Japanese room with kerosene burner on the left

    kerosene burner

    kerosene burner

  2. By far my favourite way to keep warm is the ‘kotatsu’. It’s a coffee table with a blanket coming out from under the table top. On the bottom of the table is a heating element. People who love their kotatsu so much that they hardly ever get out from under it are called ‘kotatsu mushi’ which means ‘kotatsu bug’. Guilty as charged.
    kotatsu mushi

    Kotatsu mushi

    kotatsu bottom

    Bottom of the kotatsu with heating element

  3. If after all of this you are still cold, you can adorn yourself with what I like to call ‘heat stickers’. You apply these rectangular stickers to your undergarments. Upon coming into contact with the air, the stickers emit a comfortable heat for several hours, until the material inside the sticker crystallizes. I later found out that they are called ‘hokkairo’ in Japanese. You can buy them in the supermarket and drugstore.

    heat stickers

    Heat stickers

  4. A good way to warm yourself through and through is going to the onsen. Onsen are typical Japanese bathing facilities where you can soak in hot baths for hours. The entrance is usually fairly cheap (about 600 yen) so a weekly visit is feasible if you have the time.

    onsen

    Onsen (picture from http://blog.asiahotels.com)

  5. Nothing is as uncomfortable as a cold bed. Since our bedroom is the coldest room in the house, a mere hot-water bottle to warm the feet does not suffice. Luckily a friend of mine recommended using an electric blanket. The blanket is placed under the mattress cover and can either be used to just preheat the bed or provide a steady heat supply all night long, depending on how cold it is.
    .
  6. The best winter food to warm you from the inside out is ‘nabe’. Nabe is a one pot dish with meat, tofu and vegetables cooked in a shallow soup. It is usually prepared at the table with a portable gas burner, while the whole family gathers around.

These are my tips and tricks. Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments section!

Check out one more way to keep warm during Japanese winter: haramaki, the Japanese belly warmer.

 

Napping on concrete

One of the strangest things I’ve seen in Japan so far, is people lying down on the street to take a nap. That’s right, not in a nice meadow, a park or even under a tree somewhere. Just on the concrete.

sleeping on the ground in japan 1

Two guys sleeping on the ground at Inuyama station. Are they drunk? Or just really really tired?

When I saw this, I wondered if these people were homeless. But they seemed too well-groomed to be homeless. So I just dismissed it as an isolated case of crazy or perhaps drunk people.

But then a few weeks later I saw it again. This time it was definitely not a homeless person as he was wearing a uniform and clearly just taking a nap next to his truck.

sleeping on the ground in japan 4

Having a little rest on the job?

Are these people exceptions or is this normal in Japan? It seems very strange that in a country that’s all about purity and cleanliness, people would just take a nap on the ground. But then again, Japan is also the land of contradictions …