Happy Tanabata! Wish upon a pair of (literally) star-crossed lovers

Greetings all! Hisashiburi!

Recently, you may have seen some colourful paper trailing lanterns hanging around, and if not, you might well see them soon. It`s Tanabata! Also known as the STAR FESTIVAL.

Tanabata Streamers

[Tubular Tanabata Streamers]

Tanabata “七夕” means `the Evening of the Seventh`, and it`s an East Asian festival that is celebrated in China as Qixi or Qiqiao, and in Korea as Chilseok. The exact date that Tanabata is celebrated varies by region in Japan, but the first festivities usually begin on July 7th, and is held on various days in July and August.

It`s officially listed as having been imported to Japan in 755AD by the Empress Kouken, and it gained a lot of popularity during the Edo period.

Tanabata Edo

[Tanabata celebrations in Edo, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1852]

Tanabata celebrates both a real celestial event that happens in the night sky, as well as an old piece of Chinese folklore called “The Weaver and the Cowherd.”, which I`m about to lay down for you.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I`ll begin.

Tanabata Lovers

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess called Orihime, daughter of the Sky King. She was very good at weaving, and wove beautiful clothes by the banks of the Amanogawa, also known as the Milky Way. She was so skillful that her father loved the clothes very much, but Orihime was lonely because she worked so hard that she could never meet and fall in love with anyone.

Now the Sky King loved his daughter, and so arranged for her to meet a cowherd called Hikoboshi, who lived and worked on the other side of the Amanogawa. When they met, they fell in love with each other instantly and married each other. However, because they were so in love and spent all their time together, Orihime was no longer weaving her beautiful clothes, and Hikoboshi`s cows were wandering all over heaven.

Angry, the Sky King separated the two lovers on opposite sides of the Amanogawa, and forbade them to meet anymore. Orihime was heartbroken and cried bitter tears, asking her father to let them meet again. The Sky King loved his daughter and was moved by her tears, and so relented – if she finished her weaving, he would allow them to meet on the 7th day of the 7th month once a year.

Tanabata Lovers 2

The first time Orihime and Hikoboshi tried to meet however, they discovered there was no bridge across the Amanogawa, and they could not cross to each other. Orihime cried once more, and this time a flock of magpies were so moved that they promised to make a bridge with their wings so that she could cross the river. And so Orihime and Hikoboshi were able to meet once more, and spend one day of the year together.

However, it is said that if it rains on Tanabata, then the magpies cannot come and make the bridge, and so Orihime and Hikoboshi are unable to cross and must wait for another year before they can try again to see each other.

(There`s also a another version of this story where it is the crescent moon boatman that comes to take Orihime across the Milky Way, and if she hasn`t finished her weaving the the Sky King makes it rain and the boatman cannot come. In this case, the magpies will spread their wings and make a bridge themselves. Pick whichever version you prefer.)

Cute, huh? It gets even better – this story is apparently inspired by actual stars. The stars Vega (often called in Japan the Weaving Princess Star) and Altair (The Cowherd Star) sit on opposite sides of the Milky Way. At this time of year, these stars are very prominent and easily visible on a clear night, as Altair and Vega are two thirds of the summer constellation The Summer Triangle, along with Deneb.

Tanabata Stars[Altair on the left and Vega on the right of the Milky Way, with Deneb above]

So how is this festival celebrated in Japan?

In modern times, people write wishes and poetry on tanzaku, which are small strips of paper, and then hang them on bamboo. They also make beautiful coloured streamers, particularly the hanging tube streamers which float in the wind like rainbow jellyfish.

Tanabata Tanzaku 2[tanzaku]

Tanabata Shibuya

[Tanabata streamers in Shibuya, Tokyo. Remember them at orientation, fellow first-years?]

Tanabata festivities also vary with region, and may include the bamboo and decorations being set afloat on a river and burned after the festival around midnight or on the next day. This is a custom inspired by the Obon festival which happens later in the year, as the two festivals used to be quite close together. Other celebrations include decoration competitions, parades, carnival games and all that general Japanese festival goodness. Tokyo Disneyland even has a special Tanabata greeting Parade with Mickey as Hikoboshi/Altair and Minnie as Orihime/Vega!

Tanabata DisneyIf you`re interested in taking part in the Tanabata festivities in Ishikawa then there`s various crafty things happening in the area underneath Kanazawa Station between June 27th and August 20th – there`s a special event happening THIS SATURDAY July 4th from 10am to 5pm where you can write your own tanzaku and watch the live event. GO and check it out if you’re not going to Abare Matsuri!

Check out the website here (It`s in Japanese)

http://www.kanazawa-eki.com/motenashitai/2015/06/2015627-3.html

If you find out about any other Tanabata events happening in your area then please let one of the Area Leaders or AJET council members know! We`d love to invite everyone along!

Happy Tanabata everyone! May your wishes all come true!  Tanabata Haruhi

Francesca is a first-year ALT in Kanazawa City. She enjoys eating at Mr Donuts way too often, doing ikebana, and crying over Korean celebrities. Her Tanabata wish is to pass the JLPT!

Interested in Running This Blog?

Calling any and all current or incoming Ishikawa JETs!  The managing editor of the Ishikawa JET Blog will be leaving the JET Program this July, and as such we’ll need a new, dedicated, enthusiatic volunteer to take over starting at the end of July.

If you’re interested in this volunteer position, use the “Contact Us” tab above and send us a message telling us about yourself.

Thanks to everyone for keeping up with the blog this year.  Good luck in the 2015-2016 JET year and beyond!

Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) Summer 2015

This is just a reminder to all those that are interested in taking the
Japanese Language Proficiency Test for Summer 2015. The deadline for
registration is April 30th. If you’re interested in signing up, you can
go to the “MyJLPT” website and register. The
test fee is 5,500 yen and you can pay by credit card, bank transfer, or
through a convenience store.

The day of the JLPT for Summer 2015 is: July 5th (Sunday)

If you’re taking the test and are in Ishikawa prefecture, the test will
be held at Hokuriku University.

For those that are not familiar with the JLPT or are interested, there
are 5 possible levels. N5 is considered the easiest and for beginners
while N1 is the most difficult. There is a chart on the JLPT website
that breaks down the differences between the leveled tests, so you check
and decide what level you should take.

The JLPT can be very useful in giving you a goal to work towards in your
Japanese studies. There are plenty of support and study materials to
help you available in book stores as well as Amazon.

For a brief look at the information regarding the 2015 Summer JLPT, a
PDF is available here:  Summer 2015 JLPT

Please note that the links and information provided are for people
taking the test WITHIN Japan. There is a separate website for those that
want to take the JLPT outside of Japan.

Back to School: Dust Off Those Brains for Some Trivia!

One thing that surprised me about when I first came to Japan is the teachers’ custom of testing students as soon as they return to school from vacation.  Talk about harsh!  Those poor students barely have enough time to get used to school routines again when — BAM!  Test time.

Well, Ishikawa AJET decided to take a page from the Japanese Teacher’s Handbook this time around.  To welcome everyone back to another year of classes, we’re having a Pub Trivia night.  Here are the details:

What: AJET’s “Back to School” Pub Quiz Night.

When: Friday, April 24th (quiz starts at 8:00 but get there earlier to form a team and get your answer sheet)

Where: A nice little bar called “social/puddle,” located at 片町 2丁目10-42 RENN bldg B1F, 金沢 石川 921-0981 (note it’s in the basement!)  It’s in the neighborhood behind Kohrinbo 109, so hop off at the Kohrinbo bus stop if you’re taking public transit.  There are several small parking lots peppered throughout the downtown area if you’re driving.

Language: Questions will be read in English, but there will be plenty of time for translation if needed (this isn’t a buzzer-beater kind of quiz)

Teams: Can be anywhere from 1 to 8 members.

Here’s a picture of the entrance to social/puddle:

puddle

The bike isn’t guaranteed to be there, so don’t make that your point of reference

We’re cooking up ten rounds of trivia to test your knowledge on a variety of topics, from history to pop culture and everything in between… so bring your thinking caps.  The great folks at social/puddle will be serving up delicious drinks and AJET will be providing prizes for the brainiest teams.  We’ve been careful to make questions that can be answered by anyone, no matter what country you come from.  So, invite your friends and let’s trivia.

Hope to see everyone there!

My Interview With a REAL Junior High School Student!

 

Teaching at a junior high school, I often have the problem of surface-level communication with my students.  Sure, I’d like to have deep conversations, perhaps offer what little advice I have, or encourage a student if they’re going through a rough time in life.  What teacher doesn’t?  But when many of your students are still mastering the basics of the English language, (and I myself still struggle with communication in Japanese,) it’s difficult to step into the role of mentor as an ALT.

Along the same lines, I often wonder what my students really think of things.  When I ask a student why he joined the baseball team, for example, he’ll answer something like “Because baseball is interesting.”  Do you like playing in the school band?  “Yes.  it’s very fun.”  What’s your favorite part of school? “Lunch.”

Of course, for a bunch of second-language learners a mere few years into studying, those responses aren’t so bad.  Communication is taking place.  Ideas are being shared.  Way to go, students!

But then once in a while, you get a ringer.  A student who really, genuinely loves English and desires to improve their abilities.  I have the pleasure of teaching one such student, who I’ll call “Miki” for privacy reasons.  Miki is the student who’s never been abroad but still speaks better English than her friends who have done homestays in Australia.  She’s always asking questions and seeking advice to get better at English.

I asked Miki if she would want to sit down and answer a few questions for me about junior high school life, beyond the canned answers I get in class.  She happily agreed.  This is our interview.

 

Me: What are your favorite things about junior high school life in Japan?

Miki: School uniforms.  In America, maybe [many students] don’t have school uniforms.  So this, is a very special [outfit].  Adults sometimes say uniforms are only for students, so if I grow up and become an adult, I can’t wear a school uniform.  So, it’s special.  It’s only for students.

Me: What are your least favorite things about junior high school life in Japan?

Miki: There are too many rules.  Maybe in America — I often watch the TV drama about American school life, Glee — there are not so many rules.  Yeah.  So, they can use cell phones in school, and they can decorate their own locker.  I think that’s really, really nice.  I want to decorate [with] Lady Gaga’s pictures.  [Students in America] can express themselves.  So maybe America is free.  Japan has many rules.  Students can’t say “it’s wrong” or “this is better than your idea” to teachers.  But maybe America students can say “this idea is better” to teachers.

Me: [It should be noted that Miki is a 3rd year student, and she will enter high school this April] What do you look forward to most about high school?

Miki: I can be more free than now.  I can choose the things I study, like math or Japanese.  In junior high school, we have to [study] all the things.  If we won’t use something, we have to study it still.  But in high school, we can choose.  We can prepare for university or our dreams.  Yeah.  So, in high school, I can be free.  And maybe we don’t have to join a club activity.  So, we can do anything we want to do.  I think that is a really big point.

Me: What do you think you’ll miss most from junior high school?

Miki: A few weeks ago, we saw high school’s class.  I think junior high school classes are more exciting, maybe.  High school students looked very lazy and sleepy.  So now, we can speak our opinion easily.  In high school, they don’t.  They write down the teacher’s words and teachers ask them [questions], but they don’t answer, or they don’t say their free opinion.  So maybe high school’s classes are not so funny or exciting.  We can study deep[er] things than now, but it looks [more] boring than now.

Me: Describe a normal day in your life.

Miki: Today, I woke up at 6:30, and  I washed my face and set my hair.  When I woke up my hair looked like Harry [from] One Direction.  I eat breakfast and brush my teeth.  My mom takes me to school.  Every morning I stand in front of the stairwell and me and [a teacher] stand and [give] greetings to students.  At 8:05 I go back to [the] classroom and … we start morning study.  Then we start homeroom and prepare for the first period.  … Today’s first period [was] art.  We’re making daruma [traditional Japanese crafts, like these].  Second period [was] gym. …  We’re doing gymnastics.  I hate mat gymnastics.  Third period [was] Japanese.  Fourth period was math.  [At] 12:15 we start to eat lunch and [at] 12:35 we start break time.  Today I did student council work and talked with friends.  Fifth period was English, and sixth period was social studies. … Seventh period was technology.  [We] programmed a mini car and moved it.  When we finish 7th period, we clean up our school.  After that we have homeroom, and now [I’m talking] with you, but usually Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I have club activity, so I go to the art room and draw pictures.  When I don’t have the club activities, I go back to my home and maybe watch TV or read a book.  I do my homework.  Sometimes I cook dinner.  When my mom [gets] home, we start eating dinner.  Then I do my homework.  It takes a long time, so I study usually [for] two hours or three hours.  After that, I do something I want to do, like watch TV or talk with my brother and mother.  I go to bed at 11 or 12.

Me: What do you want me to tell other ALTs in Ishikawa?

Miki: I like to speak English so much, so if you aren’t here, I can’t speak English to you.  It’s a really nice thing.  ALTs help us study English.  maybe with Japanese English teachers, they can speak English but ALTs [can speak it] better.  So ALTs are very important for me and maybe us.  In our everyday life, we don’t meet foreign people so many times.  ALTs are very important for Japanese people.  They understand Japanese culture more than other foreign people, so if I do something rude, you can understand me and think “she doesn’t know it’s rude.”  They can understand our feelings more.

 

I hope you found our interview to be as insightful and helpful as I did!  And if you’re considering a job with the JET Program, this is a good window into the life of a usual junior high school student.

Have you had a chance to talk to any of your students?  What have you learned about them?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

 

Daniel is a third-year ALT working at a junior high school in Kanazawa.  He enjoys coffee, riding his bike, and hanging out with his wife.

 

 

Cultural Gap: Greetings

For about the last month, since classes began in Janurary, I’ve entered my school every morning and faced a line of students standing shoulder to shoulder on each landing of the main stairwell.  As students or staff pass by, they all shout in unison, eyes straight ahead.  The noise is almost deafening on some mornings, assaulting the eardrums of passersby.

What’s this, you may wonder?  Angry students protesting?  Some kind of punishment?  Punk students trying to cause a scene?

They're "punks" because their hair touches the tops of their ears.  Those rebels.

They’re “punks” because their hair touches the bottoms of their ears. Those rebels.

No, it’s merely my students giving a lively morning greeting!  If you’re not familiar with Japanese, the customary greeting for the morning is おはようございます (ohayo gozaimasu), which basically means — you guessed it — “good morning!”

Greetings, called 挨拶 (aisatsu) in Japanese, are a big deal in Japan.  Before I came here, the folks at the Japanese consulate in Denver gave us a cultural briefing, in which they told us a little about the importance of greetings.  They said that sometimes the volume and frequency of one’s greetings can even dictate if they get a promotion.  If they’re stacked up against a coworker who greets ireggularly and half-heartedly, the choice for who should move up is pretty clear.

To be sure, offering a greeting is a polite and welcome thing to do in America or other Western countries.  However I’d venture a guess that if, like the students at my school, you shouted at your boss “GOOD MORNING” when you saw her every day, she would not recieve it well… whereas in my school, the teachers regularly praise and encourage the guantlet of shouted greetings.

Once a semester, the staff at my junior high school even do a greeting campaign.  They meet up early in the quad, pass out armbands to participants, and then spread out over a few block radius around the campus.  For about forty minutes, the staff stand on street corners and at bus stops to greet the students as they walk to school or get off the bus.

Another interesting thing to note about Japanese greetings is that being repetative is not at all strange.  Some mornings, I’ll walk past a slew of coworkers and basically just say “good morning” “good morning” “good morning” over and over again.  No problem!  Usually we’d want to break it up in the States, perhaps by saying something like “good morning!” “hey there.” “Mornin!” “Good morning, Bob” so as not to sound like a robot.

Of course, the repetitiveness may stem from the fact that there is no single greeting in Japanese that can be said at any time of day.  In English, you can use the word “hello” in the morning, afternoon, night, or anywhere in between.  But in Japanese, おはよう (ohayo) can only be used in the morning.  こんにちは (konnichiwa) can only be used in the afternoon.  こんばんは (konbanwa) can only be used at night.  If you say one out of place, you’ll get strange looks (once, my wife said konbanwa to a shop keeper at around 7pm, but because it was summer, the sun hadn’t set yet.  The shopkeeper giggled and told her that we should only say konbanwa after the sun had gone down.)  Thus, it’s not like I can throw in a konnichiwa with my ohayos in the morning.  I’m left with only one suitable greeting, so using it many times is okay.

There are also special greetings or phrases to be said at special occasions in Japan.  Around the New Year’s holiday, the biggest holiday in Japan, you greet people by saying あけましておめでとう (akemashite omedeto), or “happy new year” instead of the usual konnichiwa or konbanwa.  There are also set things to say before and after you eat, when wishing someone happy birthday, when checking on someone who’s ill, and when congratulating someone on their wedding.  You can read about some of those here.)

So, why are greetings such a big deal in Japan?  I asked a few of my Japanese friends to explain.

“Because it’s polite,” one of my coworkers explained.  “It can make you feel refreshed, and it restarts the new day.  [Encouraging a loud greeting is] also a way for instilling discipline in the students.”  He went on, after a few minutes of thought, to say that “Japanese people have a wall between them and unknown people.  So, they need to break the wall.  The starting point is the greeting.”

Another coworker said that the greetings cause “others to start saying something to other students.  It makes them more active and genki [spirited].”  Continuing, she said that she believes “one greeting can change your whole day.”  When I asked about the shouting, she said it’s useful because it “wakes us up.”

So, what are your experiences with Japanese greetings?  Have you found them to be annoying?  Uplifting?  Have they been important to your living and working in Japan?  Let us know in the comments!

 

Daniel is a second-year ALT who works at a junior high school in Kanazawa.  he enjoys coffee, riding his bike, and hanging out with his wife.

Taxes 2015: Advice and Links

Japan loves to tout it’s seasons.  Cherry blossoms in spring, festivals in summer, leaves in fall, and Anna and Elsa in winter.  There are even seasons here that some of us don’t have in our home countries, like rainy season or typhoon season.  But you know what season everyone has, no matter how far you run or how hard you try to hide?tax-season

That’s right, it’s time to dust off your calculator and get to work filing taxes!

Of course, tax season looks different for every JET Program participant.  Depending on your home country and length of stay in Japan, your tax situation will vary.  As such, it’s important to research your own country’s tax information to get the most accurate information.  However, there are a few things that all JETs should keep an eye on during this time.

Also, I see everyone else is doing it, so I’d better follow suit:  The Ishikawa JET Blog is by no means an authority or expert on tax matters.  (If you weren’t clued in by the Bugs Bunny picture above.)  The information presented here is to be used as a rough guide, NOT as an authoritative source.  Please do your own research when in doubt!

1. Know Your Home Country (A.K.A. Ask a Sempai)

As mentioned above, every situation is different.  (If only there were an acronym to express such a thing…)  If you don’t want to read through the troves of forms and databases on government websites while looking for the tax laws that apply specifically to you, a more popular strategy is to ask someone from your same home country who’s been in the program longer than you.  For you first-year JETs, the ideal target is a 2nd-year, because usually tax proceedures change for 3rd, 4th, and 5th-year JETs.

You can ask them what forms they filled out last year, where to find information, and whether or not they’re wanted for tax evasion back home.  Of course, the ultimate responsibility with getting your taxes done correctly lies with you and you alone.  But, it can’t hurt to ask around in an effort to save you some time.

For American JETs like myself, I was given a tax guide back in 2012 that’s helped me every year since.  I have added it under the “Downloads” tab above.

2. Don’t Throw Anything Away

This time of year, you’ll be getting a lot of forms and papers from your CO with lots of numbers and amounts on them.  It’s best to play it safe when in doubt and not throw them away.  The most important one is the statement which lists your total earnings from 2014 (For Americans, this is the equivalent of your Japanese W-2 form), and it looks a little something like this:

Tax Form

Keep this somewhere safe, as you’ll probably need it.

3. Don’t Procrastinate

Of course, none of us would ever think of doing this!  Doing your taxes here isn’t nearly as complicated you think it is.  In fact, the JET Program website even makes a point of saying how little paperwork is required on the Japanese side of things.  Carve a bit of time out of an evening or weekend and see how much you can get done.

4. Save a Little Bit for Summer

The taxes we’re dealing with now are usually income taxes from our home countries.  But, (and this again depends on where you’re from and where you currently live), you may have to pony up this summer and pay your Japanese residency tax.  This can be really expensive, so it’s a good idea to start laying aside some money just in case.

For some perspective, I received a bill in the mail last June for about 120,000円!  It was a great way to start off a Saturday morning, let me tell you.  I took it in and handed it to my supervisor, who in turn took it to the school office.  It turns out, they were footing the bill that time around.  But, I got a note later that month saying that in 2015, it’ll be up to me to cover that cost, and that it could be a different amount (they conveniently forgot to say if it would be more or less…)

If you’re worried, this is another good time to use the “ask a sempai” technique, as that will give you a baseline number.  However, the tax varies depending on where you live and how long you’ve lived there.  And hey, if you save up and it turns out that you don’t have to pay the tax, you can use that money for something fun!

Treat yoself!

 

6. Links and Resources

As mentioned above, I’ve added a useful tax guide for American JETs under the “Downloads” tab above.  In addition, here are some good resources:

Ishikawa JET Wiki (Scroll down to the “Taxes” heading)

JET Program website

Kumamoto JET Blog

Mie JET Blog (Ooh!  This one talks about Canadians!)

In addition, your “General Information Handbook” has more information.  Happy tax season, everyone!

Cultural Gap: A Mile in Their Shoes

I remember when I first emailed my predecessor in the summer of 2012 and asked about proper work attire at the school where I was about to start working.  Her explanation was mostly what I expected — guys wear cool biz in the summer, and a shirt/tie at the very least in winter.  But what threw me were her remarks about shoes.  She said that most teachers wear nice shoes to work, then take them off in the genkan and hop into sneakers, slippers, and sometimes even sandals.  Back then that sounded like crazy talk.  Why wear a suit and then slip into some Reeboks?  Of course now this seems like the most usual thing in the world.  Add that to the list of “Things I Have to be Careful Not to do When I Return Home.”

Actually, they may be onto something...

Actually, they may be onto something…

Living in Japan, we’re all accustomed to the sometimes strange shoe culture in here. But  I thought I’d use this installment of “Cultural Gap” to discuss a little more about the practices and implications of the Japanese view on shoes.

The tradition of taking off shoes originated from the time when Japanese households primarily had tatami floors throughout.  As anyone who’s ever spilled something on their tatami knows, those things are a pain in the neck to clean.  Combined with the fact that they’re easily damaged, very susceptible to rotting when wet, and a virtual playground for small bugs, it’s not hard to see why folks found it a good idea to strip off those gross, muck-covered, grass-stained shoes before climbing onto the fragile ecosystem that is a tatami mat.  (It is, however, difficult to see why something so temperamental would ever be used as a flooring material in the first place. But I suppose you could say the same for carpet…)

There goes my deposit.

There goes my deposit.

Another purpose for removing shoes is an obvious one — people like keeping their floors clean.  In asian culture, you get a lot more acquainted with the floor a lot more often than you would, say, growing up in a western culture.  Whereas most westerners grew up sitting at dining room tables in chairs or sleeping a comfy foot or two above the floor, folks in Japan grew up sitting around the kotatsu and sleeping on their futon, rolled right out onto the tatami.  As such, it’s much more important to keep those floors spotless!  Indeed, the tradition is not limited to Japan — many Asian countries like Korea and China observed similar etiquette.

So from this history, we arrive at the conclusion that shoes are dirty little monsters strapped to your feet, ready to soil anything they can get their treads on.  Which, logically, means there’s more etiquette attached to those foot coverings than most westerners are used to observing.

For example, you may have noticed that if a Japanese person needs to step on a chair or stool, (to reach a high shelf or help a cat out of a tree,) they’ll remove their shoes before stepping up onto the chair/stool.  This comes from the idea that shoes are dirty, and don’t belong where something so dignified as a butt belongs.  Okay, okay, to be fair, what if someone’s wearing really nice pants and you just trampled all over their chair?  Consequently, the act of kicking back and putting your feet up on a chair, while slightly impolite in the States (depending on the circumstances) is totally off-limits here.

Visa revoked.

Step 5B: Visa revoked.

And how about floors that shoes ARE allowed onto?  What results is a sort-of game of “The Ground is Lava,” that old elementary school favorite.  How many times have you visited a restaurant and put your bag down on the ground by your feet, only to have a  server emerge from the shadows and offer you a basket to place it in?  This happens all the time to my wife and I.  Last year, my school’s bonenkai was held in one of those fancy event spaces in a hotel downtown.  A few minutes into the revelry, I realized that every single woman in the room had placed her purse behind her on her seat, between her lower back and the back of the chair, in order to avoid placing her bag on the ground.  I asked a female coworker about it afterward, and she explained that she would never place her purse on the ground, because it’s so dirty.  I have since noticed that when she comes into the office, she hangs it on the arm of her swivel chair.

While westerners would probably avoid putting our belongings onto the ground in a fast food restaurant or a movie theater with sticky floors, I don’t believe I’d think twice about setting my stuff onto the carpeted floor of a ballroom in a fancy hotel.

You show 'em, Danny.

You show ’em, Danny.

This also gives rise to the custom of people squatting so much in Japan.  I was really surprised by that when I first came here.  In America, squatting is sort-of uncool over the age of six or seven.  But here, I’ll see businessmen in suits squatting in Kanazawa station, or women chatting on their cellphones squatting on the stairs.  Because the ground is dirty, they don’t want to sit on it (it doesn’t help that benches are virtually non-existant in public spaces, but that’s a subject for another time).

The one time I have noticed a loophole is with students.  Ahh, yes.  The bottom of Japanese society’s totem pole, students always seem to get the short end of the stick.  Whenever my school goes on a field trip to a museum or to visit the zoo, or anytime they have a fire drill and the students have to assemble on the school grounds, the teachers don’t hesitate for a second about telling the students to have a seat in the dirt, grass, or linoleum.  Poor souls.

So, how about you?  Do you have a story about shoe etiquette in Japan?  Want to add something I missed?  Feel free to comment below!  And stay tuned for the next edition of “Cultural Gap.”

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Daniel is a third-year JET living in Kanazawa.  He teaches at a junior high school and loves coffee, bike rides, and hanging out with his wife.

Why Does Japan Have So Many Vending Machines?

Any first-time visitor to Japan is likely to encounter a variety of strange phenomena during their travels here; squat toilets, giant insects, speedy trains and kawaii mascots for everything from potato chips to life insurance all are endemic to Japan. However, nothing quite makes an impression on visitors like the abundance of luminescent, softly humming vending machines that seem to spring from the ground like weeds in both urban and rural locales and even at the top of Mt. Fuji.

Y500 for a can of hot cocoa?!

The diverse contents of Japan’s vending machines–called jidohanbaiki or jihanki in Japanese–has been thoroughly chronicled, as the existence of machines selling pornography and panties makes perfect fodder for the writers and consumers of expositions detailing the quirks and eccentricities of Japanese culture. But in spite of numerous articles featuring “15 of Japan’s weirdest vending machines,” articles that address why Japan has so many of these machines in the first place are few. Japan is home to a jaw-dropping 5,582,200 vending machines. That’s one vending machine for every twenty-three people living in Japan. Why are jidohanbaiki in Japan so numerous, and why do they exist in even the most seemingly arbitrary locations? There are actually a number of reasons why vending machines are so prevalent in Japan, regardless of their contents.

First of all, the Japanese economy is cash-based. In other parts of the world, credit and debit cards are used with more frequency and it is uncommon to carry around large amounts of cash or change on one’s person. In Japan, though, using cash is still very much the norm. Furthermore, Japan possesses high-value coins in addition to bills, which means that at any time a resident of Japan is likely to be carrying a great deal of change as well as paper money. Especially now that the sales tax has increased by 8%, goods are priced in awkward denominations, resulting in leftover change jangling in your pockets and wallet. Buying a drink from a machine is a quick and easy way to quench thirst while getting rid of cumbersome change at the same time.

Japan is safe. Low crime rates in Japan not only ensure that it’s safe for people to walk around with large amounts of cash, they also protect the nation’s population of vending machines. Unlike in other countries, vending machines in Japan are unlikely to be tampered with and are generally safe from vandalism. (Although recently counterfeiters have managed to deceive jihanki with specially made fake 500-yen coins.) Therefore there is little concern about the placement of vending machines, leaving location options virtually unlimited.

Japan is pedestrian-friendly. Many residents of Japan commute to work on foot, by bike, or by train. Even here in Ishikawa, where car ownership is much more common than it is in Tokyo or Kyoto, many students and office workers still walk, bike, or rely on public transportation to get to school and work. Therefore it’s advantageous to drink companies and vending machine owners to position their machines along commute routes. Outside train stations, near bus stops, and along sidewalks are all prime spots for machines to lure thirsty commuters. In more populous areas, machines placed near entrances and exits to busy subway lines also attract customers on their way to work and school.

Vending machines turn a profit. In Japan, anyone who owns sufficient land can own a vending machine. Either the machine is purchased and owned exclusively by the buyer, who then collects all the profits but must restock the machine, or a contract is made with a beverage company which installs the machine and restocks it in exchange for payment of electricity fees and a portion of the profit. If a landowner is lucky enough to own property that is on a commute route, near a train station, or in a place where people consistently congregate (near a park, etc.), they can supplement their income at an average amount of 20,000 to 40,000 yen per machine per month. The money collected from vending machines is passive income. All the owner has to do is obtain a machine, restock it regularly (or rely on a beverage company to restock it), then sit back and let the machine collect money. Judging by the number of vending machines in Japan, this is a pretty attractive opportunity for many Japanese landowners.

A vending machine in Fukushima Prefecture, brought inland and deposited in a field by the 2011 tsunami.

Vending machines are profitable in both urban and rural areas. About 80% of Japan’s population lives in urban areas. A spot along a walking commute route or near a subway station in an urban area like Osaka is a golden opportunity for a vendor…but so is a location near the center of town in a rural community that has few conbini. In a town with limited brick-and-mortar vendors, consumers will patronize conveniently-placed vending machines instead. Vending machine owners can take advantage of their surrounding infrastructure to insure that their machine makes money, regardless of their placement in a rural or urban communities.

Japan has extreme weather. Jidohanbaiki famously sell both hot and cold items. Not only does this benefit the more capricious among us (“Hmmm…yesterday I had chilled coffee, but today I feel more like hot coffee! I’m such a fickle minx.”), the sheer numbers of machines selling both warm and cold drinks provide brief respite from Japan’s unpleasant weather. In Japan, hot, muggy summers give way to cold, wet winters, and as we all know quite well, Japanese homes often lack central heating and air. Therefore, who would begrudge a hot drink to warm you up on your bitterly cold commute, or a cool beverage to ward off impending heatstroke on a hot afternoon?

Japan has a national affinity for automata. Japan already has an international reputation as a world leader in robotics and manufacturing. Engineering tweaks to the existing vending machine technology further promote Japanese innovation. Japanese vending machines which can simultaneously keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold seem basic in comparison to the Acure Vending Machine, which determines the age and sex of the consumer and suggests drinks on a sleek digital touch-screen.  Another example of vending machine innovation is Coca-Cola’s new energy-efficient “Peak Shift” machines, which cool drinks at night to avoid peak energy demand hours during the day.

A Coca-Cola “Peak Shift” vending machine, distinguishable by the Polar Bear logo.

The Acure Digital Vending Machine, which can approximate the age and gender of the consumer and use that information to suggest products.

Making vending machines quicker and more efficient and even adding interactive capabilities is important in a society with an aging population. As the employable population in Japan decreases, people will increasingly have to rely on automation and technology for tasks previously accomplished with manpower, including beverage vending.

My prediction for the future of jihanki: mobile vending machines that follow you around until you get thirsty again.

Interestingly, in my search to answer the question “Why does Japan have so many vending machines?” I found many explanations describing how the Japanese national character draws consumers to vending machines rather than into shops. Common stereotype dictates that Japanese people are meek and shy, so it follows that they would prefer making a purchase from a robot rather than engaging with another person, which is why Japan has so many vending machines. This explanation falls flat. Judging from the popularity of self-checkout lines in supermarkets, smartphones and messaging apps, and drive-thru windows in the U.S. and elsewhere, avoiding human interaction for the sake of comfort, convenience, or time is not a uniquely Japanese trait. As listed above, there are myriad logical reasons why Japan has so many vending machines so there’s no need to rely on fallacious generalizations.

So, the next time you’re feeling thirsty or cold, are in a hurry, and want to get rid of some of those pesky coins weighing down your wallet, rest assured that there’s a vending machine nearby, ready to satisfy all of your beverage-related needs.

Sources:

“Vending Machine” (Wikipedia)

“What’s So Interesting About Japan’s Vending Machines?” (Japan Monthly Magazine)

“Earn Up to Y500,000 per month with a side business in ‘independent’ vending machines” (Japan Today)

The Wild and Wonderful World of Japanese Vending Machines (Kotaku)

Karin is a second-year ALT who now knows more than she ever predicted she would about vending machines. In her free time she enjoys climbing mountains, cooking, and reading.

Fall Events and Announcements

Ah, fall.  Scientifically proven to be the best season in Japan, fall means a lot of things.  For Japanese and JETs alike.  Of course, the weather’s cooling off and the days are getting shorter.  Soon the leaves will be exploding in color, and your Japanese friends will be flocking to the mountains by the busload to get a view (and you’ll tag along, if you know what’s what.)

Skill Development Conference

In addition to the leaves, there are a number if happenings between now and December.  First off, there’s the Skill Development Conference, the first day of which was Tuesday September 30th.  We hope you all enjoyed the Drink Bar!

The “second day” of the conference will be done in regions: for Kaga/Kanazawa-area, it’s on Wednesday, October 29th.  Keeping it spooky up in the Noto, their regional conference will by Friday, October 31st.

The final day will be Friday, November 21st for all ALTs.

Lights in Wajima

The Senmaida Illumination.

On the cultural side of things, October sees the return of the nationally acclaimed Sennmaida Illumination, an event just north of Wajima up in the Noto.  During this event, the “Thousand Rice Fields” are lit up with lights for a spectacular view unique to Ishikawa.  The event is getting bigger and bigger, and making the leap into the 21st century — this year, the event will use LED lights instead of candles.  A little less nostalgic?  Probably.  BUT, it means that we can see the lights any night from October 18th to March 15th, 2015!  Visit this web page for all the info (in Japanese) including maps, times, and driving/public transit info.

 

A Tale of Two Parties

 

Halloween Party 2014

This year’s AJET Halloween Party will be a deviation from tradition.  Responding to requests from JETs to have more events outside of the big city, we’ll be heading south to Matto for a night of music, drinks, and costumes.

We have teamed up with UDON BAR this year to celebrate Halloween, and it promises to be better than ever.  Details will be confirmed at a later date, but last year saw fire dancers, live music, DJs, a costume competition, awesome food, lots of dancing and a few drinks to wash it all down.  Entrance will likely be 1000円 or 1500円 with one drink/udon.  Thinks kick off at 7pm.

But wait!  Halloween only falls on a Friday once every few years – why stop with just one party?  After things wind down in Matto, hop on a train for Kanazawa (200円, 10 minutes) and check out the Freak Friday Halloween Party at Orbital, featuring none other than the famous DJ Hattori Hantz!  The party is always a big draw for those looking to celebrate Halloween, so don’t miss it.  It’ll kick off around 10 and go late into the night.

 

Finally, AJET encourages you to get out and take advantage of the perfect autumn weather this year, be it a bike ride, a picnic, or a walk through town.  Before long, the cold wet Ishikawa winter will be upon us.  But, never fear – AJET is planning some awesome events for the winter to keep Ishikawa’s JET community connected and active year round.

 

 

Daniel is a third-year JET who lives in Kanazawa and teaches at a junior high school.  He’s also serving as Ishikawa AJET’s Communication Chair.  He likes drinking coffee, riding his bike, and hanging out with his wife.