Shinkansen Day! (Oh, and White Day I guess)

Well, it’s nearly that time. Two days to go! I mean we’ve been waiting for so long and finally, finally it’s here. No, I’m actually not talking about the Shinkansen, although obviously I’m PSYCHED (how could I not be, with the countdown boards and the complementary ice cream cakes at lunch and announcements and so much okay seriously guys calm down.) It’s White Day! What’s that, you say? You know all about it already? Well, I didn’t when I first came to Japan, so today I’m doing a holiday intro because it’s still really interesting. I`m sure you`ve heard of Valentine`s Day, regardless of how you may feel about it, and maybe you`re savvy enough about Japan to have heard of White Day as well. If you`re a first year like me, however, you may not of have come across White Day before, nor the customs surrounding it, so here’s the low down. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

A seasonally inappropriate post on sakura

103 years ago, the city of Washington D.C. accepted a gift of 2,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo, Yukio Ozaki, as a symbol of friendship between the United States and Japan. However, the donated trees were found to be infested with insects and nematodes and were subsequently burned.


Continue reading

On a Roll: The Internationalization of Sushi

No matter where in the world you come from, chances are you ate sushi even before moving to Japan. The sushi boom worldwide has led to the achievement of something once thought impossible: an international devotion to raw fish and cold rice. Sushi is now a basic bourgeois staple in the West, and trends seem to indicate that it will continue to become even cheaper and more accessible abroad. But how did sushi become so popular outside of Japan?

Sushi actually has humble origins as a working-class food. Portable, eaten without the need for utensils, and long-lasting due to the introduction of salt and vinegar (which kept the rice and fish from spoiling), sushi made a good meal for laborers who would tuck an oshizushi into their pocket on their way to work or pick up nigiri from a food stall on the way home. As with pizza and the hamburger, history and technology took its course with sushi in Japan and elevated its status to expensive delicacy. First, in the 1950s the fatty belly cuts of tuna once considered suitable only for cat food were popularized through a governmental marketing campaign put into action to address tuna shortages. Nowadays, these cuts, known as ootoro or shimofuri, are considered the finest meat available on the fish and can only be purchased from the highest quality fishmongers. Next, sushi restaurants introduced the conveyer belt to enhance the speed and efficiency of sushi delivery in restaurants. This innovation allowed restaurants to serve more customers, and the domestic popularity of sushi increased dramatically.

Kaitenzushi, making the rounds from Japan to Perth, Australia (where this photo was taken).

Sushi launched abroad when Japan’s economy boomed in the 1960s, giving sushi chefs the chance to try their hand at making sushi for Japanese expat communities in the Americas. Emigrant sushi chefs were often forced to alter their sushi to make up for the lack of certain ingredients and to make it more appealing to the American palette. Perhaps the most famous product of this alteration is the California Roll, attributed to Ichiro Mashita, a sushi chef at Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles. The California Roll eliminated or downplayed certain ingredients considered to have an “ick-factor” among picky Americans: the uramaki (“inside out”) roll featured an outer wrapping of rice rather than nori and a filling that substituted high-fat avocado for traditional raw tuna. Changes such as these transformed sushi from an unappealing foreign import to haute cuisine.

Anatomy of a California Roll: cucumber, crab, and avocado wrapped in nori with an outer layer of rice and toasted sesame seeds.

Upon its introduction to the West, sushi had an air of exclusivity: it was foreign in origin and used expensive, unconventional ingredients. Those wealthy and brave enough to sample squares of seaweed; raw fish; tart, vinegared rice; and wasabi became “initiates” in a food trend that quickly spread among Los Angeles celebrities. Celebrities were the perfect incubators of the sushi trend. The aesthetic of sushi appealed to those who could afford to go out to eat and wait for the chef to meticulously prepare a dish that was just as much a work of art as a meal. Furthermore, the small portions and healthfulness of fresh ingredients tantalized famous devotees of diets and health food.

In fact, the international spread of sushi is in part due to the advocacy of actor Robert De Niro, a close personal friend of restauranteur Nobuyuki Matsuhisa. Matsuhisa began his career abroad in 1973 in Lima, Peru, where he developed his signature fusion style due to the unavailability of Japanese ingredients in South America. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he met De Niro. De Niro convinced Matsuhisa to open a restaurant with him in New York City. Matsuhisa did so, and the restaurant, NOBU, became a sensation and the flagship restaurant of the Nobu Chain of sushi restaurants. Masuhisa and De Niro now co-own the Nobu Chain, which has 11 American locations (think Aspen, Beverly Hills, Lanai) and 18 international locations (think Dubai, Hong Kong, Milan).

“You’re welcome.”

Now U.S. consular offices in Japan issue over 1,000 visas a year to chefs, tuna buyers, and other members of the global sushi industry—and it truly is a global industry. In the words of Japan scholar Theodore Bestor, “A 500-pound tuna is caught off the coast of New England or Spain, flown thousands of miles to Tokyo, sold for tens of thousands of dollars to Japanese buyers in Tokyo…and shipped to chefs in New York and Hong Kong? That’s the manic logic of global sushi.”

As sushi trickles down from its high-tier status to the proletariat, innovations in the industry abound. My own hometown of Santa Rosa, California, has become infamous as the spawning point of anthropomorphic pineapple Guy Fieri‘s sushi-fusion empire. At Mr. Fieri’s Tex Wasabi’s Rock n’ Roll Sushi Barbecue restaurant downtown, you can consume outlandish “Gringo Sushi” creations such as Big Bird on Fire (barbecued chicken and french fries wrapped with sushi rice), Jackass Roll (barbecued pork and avocado with chili garlic mayo), and Hog Tied King (salmon, bacon, cream cheese, sriracha, and unagi sauce).

"Hey...he does kind of look like a pineapple!"

“Hey…he does kind of look like a pineapple!”

A ways down the 101 Freeway in San Francisco, you can buy what’s called a “sushirrito“—if that sounds to you like a combo of sushi and burrito, you are correct. Thus, sushi has come nearly full circle from cheap, portable working class food to expensive haute cuisine and back to cheap, portable delight of the cultured masses.

The “sushirrito.”

The spread of sushi abroad has not come without consequences, however. Worldwide demand for certain fish like red snapper and tuna has led to overfishing of these species, causing environmental concerns. Sushi has been called the leading cause of “the inevitable collapse of wild fishery,” and it is uncertain whether farm or ranch fishing will be able to satisfy the needs of the international sushi market—the slow growth rate of tuna is one concern for farm fisheries. The emerging rarity of certain species coupled with unabated consumer demand has resulted in deception on the part of sushi chefs; often chefs will intentionally mislabel more common species of fish as their fancier, more expensive counterparts, which can expose diners to higher levels of mercury and other health risks. (For example, in the past some chefs have swapped white tuna for escolar, which causes gastrointestinal issues in humans.) A more scrupulous response to the jeopardization of the ecosystem is the rise of the sustainable sushi movement, which addresses the vulnerability of certain fish species and wasteful fishing practices in the creation and distribution of ethical sushi. The sustainable sushi movement puts the responsibility in the hands of the consumer in choosing restaurants and dishes that abide by rules protecting the diversity and productivity of the ecosystem.

A sustainable seafood chart from NAB Communities.

If it weren’t for environmental factors, the global rise of sushi would certainly persist, with increased affordability and accessibility worldwide. However, it’s not clear whether extant supplies of fish will satisfy consumer hunger. Sushi could easily retreat back into exclusive, expensive territory, available only to those who can afford to purchase such a delicacy.



Wikipedia: California Roll (Wikipedia)

Sustainable Seafood (Wikipedia)

How Sushi Ate The World (The Guardian)

Raw (The New York Times)

How Sushi Went Global (Foreign Policy)

Sushi: Globalization Through Food Culture (東アジア文化交渉研究)

Sustainable Sushi in San Francisco: Tataki Sushi and Sake Bar (NAB Communities)

Karin is a first-year ALT who enjoys fighting evil by moonlight and winning love by daylight. Her favorite sushi is kappa maki (cucumber roll). 

How to be a Great Co-Worker

Spring break is drawing to a close, which means that for most of us here in Ishikawa with the JET Program, we’re headed back to a regular working schedule.  Back to teaching, back to English club, and of course back to the staff room.

The Staff Room

Ah, thar she is. ‘Tis a thing of beauty.

In light of that last reality, I recently found a great survey from the website What Japan Thinks, a site dedicated to translating Japanese public opinion polls into English.  If you have time, it’s a great way to gain insight and understanding into some really intriguing subjects of Japanese culture that are rarely discussed openly, much less with people from other countries.

The survey I want to discuss, however, is one that all of us can learn from and use in our daily JET lives: Office Annoyances That You Just Can’t Talk About.

The survey asked over 1,000 Japanese office workers what kind of behaviors they can’t stand in their co-workers, yet do stand, presumably because it’d disrupt the social harmony of the office if they burst out screaming at their neighbor.  Reading through the list, I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty at my own office habits.

Especially since I (and may I be so bold as to suggest that a majority of the readers) don’t speak Japanese at a fluent level, I’m sure there are little cues or tones of voice or connotations that I miss during interactions with my co-workers that would offer some clue as to how I could better my office behavior.  As such, I loved reading this survey.  Hopefully we can all learn a thing or two about how to become better co-workers while we’re in the staff room.  You can tell that the questions are geared more for your traditional office setting and not necessarily a school staff room, but overall I think they’re very applicable.

So then.  Are you ready to start being a better co-worker?  How many of these annoyances do you do on a daily basis?  You can find the full survey results here.

Topping the list is the co-worker “who has terrible coughs or sneezes and doesn’t wear a mask.”  Yeah, that seems a little rude I suppose, though I’d still advocate for “cover your nose/mouth and wash your hands frequently” over “wear a mask and let ’em rip,” as seems to be the approach in my own staff room.

Interestingly, the next two in line have to do with smell – co-workers who wear too much perfume, or co-workers who smell like an ashtray.  Take note!  Your fellow teachers have sensitive noses!  (Included in the ‘smell’ category is number twenty, “co-worker who eats smelly food like curry or ramen at their desk,” which I am most certainly guilty of.)

Pictured: Something way more adorable than me.

Pictured: Something way more adorable than me eating curry at their desk.

Many more of the annoyances had me vigorously nodding my head in agreement, such as “Co-worker who has an unnecessarily loud telephone voice” (HAI!  HAI!  ARIGATOUGOZAIMASU!  HAI!) and “Co-worker who batters their keyboard keys” (I once had someone in a completely silent staff room delete an entire paragraph of text by repeatedly slamming the backspace key, instead of holding the dang thing down or just highlight-deleting it.)

Yet just as often, I caught myself thinking, Oh, crap!  I didn’t know people found that annoying!  When I read things like “Co-worker who frequently cracks their knuckles, neck, etc.”

Sheesh!  Next thing I know, I'll learn that "staring menacingly at others" makes the list, too!

Sheesh! Next thing I know, I’ll learn that the “co-worker who stares menacingly at others” makes the list, too!


I hope the survey enables you to be a more hospitable office-mate to your fellow teachers this year, and that you can remember to avoid the things that secretly drive your co-workers crazy.




Daniel is a second-year JET living in Kanazawa.  He teaches at a junior high school and enjoys coffee, riding his bike around the city, and hanging out with his wife.