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The Japan Paradox


There’s lots of good reasons to live in Japan for a while — learn about a vastly different culture, pick up a new language, learn to love eating octopus, memorize every Arashi song ever created…

…but I’ve discovered there’s one great and often overlooked benefit of spending time in Japan: never be at a loss for words again, especially in large groups of people you don’t know.

(Not because you should pull the Japan card whenever possible and start shoving stories full of wa down everyone’s throats… no one likes that.) Instead, it’s because of what I like to call “The Japan Paradox”.

Ever heard of the Birthday Paradox? It says that once you get more than 23 people in a room together, it’s more likely than not that at least 2 people share a birthday. Just 23 people!! It’s counterintuitive, but true if you do the math.

Japan Paradox Algorithm
Now, being a computer scientist, I’m rather fond of algorithms. Earlier this summer, I started to notice that I had developed an algorithm for functioning in group social situations where I was meeting new people. In particular, that meeting new people used to be difficult for me but isn’t as bad anymore. Part of this could be attributed to maturity (ha!), but the rest is most certainly the Japan Paradox. Here’s my algorithm:

If there are more than 4 people present:
1. Find the person in the group who has lived in Japan before
2. Talk to them about Japan
3. Oh look, it’s already time to go??

“But wait!” you must be thinking, “How do you come across so many people who happen to have lived in Japan/know Japanese/have some kind of connection to Japan?” Well, that’s what makes it a paradox!

Seriously though, this has happened to me on numerous occasions, and yes, usually in groups of people I have never met before. The most recent example of this, Exhibit A, was a MeFi meetup I attended a couple of weeks ago here in Pittsburgh. I came in, sat down, and my username (mokudekiru) drew attention from a guy who had apparently lived in Japan for 3 years! Who knew. Culture shock anecdotes and jdrama recommendations flying back and forth, and now I’m doing some Japanese help via email for one of his friends trying to learn Japanese (if the people I’m talking about here are reading this…well, hi!) The meetup was around 10-12 people while I was present.

The Wa-dar
The only potentially tricky step of my algorithm above is step 1. You sort of have to look for little signs that another Japan-er might be in your midst. Thanks to my coincidentally Japanese-sounding name, they usually ask me and I can say “no, I’m not, but I lived there…” and it’s on. Otherwise, making references to matcha or eating octopus might do the trick, as well as being on the lookout for little references others will make. And sometimes, you don’t know what it is about the person, but you just have a hunch. Hence, wa-dar. I’m still perfecting mine.

Demographics of the Japan Paradox
Okay okay, so it has to be related to the people I hang out with — clearly if you pick four people off the street in podunk Wyoming, there’s not a high chance you’ll find your Japan person. As a computer science student, I mostly run around in circles of well-educated engineers, undergrads, grad students, and the youngest part of the workforce.

I have definitely noticed some sort of engineering-Japan Paradox connection though. Both last summer and this summer, I’ve participated in research internships for computer oriented types (last year was CS/ECE, this year the research is in the learning sciences, so CS, Psych, and Linguistics). The two internships were on opposite sides of the country, and each consisted of ~15 undergrads. Both last year and this year, out of each group of 15 there were THREE people who had lived in Japan before. That’s 20%. Back at school, there’s an insane number of CS/ECE kids who have gone to Japan or at least are taking Japanese, and on the flip side, in J-Net, the Japan Club for our university, outside of East Asian Languages and Cultures majors, engineers are probably the next most represented (disproportionately so, given the size of the engineering school vs. the rest of the university).

It’s also a time/age thing. Even when I lived there (’06-’07) I didn’t feel like it was such a big thing as it is now — now it’s almost to the point of absurdity where I feel like every engineer takes a summer there. Not that this is a problem — comparing Japan stories is endlessly entertaining, and with a large number of people interested, but perhaps not having gotten to the living-in-Japan stage, having Japan-related expertise is highly valued.

So, if you find yourself in a group of 18-30 year old educated engineers, my Japan Paradox Algorithm is likely to succeed. Otherwise, YMMV, and I think we’d need some real demographic info about who learns Japanese and/or visits Japan from the US, to find out whether the Japan Paradox is more generalizable. Please comment if you have a Japan Paradox story or opinion!


Japan Blog Matsuri – July 2010 Theme


Edit: The Matsuri is done!! Check it out here!

MMmmm, it’s time for a mid-summer matsuri!! Last month, Locohama taught you how to beat the heat or embrace the mushi-atsui with the June Japan Blog Matsuri about “Hot Fun in the Summertime”! Tough shoes to fill, but I’m proud to say that the torch has been passed this way to Mokudekiru!

And this month’s theme is… (drumroll please)…

ちょっと違う (Chotto Chigau)
or…“Not Quite the Same”

A lot of times in English language blog posts, news articles, and even the occasional Japan Blog Matsuri, we focus on what’s totally off-the-wall crazy about Japan – the things that shock and awe, and make you feel like landing in Japan is like space travel to a different planet.

Instead, this month, let’s think about the opposite: things that Japan has taken from Western, or any non-Japanese culture, and made their own. A few examples could be…
     • the time when you happened upon the statue of liberty in Odaiba
     • the time you ordered spaghetti, your comfort food, only to discover the
       mentaiko sprinkled on top
     • finding out you were missing a key part of the holidays, having never heard
       of a Christmas Cake
     • embarrassing yourself in a conversation before realizing “tension” is
       actually a good thing in the land of the rising sun…

I know tons of wacky stories are sure to come out of the woodwork – this is a pretty open-ended topic, so rock that creativity!!

It’s time to recognize that which makes you go “oh yeah, we have that in my country too!! But wait a second…”

Rules and Guidelines
• Picture!! Include at least one.
• Personal stories only – no research papers about how girls give guys chocolate on Valentines Day in Japan… you are welcome to talk about v-day/white day, but give it that personal touch – make us there, and SHOW us what was “chotto chigau” about the whole experience.
• Your story doesn’t have to be about you actually being IN Japan, but it should, of course, be a Japanese culture/language related experience
• And, as always, follow the Japan Blog Matsuri Rules and Guidelines

The deadline is Friday, July 23rd.

Submit by either leaving a comment on this very blog post, or by using the Blog Carnival Widget.

Check out the Japan Blog Matsuri FAQ if you have any general questions about this whole Matsuri thing, or, for specific questions shoot me an email at my gmail account (mokudekiru).

I am SO looking forward to all your submissions about those subtle differences that make you unexpectedly go “huh…” (or 「変・・・」 as the case may be.)


It’s Christmas Cake, DUH.


How I Nearly Got Kicked Out of Japan


It’s been three years, I think this story deserves to be told by now.

It was April 2007. I had been studying abroad in Japan for 8 months now. I had lived with several host families, but unfortunately, this fourth and final family was a little bit full of crazy. Host mom had her own physical and mental issues, and in general just had a stick up her ass about, well, everything. She was hyper-obsessed with a fear of me doing something wrong and getting her (or worse, her daughter, who wasn’t even in the country at the time) in trouble. So I would get reprimanded for many horrible things I did, such as using Kansai-ben (the dialect of the area I had lived in for the past 8 months) instead of standard Japanese (not offensive language, mind you, just the dialect, typical conversation, the same way she and everyone else in a 50 mile radius spoke).

Adding onto whatever fundamental issues my host mom and I had with each other, the house did not have internet that I could reliably use, which became a point of contention. For quick things I would borrow their computer, but as my laptop would not connect, I would often go to downtown Kobe (Sannomiya) and sit in a cafe with wifi to blog, contact my family, etc.

I always sensed my host mom had issues with this activity, mostly because a) she would say strange things when I left the house, such as “it’s springtime, so all the perverts are coming out this time of year!” (I guess they hibernate like bears?) and b) I found out she was notifying my school administration I was doing this horrible thing. (It wasn’t even an internet cafe… it was a cafe with wireless!)
Springtime, the season for perverts in Japan

If you’re wondering why the high school would even care… let’s just say it was a pretty ritzy private all girls’ school with its own extensive set of rules including:
• No going out in your uniform to any store after school (to prevent you from misbehaving and giving the school a bad rap)
• No going to karaoke EVER (one of the most common pastimes for middle schoolers and high schoolers in Japan, and clearly the cause of a lot of social disruption in Japan)
• No net-cafes either, apparently
• A slew of things that have to do with hair accessories (No wearing hair accessories that were not black hairties) that aren’t really relevant here
• No printing things at school (never really figured this one out. Not a single page, ever.)

Some of these rules are typical for Japan, some of these rules are excessive, even for Japan. I knew something was up when I confronted host mom about reporting my wifi-related-activities to the school and she got defensive and accused me of engaging in enjo kousai (often translated as “compensated dating” or “schoolgirl prostitution”) since that’s the main thing that apparently goes on at net-cafes.
The infamous cafe where most of my illicit behavior occurred

So things were a little fishy, but generally going fine.

Until April 17th, when I awoke to find an email from my Japanese teacher in America stating that there were apparently some issues with my host family and they were very angry at me for breaking the rules AND for what I had written on my blog.

What?? Angry? No one ever told me… and what about my blog now?

It turns out that a couple of posts I had written doing some mild complaining about things like the lack of internet had gotten around, particularly back to America, where host family’s older daughter was studying. Some of her friends decided to tell my host family about it, and intentionally skew it to sound worse than it actually was.

So now I was left with no choice but to confront the issue, or risk being thrown out of Japan a month early.

What ensued was a lengthy crying-session by my host mom about how much I had hurt her with my activities and my blog, and the allegation that all this stress I had put them under forced her not to eat for a week (she never ate–how was I supposed to know this time was my fault?) I really had to ask, what words were exactly that hurtful?

Completely seriously, she says, “You use some really bad language on there. I heard it says the word ‘pissed’… now, I don’t speak English, so I don’t know what that word means, but I hear it’s a vulgar term for PEE!!”

This was the moment when I realized all was lost. This miscommunication was never ever to be solved, no matter how many times I told her that pissed=annoyed/angry. Instead, I apologized profusely, and put a password on my blog.

Things simmer down for a couple of awkward weeks with the host fam. Until one day at school, where I get pulled out of class, taken to the library, and the teachers in charge of exchange students sit me down at a computer and tell me to delete my blog. Now.


Apparently, having a password on it makes it LOOK like I have something to hide, and people will be curious about it, because that’s human nature. Thus, the blog must be deleted. The school also made up a new rule about blogs and how students can’t make any that talk about people or have pictures that are “too big” or “too clear”.

After that blew over (moving my blog to a slightly different address seemed to do the trick), my host family decided to notify me they wouldn’t be hosting me after the next week. I had 3 weeks left in Japan. Host mom seemed to get a kick out of telling me I would probably be homeless for the last two weeks of my exchange. To her dismay, I emailed a previous host mom, and in under 5 minutes, I had a futon waiting for me. So much for me being the scum exchange student of the universe.

Sometimes I felt rebellious enough to take my indoor school shoes out on the town

So I’m not sure what the take-home message is here… probably the following:
1) Living with host families sucks sometimes.
2) It’s better to have either your host family or your school on your side. When they both gang up on you, you’d better comply or your days are numbered. Also, pay attention to the subtlest clues that something strange is afoot, since neither party may mention that you’re in trouble.
3) Perverts come out in the spring, cafes are for prostitution, and pissed always means pee.

This post was a submission for the April 2010 Japan Blog Matsuriall about ‘Secret Japan’ hosted at Gakuranman.