Japan is odd in many ways. Whether it's the products you find in stores (tentacles on a stick, no joke), or the cultural expectation of wearing slippers for particular types of floors (one set for indoors, and another for the bathroom). The oddest thing about Japan, in my opinion, is living here. You are transported to a reality that simultaneously places you in the past and future. Now, I am drawing a comparison between Japan and Canada (or more generally, between North America, and to some extent, Australia and the U.K. - perhaps other countries as well, but I'm drawing from personal experience). Why is Japan like simultaneously living in the past and future? Let me explain.
The Past: So if you think of bygone days, what comes to mind? What are some things that were common and are no longer but a memory? Well, let me give you some examples that are alive and well in Japan. Bicycles. Yes, I'm sure you're aware that bicycles are common in places like China, but were you aware of how common they are in Japan? They are everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Not just bicycles, but the type of bicycles remind me of travelling back in time to the 1950s. They're the kind of bicycles with baskets in the front and a bell on the handle. I'm not kidding. If you watch a movie from that era, you'll see people happily biking along on exactly the bike I'm talking about. How about trains? Trains used to be a common method of transportation. Guess what? They're everywhere here. Trains, trains, trains! So many different lines! Some of them are older and feel like they're from the 50s, I swear. In more rural areas, the train pulls away from the station with a tug, like pulling on a slack line. You can see the movement jostle everyone in the car.
Okay, okay. So bicycles and trains are a blast from the past. What else? Laundry. Yes, everyone owns a washer, but owning a dryer isn't actually common. Most people buy laundry clips and hang their laundry to dry on a line. It's true. In fact, I just finished hanging my clothes to dry. It's an odd thing having to take your clothes from the washer, and clip them to a string hanging outside your apartment. What year is this?
Remember fax machines? Well they're plentiful here. I use one every single day at work. I can hardly believe it myself. I find it so incredibly old fashioned. What about e-mails? What about computers? What about doing things that save paper? I'm not sure I understand myself. I guess Japan just prefers having hard copies of absolutely everything. So I spend my time filling out forms and dialing numbers. You think they're old, clunky machines? Nope. They're new. Yes, new, small, efficient, fax machines. Oh Japan.
Then we come to the topic of gas stations and convenience stores. You're probably thinking, "Wait, aren't those the same things?" Nope. They most certainly aren't, not in Japan anyway. I know travelling in North America is filled with gas stations and convenience stores being one and the same. Not in Japan. Take a trip back in time when those things were clearly separated. Your local "general" store carried everything you could possibly need in a pinch, and the service was always friendly. If you wanted gas for your automobile, you had to go to a different place, where it was always full service and they offered mechanical work if you needed. Welcome to Japan. In that sense, things are very much like looking back in time. Station attendants happily take care of your every vehicle need, and definitely offer any automotive service required. In fact, because it's Japan, customer service is always taken to another level. At some gas stations, expect the attendant to stop traffic and clear the way for you to leave safely, and in style. Now that's service.
If it isn't classic bicycles, gas stations, fax machines and hanging your laundry to dry, what else is a blast from the past? Simply put, gender roles. Japan is the place where women are exquisitely feminine and all the men wear suits. In fact, they're called "salary men". They work ridiculous hours and are never home with their families. Women graduate college, work as a receptionist for a few years then marry. It's true. They marry young and they have children. Then the men continue to work themselves to the grave, while the women take care of the offspring they've birthed. What's that? Is that the phone? Who's calling? Oh yeah, it's the '50s and they want their stereotypes back.
The Future: Honestly, I'm just going to talk about technology advances. For instance, the machines located in a train station. They can take bills, coins and most of them offer services in English. Then there's the gates. It's this elongated machine which you can either scan your pass through (you can buy a card that will scan electronically through your wallet, no kidding), or you can insert your train ticket into a slot and it will shoot through the other side of the gate. It's pretty amazing. It gets me every time. The city I'm from goes by the honour system. Kind of a huge mistake. In contrast, there's New York City, where you will actually get deported if you don't swipe your metro pass.
How about ATMs? Feel free to dump your change into these machines. That's right, ATMs process change. When you want to withdraw cash, a slot opens and the cash is presented to you in an expeditious and polite manner. (Not to mention the fact that everyone deals in cash. That's right, cash. Another blast from the past.) Or what about the presence of a copy machine/printer in every convenience store? They take USB keys, SD cards...whatever you can slap you files onto and print off. It doesn't matter, these machines will do it.
Japan is also very concerned about the environment. That idea is reflected in some city bus drivers that will actually turn off the bus instead of idling (even while at a red light). Although, I must say that I don't feel like it's helping much (if at all), but the thought is there. One hotel I visited, gave me a key card, which seemed perfectly normal until I got to my room. I attempted to turn on the lights but nothing happened. Then I saw a slot on the wall that asked me to insert my card. As soon as I did, all the lights came on. It blew my mind. They actually thought of a way to conserve energy even if you've left things on, because without the card, nothing would work. So if you go out shopping, and forget to turn the radio off, the tv, the bathroom light - whatever, removing the card would immediately shut it all off. Pretty cool.
I nearly forgot to mention trains again! Yes, there are old fashioned kind of trains, but there is also the shinkansen, also known as the bullet train! Oh my god. Prepare yourself for the most luxurious and comfortable train ride of your life. You have a lot more room than a plane, and yet it feels like you're flying. The train exceeds speeds of 300 km/h and feels like a soft glide just above the ground. If you're standing on the platform and watch the train go by, it rushes by with such speed and sound, that it's sure to surprise you! I grab my heart every time and feel the whirlwind wrap itself around me, like a plane passing you on the street. It's intense!
All in all, Japan really is like living simultaneously in the past and future. All of the technology (save fax machines) are a reminder that they are always ten steps ahead of everyone else. They have the ability to invent and implement everything right here, in their own country. Simple things like talking vending machines that can produce hot and cold beverages (depending on the weather), ice cream, beer and even cigarettes. Some ramen shops have a machine where you purchase your meal ticket before handing it over to the chef. Yes, technology wise they are "streets ahead". However, some things culturally remain rooted in old beliefs and traditions. Whether you're visiting a temple or shrine and witness apprentices wearing traditional clothing, catch a whiff of cigarette smoke from the numerous smokers (some places in Japan allow you to smoke EVERYWHERE), or observe the gender dynamics of a couple - the female wearing ultra feminine, frilly clothing and following behind her well dressed, male partner. Things in Japan are quite different from the rest of the world. Nowhere have I ever seen such a strange dichotomy of the past and future. I suspect that I will never experience this type of surreal reality anywhere else.
Last night I finished a book entitled, "Cinnabar" by Robert B. Oxnam (1989). It was on my long list of books to read. My mother gave it to me on my birthday a year ago, so it was about time I picked it up.
The book centers around a mysterious lacquer puzzle box made out of cinnabar. On top of the box is a Chinese character "Dream". It's rumoured to hold the key to a a priceless collection of Chinese art. The box begins in Boxer China with a father gifting it to his son, wishing for him to be filial. The box is passed down again and again until it ends up in the hands of an American professor and marathon runner named Roger.
Roger spends the rest of his time chasing the "dream". This takes him through a whirlwind of danger and a long adventure trying to find the collection. Through the turmoil and grief he ends up finding more.
On his journey to discovering the true meaning of the box, Roger meets Christina, a Chinese calligrapher. Through an unpredictable series of events Roger ends up moving to Taipei to live with Christina's father. In order to protect himself and the family, he's forced to transform into a different person by literally adopting a new identity.
"Cinnabar" is a great book, filled with fascinating details about Chinese history, philosophy and politics. In large part this is a political book that examines the many revolutions and political turmoil. There's a large focus on Tiananmen Square and the brave protestors that suffered an unjust death. The author chooses to write into the future, predicting an optimistic outcome for China. Unfortunately for the author his optimistic prediction does not occur in reality.
I enjoyed the book but in my opinion I would have preferred to read a book about China from a Chinese author. The author's opinions are valid but to me the story felt less genuine. His biases were made clear and I was tempted to believe that the main character, Roger, is probably very similar to Robert B. Oxnam. This has been said before but I think it remains true, a book reveals a lot about its author. All in all, it was a good read.
Has anyone read this story? Are you familiar with what's happening? Well apparently four pairs of female Badminton doubles players are being charged with "not using one's best efforts to win a match"*. The World Badminton Federation (who knew such a thing existed) has decided to launch disciplinary proceedings against the eight players from China, South Korea and Indonesia. The doubles pairs were scheduled to compete today, but now it's unclear what will happen. To give an example, the longest rally in one game was only four strokes! The audience watching actually booed! To sum up, they are accused of trying to throw matches in order to manipulate their position. China's and South Korea's doubles pairs didn't want to meet their teammates in the semi-finals.
One of the South Korean coaches blames China, claiming that it was their strategy first. Honestly, it's all a little silly. I can't help but think that there are probably many instances of athletes not trying hard enough but they never went through any disciplinary proceedings. Still, the issue has come up and it's left me wondering, is attempting to lose a legitimate strategy?
If you were a professional athlete selected to compete in the Olympics and made it to the quarter-finals then found out you might have to play against your own country, what would you do? I think most people would be tempted. Still, this strategy defeats the whole purpose of the Olympics. It crushes the Olympic spirit.
Personally I don't think that the players should be disqualified. Perhaps it's not necessarily in the "Olympic spirit" but they got to their positions by playing well, did they not? How can one evaluate how hard someone is trying anyway? Despite the accused lack of effort, is it really their fault if they found a way to make it work to their advantage? If anything, I blame the game itself. It doesn't make sense to me that at any point two teams from the same country should have to face each other. I think it causes this precise conundrum.
Conundrums aside, the London 2012 Summer Olympics have been exciting and awe-inspiring. It is our duty as citizens of the world to watch the Olympics and cheer for our country! So here's to Canada! Congratulations to Christine Girard in Weightlifting, Antoine Valois-Fortier in Judo; Jennifer Abel and Emilie Heymans in Women's Synchronized 3m Diving, and Meaghan Benfeito and Roseline Filion in Women's Synchronized 10m Diving!
*If you want to know the full story, you can read it on the BBC, CBC and The Globe and Mail.
Update: The Badminton players were disqualified.
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