weill in japan: day 16

Classes are as mundane as ever, and morale is low among the students. Many of us feel that we aren't learning anything in class, and that attitude makes the new material much harder to digest. The difficulty level is just right -- the material is neither too easy nor too hard -- but the presentation doesn't stimulate any energy among the students. It could have something to do with the early start time for classes coupled with the fact that nearly all of the students are in college and are used to college-style time schedules.

For the past two days, I've been buying my 100-yen cup of espresso from the vending machine but have found that it has no positive effect on my energy. Caffeine is a double-edged sword: it often increases energy for a while, but it can sometimes have a negative effect. Both the positive and negative effects can be strong. I haven't fallen asleep in class yet, but I very well could. In a class of some 14 people, sleep is not an option.


Although the attitude of many Japanese people towards unknown foreigners is still cautious, Tokyo is still a very tourist-friendly neighborhood. Anyone who has visited a big city or tourist attraction in America will undoubtedly have seen the large groups of Japanese tourists stereotypically associated with Japanese travel abroad. While American groups traveling to Japan have not been as visible so far, I've taken a ton of pictures. I haven't tried it yet, but I get the idea that Japanese people do not like to be photographed by people whom they do not know. Far more often in Japan than in the U.S., people being interviewed on television news broadcasts are shown with their face obscured and their voice drastically altered. For this reason, I haven't taken pictures of anonymous Japanese people. When taking pictures of buildings or other points of interest such as a 5-foot-tall Colonel Sanders figure outside a KFC, many people will suddenly stop rather than enter the frame of my picture. While a friend of mine took my picture today with the Colonel, no fewer than three businessmen stopped dead in their tracks to avoid being in the picture. I was pretty impressed; in New York or just about any other city I've visited, passersby wouldn't think twice about staying on their course. It's almost as if the tourist is respected here in Tokyo.

Tourists can also get help from the koban, or police boxes, located near train stations and elsewhere throughout the various neighborhoods in Tokyo. They provide maps, lend out bicycles and umbrellas, and can help with many other things that you wouldn't expect the police to do. The high police presence is not at all oppressive, and Japan's low crime rate helps the situation.

engrish in sight

English, particularly American English, is commonly regarded as "cool" in Japan. Many TV and radio stations will use a mix of Japanese and English announcements even though their regular programming is exclusively in Japanese. For this reason, little thought goes into the English used for promotional purposes. Enter Engrish, a term which gets its name from the lack of difference between 'l' and 'r' sounds in the Japanese language. Today, I made my first sightings of Engrish firsthand.

After arriving back at Ogikubo station, I decided to go shopping in another of the many shopping centers near the station. There, I found three t-shirts for only about ¥1000 ($8.60) each. They say, in English:

  1. Best of power comes out of consciousness
  2. CITY-BRED: Air is polluted... but not altogether bad.
  3. We must not forget to love and cherish the nature. Because the nature gives us peaceful time. We are a piece of the world for peace.

Right. One of them is for me; the other two will find their way to friends and family back in the U.S. These three weren't the worst that I've seen so far. Many shirts and bags have entire paragraphs written in poor grammar on them.

As if right on cue, I saw a drink vending machine as I left the store. This "Seibu Box" machine bore the slogan "See You Time." I guess I will!

who wants to be an $86,000-aire?

Tonight at 7:00 PM, I caught the Japanese version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" on television. Being a lifelong fan of game shows, I wanted to see what adaptations were made for Japan. Japanese game shows tend to stress outrageous stunts and prizes instead of trivia questions. Think "Fear Factor" without the forced trash talk.

The show's main premise remains largely unchanged from the original British formula: answer 15 multiple-choice questions to win the top prize of ¥10,000,000 (about $86,000). That's not a lot of money, but people are still very excited. Lifelines are still available, although the phone-a-friend actually involves calling a group of friends who can collaborate on the answer on camera. Dramatic pauses after the "fainaru ansaa" are further elongated by commercial breaks. The questions are still fairly difficult, although my host family parents were able to answer many of them. Some personalities backstage also provide their thoughts to fill the time.

To try and compete with the frenetic pace and crazy action of the typical Japanese game show, some cuts were made from the 55-minute show. For example, the fastest-finger competition is almost entirely skipped, with the winner being announced before his or her qualifying question is shown in retrospect. All questions up to the first lifeline are also skipped, meaning that as many as nine questions out of the 15 could be skipped in this manner. A brief biographical introduction shows video filmed at the contestant's hometown, with explanations of what he or she wants to do with 10 million yen.

Many comedy, variety, and game shows feature subtitles, provided more for entertainment value than for the aid of the deaf. These titles, added in post-production, are brightly colored and vividly animated. Sometimes, words are crossed out and corrections appear in the subtitles to indicate that a speaker is mistaken. For people still learning the language, this also provides an opportunity to easily recognize words and characters.

Even though the quiz show allows contestants to stop at any time if they would rather not risk losing money, most contestants will take a wild guess. Money is something of a taboo in Japan. While spending large sums on lavish gifts is a common occurrence in the summer and winter time, accumulating money is usually done in private. Humility is a big factor. Because of this, quiz shows like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" are not very popular in Japan. Instead, shows like "TV Challenge," which last Thursday featured various challenges testing contestants' knowledge of ice cream, are much more well-liked.

politeness has its limits

Japan is typically known as a very polite nation. On the Japanese version of "Millionaire," contestants bow as they leave with their prize money. People in cars and on the phone will bow out of habit in situations when it is logistically absurd. The other person can't see you bow on the phone, for example.

In fast-paced Tokyo, the limits of politeness are tested every day. On trains, people silently cram themselves into each car. People push, poke, and step on each other, but this is not considered an insult unless it is done deliberately.

Today, I saw a time when even these limits were surpassed. A man on a bicycle sped through an intersection, forcing a car to stop short. The bike also stopped, as the rider feared he would be hit and wanted to reduce his momentum. The driver of the car looked at the bicyclist. The bicyclist looked at the driver.

Their glance lasted only a second. In a show of deference to the driver, the bicyclist leaned towards the car...

...and gave the driver the finger.

I love this place.