Mainichi Daily News ran a story about a week back about a dry-cleaning firm and its treatment of foreign labour:

Six Chinese female trainees at a dry-cleaning company in Yamanashi Prefecture got into a row with the company when they complained that they were being paid under the minimum wage, and three of them suffered injuries including a broken bone, it has been learned.

The article goes on to say that the employees complained that their monthly salary of 50,000 yen (about USD $500) was far below minimum wage, and that their overtime pay of 350 yen/hour (later raised to 450 yen/hour) was less than half of the region’s minimum standards for overtime.

When the six workers submitted a written request for their wages to be raised, the dry-cleaning company showed up at the company’s dormitory with 10 other people, and tried to force the women into a van taking them to the airport and sending them to China.  During this scuffle, one woman’s leg was broken when she jumped out of a second-story window trying to escape, and two others were also injured, presumably by the company employees who were trying to force them into the van.

The company president later visited the foreign workers’ union headquarters and apologised:

“If they were Japanese I wouldn’t have done it (tried to force them to leave). I was asked for a high amount of unpaid cash and thought I couldn’t negotiate. I’m sorry for their injuries.”

Nice.  ”You don’t have to worry, Japanese government.  I wouldn’t have tried to kidnap Japanese girls after they demand that I start following employment laws, only dirty foreign ones.  Please rest assured.”

That’s OK though; the Justice Ministry has said that the company might be punished:

“The failure to pay wages, the human rights violations and other actions constitute illicit behavior, and there is a possibility that this warrants banning the firm from accepting trainees for three years,” the official said.

Translation:  ”You might have to wait three whole years before being allowed to abuse other foreign labour in this way”.

In the “Western bloggers in Japan” community, there is often a lot of grousing about what is seen as horrendous acts of racism: “I had to see 8 whole apartments before I found one that would rent to a white man!”  ”Boo hoo, when I went to buy my iPhone I had to show a different kind of ID!”  ”A lady gave me the stink-eye on the subway!”

Truthfully that stuff bothers me a bit too, but I can’t get worked up about the small stuff when I know what kind of problems the immigrants who aren’t lucky enough to have been born in a rich country face:  Not being able to rent anything but the most disgusting shacks of apartments… working long hours in poor conditions…  in some cases, being imprisoned by the Yakuza and forced to work as sex workers for Japan’s business and government elite..  And then when finally one case actually makes the news — an abuse and kidnapping and assault case — it’s met with a slap on the wrist like that.

This sort of thing is what the “Westerners in Japan” blogosphere should really concern itself with; not petty bullcrap like iPhones and video rental memberships.

I have mentioned the “Here in Japan…” speech before. This is the lecture that we tend to hear, that tries to convince us that any argument between a Japanese person and a Non-Japanese person is actually a cultural difference, rather than a simple difference of opinion.  This is because Japan is a Beautiful and Unique Flower,  and no human civilization anywhere else on the world has anything in common with the Japanese… oop, sorry, I need to take a break to refill my sarcasm tank.

Anyway, as most readers of this blog will already know, Google released its Street View service in Japan last month.  This is a service that had Google drive through the streets of Tokyo (and presumably other metropolitan areas?) and take pictures every 100 meters or so, and make those pictures viewable in Google Maps.  Like a lot of people, we all had a lot of fun with it at the office…  People were looking for their houses, favourite stores, the office…  We were checking our parking spots looking for our cars and motorcycles, we were checking favourite hangouts to see if we could see anything interesting.

But it didn’t take too long for the cries of protest to start from the Japanese blogging community. This post (english translation here) is the most famous and the one that I’ll talk about.

Anyway, there’s a reason I started off this post talking about the “here in Japan” lecture.  Mr. Higuchi’s letter to Google raises some good points, but it’s so couched in the whole “we Japanese…” us vs. them mentality that it’s really hard to read those points without emotions getting in the way.

His letter rubs the wrong way almost from the start:  He is quite convinced that the employees of Google Japan feel the same way as him (Why wouldn’t they?   They’re Japanese, and We Japanese Are All The Same), and that they have simply been unable to convince their idiot American bosses of the truth that Google Street View offends Japanese Sensibilities.

But really, let’s look at his main point about why “We Japanese” do not like Street View: “We Japanese live close to the street in small houses, and so consider the exterior of our houses to be part of our living space as well”.   He backs this up with examples of things that only “We Japanese” do, such as shoveling snow from the road/sidewalk in front of their house, and decorating the front of their house with plants and the like.

Now, those of you who have lived in non-Japan parts of the world can see where I am going with this: this is not a “We Japanese” thing; this is clearly a “We Humans Who Live In Close Proximity” thing.  If only he had started off differently, like “People in Tokyo live in even closer proximity than people in New York, so maybe you haven’t considered this…” this would be a lot more well-received than playing the “You Americans could not possibly hope to understand We Japanese” card.

It’s time for everybody, on all sides of debates, to learn:  Different culture groups aren’t really as different as first they seem, so if you are trying to make some argument like that, see if you can phrase your argument in terms of “we humans” rather than “we [race]“.

Well, another one of those Darwin-defying cyclists just about ruined my drive home tonight.

There were 2 lanes of traffic in each direction, and a red light up ahead.  I was moving along in the outside lane; the inside lane was already backed up from the red light (Japanese drivers often forget that the outside lane is available which is why it is often free-moving even when the inside lane is backed up). All of a sudden I was thinking to myself, “Hmm, I think I just saw something from the corner of my eye, better be care–” and BAM there he was.

Now, for those readers already familiar with Tokyo cyclists, or those who have read my earlier posts on the matter, you may safely skip the remainder of this paragraph, for it goes without saying.  For everyone else, however, you may be surprised to know what this man was wearing.  Black from head to toe.  And of course, his bicycle had no reflectors or lights.  He was the perfect ninja bicyclist.

He had evidently crossed the street, driving through the stopped lane of cars without checking to see if both lanes were stopped.  I had little choice but to leave bits of tyre and brake pad all over the street as I screeched to a halt to avoid him.  And of course he had the gall to give me the stink-eye, as if I had committed a horrible sin by driving along in my lane exactly as the law dictated.

But I finally figured out what it is that bothers me so much about the idiot cyclists here.  It’s that when I finally manage to do one of them in, Japanese laws say that it’ll be me that’s held 100% liable.  It’ll be my driving license that gets revoked, and it’ll be my insurance that has to pay up, no matter how poorly dressed the guy was, or how egregiously he was breaking the law.

Ah well, in the mean time I’ll continue to get my revenge by honking at every cyclist who I catch being an idiot.

My neighbourhood doesn’t really have a whole lot of legal motorcycle parking.  There are plenty of bicycle lots (and you can usually keep your bicycle at your building anyway).  Moped lots are cheap as well (3000 yen/month) and car lots are on par with what you would expect in Northwest Tokyo (20,000 yen/month).  If you have a motorcycle, though, your options are limited.  You can either rent out an entire car space (if the car lot owner will even rent to a motorcyclist), or you can park illegally.

Luckily, the police in the area are well aware of the plight of the motorcyclists, and generally they look the other way if they notice a motorcycle, particularly one with local plates, parked illegally.  A police officer once told me “Listen, as long as you aren’t so blatant about it as to park right in front of the station, or right on the main road…  Basically, if you pretend that you’re trying to hide your bike from us, we’ll pretend that you’ve succeeded.”  That said, if too many residents complain that a pile of bikes has got too big or intrusive, the police will put a nice “move your bike” warning out, and you’ll have to find another hidey-hole for a few months until you’re asked to move it again.

cimg1214.JPGThis is why I was annoyed to see the fellow with the white moped parked at the left.   Not only was he a moped, which means that there was perfectly good (and cheap!) moped parking less than 50 meters away from where he was parked, but between the way that he parked at an angle and the way that he stuck his helmet out the left side of his bike, he was using up almost half the sidewalk!  Bikes parked like this make it inconvenient for the local residents, making it more likely that we’ll be asked to move our bikes elsewhere.

cimg1213.JPGCompare and contrast with how I’ve parked my bike.  It’s much bigger than the moped, but takes up much less room.  Can’t believe the moped driver is so discourteous…  Next time I may just move the moped back along the fence so that he’s parked in a way that makes sense.

My colleague Mari was kind enough to share this recipe with Stumpy and I the other day. It’s not really Thai, but it’s at least Thai-style. Well, assuming that coconut milk makes something Thai-style. In my book it does. I like it because it’s quick to prepare, and not too expensive as long as you can find a good place to buy curry powder.

cimg1038.JPG1. Start your rice cooker working now. Otherwise you’ll have to wait a long time for rice, and you won’t want to wait with this curry in your kitchen.

2. Cut up an onion (I used 2 onions because they were kinda small) into a microwaveable dish and put it in the microwave until the onions are soft. In Japan, where microwaves are typically 500W, this means 5 minutes.

cimg1041.JPG3. While the onion is cooking, cut up 500g of chicken (Stumpy used shrimp instead) and stir-fry it in a big wok (or big saucepan if you don’t have a wok) with 1 Tbsp of ground ginger and 1 Tbsp of ground garlic.

cimg1039.JPG4. When the onions are done, mix them together with 3 Tbsp of curry powder, 1.5 Tbsp of corn starch, and between 0.5 and 2 Tbsp of chili powder depending on your taste. Make sure they are mixed very well and that there aren’t any powdery lumps left over. I had to use a drop of oil to get them all mixed.

cimg1043.JPG5. Into the chicken, mix the onions, a 400mg can of diced tomatoes, a 400mL can of coconut milk, 4 Tbsp sake (or wine or mirin), 4 Tbsp fish sauce (or soy sauce), 2 chicken bouillon cubes, and 200mL water. Let it simmer for a while (at least until the rice is done).

cimg1044.JPG6. Spoon over rice and enjoy!

This recipe should be enough for 3 or 4 good-sized meals. For calorie counters, the entire recipe is about 1840 kcal (prepared with skinless chicken breast and soy sauce), so figure on about 400-600 kcal/meal (plus whatever rice you use). Using light coconut milk instead of regular brings the recipe total down to about 1320, but affects the taste.

When I first came to Japan, I loved the Naan Dog from MOS Burger.  It was a wiener and some sweet-ish curry wrapped up in a piece of Indian naan.   Needless to say, I was devastated when I walked into my local MOS Burger one day to find out that they no longer sold that product.  A similar incident happened that summer with the Thai-style coconut curry from Matsuya.  One day: delicious curry that sold really well, next day: gone.  Over that summer, I watched a lot of the products (foods as well as consumer products like laundry soap and toilet paper) that I had grown accustomed to disappear.  I used to joke with my friends that “the stores pull any item that is too popular with gaijins”, which is where the phenomenon of fast-disappearing products got its nickname “Gaijin Curse” within my little circle of friends.

Of course now that I know and understand Japan a bit better, I know that fast-disappearing seasonal products are a fact of life here. Even so, it’s fun to imagine corporate bean-counters watching secret camera footage and deciding to cancel products based on their sales to foreigners. “Oh crap, that Drew in Tokyo likes our fabric softener too much; time to get out of that line of business”. The Gaijin Curse is not even limited to food and consumer products! My buddy managed to Gaijin Curse an entire train: a 100% reserved-seat train whose seat fee was only 500 yen and which inexplicably skipped by many major stations to drop my buddy off at the little whistle stop where he lives.

Now, not all Gaijin Cursed products are tasty or useful.  Many of them had deservedly short runs.  We needn’t look any farther than Pepsi’s legendary screw-up of last summer, or this year’s equally delicious beverage. And I think that we can all agree that McDonalds had a must-miss with its Fish McDippers.

Speaking of McDonalds, I am well aware that the Gaijin Curse is not limited to Japan. I’m sure that most people are aware of the McRib sandwich, a limited-time product whose insane fans have been the subject of a Simpsons episode. This episode saw Homer tour the USA with a group of “Ribheads” as Krusty Burger tested the Ribwich in various markets across the country.

I have understood the nature of the Gaijin Curse for years. So what inspired today’s post? It seems that the worst Gaijin Curse yet is going to befall our adopted country. That’s right. This is bad. Far worse than the disappearance of any of the flavours of Kit Kat or Haagen-Dazs. Worse than the Naan Dogs, the Ume McNuggets, the fabric softener that smells like Snuggle, or the Ice Coffee ice cream balls. Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Donut is going to take away the Danish Ring. This cannot be allowed to happen! They are going to keep those stupid Triangle Donuts. They are keeping the Pon de Matcha which I swear to God tastes like hay. They are keeping the stupid flavourless and substance-less Rich Donuts, but they are getting rid of by far the greatest donut that has ever been sold.

It must be stopped! How can we do it?! Mr. Donut must be held accountable! I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore!

Or, maybe I’ll just find a different kind of donut instead.

If I had to come up with a marketing buzzword to describe Japanese people, “thinking outside the box” would not be one of the first terms on my list.  ”Because we’ve never done it like that before” is considered a perfectly valid excuse for not doing something in a new improved way.

Even so, some bright employee of Ooedo Nerima Station in Tokyo had an interesting solution to the problem that the fancy LED clock had been broken for several months:

Nerima Station clock

To any motorist in Japan, regardless of whether that motorist is driving a moped, motorcycle, car, truck, bus, or even train, nothing strikes fear into the heart like the sight of a bicyclist.

Bicyclists in Japan are the absolute epitome of poor “traffic citizens”. When they’re on the sidewalk, they weave in and out of pedestrians; they ride while texting, smoking, and holding umbrellas; and they mount/dismount moving bicycles, much less skillfully than they believe, causing general mayhem.

But actually, it’s cyclists’ behaviour on the road, where they’re supposed to be, that is even more terrifying. They ignore traffic lights without paying the slightest bit of attention to whether a car might be coming; if it’s inconvenient to cross to the other side of the road, they’ll gladly just drive on the wrong side; they’ll unpredictably switch between the street, the sidewalk, and the pedestrian crossings… Really, how there aren’t more bicycle-caused traffic accidents is beyond me.

(At this point, I’ll point out that the real spokeheads aren’t the problem.. Anybody here who has an actual decent bicycle and some riding gear generally are good traffic citizens. It’s the 95% of people, the ones who ride the disposable 3-speed rustmobiles, that are the real problem.)

A couple months ago, I actually witnessed a bicyclist whose immunity had apparently run out. Examining the following intersection (the intersection of Yamate-dori and Shin-Mejiro-dori, for those familiar with Tokyo):

Accident Scenario

I was at the position of the car marked “D”, waiting to turn right. There was a truck behind me, where “T” on the picture is. Now, when you’re turning right at that intersection (as I was and the truck was), your attention is focused on where the green circles are. Basically you’re looking there for mopeds who are legally coming straight through the intersection (nobody besides mopeds can do this). To a lesser extent, you are also checking for pedestrians on the zebra crossing, though pedestrians are slow and predictable and generally not a problem.

But as I was turning the corner, I happened to notice bicyclist B. You notice that she was going down the street the wrong way, went up the access ramp the wrong way, and then switched over to the pedestrian crossing. I saw her from the corner of my eye, and thought to myself, “If that truck behind me doesn’t see her, then there’s gonna be some trouble”. I checked it out in my rearview mirror, and sure enough, the truck hit the cyclist square-on.

So, I U-turned onto the sidewalk and rode back to the intersection and called 119 for an ambulance (a first for me) while the truck driver tended to the cyclist. There was a lot of blood, and she’d probably broken her leg or something, but it seemed like she was going to be fine.

Sadly, though, although the cyclist was clearly being riding stupidly and illegally, I still do have to give some of the blame to the truck. Anybody who’s driven in Japan even for one day knows to be super-vigilant of cyclists. That said: cyclists, whoever is in the right or the wrong, you will lose in an accident with a truck. So, come on.. get some common sense.

Justice Minister Hatoyama issued a press release on Friday stating that three death-row inmates had had their sentences “finalized” that morning.

Of course, this is a euphemism. To have your sentence finalized means… well, that you get killed by the state, to put it bluntly. Now, my own feelings about the death penalty aside, even its most dedicated proponents could not support the way that it’s carried out in Japan.

First of all, the method itself is hanging. Not “drop you a long way and snap your neck and you’re unconscious within a second” hanging, but “leave you in unimaginable pain as you slowly suffocate over 15 minutes” hanging. Once in a while, when that doesn’t work out so well, it’s “cut you down and have the guard do some Judo choke holds on you” hanging. At least once, it has been a “better not let the family have the body back, there is too much evidence of a botched job” hanging.  Hangings were conducted in 10 countries in 2007: Bangladesh, Botswana, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Singapore, Sudan and Syria.  Japan is the only of these that is considered to be a developed country.

The real cruelty, however, does not lie in the method of execution, or in this final agonizing 15 minutes. It’s that for 7 or 8 years, prisoners are kept in death row, never informed of the date of their execution until the day itself. Every day, they must live in a half-alive, half-dead state, never knowing if the footsteps they hear coming down the hallway each morning will herald their final day to live. If the prison officials stop by their cell one morning, the final moments of life have arrived. If not, this only signifies a 24-hour extension of life — who knows what will happen tomorrow? This means that prisoners are never given a chance to say final goodbyes to family members, never a chance to put things in order. The Justice Ministry explains that this is to lessen mental anguish and torture to inmates, who might start having problems when they know that their execution date is approaching, but psychologists argue that not knowing is even worse.

Family members, as well, are only notified once the sentence has been carried out. In one tragic story, a mother came one morning for her weekly visit with her son on Death Row. She was told by prison officials that her son was busy, and that she should come back in the afternoon. When she came back, she was informed that her son had been executed that morning, and that she should collect the body.

Hangings are usually carried out on a Friday, to limit public discourse in the media, and are almost always carried out when Parliament is not in session, to prevent questioning and debate from opposition. Most surveys still do show that Japan is overwhelmingly supportive of capital punishment, but one wonders how that might change if the general public were more aware of the way that it’s carried out here…

Woke up this morning to a rare treat, an actual ground cover of snow! It was so unusual for Tokyo that I had to take some pictures while doing my walk from Nakamurabashi to Fujimidai to get my traditionl weekend-morning coffee and muffin.

My moped, which I had parked right outside my building because I was doing some pre-sale maintenance, had a generous helping of snow.

Some poor guy doing deliveries on his moped for the local drug store. Doesn’t really look like a very fun day to be riding.

The show is so wet and slushy that this guy might have been driving for miles and miles and still have this mountain of snow on top of the car.

As a Canadian, I still find it bizarre to see Japanese people carrying umbrellas when it snows. It makes sense, I guess — snow is, after all, just frozen rain — but I can not bring myself to do it. I wonder if the people who live in parts of Japan where it snows often carry umbrellas when it snows.

Japanese snowmen have only 2 balls. Somebody explained to me that the “model” for snowmen here is some religious guy who is always kneeling, not standing like North American snowmen. Note the snowman in the background is shaped like an Oni, to celebrate Bean-Throwing Day.

Getting the forts ready for battle. Note that it’s only adults who feel the need to carry umbrellas — kids out for a bit of a play in the snow with the other neighbourhood children know perfectly well that a bit of snow never hurt anyone.

Ah, snow chains. The perfect driving accessory for a day with a little bit of slush on the road. Well, now I know why the roads here are forever being resurfaced…

When all you have is a broom, everything looks like a dusty floor.