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Monday, 29 April 2013

The laziest machine in Japan

Japan is famous for its futuristic technology. The bath tubs sing as they fill up, meals at restaurants can be ordered by digital menus, and robotic vacuum cleaners whizz around apartments during the day.

But with all the hard work being done by robots in Japan, there is one type of machine that isn’t pulling its weight: the ATMs. While most of the people in Japan bust their guts working overtime, many of the ATMs* close down at 6pm. They refuse to work on public holidays and weekends, and if they do choose to operate at these times, they often charge extra fees for the privilege.


Lazy ATM: Closed Saturday afternoons, Sundays and public holidays

At first, I couldn’t understand this. There should be no reason why an ATM can’t work weekends or at night. It’s a machine. It doesn’t need the time to go home and make shabu-shabu for its family or to trim its miniature bonsai garden. Why do they only work during business hours?

Well I think one of my friends has discovered the reason. She was visiting Japan from overseas and tried to use an ATM to withdraw money but unfortunately it ate her card. She started to panic, assuming that she’d been caught in some sort of scam. Then suddenly a phone which was hidden next to the ATM began to ring.

Friend: Hello? Is someone there? The machine ate my card.
Phone: Rapid Japanese.
Friend: I can’t understand you. Do you speak English? The machine ate my card.
Phone: Long silence. Your card… no good. Cannot use. Card return now. Please wait.

Sure enough, next thing, her card popped out of the machine and the phone line went dead. Someone behind the scenes had been supervising the ATM, seen that her card had been eaten, investigated the situation, and decided to return her card. 

So I guess that’s how you keep everyone employed in a high tech society where robots can do any job - employ someone to secretly watch the robots. Behind every robot in Japan, there could be a human watching. I just hope there’s no one supervising my singing bath tub.

*ATMs at 7-Eleven are usually open 24 hours a day and charge no fees for most Japanese bank cards.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Time to harden up

After two years of receiving unfailing politeness in Japan, I’ve dropped my guard. I no longer steel myself against attitude before approaching shop assistants, or apologetically catch the eye of waiters when I want to make an order. I’ve come to expect the highest level of respect from the service industry, and this has made me weak. 

For example, the other day I went to a restaurant in Tokyo. When I arrived the waiter pointed to our table without saying a word. No ‘Welcome honourable customer’, ‘my sincerest humble apologies for keeping you waiting’, or ‘wow honourable customer, you are so tall and your Japanese is so skillful’. Just silence. I was floored. I convinced myself that the waiter must have assumed that I couldn’t understand Japanese and that’s why he didn’t speak to me. The alternative - that he was giving me attitude - was too shocking to consider. 

When I got to the table I ordered a glass of hot water from another waitress. However it didn’t arrive within three minutes, so I asked about it. Instead of apologising profusely, bowing and rushing off to get it, the waitress dismissively told me to wait longer. I felt glad that it was an open kitchen so that she couldn’t spit in my food. She obviously wanted to.


I'm used to being the whale at restaurants.
Note: Image by gwaar. Some license restrictions apply for reuse. Please see Creative Commons License for details.

My sister was visiting me at the time and she was surprised that I was frustrated by the incidents. No one had actually said anything rude to me. These events would never have enraged me in Australia. In fact, if I’d had to order hot water in Australia, I'd have been the one grovelling because hot water wasn’t even on the menu.  

I’m planning to visit home at Christmas time so I need to harden up. What if I need to call my telecoms company or get my driver’s license renewed? I’ll never survive if I can’t put my shields back up.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The art of conversation

I used to always assume that people were in control of what they said. Even if someone was obviously telling a lie or saying something weird, I assumed it was because they wanted to. However, since I started learning Japanese, I’ve discovered that what comes out of my mouth often has no relation to what I actually want to say. I only know a limited number of words and sentences, so my conversation is a random selection of the nearest match to what I actually want to say. Whatever I’ve written in my homework that week is the most likely answer to any given question.

For example, last week, I was interviewed to assess my Japanese speaking ability. This is how our conversation went:

Interviewer: Where do you come from?
Me: Sydney, Australia.
Interviewer: Have you lived in Sydney your whole life?
Me: Different. When I was two to four, because of Dad’s job, I lived in Yokohama.
Interviewer: Really? Where in Yokohama?
Me: In the ocean.
Interviewer: Really? And where did you live after that?
Me: In the desert.
Interviewer: Really? What sort of place was that?
Me: Hot, quiet.
Interviewer: Where was it near?
Me: Near Perth.
Interviewer: Where’s that? Is that near Brisbane?
Me: Yes.
Interviewer: And what do you think of Japan?
Me: I am excited.
Interviewer: Excited? Isn’t Sydney exciting too?
Me: Sydney is countryside. No restaurants or shops.
Interviewer: And what are some other differences between Sydney and Tokyo?
Me: In Tokyo, many funny things.
Interviewer: Really? Such as?
Me: Last week I catch ladies-only carriage but I discover man enter. That man told no good by station people.
Interviewer: Is that so? That’s funny, isn’t it.
Me: Yes.
Interviewer: And what are your hobbies?
Me: I study Japanese.
Interviewer: Really??? And what other hobbies do you have?
Me: I climb mountain.
Interviewer: Is that so? Which mountains have you climbed?
Me: Last year I walk from Tateyama (a mountain in the Japanese Alps) to Kamiyacho (a train station in Tokyo, 425 km from Tateyama).
Interviewer: Really? And how many kilometres was that? How long did it take you?
Me: By walk, it take four days, 12 km.
Interviewer: OK, thank you, I think I have enough to assess your level now.


In Japanese, I would say this is a dog. (I don't know the word for panda yet.)


Faced with the choice of silence, or making something up, I’ve found myself always choosing to make something up. I get to practice more words that way. But as a result I’ve become extremely suspicious of what people say, especially if they seem to be struggling to find the right words. After learning Japanese, I don’t think I’ll ever look at conversation the same way again.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Intruders on the ladies carriage


My train line (Tokyu-Toyoko) is a medium-risk groper line. It’s so crowded that commuters are pressed hard into each other, allowing easy access for wandering hands. However, it’s not one of the notorious groper lines (*cough cough* *Saikyo line*). To help women have a grope-free journey, there is a special ladies-only carriage during peak hour. While the rest of the train is so crowded that station staff in white gloves have to push commuters inside, the ladies-only carriage is a haven of tranquility. It smells like flowers and sometimes there’s even enough room that you don’t have to body slam anyone when you enter.

Apart from the smell and space, the best thing about the ladies-only carriage is the entertainment of watching when men come on board. It happens at least once every trip. The man will be on auto-pilot and as soon as he steps on, he will shut his eyes, and try to get some sleep. After a minute or so, however, he will frown…

(thinking) That’s strange, no one is pushing me. How am I supposed to sleep without other bodies to prop me up? Come to think of it, the people I’m leaning against feel strangely short and soft. And they smell so good… Oh no, I’m on the ladies carriage! I have shamed myself and my family.

The man’s eyes will shoot open. He will then immediately start shuffling towards the train doors with his head bowed, muttering apologies, and swiftly alight at the next stop. The women will smother their smirks.

Occasionally when a man enters the carriage, it’s obvious that he’s done it on purpose. He will have a really stubborn look on his face and refuse to make eye contact. All the women in the carriage will glare self-righteously at him. His trip doesn’t last for long though. If the man doesn’t get off at the next stop, then at the following stop, a train guard will enter the carriage and march the man out, shaming him in front of all the women.

It’s so much fun that I wish I could catch the ladies-only carriage every day. Unfortunately the platform is usually so crowded that I can’t get to it. But when the crowd parts in a fortuitous way, I know I have a great journey of people watching ahead.


The Tokyu-Toyoko platform at Shibuya Station.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Avoiding the obvious

A few months ago at a party, I met a lady who was a vegetarian. Even though I knew it was probably an annoying question, I couldn’t help but ask her why she didn’t eat meat. I then followed up by giving her a detailed list of all the vegetarians that I know, their reasons for being vegetarian, and what they can and can’t eat. The lady’s eyes glazed over with boredom. As soon as I’d finished my long-winded story, she made an excuse to leave and talk to someone else.

I didn’t mean to be such a boring conversationalist. The problem was that as soon as I heard the lady was vegetarian, I became fixated on avoiding a conversation that she’d had thousands of times before. It became all that I could think about, so in the end, I couldn’t talk about anything else.

It’s the same when I meet a vet for the first time. I can’t help but ask them if they like animals; when I meet a plastic surgeon, I can’t help but ask them who they think needs work; and when I meet other foreigners in Japan I can’t help but ask them where they are from.

If George Vanilla-Gorilla could talk, I'd ask him why he sleeps so much

Until I came to Japan, I’d never had the problem of being on the receiving end of these sorts of obvious questions. I work as a statistician, so this information is usually greeted by a swift change of topic. No one wants to encourage me to talk any further about statistics.

These days I get asked on a daily basis where I’m from and how long I’ve been in Japan. However, I’ve discovered that I actually like these questions. Having something so obvious to discuss means that it’s really easy to talk to new people. These questions also give me an excuse to shamelessly talk about myself.

The problem with these questions is that my poor friends and colleagues have heard me answer them thousands of times. While I get the chance to blab on about myself, my friends and colleagues have to wait in bored silence.

Since I’ve discovered I enjoy receiving obvious questions, I no longer feel ashamed to ask them. However, in order to be fair to everyone, I try to distribute my obvious questions equally. That way everyone gets a fair chance to repeat themselves. So watch out vegetarians, vets, plastic surgeons, and foreigners… Captain Obvious is coming!

Monday, 18 March 2013

My lost calling

If I were a secret spy, Japan would be my location of choice. Unfortunately, foreigners in Japan tend to stick out like a hamburger on a platter of sushi. In a crowd of faceless pedestrians, they can be spotted from a mile away. However it is this very distinctness which would allow me to blend in unnoticed.

A few weeks ago I was waiting for a friend outside Shibuya station at a well-known meeting spot. It’s extremely crowded there, almost like being on the train. Another foreigner also happened to be waiting nearby. As time passed, the foreigner was joined by more and more foreign friends. The group began to grow, and noticing that I was a foreigner in a sea of Japanese people, they assumed that I was one of them.

I tried to edge away but it was difficult as the area was so crowded. To demonstrate that I wasn’t part of their group, I began to read my kindle. However, indifferent to my coldness, the group members kept shuffling aside so that I could join the conversation. Eventually the group engulfed me.

Finally the foreigners left. As they walked away, a few of them glanced back at me in concern, thinking that I had been left behind. I look so different in Japan that it seemed like I belonged.

Shibuya crossing - a haven for blending by looking different

Having experienced this, I should have been on my guard for other foreigners trying to falsely blend in. However last weekend I was fooled. I was at a private party with some other foreigners and started talking to an American guy. After a while, I began to realise that a lot of things he said didn’t make sense. I kept quizzing him for details until finally he confessed: he was a tourist on holidays in Japan and had seen a private party full of foreigners and walked right in. Even though we’d had someone at the door, he’d managed to slip in unnoticed. He looked as different as the rest of us, so no one had suspected that he was a gatecrasher.

Now I’m wondering if the same trick will work when movie stars come to Japan. Maybe I could drop into one of their parties unobserved?

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Chapter three of the Deadly School Camp is out now

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Chapter Three of the Deadly School Camp is out now on The Deadly School Camp page. Get a sneak peak of the first three chapters of the book before its publication next year!