Plain Talk

The face of China by Grant Piper

I work on the fourth floor of an office building. The floor has only two offices, a kitchenette and two toilets. The other office is occupied by an esoteric Chinese healing business, part religion, part massage and part acupuncture. It’s a little vague. I make jokes that it is a little dodgy, but that’s only a joke. It’s probably not dodgy at all, just culturally exotic.

One day in May as I was leaving the office and getting into the elevator with the Japanese receptionist we noticed some minor damage to the elevator door frame: an abrasion and slight dent. She said, “I wonder who did that?” I didn’t think it really mattered since it was such a minor thing. But some people have an eye for this sort of thing. I said, “Maybe the Chinese did it.” Of course, I meant the Chinese operating the business in the adjacent office, not the entire Chinese people. They only recently moved into the space, so for a few weeks there was a lot of traffic coming and going, a lot of boxes, packages, nick-knacks and noise. I don’t know their names. We don’t interact. So I just call them “the Chinese,” or “the Chinese business.” Is there harm in that? Maybe it shows deficient human interaction with neighbors, but is it hate speech to speculate aloud like that? I certainly don’t hate them. My usual disposition to my neighbors is benign indifference, which I think is morally appropriate. What would be morally inappropriate is to take too much interest in our neighbors. But I was upset when, after my speculation, the receptionist quipped, “That’s racist!” Then the elevator reached the ground floor and we separated: she to the local subway station; me to my apartment just a 15-minute walk away through the pleasantly cool, dark spring time evening.

I later pointed out to her that the Chinese people are not a race. “Chinese” is an adjective meaning “of China,” or “belonging to China.” It is a nationality and unsurprisingly it is a little vague. The country of China is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual society. So is Japan for that matter. I thought that her idea that my comment was racist was extremely racist itself. Or if not that, then unduly ignorant.

It’s true that 80% of modern Chinese fall within the Han ethnic group, but overall Chinese citizens’ racial characteristics range from Mongol to Indian and almost European. It is extremely heterogeneous. But distinctions like this don’t register very far or deeply with people because the outside world’s monolithic conception of China is so fixed and inert - like “Christian” America, “Jewish” Israel, or “Islamic” Iran all of which are similarly inaccurate on close scrutiny. The single party communist facade of China’s government doesn’t much help foreigners’ impressions either, I guess.


5月のある日、オフィスを出てエレベーターに乗ると日本人の受付嬢と出くわした。エレベーターのドアにかすかな傷がついているのに気づいた受付嬢はいった。「誰がしたのかしら?」そんな細かい事なんて僕は気がつきもしなかった。しかくよく気がつく人はいるもんだ。僕は言った。「中国人がしたのかも。」もちろん、隣で商売をする中国人の事を言ったまでで、中国人全員の事ではない。隣は最近引っ越してきて段ボールとか荷物をいっぱい運んでいたからだった。まったく交流がないので名前も知らず、単に「中国人」「中国系サロン」と呼んでいた。憤慨する要素があるだろうか? 隣との交流の欠如があったかもしれないが、これがヘイトスピーチにあたるだろうか?僕は中国人を嫌ってはいない。僕の隣人に対するスタンスは無頓着なだけで、道徳的に適切だと考えている。隣の人にあまりにも関心を寄せることは道徳的に不適切だろう。しかし僕は驚いた。受付嬢は「レイシスト!」と言ったのだった。エレベーターが1階に着くと、彼女は地下鉄の駅へ、僕は歩いて15分の自分のアパートへ顔を向け分かれた。



Plain Talk


A Decision You'll Never Regret by Jeff S. Jones

Recently, I was trying to decide where to travel for my winter vacation this year. If you live in Tokyo, it's so easy and cheap to fly almost anywhere in the world. But the amount of choice can also be overwhelming. Although I've traveled to sixteen different countries, there are still far more places I'd like to see, even just around Asia, than places I've been.

I started my search by looking at a map of the world and noting all potential destinations I wanted to consider. Then I asked well-traveled friends where they had gone and would recommend. I finally had narrowed it down to four different countries, but I still couldn't commit to one because they all looked equally interesting. What if I bought a plane ticket to one but then later regretted not going to another instead? What if I later discovered that one of the places I didn't choose was more interesting, nicer this time of year, or more value for the money? How could I decide between four equally good choices?

I became so paralyzed by indecision that I also considered just taking a “staycation” (staying in Japan and sightseeing locally, which is never a bad idea) to avoid having to decide. Luckily, while taking a break from looking at travel websites, I happened to read something about the Danish philosopher S?ren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). Kierkegaard had pondered the same problem I was having (how to make a decision with no regrets later) long ago and even wrote about it in a book titled Either/Or in 1843.

Kierkegaard's problem was a little more complicated than my travel dilemma. He was trying to decide whether to get married or not. At that time, people around him usually had no choice about whether to get married: as farmers, they needed large families just to survive and there was intense social pressure to get married as well. But Kierkegaard was fortunate to be a rare exception. His family was wealthy enough that he could choose to get married or choose not to get married based on his own personal desire.

To describe the anxiety that having so much freedom of choice brings, Kierkegaard used the Danish word “angst”. Although many people had wanted more personal choice, Kierkegaard realized that the hidden trade-off was the angst that comes along with this freedom. I have seen many of my friends suffer this angst when trying to make decisions: Should I stay in Japan or work in another country? Should I move to a new apartment or remain in my old neighborhood? Should I continue working in this industry or try another one?

The underlying assumption is often that there is one perfect choice that there will be no regrets about making later on. Which is exactly what I was looking for with my winter vacation plans.

The ultimate conclusion that Kierkegaard reached was surprising: all choices lead to regret. “My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it ― you will regret both,” he wrote. When making any decision, you are closing some door and opening another. But being overwhelmed by choice and making no decision does not help us escape the problem. Kierkegaard would have eventually regretted both getting married or not getting married at some point as both choices offer advantages and disadvantages.

This was just the inspiration I needed to finally decided where I would go for my vacation. I would just pick one destination and enjoy it to the fullest, accepting that I might later regret not choosing another. I would also have to acknowledge that there's a small chance I might never get another opportunity to visit the alternative destination. A human's life is finite and, knowing how way leads on to way, there are only so many winter vacations when you're young and healthy and have the time and money to go somewhere new.

So what is a decision you'll never regret? Maybe there isn't one. If such a decision exists, it wouldn't be a decision you'd ever question enough to consider any alternative anyway. It would be a decision that practically decides itself. For example, I've never regretted my choice to live in Tokyo, the coolest city on Earth, and then travel all over the world from here. That particular decision was pretty much, as they say, a “total no-brainer”.

Jeff S. Jones is an American teacher who resides in Koto Ward where his favorite pastime is walking beside the Sumida River. He is currently studying to take the JLPT exam for the first time in July 2015.

Unfinished business


HACKETTSTOWN by David Gregory

Boxing Day, raining hard on the two-lane highway winding between dark cliffs, our headlights poking snow piled heavy on fir trees, Yoshi driving, Naomi and Tomoe talking in back, following red tail lights streaming ahead, toward home, all tired after a long Whistler skiing day. “Dave, what is your best Christmas memory?” Tomoe asks me, switching to English.

Ah, Christmas...probably, with Aunt Roberta, about 1993, I think. Hackettstown, New Jersey. The best gifts show people you know something about them that they do not know themselves. That was one of those times.

Hackettstown snuggles up to the Appalachian foothills in the wilderness corner of New Jersey. Aunt Roberta is alone. She has lived most of her life in that big, old house that needs something done to that peeling gray outside. If she had the extra cash. She lost her husband when he was 35; her only son, Richard, in a construction accident a year after he returned from Vietnam; and her later longtime special friend, Joe, to cancer, just before the Christmas I went back.

She has not traveled in nearly 10 years due to her health. But, she holds her head high. Those strong blue eyes that have cried so many times still look straight at you, with love. Her soft voice calms you. Her fine silver hair is casually brushed back; she only takes care of things that really matter.

How does she keep going? She has a way of becoming attached to other families. Allison, next door, loves Aunt Roberta as she had loved her own mother. Allison’s little boy, Kaleb, calls Aunt Roberta, “Grandma”; he never met his own real grandmother. Eric and I always thought of Aunt Roberta as one of our grandmothers, too. She always told us to open her small packages before Christmas day. She knew little boys.

That Christmas in ‘93 I came in from Japan to meet Mom and Dad at Aunt Roberta’s. “Too far away,” she sometimes complained. But, she had always said, “Go.” Find out. Tell her about it. She would be waiting, back in New Jersey. “Write about it.”

The New York bus dropped me into Hackettstown’s snow and cold in front of the boarded up movie theater on Main Street. Mom and Dad came in from Chicago the next day, and we sat around the old table in the warm yellow brown kitchen. It looked like the usual Christmas Plan: early dinner out, gifts, visit Grandma the next day... lots of slow sitting... a routine more than a celebration. Yes, good to be with family, but... then the telephone rang.

Aunt Roberta called from the living room, “David, it’s your friend... he’s in the City... .”

Steve! With Heidrun! They made it... at Kennedy, just in from Germany. Can make a quick stop on their way to Buffalo tonight. “Finally, we’ll meet!” Mom said. After almost ten years, she would have a face to match the name of my good buddy from our early career trainee days at GE. Then, Mom and I sensed a chance. Why not invite a few others, too? Aunt Roberta would love it. I picked up the phone. Of course, Allison said. And with Jay, her husband, and Kaleb, and the new baby, Yeshua.

Allison and crew were already with us when Steve and Heidrun’s headlights finally swung into the driveway. We welcomed them in from the frosty night with hugs. Then, I popped outside and crossed the snowy yard to pull Angie out of her kitchen. “OK, but just for a few minutes,” she promised. “Angie Our Angel,” we called her. She often looked in on Aunt Roberta. Her eyes twinkled.

Coats and scarves piled in the kitchen, we packed into the living room. The party sparked to life all by itself. “So, you are...?”, “How do you know...?” Glasses of juice were poured, plates of baked sweet breads were passed around, fingers poked into bowls of spiced nuts. “Oh, yes, I’ve heard about... ”, “Where do you...?” No music, no special lights, no decorations. Not needed. Only the stuffy sofa and armchairs encircling us.

And the old gray house had never seen such a potpourri of people! Look at tall, German-blooded Steve, with his German girlfriend Heidrun, educated in France and the USA. Allison, from Trinidad, descendant of Native Americans, sitting on the sofa. Jay, son of Indian parents, standing taller than us all, a little shy in the big group. Angie, on the other hand, daughter of Italian immigrants, squeezing her happiness into other arms or hands. And Mom, Dad, Roberta, and myself, the instigators, maybe looking like old timers in the New Country, but with roots that also went back to others brave enough to leave their homelands, in our cases Germany, England, Scotland, and maybe Wales. Who knows? It didn’t matter anymore where anyone was from.

“Ah, I’ve always wanted to....”, “How do they celebrate...?” Yeshua just smiled, cradled in Allison’s arms. Kaleb bounced around, greeting and investigating everyone his bright-eyed way, and finally, exhausted, flopped down into Grandma Roberta’s lap.

Swirling, glowing, an hour passed, filled with chatter, munching, and laughter. The old living room had never been so alive. And, in the middle, Aunt Roberta sat, quiet, soaking it in. Just smiling. But, if you looked behind her glasses, you would see teary eyes. “All these people, from so many places... came here... just for this,” she said to me in her soft voice. “You don’t know how happy I am. Oh, it’s just... .” She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head.

You see, Christmas is not always a happy time for Aunt Roberta. Richard was born on Christmas Eve.

Then, almost as fast as everyone had come together, it was over. Angie had food in the oven. Steve and Heidrun were still long hours from Buffalo. Yeshua was already asleep. Kaleb slumped like a rag doll over his father’s shoulder as they walked out. We waved good-byes from the back porch door and slowly returned to the suddenly empty living room.

Over, so soon. But, we made it happen, one magical hour, that year. For Aunt Roberta. She still asks me to write about it.

“My best Christmas memory? That would probably be from Hackettstown, in 1993... .” The four of us watch the wipers swish away the dark rain, the snow piled heavy on the fir trees. Hackettstown had lots of snow that Christmas. I’m wondering, now... how maybe I, too, received a best gift... one time... many times... in Hackettstown... .

The earliest version of this story I printed in my 1998 end-of-year holiday letter; a revision I read at the “Tribute to Roberta Lyon” memorial service in Hackettstown on 6 January 2001. Special thanks to Eric Gregory for editorial assistance.
Copyright (C) 2014 David Gregory. All rights reserved. Chiba, Japan


Tokyo Fab

More than you've ever wanted to know about rice ball wrappers by Joshua Lepage

I'm writing this column from New York City with a perfectly-wrapped convenience store onigiri in one hand. Japanese-style convenience stores were one of the unexpected delights of this city, and my roommates and I descended upon the rice balls like they were fine entrees from a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Sure, we can find onigiri in our hometown of Montreal, but hand-made onigiri wrapped in sad, soggy seaweed just doesn't compare. There's nothing quite like pulling off the inner wrapper of a mass-produced onigiri to reveal the pristine, crunchy sheet of laver inside. Ever wondered how this great wrapper design came about?
We have to go back to the late 1970s to find the inventor, a prepared food vendor from Iida City in Nagano prefecture. He came up with the idea of using two triangular wrappers for onigiri -- one on the inside for the rice ball, and one the outside for the dried laver. The outer wrapper was cut at the top corner, which allowed consumers to pull the inner wrapper out, leaving them with a perfect, seaweed-wrapped onigiri.
This wrapper design caught the attention of a seaweed vendor from Osaka, who bought the rights to it and distributed it to sushi shops and convenience stores with a 0.5 yen royalty on each onigiri sold. This led to the company Shinobu Foods releasing their "Onigiri Q" line in 1979 in the Kansai region. Onigiri Q have been produced continuously since then, which gives you an idea of how popular the innovative wrapper was. And although the two-layer wrapper design has gone through a few minor changes, it's ubiquitous today due to its convenience and to how well it preserves the texture of the laver, and you can't walk into a convenience store without finding one.
Next time you enjoy the crunch of an onigiri and finish it without getting sticky rice on your fingers, send out a mental thank-you to the prepared food vendor from Nagano who made this perfect triangular snack possible.

What’s App With You?


Dark Echo:

Looking for a fright? This creepy, immersive game may be just what you need. You'll need stereo headphones to properly enjoy Dark Echo -- you start off stuck in a pitch black alley and, unable to rely on your sight, must explore mysterious environments and escape an unseen evil using sound alone. The sound waves are pictured as patterns of white and colored lines bouncing around a black screen, providing an ingenious way to help players orient themselves. Tap the screen gently and you'll hear more sounds and reveal more about your surroundings, but tap too much and you may be detected by enemies that first sound like simple blades but get increasingly unsettling and otherworldly. It's a great, tense experience that easily rivals a good horror movie.


If you're the type to jot down notes, thoughts, and appointments all over the place, Evernote is a great alternative that keeps everything you need in one app. It lets you write all kinds of notes, from plain memos to lists, and lets you access them on any of your devices, presenting them in a clean, simple interface with a search engine that makes it easy to find what you're looking for. You can also collect articles from the web, handwritten notes or pictures, then organize it all by adding tags or by separating them into notebooks. Perfect for writing to-do lists when planning a trip, taking notes during meetings, or even organizing the business cards you receive by taking pictures of them.

Tokyo Voice Column

Kodo by Nobuyo Honda

Kodo is the practice of incense burning, a part of Japanese art. I’m interested in Kodo because I do aromatherapy, and it is better to know about Japanese fragrances.

I took a series of five Kodo classes at a culture center, and learned the way of Kodo manners for a guest. Historically, incense first came from China with Buddhism in the 6th century, and it started to be used in religious ceremonies for purification and meditation. Around the 11th century, aristocrats used it like a perfume in their daily life, and they invented Kodo along with Sado (the tea ceremony) around the 15th century.

It is similar to Sado, but you hand the next person an aroma cup and enjoy an intelligent game using incense. It involves a smoking piece of aromatic wood, sandalwood, aloeswood and etc, and is also the practice of enjoying the changing seasons with Waka (poetry) and classic literature. Those who practice Kodo refer to the action of smelling fragrance as “listening”.

For example, one of the Kodo games is named Genji Ko. Genji is the name of a noble man, and the story called “Genji Monogatari” is a book which was written in the Heian period (the 11th century), and Ko means “fragrance”. The master has five kinds of aromatic wood. Each type has five pieces; all twenty-five pieces of wood are put into a separate envelope in advance. Then the master takes out one envelope, and puts the piece on the top of the cup. It is in a cake of hot charcoal and is covered with ashes, so it will smoke and float the aroma. This is repeated five times. The visitors are listening each aromatic cup and guess if the aromas are the same, and mark special lines on a sheet of paper. There are 52 aroma patterns, and each line’s marks are named after female characters in the Genji story. Finally, the master collect up the visitors answers and announces the result.

The smells which Kodo uses are really delicate. Kodo has many aspects, not just aroma games. If you do Kodo, you will probably improve your aesthetic senses. Some people are not good at sitting on their heels for a long time, but there are some classes that you can take while sitting in a chair. How about trying Kodo?





Strange but True

Robot-staffed hotel

Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park in Nagasaki that's modeled after the Netherlands, has announced their plans to open a futuristic hotel staffed by robots.
The two-story Hen na Hotel will open 72 rooms on July 17, with 72 more planned for 2016. Three "actroids" will function as receptionists with whom guests will be able to have intelligent conversations.
Huis Ten Bosch president Hideo Sawada has said that he hopes to have robots eventually run 90% of the property, from room service to cleaning and porter service. Guests can already reserve rooms online, with rates capped at a surprisingly affordable 18,000 yen for a triple room.

College in the clouds

With the ever-shrinking leg room and depressing straight-to-DVD movie options that plague most plane travel, two American airlines have come up with a great new way to distract the passengers: their selection of complimentary audio and video now includes college lectures.
Jet Blue is streaming recorded lectures from some of America's most elite courses, such as marketing classes from University of Pennsylvania, an archeology class from Brown University, and even an introduction to guitar and rhythm from the Berklee School of Music. Virgin America, meanwhile, has opted to offer their passengers lectures from the Great Courses series, with topics ranging from astrology to history.
A pleasant surprise and great news for frequent flyers, who now have a great alternative to rotting their brains with mediocre movies.



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