Japan, You’re Doing it Wrong! (Sometimes)


 

Japan, you're doing this wrong!

Japan, you’re doing this wrong!

It’s not a shock to anyone following Far East Fling that Jody and I are huge fans of the Japanese and Okinawans, their culture, and their country.  I recently did a blog on our “Top 10 Things Done Right” in Japan, but of course, being in Asia, every yin has its yang, or vice versa.  In other words, there are things done wrong in the Far East, sometimes dreadfully so!  Thus, what follows is our (short) listing of the “Top 10 Vexes” that irks us here to no end.  While you may not agree, and it may counter to flirting with the Far East, I hope that at least you find the humor in the views of a couple of misplaced gaijin Westerners.

Colonel, you're doing it wrong in Japan.

Colonel, they’re doing it wrong in Japan.

10. KFC. That’s right, Kentucky Fried Chicken.  The KFCs in Okinawa are certainly not in Kansas anymore, and neither can one find a hint of Kentucky in Okinawa.  The chickens are smallish Asian birds, and the original recipe is served quite slimy (all personal opinion, of course).  The sodas are quite size-challenged, looking more like a kiddie drink in the states, and this strong American male needs more than a shot (or two) of Coke, diet or not.  But the worst offense, by far, one which the Colonel standing outside every KFC in Japan cannot overcome with his food aficionado’s charm, is the biscuit served here.  They are at once dense, lacking both butter- and buttermilk flavors, and presented with a hole in the center.  People, it’s more like a donut that a buttermilk biscuit!  And it should be considered a culinary crime.

I believe this is wrong.  On many levels.

I believe this is wrong. On many levels.

9. Christmas. Now that Halloween is about to come and go, Japan is already switching to Christmas.  Shop-fronts are being decorated with most-things Santa, trees are popping up in hotel lobbies, and you’ll find a plastic Colonel Sanders dressed in a Santa outfit outside many branches of KFC throughout Okinawa (still can’t make up for the dang biscuit tragedy).  But, like most places, the hype can’t hold up to actually delivering the Christmas spirit.  It’s no secret that Japan isn’t based on Christianity, and it shouldn’t come as a shock to hear that Christmas Day is just another working day for the Japanese.  In fact, Christmas in Japan is really for lovers (see my blog Christmas is for Lovers).  And, given that paradigm shift, December 24th in Japan is perhaps considered the biggest day for romance of the year.  But very shortly afterwards, the Japanese swiftly move on to more fitting and appropriate Asian-inspired holidays, like celebrating the Chinese lunar new year….  Of course there is the fixation in Japan on “Christmas Dinner,” which in the last 40 years has become completely synonymous with KFC (do you sense a common denominator so far??).  So instead of the biggest, baddest, bestest roast beast of the year, the Japanese turn to a family-sized bucket of the Colonel’s finger-lickin’-good chicken to season the season.  And they are dead serious about it here; orders usually are placed sometime in November, and KFCs publish a pickup schedule as timely and precise as they are known for the running of their mass transit trains.

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8. Red Lights and No Left (our right) Turns. There is no left on red here, the equivalent of no right turn on red in America.  Now sure, there are places where this may hold true at home in the states, but by-in-large, we endeavor to keep traffic moving along by allowing such turns…albeit after a full stop and checking for others who may have right-of-way.  In Japan, pedestrians hold sanctity over timeliness (which is itself next to godliness, or so we’re all told); here, people on foot or bike actually matter more than how late you may be to grabbing your overpriced Starbucks caramel mocha frappuccino.  Likewise, many neighborhood intersections stop traffic in all directions to allow pedestrians to cross (read more in my blog Red Lights Running).  These two facets of Japanese traffic de-engineering – no turns on red and stopping all traffic – are bad enough alone or together, but when you realize that none of the lights are timed with any others, and every red light here works on a simple timer vice being traffic-triggered, grid lock assumes a new and potentially frustrating definition.  If the Japanese drivers and people weren’t so dang polite, it would surely lead to road rage…but her there is NONE.  Another amazing benefit:  it allows small children in Japan, like 5 or 6 years old, to walk to school alone, where they simply raise their hand when approaching an intersection as a signal that they intend to cross the road and you best stop and yield (which most do).

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7. Renting and Moving. Moving is expensive, relatively speaking, no matter where one resides.  With plots the size of most American backyards costing obscene amounts of money in Japan, it’s really no wonder that rents here are so high.  But renting an apartment involves far more expenditure than the same action generally requires back home in the States.  It takes handfuls of cash here to get handed a key!  When renting a domicile in Japan, generally speaking, you need a purse bloated enough to cover:  1) First month’s rent up-front, which seems to be an international standard of sorts.  2) “Shikikin,” or the Far East version of a security deposit, where like most places, it is mostly refundable but equal to one or two month’s rent.  3) “Reikin,” or a gratuity, where the capitalistic-lite money-trail in Japan takes its first dramatic and uncapitalistic twist.  Written in kanji as 礼 “thanks” and 金 “money”, reikin of up to two month’s rent is paid to some greedy landlords in order to secure an apartment.  4) Housing agency fees, which accounts for yet another month’s rent.  And finally, 5) Price Gouging.  This last one I’m perfectly okay with, being married to an Active Duty member of the US armed forces.  The Okinawans know all too well what the maximum housing allowances are for the American military, based on rank and dependent status, and often times will price a unit targeted at Americans at the very upper allowance limit, which is often times 33-50% more than would be charged for a local.  Since military members don’t get more than they actually pay in rent, no one loses.  In fact, I’m all for the local economy benefiting from having such a large and strong American presence on their tiny island.  For me and Jody, renting our Quirky Condo (see the blog Our Home, Kwuirky with a K!), priced at ~$2750/month, cost us out-of-pocket something on the order of $7,000 in cash.  And this is low considering that most property owners and housing agencies on Okinawa have come to realize (after probably being forced by the US government) that compulsory gratuities are incredibly old-fashioned and illegal in the American framework, and thus they ask only for partially refundable security deposits.  Add in the expensing, in cash, of buying, registering, and insuring two vehicles, and that total jumps to $15,000!  Yikes.

Japan isn't the only ones doing bureaucracy wrong.

Japan isn’t the only ones doing bureaucracy wrong.

6. Bureaucracy. Some rather silly traditions and rules past their primes result in a rigid bureaucracy in Japan, which they get incredibly “right.”  It makes this “wrong” listing since some elements of the Japanese society can be frustratingly backwards.  The Japanese positively excel at making inane processes even more laborious and painful; rules in Japan were and are never made or intended to be broken.  Ever.  Case in point:  we went to board an airport terminal bus, and were the only two getting on.  However, we were motioned off the bus and down along the curb about 40’, where, after the bus pulled forward, we were then allowed to board….  All Jody and I could do was smile at each other.  Japanese bureaucracy, however, is also largely responsible for many of the reasons why Jody and I enjoy living in a country where everything runs so smoothly, from on-time, every time mass transit, to first-class customer service wherever you go, to on-time almost-to-the-minute service calls and deliveries, all with zero fuss and all smiles.  These things are only possible through a comprehensive web of rules and standards.  In fact, I’ve been told that either in government service or civilian working life, the Japanese are often wary of those who try to effect change and bend rules as they run counter to the whims and greater good of everyone else.  A favorite line I like to quote:  “While the West invented bureaucracy, the Japanese perfected it!”

Wow.  You get the point.

Wow. You get the point.

5. Packaging. We’re not talking about handsome traditional Japanese packaging or beautiful Asian gift-wrapping here, both of which are unassumingly stunning and widely utilized.  What I’m talking about here is Japan’s craze with sealing most anything and perhaps almost everything in plastic.  Japan as a country is way ahead of America in terms of recycling and consumer participation in the direct management of waste streams, but from every appearance, there is a use of plastic more massive than anything in the West that I’m familiar with.  Now, who doesn’t like crisp, fresh and delicious crackers?  But not each individual one needs to be hermetically sealed.  Seriously, Japan, you are killing us and your small corner of the planet with plastic.  Give it a rest!

Television done so very wrong.

Television done so very wrong.

4. Television. Japan offers a wide array of quality anime and raw manga, and of course there are the cheesy dramas that the Japanese love with a passion, but much of the programming here (especially in Okinawa) is just crudely bad.  Silly low-budget chat shows, slapstick comedies, and the craziest game shows on the planet all make the menu of mediocre.  Now if variety shows tickle your fancy – ones with large panels of the same B-list celebrities week after week, each with carefully crafted lines and jokes and female audience members exclaiming “EEEEE-eee!” in amazement and disbelief, all presented in a format that looks like it was produced by a bunch of high-school vocational broadcasting students – then you’re in for a real treat in Japan.  Jody and I, however, switch on our televisions to Japanese programming only when we’ve run out of cute cat videos to watch online.

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3. Money and ATMs. Producing some of the world’s best technological gadgets, one would think that the Japanese would be paying for their commercialism by embedded RF chips in their forearms or via retinal scanning, let alone swiping a piece of plastic like most of the rest of the First World does.  While businesses are getting better and better about accepting credit cards, Okinawa (and wider Japan to a lesser extent) is still very much a cash-based society that necessitates have at least ten or twenty thousand yen in your wallet at any given time.  Especially on the weekends.  “Why,” I hear you asking?  Because the majority of ATMs (and their hosting banks) close completely – literally via an automated metal shutter – in the evening and on weekends.  Or if they remain open, extra fees for cash withdraws when most people want cash the most are charged.  Many local bars and Mom & Pop businesses remain strictly cash only, debit cards use remains rare.  Hey Japan, if you want your well-paid citizenry to roil up the economy, you’ve got to allow access to money!  Lucky for Jody and I, the ATMs on base are all run by the 24/7 American banking industry, and Bank of America ATMs discharge both dollars and Yen without any surcharges.  We still carry around gobs of cash, both in dollars and yen.

But people don't take garbage with them....

But people don’t take garbage with them….

2. Public Trash Cans. One of the most annoying facets of living in Okinawa is the island’s apparent abhorrence with public trash cans.  I can just imagine the bureaucratic logic:  “Hey Mayumi, if we put out public trash cans, not only do we have to buy them first, we have to pay for pickup!”  “Osamu, you’re absolutely right:  no public trash cans is the absolute and only solution!”  So, we live along an absolutely beautiful and popular seawall fronting the East China Sea, only to have it marred by constant litter everywhere.  No, the public doesn’t take their refuse away, nor does the community chip in to help.  Litter is ubiquitous, exactly because there is nowhere to put it.  If only Japan had their version of a proud, shirtless Indian crying along the seashore, things would be different.  Shame on you Japan, for being both obtuse litterbugs AND not providing a means for public refuse collection.

The dangers of low insulation and high humidity!

The dangers of low insulation and high humidity!

1. Heating, Cooling & (the lack of) Insulation. Like the Geiko commercials go, everyone knows that…houses in Japan are thin and poorly insulated because they’re designed to be as light as possible in order to better withstand earthquakes.  But that doesn’t have to mean they are either insanely hot during an Okinawan summer, or miserably cold in the northern reaches of Honshu in winter.  A lack of central air conditioning means each room has its own power-hungry wall-mounted air conditioner, a rather inefficient way to cool or heat a dwelling.  Add in what seems to be almost a national allergy to any material or design with even a hint of insulating properties, what results is an Island populace that is, in effect, cooling (or heating) the surrounding environment in their expensive efforts to make the indoors inhabitable!  Read Timeless Townhouse for more on historical Japanese home design.  In fact, What happens is that the external environment actually finds it way inside; see Tropical Troubles for one unfortunate result.  One day Japan will come to the collective realization that science has, indeed, already produced ultra-light, super-insulating and affordable materials that can be effectively integrated into Japan’s domestic domiciles.

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In the grand scheme of life in our Far East Fling, these pet peeves matter little. Life is Good in and throughout Japan!  But like anywhere else in the world, life in this island-nation of Asia has its pros and cons.  What do YOU who have traveled or lived here find most annoying about being a stranger in this strange land?

Things Done Right: Living in Japan


Although living in Okinawa is not without its faults, it is nevertheless an incredibly efficient and easy-to-live-in prefecture of Japan, and Jody and I have discovered numerous things that the Japanese get not just right, but almost perfect. Here’s a “Top-10” listing of some of our favorites.

Clock-watching at work sucks; for public transportation, it's FANTASTICALLY good!

Clock-watching at work sucks; for public transportation, it’s FANTASTICALLY good!

1. Punctuality: Things in Japan run smoothly. Very smoothly. Yes it is true that the Japanese can be rather stoically set in their ways, and their rules almost certainly are made not to be broken, but without this high regard for law, order and adherence to cultural norms, living in Japan would be wholly different…involving a lot more wasted time. It is so very refreshing that the Japanese take punctuality totally seriously, where it is considered common courtesy to be early, regardless of what they may be early for. This is in large part why services in Japan work and work so well (and as they should), and schedules can be relied on without doubt.

Sometimes clock-watching is a GREAT thing

Sometimes clock-watching is a GREAT thing

For instance, getting maintenance completed on our condominium. A quick phone call to our property manager to set up an appointment, often the same-day, followed by the nearly on-time arrival of the maintenance man, usually a few minutes early, but sometimes ringing the doorbell to the minute. At home in the States we Americans need at least a half-day set aside to get cable or satellite TV. Here, we had a set appointment time, and yes, the technician was on-time. On-time deliveries, movers who show up ten minutes early, and public transport that’s seldom more than a couple of minutes off scheduled times all conspire to make living in Japan the “time” of your life!

Conductors still use pocket watches....

Conductors still use pocket watches….

Delays are inevitable though, even for Japan’s super-punctual rail system. However, in those rare cases, the rail companies and their operators sounding sincere and serious apologies throughout the trains while handing out “proof of lateness” slips to pass along to those suspecting bosses (or wives), proving that it was in fact the train company’s fault and not yours that you were late for work…. They can’t do anything for lipstick on your collar, though.

If you have been promised a service call on a certain day at a certain time, there is a very high probability that’s exactly when it will occur. Such dedication to timekeeping is admirable; I cannot express enough how refreshing it is to have everyone’s time so well-respected by most everyone else.

This vending machine even walks TO you....

This vending machine even walks TO you….

japanese_vending_machines2. Vending Machines: Yes, there are the crazy web postings about all the crazy things that the Japanese sell through vending machines, but much to our combined chagrin, woman’s panty vending machines are not found here on every other street corner. However, if you need a thirst immediately quenched, you won’t have to travel more than about 100 yards…in any direction…for either a hot or cold beverage of your choice. From canned coffee (which the Japanese are gaga over), to almost anything that can be stuffed into a pop-top tin can, it can be found in vending machines throughout Okinawa. Prices are reasonably cheap at between 110-150 yennies (roughly $1.10-1.50), and some machines are even completely LCD screens, opting for CGI rather than showing those boring empty bottles and cans. Then there’s the slot machine-like feather lending further incentive for purchase by providing “let’s chance” for winning a free drink.

The ubiquitous market for families on Okinawa

The ubiquitous market for families on Okinawa

use-convenience-stores3. Convenience Stores: Back home in the states, convenience stores are primarily used for lotto tickets, smokes, booze and gas (more and more in that order), and generally are seen as a last resort for groceries, and then only around midnight when you realized you just used the last of the toilet paper in the house. Someway, somehow, we rationalize that the exorbitant prices charged by such establishments are worth the “convenience,” and equally accept the almost universally poor service from minimum-wage employees who certainly don’t want to be there any more than you do.

LAWSON

 

circle-kThe Japanese micro-corner of the world in this respect is clearly upside-down and rotating backwards! Convenience stores in Japan are actually convenient. The convenience chains – Lawson, FamilyMart, CoCo, and even 7-Eleven and Circle K (when is the last time you saw one of those?) in mainland Japan are all kinds of wonderful and they’re absolutely everywhere. You know, a city block is really too far to walk, so let’s put TWO, one at either end. Make you cross a street for that yakitori craving? Certainly not: let’s put another on the other side! Prices are reasonable, ready-made meals using real food such as sushi, rice, and vegetables replacing our all-beige fried foods and pizza, are prepared fresh daily (rather than a day-off of a week ago), but it’s the services offered that really set these fine upstanding establishments apart. Some examples are:

Courier Services: need to send a package across town and don’t want to hassle with the post? Take your package to your local convenience store, have them measure it, slap a delivery label on it, and they will ensure a courier service picks it up for often same-day delivery!

Bill Pay: Need to pay your gas, electricity, internet or mobile phone bill? Do it here and it’s processed in seconds. The plus side? Your lights are back on in moments. The drawback? Cash only, my friends. See the handy ATM in the store…which do much more than just delivery cash. Okay, so the Japanese aren’t as savvy with online bill-pay…YET. I have little doubt in the end they will do even that better than we ever could.

suicaBooking & Paying for Tickets: Many convenience stores have rather large ATM-style machines which can be used to look up and reserve things like flights, concert and theme park tickets, and other fun things to do. Some machines let you shop online, as long as the vendor takes “convenience store payment;” after securing your wants and needs online right there in the store, take the printed receipt to the cashier and hand your cash over to the clerk. Yes, these transactions often are cash-based, but with that there are worries about bad credit or debt here.

Printing: The convenience stores have online printing service websites where documents can be uploaded and saved, after which a pass code is provided. Putting a few yennies in the store’s printer along with your unique pass code, and your documents are printed in seconds.

Ramen and Gyoza, just about the perfect lunch

Ramen and Gyoza, just about the perfect lunch

4. Food: Yes, there are some odd dishes here; those WTF moments as you find a way (and place) to spit out whatever is assaulting your taste buds…like horse sashimi or weakly fried dough with some raw octopus inside. But seriously, the vast majority of Japanese food is simply superb – and this coming from a guy who doesn’t even eat the sushi! Here are a few favorites to sample:

12833840553_2478d5f55d_bGyoza: Japanese gyoza are most often fried, something the Chinese may find insultingly unrefined (theirs are steamed), but there is not one single reason not to adore them. Available in wide variety, these hot doughy dumplings, soft on two sides and crispy brown on the third, are perfect anytime of the day or night. And they are sold day and night. All day and night! It is one of the staple dishes here, often making up a large portion of lunch or dinner.

Donburi: Bowls of fluffy white rice topped with strips of marinated meat(s), kimchi, or raw tuna. Some would call this dish Japan’s version of American soul food, these bowls of goodness are hearty and filling. The dish is so popular that there are fast food-style chains that specialize in it, such as Yoshinoya or Sukiya, at a decent price for a decent rendition.

12834199094_a848c495cc_bRamen: noodles in soup with toppings, deceptively simple but no less than decadently delicious. This is NOT your starving college student’s soup. The soup is available is probably hundreds of varieties across Japan, but is usually pork, soy, salt, or miso based, and topped with “pork bone,” among other things. Served with 6 or 12 gyoza and a meal is made.

10048619414_bdde9ccda2_bSashimi & Sushi: Sashimi, strips of raw fish, usually served with wasabi and soy sauce, is only a distant cousin of sushi, perhaps Japan’s most famous dish. Sushi is special rice either topped with or wrapped around ingredients like fish and vegetables. Even cheap conveyor-belt sushi here is good (and at a buck-o-five, it’s the bargain of Japan’s culinary world), but sushi made by chefs who have trained for decades and use only the finest ingredients is nothing short of divine (or so my wife tells me). I’m not sure we found such a place…yet.

shabu_1Shabushabu: Enjoyed socially and family style, shabushabu consists of vegetables and wafer-thin strips of raw meat cooked by the diner in mere seconds in a communal boiling stock, fondue style. Using various toppings and seasonings (like sesame sauce!), this type of soup tastes absolutely wonderful and seems to warm your very soul.

Leave the stinky soil at the doorstep

Leave the stinky soil at the doorstep

asi35. No Shoes Indoors: Yes, it takes some getting used to, and yes, for some westerners it results in a complete change in their footwear selection (laces are BAD). However, if you stop and think about it, the idea of walking around your home wearing the footwear soiled with the outside world is kind of gross. Or, think of it this way: every time you sit with your shoe-clad feet up on your sofa, chair or bed, what makes you so sure you didn’t step in something’s guts or defecate while outside?? Or, look at it this way: wearing you shoes all around your house is basically the same as taking all your rugs, carpets and furniture outside and expecting them to stay clean while using them….

In the majority of Japanese homes – and also in schools, restaurants and some businesses – people remove their outdoor shoes before entering the building proper. While not unique to Japan, there is a clear desire here to draw a clear line between the clean uchi (“inside”) and unclean soto (“outside”).

13374414963_d1fe228ca2_bBut this notion carries on even within dwellings: that the home should never be unnecessarily dirtied is also reflected in the layout of a typical Japanese bathroom. Here baths are for relaxation and meditation, not for cleansing (why sit in a tub of your own grime). Everyone showers – the cleansing method of choice – before entering the bathtub. The toilet, the dirtiest place in the home, is usually found in a separate room from the bath, shower and sink.

Fast food.  It's certainly fast; still unsure about the "food" part....

Fast food. It’s certainly fast; still unsure about the “food” part….

6. Customer Service: working concurrently with the Japanese sense of punctuality, there’s something inherently awesome about having the staff at McDonald’s treat you like royalty…or is that Burger King? Speaking of Burger King, their drive-thru here on Kadena Air Force Base is probably the most efficient service I have ever witnessed, worthy of further study and publication with an aim to educate the American fast-food industry. Seriously, it moves that fast, even during the lunchtime crunch, which is HUGE here with limited eating options, and even more limited drive-thru’s. If there’s one thing you can say about the Japanese, it’s that they really know how to look after their customers.

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Space-saving genius:  pumps on the ceiling!

Space-saving genius: pumps on the ceiling!

Speaking of customers, whether they are from Japan or not, all receive polite greetings and smiles. Japanese employees are quick to find something to apologize for even when it’s clear that the customer is, in fact, in the wrong. Have a problem at the bank or post office? The staffs there will do their best to find a solution for you rather than simply apologizing and trying to move on to the next customer…an all-too-common occurrence in the States. Gas stations are still full-service; you never leave your car. The attendant cleans your windshield, side-view mirrors and even headlight housings; they run their cloths over your wipers, and finally inquiry about any garbage you’d like thrown away. And most amazingly, this same attendant will stand next to your car and bow as you drive away!

It's pretty much like the Space Shuttle's "Manned Maneuvering Unit," for your bowels.

It’s pretty much like the Space Shuttle’s “Manned Maneuvering Unit,” for your bowels.

peepo-choo-japanese-toilet7. Toilets: While bureaucracy was invented in the West but perfected in the East, the exact same thing can be said about toilets. Japan’s “space-age toilets” are truly things of tremendous technological achievement. Heated seats, with not one but two spray functions whose pressure, warmth and direction can be controlled, ambient noise to help hide any embarrassing bottom burps, lids that open automatically as you enter the room in a reverse bow, and multiple flush options to help save water (after wasting all that electricity) make using the facilities in Japan an adventure in itself (see my blog dedicated to this very fact here). There is plenty of debate still offered as to the health benefits of the old-school Asian squat-toilets, which unfortunately still exist here in droves, sometimes to a Westerner’s consternation. But it’s just impossible to resist tinkering with the plethora of buttons and dials, even if the health and well-being of the family jewels might “hang” in the balance!

Doorman not required.

Doorman not required.

item8_size_japan-cab-driver-rotator8. Taxis: They are not cheap (nor too expensive), but they are cool for one and one reason alone – automatically opening doors! After hailing a cab that has come to a stop at your curbside, the taxi’s passenger door will automatically open. Like unlock and completely open, swinging wide to allow for easy and quick entry. Once you’re safely inside, the driver uses a lever to close the door after you. Yes, it’s a small gesture, but it makes a world of difference and makes one feel like a minor celebrity.

ea0ad0_1d565cc2c112c34dd3e7d82b45b363c6_jpg_srz_3872_2592_85_22_0_50_1_20_0There is no creep factor in the Taxi industry here, nor or foreigners utilized in revolving-door human resource staffing. Rather, being a taxi driver is a recognized and appreciated profession in Japan, reflected in that most drivers wear suits, complete with tie and white gloves…and sometimes even a vest and hat. Oh, and as a side note, all Taxis in Japan are natural-gas driven, and while this does sacrifice some trunk luggage space, the no-emission nature of the fleet is very much appreciated in the car-choked streets of Japan’s greater urban areas.

Waste-not, want not, except for more recycling bins.

Waste-not, want not, except for more recycling bins.

recyclingjapan9. Recycling & Waste Management: Japan’s system for garbage collection and disposal is one to be admired, and quite possibly, emulated. Their garbage trucks are covered with stickers of cute creatures, and play music reminiscent of the ice cream trucks of yesteryear Americana. Most cities require residents to sort their household waste into distinct categories: burnable, plastics, PET bottles, glass, aluminum, and paper/cardboard. We, on the other hand, living in an American-centric high-rise here in Okinawa, only sort between burnable and unburnable. But even then, our trash is still sorted at pickup, which also allows for some very enterprising (and early rising) Okinawans the chance to collect on valuable metals and such in our building’s collective waste bins since only the thinnest see-through plastic bags are allowed to be used for refuse.

While sorting may seem like “work,” it really doesn’t make sense to try to cheat this system by being lazy. The refuse collectors will often leave wrongly bagged items behind, probably to shame you in front of your neighbors, forcing you to either commit hari-kari, or, more likely, into doing the right thing next time. Further, most towns each sell their own refuse bags in local supermarkets, DIY and convenience stores, and encourage proper recycling by making bags for cans and plastics much cheaper than the more general “burnable” bags. Besides being an adhered-to cultural norm, in Japan, it seriously pays to be green.

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Look closely for the booze in this photo!

Look closely for the booze in this photo!

10. Drink & Drinking: For Americans, public imbibing of alcohol is most likely illegal, and even if it isn’t, it is certainly frowned upon. But in Japan it’s considered perfectly OK to crack open a beer in the park, on the street, or in a bullet train. Perhaps it’s simply that so few Japanese make a nuisance of themselves and get violent (or naked, or BOTH) after drinking…. Whatever the reason, thanks to this relaxed approach to public drinking, parks all over Japan are filled with respectable revelers, primarily made up of families rather than just rowdy spring break students. Here in Okinawa, our front yard Sunabe Seawall is the place of choice to enjoy a cold one (or three) along with the most beautiful sunsets over the East China Sea. No brown-bagging your booze here; in Japan it’s “beer and cheers” as and when you see fit, and both Jody and I think that’s progressively refreshing over the prototypical over-indulgent and uncontrollable American drunk…which has to be constrained and often restrained by Johnny-Law.

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Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys: 1999-2001


TACRON Det Photo

TACRON Det Photo

I didn’t want to ever be stationed in Japan.  I had absolutely no interest…back in the 1990s.  Now, it wasn’t anything personal or racist; I never felt comfortable enough about taking my family – wife and small children – to such a foreign place to live, work and go to school, all the while I was on-tap to deploy at any moment.  And those moments were sure to happen.  Often.

That all changed, however, in 1999.  I’ve written about how this all came about here at length (see Tora Tora Tora), but let me summarize it a bit here.

At the time I got orders to Japan I was what the Navy labels one as “Not Physically Qualified” (NPQ) for flight, suffering from chronic and debilitating back pain and serious sciatica resulting from a severe back injury in high school, exacerbated by years of weight lifting.  Due to this status, I was not slated for a Department Head squadron tour (a career-killer for aviators), and thus I became for Naval Aviation the proverbial round peg that can fit most any square hole.  Are there are always a lot of squares that no one wants anything to do with?

So, after 9 months of living overseas in Italy where they “stashed” me on short-notice after a reservist backed out of NATO-based orders (best thing to ever happen to me in the Navy…next to Okinawa), I came home to reassignment to, like I’ve stated, somewhere I never had any intention of living:  Japan.  It was a one-two-three combo knockout blow.

Or so I thought at the time.

My recollections of the phone call with my Navy “Detailer” who broke the news to me….

“Introducing first…. from the blue corner, weighing a round 29 billion pounds, hailing from Washington DC and rated as the best, most capable sea-service in the whole-wide-world and star of the hit movie Top Gun, with 33 gazillion kills, and only two losses, it is the ass-kicker of the Brits, the Italians, the Germans and the Japanese, and subduer of Somalia pirates and innumerable small, defenseless Caribbean nations, abled-bodied and full of seaman, I INTRODUCE…The…

(dramatic pause)

UNITED…

(more dramatic pause)

STTTTTTTTTTAAAAAAAATTTTTTTEEEEEESSSSSSS…

(most dramatic pause)

NAVY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“And, in the red corner, weighing in at a few ounces over 192 pounds, hailing from Pensacola, Florida, rated by many as the best pound for aviator in recent years, with 3 wins, 1 of them coming by the way of knockout (TKO), and no defeats (but only 3 boxing matches during Aviation Preflight Training), he is the former middleweight Navy career champion, former super middle weight A-6 Bombardier-Navigator, and, former light heavy-lightweight weight champion, and former HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF HIS FAMILY… Lieutenant Commander…

KEVIN…

(dramatic pause)

ELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL-VIIIIIIISSSSSSSSSS….

(most dramatic pause!)

KING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“Ding-Ding!” resounds the boxing bell.  Fight’s on.  I have a feeling it’s not going to be fair.

The Navy comes out aggressively swinging, not wasting any time with niceties or compassion.  First, it’s a combo followed by a stiff right jab to the nose:  “You’re getting orders to Japan.”  I’m dizzy and  stumble back a step, somewhat dazed by the sharp pain of the blunt words.

Before I could regain any composure, the second combination, a crossing blow from the left to the check, strikes:  “It’s a non-flying job.”  Confusion starts to reign as the throbbing realization of no longer being able to fly sets in.  Let me put it to you this way:  I didn’t join the Navy for its ships….

And the coup de gras, combo #3, a right hook square on the chin:  “…and you’ll be assigned to a ship….”  Tunnel vision sets in and stars start to orbit my psyche as I think about being “stuck” on a boat for months and years at a time….

Down to the mat I go, unreactive and stiff as a board, bouncing lightly upon being grounded.  But as quickly as the Navy dropped me with this TKO, his gloves were found to be over-weighted with a healthy dose of misinformation.  The fight was called; I told you it wasn’t going to be fair.

It seldom is with Big Navy.

Me in East Timor, fall of 1999.

Me in East Timor, fall of 1999.

It wasn’t Japan, but Okinawa to which I was being assigned.  And there is a serious difference between the two.  It’s like trying to call Hawaiian or Puerto Rican culture as the same as “American.”  Okinawa happens to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful reefs in the world, all just an easy shore-dive away.  Besides skydiving (and verifying my wife’s naked age of 24), scuba diving IS my passion.

While it was a non-flying job, I was able to maintain flying status the whole time, which meant I didn’t have to give up my special “Flight Pay,” which at the time made up a significant portion of my pay.  Discretionary income became very important for scuba diving, as well as enabling the use of the centrally-located island in the Pacific as a hoping-off point for some massive travels.

And, most importantly, I was not assigned to a ship, but to a Flag Staff on Okinawa while ashore, and when required to go underway, I was assigned to ship’s staff, which is in no way, shape or form to be confused with “ship’s company” (no offense to any SWO-Daddies…and Mommas…out there).  Who the hell joins the Navy to be ship’s company anyhow?!?  I don’t like ships very much.  Except when they are targets.

TACRON enlisted have real duties.  Playing cards is probably not one of them.

TACRON enlisted have real duties. Playing cards is probably not one of them.

But, this is all simply to set a humorous stage for my initial tour on Okinawa as part of Tactical Air Control Squadron 12 (VTC-12, most commonly referred to as “TAC-RON”), or more affectionately known as “THE ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS.”  You see, no one with any, shall we say “normal” career aspirations asks to go to TACRON.  No, it’s a place reserved for those Commanders who didn’t screen for a real command, and for officers that are, in some way or another, broken.  Now, for the enlisted, it is a real place with real jobs, albeit somewhat off the beaten path.  But for the O’s, if you find yourself down in this particular rabbit hole, you are sure to have that Talking Heads moment where “…you may ask yourself – Well…How did I get here?!”

Japanese Misfit Toys.  I think.

Japanese Misfit Toys. I think.

So, this blog is actually about those fellow misfits.  And God love’em all!  I had some of my BEST times in TACRON, not because of the mission, or duty location, or extra overseas monies we all made.  But because of fellow misfits, who, like in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, band together to overcome against the Abominable Snow Monster (analogous to most TACRON skippers, white and overly hairy, and have a hard time with the English language), as well as the Winter Warlock.

Could be most any Skipper of TACRON (wink).

Could be most any Skipper of TACRON (wink).

Wait a tic – mixed my Christmas special metaphors.  Strike that last one; it is an impossibility to melt the icy hearts of leadership in the TACRON community.

White Beach back in the day.  Where the misfit toys are often broken down even more.

White Beach back in the day. Where the misfit toys are often broken down even more.

Now, I was permanently forward deployed, but Detachments from the States rotated in and out every six months.  So, there were no less than four complete sets of personnel that I had to welcome, befriend, work with, and farewell during my tenure on Okinawa between the summers of 1999 and 2001.  BUT, the most memorable crew, and really the only Navy-related photos of that entire period hinge around three people, all fellow Navy O-4’s:  Tracy (known better as “TC”), Rick, and Paul.

Paul, extreme foreground on the left.

Paul, extreme foreground on the left. Somewhere in Hong Kong, I believe.  Or Korea.  Someplace where they sell Reeboks apparently….

Yes, that STRANGE.

Yes, that STRANGE.

Paul was permanently forward deployed with me.  He was an S-3 Naval Flight Officer, and this is no joke:  just about the strangest cat I’ve met in uniform, and much like the spotted elephant of the Island of Misfit Toys.  He certainly belonged in TACRON.  He lived out in town, a few minutes walk from our house actually, and his overly violent three little boys and overly flirtatious wife “Kitty” were always the source of gossip and high amusement.  “Strange?” I hear you wondering.  Yes, strange.  Paul once was part of a Captain’s change of command, but just a staff officer standing in ranks.  The uniform for the formal event was Chocker Whites, the epitome of uniforms when one thinks of the Navy (think An Officer and a Gentleman; Paul was neither).  However, when Paul realized he didn’t have the white gloves required as part of the uniform, and not wanting to be a stand-out by not wearing gloves, he instead substituted…wait for it…white athletic socks.  Yeah, he didn’t stand out.  Much.  STRANGE.

Me and TC having a drink...or three.  Definitely in the famous bar in Hong Kong.

Me and TC having a drink…or three. Definitely in the famous bar in Hong Kong.

TC and Rick were perhaps well ahead of the modern man-friendly Navy.

TC and Rick were perhaps well ahead of the modern man-friendly Navy.

TC, a Navy helicopter pilot, was my roommate for a time, and one of the funnier people I’ve met in Navy Aviation.  A wonderful attitude, he brought Jew to the Navy like few others could.  True story:  once I noticed he edited a document I had typed, where I use two spaces between paragraphs.  I noticed he was taking one of each of those groups out, a VERY time-consuming process.  When I asked why, he looked at me and said he was saving memory.  Wow, that was a new slant on tight-wad, and I grew up in a Jewish community!  Sorry TC, no offense intended.  For a guy who used a ruler to sign his checks (so it wouldn’t cross the printed line on the check), you had one of the very best attitudes of anyone in the Navy, before or since.  Oh, and he’s not a very good Jew either; he ate most of the holiday ham, fat and all, we cooked and served at our Det Holiday party (wink)!

Rick, the one with the furry caterpillar on his upper lip.  Manly...for a helo pilot.

Rick, the one with the furry caterpillar on his upper lip. Manly…for a helo pilot.

Rick in a shop-'til-you-drop moment.  He did it justice.

Rick in a shop-’til-you-drop moment. He did it justice.

Rick was also a Navy helicopter pilot, and already knew TC quite well.  I can’t recall if they were ever squadron-mates, but they were close friends, and stuck together while they waded through the cesspools often created within TACRON for no good reason.  Rick was quiet, non-confrontational, and simply didn’t care to rock the boat.  My funniest memory of Rick was a run-in he had with a Commander at the time, and overly gung-ho, juiced-up P-3 jock who had an overly inflated sense of importance to match his ego and steroid-inflated biceps.  When Rick elected to actually stand his watch and do some critical tasks, he was ignorantly overruled and directed to “sit here and watch this brief,” which was being played on ship’s TV.  So, Rick did just that.  As the world came crashing down around him, he sat in the chair, staring at the TV, expressionless and motionless.  When the same Commander came pounding back in to see what the problem was and saw Rick there doing what he thought was nothing, he asked Rick, “WTF?”  Rick simply replied, “I’m sitting here watching TV JUST LIKE YOU TOLD ME TO DO.”  Okay, you had to be there.  And you have to know Rick – a gentle giant, if not a passive-aggressive one.

Rick, TC and me in Hong Kong.  An island not of misfit toys.

Rick, TC and me in Hong Kong. An island not of misfit toys.

TC washing some ham down with Awamori!

TC washing some ham down with Awamori!

But I’m going to leave you with my all-time favorite story involving these three clowns.  Oh, I meant characters.  We’re in the ship’s wardroom one afternoon for lunch, and it’s almost filled to capacity since a full Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is embarked.  Now, you have to imagine something like, I dunno, twelve or fifteen tables of ten (at least), in a relatively small space with a low overhead, noisy with dishes clanking and filled with a cacophony of mindless chatter and howling laughs here and there.  We are all there, sitting together, enjoying what was surely another wonderful culinary concoction of the finest sea-service, when suddenly, a young office a table or two over starts to choke.  No one really notices at first, but like they teach you in first aid, he stands up, clutching his throat, in the international sign for “I can’t breathe and I’m choking you bastards, so HELP!”  As more and more officers notice this scene, the noise dies down, until it’s almost near silent.  No one has done anything yet.  Finally, a shipmate stands up and performs the Heimlich Maneuver, which worked better than you could ever imagine it could!  Out comes flying a huge chunk of unchewed and charred hamburger, which lands not far from TC.  The place is now so quiet you could hear the meal running through our intestines.  And after just the right amount of pregnant pause, TC states, matter-of-factly while looking at this fellow who just suffered a near-death experience, “Are you gonna eat that???”

176436676_643b3c8f8a_o

The place burst out in tears!

Little-known fact:  Rick is a ROCKSTAR in Korea.

Little-known fact: Rick is a ROCKSTAR in Korea.

And that’s what I love most about being shipwrecked by the Navy…in the Navy…on Okinawa between 1999 and 2001.

The Misfit Toys of Okinawa!

The Misfit Toys of Okinawa. Kanpai!

Typhoons: A Divinely Okinawan Experience


A "Rishi" Calling up a Divine Storm

A “Rishi” Calling up a Divine Storm

Divine Wind destroying the Mongrels in the 13th Century

Divine Wind destroying the Mongols in the 13th Century

Kamikaze (神風):  literally, “God wind,” but more commonly translated as “Divine wind.”  Kami is the Japanese word for “god,” “spirit,” or “divinity,” and kaze translates as “wind.”  The word kamikaze originated as the name of major typhoons in 1274 and 1281 that dispersed and destroyed Mongolian invasion fleets under Kublai Khan which otherwise would have most likely defeated Japan at that time.  However, Kamikaze has been forever negatively morphed in meaning due to the incomprehensibly suicidal Japanese actions against the Allies in World War II, many of which occurred right here in Okinawa.  But this latter context certainly doesn’t apply to our current-day experience with typhoons and their still-divine winds in Okinawa.

Crimson Typhoon - Not a Threat to Okinawa

Crimson Typhoon – Not a Threat to Okinawa, but to Godzilla!

The word typhoon comes from the Cantonese word tai feng, meaning “great wind” and when pronounced sounds very close to “typhoon.”  A typhoon is defined as a tropical cyclone in the western Pacific, where these storms generally track in a westward and northern direction and occur most frequently in the western Pacific region of East Asia that includes the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, southern China, South Korea, southern Japan, Guam, the Marianas Islands and parts of Micronesia.  It is essentially the same thing as a hurricane occurring in the west Atlantic and the eastern Pacific.  Similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called tropical cyclones.  Ones that strike Australia are NOT called willy willies contrary to popular belief (and I hate to burst your and my bubbles), which are nothing more than a small dust devils that often occur in parts down-under.  Cyclone is a catch-all phrase which describes all low-pressure systems over tropical waters and includes typhoons and hurricanes.

Typhoon Alley; hitting Okinawa is considered a Strike for Mother Nature

Typhoon Alley; hitting Okinawa is considered a Strike for Mother Nature. She has come close to rolling a Turkey this year so far….

Massive Storm Earlier this Summer

Massive Storm Earlier this Summer

The typhoon season here is very similar to that back home and lasts from the early summer to early autumn (June to November), often coinciding with the monsoon season in Southeast Asia and the wet season in eastern Japan.  An average of 2.6 typhoons make landfall on the four major islands of Japan annually since record-keeping began in 1951, while on average 10.3 approach within 180 miles of the coast each year.  Twelve named typhoons in this part of the Pacific are considered “many,” while eight or less is considered “few.”  Rarely is there a year without landfall, with a record 10 making landfall in 2004.  Landfall on the relatively tiny island of Okinawa occurs at three times the rate of any other prefecture of Japan!  In fact, Okinawa lies right in the heart of “Typhoon Alley.”  It gets hit by an average of seven typhoons a year.  It is customary that the finances of the families of Okinawan fishermen are in the name of the wife in case the fisherman go out to sea and don’t return, historically a common occurrence, but a seldom modern occurrence due to modern weather-forecasting and storm warning.

The Japanese can find a sexy Manga Character in Anything!

The Japanese can find a sexy Manga Character in Anything!

Japanese Fetish: Umbrella use during Typhoons!

Japanese Fetish: Umbrella use during Typhoons!

Living with typhoons on Okinawa is a completely difference experience than surviving storms back home.  Often there are literally back-to-back storms threatening the coast, and Category 3, 4, and even 5 “super typhoons” are more common and commonly encountered here.  We have lost track of the number of named storms we’ve dealt with in just the eight weeks we’ve been on-island; we are either at seven or eight, with the next due here this week sometime on Wednesday or Thursday.  Oh, and there is another depression out there just waiting to be named….

Wipha 3

Really, what's with the umbrellas and storms??

Really, what’s with the umbrellas and storms??

BUT, given this what Americans would consider a threat, the reaction of the Okinawans is calm and subdued to that of America; even the military here doesn’t “panic” over a strong storm barreling down on their people and bases like they do back home.  Here there simply does not exist the pervasive culture of fear and the media-driven frenzied-panic to which Americans mindlessly prescribe and react without any critical thought.  The Okinawans learned long ago that they must learn to live with the furious side of nature, rather than react to threats and the effects of such storms.

Yikes!  It actually wasn't bad at all....

Yikes! It actually wasn’t bad at all….

 

Pre-Strom American Runs Deplete Shoppette Supplies of Ramen!

Pre-Strom American Runs Deplete Shoppette Supplies of Ramen!

While the Okinawans utilize a wide variety of talisman to help ward off evil and offer protections from damaging typhoons, they also utilize construction techniques that have, for centuries, offered much better shelter than that of many areas of the modern west.  Starting in the mid-19th century, culturally centered construction customs helped to defeat the threat of such storms, and still today include heartily tiled roofs adorned with protective shisa statues (lion-like dog creatures that ward off evil spirits and are omnipresent in Okinawa), and a stone wall and high deeply rooted trees for protection against damaging winds.

Nkamurake Home - Nearly Typhoon-Proof

Nkamurake Home – Nearly Typhoon-Proof

More modern construction codes here are deceiving; while structures look bland and unappealing, it is only because they are designed to withstand both earthquakes and typhoons at the same time.  This means that structures are poured concrete with rebar reinforcement attached to strong, deep foundations.  Modern roofs are flat concrete slabs.  Windows are generally barred, not to defeat crime, but for protection from wind-borne missile hazards.  And, by law, homes are required to have a certain capacity of roof-mounted gravity-fed water storage, which provides for families even when water and power are not available from the authorities.  And due to the harsh climate here and proximity to wind-driven salt-laden air, painting becomes a secondary concern, giving many homes and apartment buildings a rather dingy external appearance.  They are, however, every bit as nice on this inside as we would expect to find anywhere in middleclass American.

Do you sense a recurring theme here??

Do you sense a recurring theme here??

However, unlike back home, in Japan and Okinawa more damage is almost always caused by heavy rains (and resulting floods and landslides) than by the winds or storm surge.  This, in relation to huge swaths of the America eastern seaboard and gulf coast, is opposite in experience and effect. Japanese-centric flood prevention measures, improved planning and construction and storm and flood warning that began in earnest in the 1960s have dramatically reduced the number of people killed in typhoons.  Even the most destructive storms today – including Super-Typhoons (Category 5) – rarely kill more than a dozen people.  By contrast, typhoons even in America still can take hundreds of lives.  There is an obvious and blatant lesson to be learned here….

Two Typhoons and a Tropical Storm.  Can you even image this back home?

Two Typhoons and a Tropical Storm. Can you even image this back home?

The most interesting result of these types of construction practices?  Our sizeable condo building – at 5 floors situated not 20 meters from the East China Sea coastline – actually moves when strong typhoon winds strike just right.  That’s right – glasses rattle, and the floor literally moves.  The building is actually on rollers or tracks to help defeat the transmission of earthquake energy.  It is an eerie feeling indeed to have such a large structure shift beneath your feet!

Strom Survival Kits are the Same World-Round

Strom Survival Kits are the Same World-Round.  But with gas, we can continue to cook gourmet meals!  In other words, the Ramen is wholly optional….

Okay, maybe it's a sport.  He's probably bragging about his attempted umbrella use!

Okay, maybe it’s a sport. He’s probably bragging about his attempted umbrella use!

I wish our friends and family could see the rationale and grounded approach to nature that is part and parcel of the culture in Okinawa.  Acknowledge nature, respect her, and learn to live more in harmony with your surroundings.  But do not FEAR nature.  I’m convinced it’s part of the Okinawan secret to enhanced longevity (and to their less stressful quality of life); not just because they in large part survive storms relatively unscathed, but that they fail to freak like the American populace does at the slightest perceived threat from inclement weather.

The primary drawback of tiny Asian cars!!

The primary drawback of tiny Asian cars!!

Change your longitude next summer, and come visit us in Typhoon Alley.  You’ll go home with a much-improved disposition about life.  And perhaps, just maybe, you’ll see the beauty of the divine wind inherent in such magnificent machinery of nature, especially if Mother Nature decides to bowl a Turkey!