Monday, September 18, 2017

Japan: Land of Carbs

In a couple days, I'm moving to Japan to begin working toward another degree at 北海道大学 (ほっかいどうだいがく - Hokkaidō Daigaku), Hokkaido University. With my studies of Japanese language, culture, and society--not to mention actually living in 札幌 (さっぽろ - Sapporo)--I'm hoping that translates to more frequent blog posts!

When in Japan, I'd like to keep up my healthy habits--sticking to my relatively low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet and continuing to work out--but it's not going to be easy. Not only does Japanese cooking use sugar in pretty much every dish (ever heard of 味醂 [ん - mirin]?), but I'm going to be an hour's walk from campus, which is where the (free) gym is. Thankfully, I'll be living across from a subway station, which will cut my commute by 3o to 40 minutes. (A big thank you to my dad for having the fatherly foresight to help me out with train fare, which will undoubtedly be a boon during Sapporo's cold, snowy winter.)

BAKE cheese tarts at Ikebukuro Station:
delicious carbs from Hokkaido
One of my favorite pastimes in Japan is eating carbs, whether in the form of rice, noodles, bread, donuts...whatever. The number of bakeries, noodle restaurants, and cafes in any big city is mind-boggling--and drool-inducing.

Recently, my daily carb average has been clocking in under 80 grams. Let's look at a few estimates of what I can expect:

1 cup steamed white rice
白飯 (はくはん - hakuhan)
55g carbs

2 oz. udon noodles 
饂飩 (うどん - udon)
40g carbs

1 slice Japanese bread
ン (しょくン - shokupan)
35g carbs

2 oz. ramen noodles 
拉麺 (ラーメン - ramen)
30g carbs

Mister Donut Pon de Ring
ポン・デ・リング (Misudo pon de ringu)
27g carbs

12 oz. Sapporo beer
(Sapporo biiru)
10 carbs

So basically, everything I've enjoyed during past visits to Japan is pretty much off limits. When I'm reading nutrition labels, the kanji I need to look out for is 炭水化物 (たんすいかぶつ - tansuikabutsu), the characters for "carbohydrate." I'm hoping that at the very least, I'll be able to find cheap cauliflower at a nearby grocery store so I can rice it for a decent rice substitute for my morning natto.

In a country where many believe a meal isn't complete without a bowl of rice, it's going to be a struggle. Wish me luck in the Land of Carbs!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

My own little piece of Ueno Park, right here in Indy

It's 桜 (さくら - sakura), or cherry blossom, season in Japan, a popular time for getting outside with friends, family, lovers, and coworkers. All over the country, throngs of picnickers can be seen participating in 花見 (はなみ - hanami), or flower viewing, as they sit under the trees and ponder the transience of beauty and life while enjoying tasty sakura-themed お弁当 (おべんとう - obentou) boxed lunches, 酒 (さけ - sake), and ビール (biiru - beer). But Japan isn't the only place where you can enjoy sakura in bloom. Guess what I found in my side yard on this rainy morning?

What an overcast sky! Are we sure this isn't Tokyo?
Can't see it? Check the bottom right area of the photo.

...still nothing? Here, I'll bring it in for a closer look.

The first blossoms on my new tree!
OK, so maybe it's not quite time to get the tarps out and start making merry on my lawn, but I'm tickled pink to be able to have my own little piece of Japan here in the American Midwest. Thanks to a nearby garden center, I no longer have to be relegated to viewing mere photos of sakura; I can look out the window and enjoy the real thing.

A shot of the planting process
Planting your own cherry tree is within reach, as long as your local climate isn't too harsh. Sakura are found all over Japan--even in the northern island of Hokkaido--so they can tolerate a wide range of temperatures. Before planting anything, it's always wise to check your Plant Hardiness Zone for a general idea of what should grow in your area, but remember to take micro-climates, soil makeup, and other factors into account. Even more importantly: call 811 before you dig! (Seriously--do it. Always better to be safe than sorry! It's easy and free, and now you can even fill out a locate request online via that link.)

Also, keep in mind that not all sakura are the same. Over 600 varieties are grown in Japan, and they can have rather striking differences. The specific type I chose to plant in my yard was the 染井吉野 / ソメイヨシノ (そめいよしの - somei yoshino), labeled by my local garden center as a "Yoshino Flowering Cherry" or Prunus yedoensis. (Pro tip: when in doubt, go with the scientific/Latin name to ensure you're getting the correct variety. Nerd tip: "Yedo" is an alternate romanized version of "Edo," Tokyo's former name!) The yoshino cherry is cold hardy to -10 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, safe enough for the average central Indiana winter, and should reach an average size of 40 feet tall by 30 feet wide.

Q: How do you get a cherry tree home? A: Very carefully.
Once you find a cherry tree you like, you have to act fast. I spotted a few great trees at the garden center on a Monday, and returned Wednesday night to find that all but one were gone. I don't own a truck, so we had to make do with what we had. I was skeptical that we would be able to get an 16 foot tree into my Nissan Versa (or Tiida in Japan), but my engineer husband found a way, and we carefully made our way home. Before this experience, I had never bought a tree for full price--much less paid for a tree to be delivered--so we made it work!

I chose to plant the yoshino cherry because Ueno Park is famous for this specific variety, as seen in one of my previous posts. Ueno Park holds a special place in my heart; it was the first place my husband and I really got to enjoy being surrounded by clouds of cherry blossoms during our first trip to Japan in 2013. The seasonal beauties drew crowds of people--big crowds--and the congestion and traffic caused us to miss our flight back to the U.S. Around this time last year, we had our first hanami in Ueno Park with my mother. She still talks about the delicious bento we prepared for the occasion.

While I'm a big proponent of native flora, I couldn't help but plant something that took me back to my time in Japan. My single cherry tree with its lonely couple of blossoms may not seem like much to passersby, but for my Japanese culture otaku self to have a reminder of a place I love so dearly in my own backyard, it's a true joy.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sexism and sushi: how women are challenging gender stereotypes in a male-dominated field

Every year, International Women's Day is celebrated on March 8. The day honors women worldwide for their contributions to a better society and future, and strives to highlight social issues including the fight for gender equality. In light of celebrations and rallies around the world today--and maybe because I'm hungry--I thought I'd take a look at how women are challenging the overwhelmingly patriarchal Japanese institution of sushi.

This gigantic nigiri was made by a female sushi chef:
read on for more about Nina's tasty creations
Anyone remotely familiar with Japanese culture knows that in all aspects of life, tradition is held in high regard. Shrines are respected and preserved amidst modern skyscrapers; shoes are removed in houses and schools, and even in certain restaurants and historic places; and Shinto priests are called in for a ground-breaking ceremony at construction sites to appease the local 神 (かみ - kami), or deity. "Tradition," then, is an oft-cited reason that women typically don't become 板前 (いたまえ - itamae), or as we commonly say in America, sushi chefs. Even American writer Dave Lowry exclusively uses male pronouns when referring to sushi chefs in his exhaustive sushi bible, "The Connoisseur's Guide to Sushi." But why?

As the Wall Street Journal explains in this article, there are a handful of reasons why Japanese traditionally view women as unfit for the job, ranging from biological (women menstruate, and the hormonal fluctuation is said to interfere with the sense of taste) to physical factors (women are too weak to take on the long hours and hard work). Of course, it's easy for me, an outsider and observer, to debunk these myths: men may not have a monthly cycle, but their hormones fluctuate throughout the day; women are just as capable as men at working long hours and gutting fish. (Speaking of women and seafood, how about those famous female ama divers in Japan?) Don't get me started about women having "warmer hands" that would spoil the fish; at any given time, my hands are at least 15 degrees colder than my husband's! But don't just take my word for it: Nadeshiko, a sushi restaurant in Tokyo's Akihabara district that only employs women, has broken barriers and overcome challenges by proving that women can be successful sushi chefs.

Asaka's Instagram account features Nina's work and more
Even in my current city of Indianapolis--the capital of Indiana, a conservative and traditional midwestern state where the struggle for women's rights continues--Japanese gender stereotypes are being challenged. Nina Takamure is the sushi chef at Asaka Japanese Restaurant, Indianapolis' only authentic Japanese restaurant featuring a full menu of appetizers, entrees, sushi, and libations that's locally owned and operated by Japanese people.

In June 2009, the Takamures assumed ownership of Asaka from another Japanese family. Since then, they have built a loyal customer following based on word-of-mouth. (Go during sushi happy hour to see just how effective this is.) Although Nina started working at Asaka as a server, she expressed an interest in making sushi, and proved to be a quick study. She has now spent years working alongside her father behind the sushi bar, and exudes professionalism and poise as she crafts a dizzying array of rolls. Nina has also taken it upon herself to represent Asaka on social media, where she has some 2,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram.

Japanese customs dictate that the art of sushi be passed down from father to son. Knowing the history behind the traditionally male occupation, I'm thankful that Takamure-san broke with tradition and chose to mentor his daughter.

Nina is skilled at creating new and original rolls on the fly--like this heart-shaped "Chip and Mary" roll
While the organizers behind the Women's March on Washington called for today to be a #DayWithoutAWoman in recognition of women's contributions to our economy and society in the form of strikes from both paid and unpaid work (whoops--I'm breaking that rule!), they also encouraged Americans to make a point to shop at "small, women- and minority-owned businesses" today. I think it's a good reminder for any day of the year: are you, as a consumer, aware of the source behind the goods and services you purchase? Can you say whether you actively support women- or minority-owned businesses in fields that are largely dominated by white males? (Or, as seen in traditional, authentic Japanese sushi restaurants, Japanese males?)

Being cognizant of places like Nadeshiko and Asaka--and seeking out such places in your corner of the world--can help combat stereotypes and work to promote gender equality. As Nadeshiko Chef Yuki Chidui said in a sentiment that echoes across the working world, "I hope that some day it’s not 'male sushi chef' or 'female sushi chef,' just 'sushi chef.'"

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Despite the silence, their lives mattered: exploring attitudes toward disabilities in Japan through the lens of the Sagamihara massacre

In the early morning hours of July 26, 2016, 26-year-old Satoshi Uematsu broke into his former employer, Tsukui Yamayuri-en, a care facility for developmentally disabled adults in Sagamihara, Kanagawa prefecture. Armed with several knives and sharp tools, Uematsu allegedly tied up the staff and took the keys to the facility's residential areas. By the time security cameras showed him leaving about 40 minutes later, he had killed 19 people and injured 26 more. Just minutes later, he turned himself in at the Tsukui Police Station, reportedly telling police, "I did’s better that the disabled disappear."

An aerial view of the scene at Tsukui Yamayuri-en
The attack was Japan's worst mass killing since World War II. As The Washington Post reported, Japan is a place where mass violence is uncommon; even homicides are relatively rare. The data speaks for itself: in 2015, there were 933 homicides in Japan, and in the United States that same year, there were 15,696 homicides. America's population is more than twice that of Japan's, but its murder rate is more than 16 times higher. Just by looking at the numbers, it's clear that this killing came as a shock to a country with comparatively little violent crime.

However, if you live overseas--or even if you live in Japan but are unaware of current events--there's a good chance that reading this blog post may be the first time that you're hearing of this.

Only the ages and genders of the victims were released
In the seven months following the tragedy, both the public and media responses have been criticized by international journalists and disability advocates. Public outcry both in Japan and abroad seemed lukewarm when compared with other recent mass killings. While news outlets such as The Japan Times, NHK World, and The Asahi Shimbun all reported the attack the day it happened, news coverage dropped off 10 days later due in part to extensive attention paid to the Summer Olympics in Rio. And when the case did get media coverage, critical information was always absent: names and photos of the injured and deceased. Only the genders and ages of victims were released; nine men and ten women had been killed, ranging in age from 19 to 70. Such details seem important to include in news stories, so why omit it?

As I explored this question further, it became clear that I had stumbled upon a complex topic--and this blog post thus took a completely different direction than what I had initially visualized. While socially conscious Americans understand that the disabled in our country are often ridiculed, used, or overlooked, they're often also viewed as lesser, perhaps thanks in part to deep-rooted views about work stemming from the Industrial Era. During this time, Americans were encouraged to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become self-made men or women by taking on whatever sort of work they could find. As Daniel T. Rodgers wrote in "The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920," work became "the core of the moral life."

College students on the job hunt (source: NHK World)
The classic archetype of Japan's overworked, sleep-deprived salaryman sounds entirely similar; it's not unreasonable to apply the 19th century American sentiment to modern Japanese work culture, as Carolyn S. Stevens did in her book "Disability in Japan." Couple this with the Japanese proverb 出る釘は打たれる (deru kui wa utareru - translated as "the standing nail is driven"), a saying that in part reinforces the societal pressure to conform. One only needs to take a look at job-hunting college students in Japan for a striking visual example of this proverb's relevance: whether male or female, all of the job seekers are dressed in dark suits with white collared shirts, with nearly no exception. Some young adults with dyed hair even make it a point to change their hair back to a more natural color (i.e. black) to further fit cultural expectations. While some may argue that Japan is home to many unique and colorful subcultures, even within those subcultures, there's a certain level of conformity among its members. (Indeed, a topic for another day!)

A panel discusses disability in Japan in "19 Lives That Matter"
If so much of a person's self-worth is tied to their ability to work and fit in, what happens when he or she is unable to work and stands out due to a disability? Perhaps this perception of the value and importance of work can help explain why the names of the victims still have not been--and probably will never be--officially released by police. As NHK World reported in "19 Lives That Matter" on the current affairs program, Today's Close-Up, the stigma of disability in Japan is so prevalent that some of the victims' families refused to give consent to release the victims' names due to the dishonor it might bring to surviving family members. Some of the families had never even told anyone that they had a disabled family member. Thankfully, the program also went on to show that not all Japanese feel this way, as it interviewed relatives and friends of disabled people who work to improve public opinions and misconceptions.

"Barrier-free" is a buzzword in Japan,
and バリバラ celebrates barrier-free diversity
During the program, NHK Journalist Yuko Matsui, who has covered the case extensively, made a remark that stuck with me. She said that before the massacre occurred, she had viewed the public opinion toward disability as improving. I admit that I thought the same thing: not only is Tokyo full of miles upon miles of tactile pavement, its biggest public broadcaster produces バリバラ (baribara - a shortened form of "barrier-free variety"), touted as "Japan's first variety show for disabled people." When I first visited Japan I didn't see any disabled people while I was out and about, but during my following visits, I noticed a significantly higher number in train stations, restaurants, malls, and parks. I watched Baribara on NHK's E-TV at midnight on Fridays during my last visit. I even told my disabled American friend that I thought Japan had been making strides toward inclusivity and acceptance in recent years. However, just as having a black president for eight years did not "solve" racism in America, installing special pavement and broadcasting a TV show has not completely improved how the disabled are perceived in Japan.

As Matsui explained in "19 Lives That Matter," NHK saw that not releasing the victims' names was doing an injustice to their lives and memory. To that end, NHK created the website 19のいのち (jyukyuu no inochi - the nineteen lives) in January. Featuring watercolor images of their favorite things--and illustrated portraits of those whose families gave consent--alongside personal stories from friends and family, the website hopes to honor the victims' memories by painting a picture of their humanity, driving home the fact that while these people may have been differently abled, they were still people. Exploring the website, you begin to put the pieces together: this 60-year-old woman loved to collect stuffed animals; this 55-year-old man enjoyed sweet canned coffee. The website is in Japanese but it can easily be read in other languages with Google Chrome's Translate feature.

19のいのち: NHK's touching tribute to the 19 lives lost in the Sagamihara massacre
As the Asahi Shimbun reported on March 1, Uematsu was formally indicted on February 24 "with 19 murders and 24 counts of attempted murder, two of illegal confinement causing injury, three of illegal confinement, one of unlawful entry and also one charge of violating the swords and firearms control law." While he was determined to exhibit signs of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, he was deemed mentally competent to stand trial. All evidence points to premeditation, as he outlined his ideas and goals in a letter he had attempted to deliver to the speaker of Japan's lower house of parliament in February 2016.

The portrait of the 70-year-old female victim on 19のいのち
In an opinion piece appearing in the Sydney Morning Herald a week after the attack, writer and activist Carly Findlay wrote, "The silence around the Sagamihara murders over the past week suggests to me people think these disabled lives are worth less. That their deaths are indeed a burden relieved from society. Or perhaps mainstream society is simply able to distance itself from the fear such an act evokes in those of us with disabilities." Findlay's observations make it clear that we as a society need to reprogram our thinking about those with differences, and I believe that starts with education: listen to activists like Findlay, read articles by people like disability rights journalist David Perry, and learn about organizations that offer service and support.

Journalists and media outlets also need to be mindful of the manner in which they report stories of mass killings. Growing up in America, I remember the names and faces of so many convicted mass murderers, but I remember so few of the victims. For whatever reason--and whether it was real or imagined--I sensed a change in American news coverage when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in Orlando in June 2016: many news outlets, from local (Orlando Sentinel) to national (CNN), seemed to take a genuine interest in sharing the victims' stories rather than focusing solely on the shooter. While the shooter naturally received media coverage as well, it seems that celebrating victims' lives is a better way to cope with tragedies like this--and concurrently takes the spotlight away from disturbed individuals craving attention.

Associate Professor Shinichiro Kumagaya: inclusivity is key
This blog post will not provide closure to the victims' families still searching for answers, and neither will the sometimes discordant comments guests have written at NHK's website. However, it's brought up important questions and issues that our society--myself included--all too often tries its best to avoid facing. As Shinichiro Kumagaya, an Associate Professor at The University of Tokyo and a disabled man himself, said in "19 Lives That Matter," our aim isn't to find all of the answers right now; rather, we must "aim for a society that doesn't reject anyone."

This blog post is dedicated to my friend Kimi, who has taught me about disabled erasure and rights in modern American society.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Experience Japanese culture with NHK World and Japanology Plus

Reading about Japanese culture is a great way to learn about Japan's customs and traditions, but sometimes it's nice to be able to kick back and watch something about it on TV. While it hasn't always been easy to find consistent programming on the topic outside of Japan, if you have an internet connection, you're in luck!

NHK World: a Japanophile's favorite channel
Japanese public broadcaster NHK has not only made hours of on-demand content in English available free of charge on their website (not to mention live streaming!), but has also created the NHK World TV channel via a smartphone/tablet app and a Roku channel. If your native language isn't English, you can enjoy browsing their website in your choice of 18 different languages, including Arabic, Chinese, French, Korean, Spanish, Russian, Thai, and more.

NHK World offers a multitude of programs about Japan, including hourly news updates, cooking shows, travel programs, science and technology features, nature documentaries, and slice-of-life encounters. Narration is in English; Japanese dialogue is either dubbed or subtitled, depending on the program. I enjoy all of these shows, but as a Japanese culture otaku, one of my favorite programs is Japanology Plus.

Radio personality and Japan resident Peter Barakan introduces various aspects of Japanese culture in NHK World's Japanology Plus

In Japanology Plus, London-born host Peter Barakan draws on his decades-long experience of living in Japan to take viewers on an engaging tour of Japanese culture. Exploring a breadth of topics including running, product packaging, silk, and moving services, Barakan takes what might initially seem like a mundane topic and frames it in the context of his Western perspective while also examining its place in modern Japanese society.

Each episode of Japanology Plus features in-depth information about the topic at hand as Barakan travels to various locales throughout Japan and meets with experts and professionals. The program blends interviews with first-person experiences as Barakan himself tries his hand at an activity related to the episode's theme. Suddenly, grating katsuobushi (commonly misreferred to as "bonito flakes"--it's actually made from skipjack tuna) isn't as effortless as the seasoned chefs make it look in the "Katsuobushi" episode; taking a walk through a uniquely Japanese haunted house shows just how jarring and unsettling it is in the "Haunted Houses" episode (no. 3 on this page); and attempting the Japanese cleansing regimen many women swear by shows just how much patience and care goes into the process in the "Quest for Perfect Skin" episode.

Plus One, Matt Alt's featured portion
Another key element of each episode is Matt Alt's segment, Plus One. An American expat, author, and translator, Alt is never afraid to get his hands dirty--sometimes, quite literally--as he dives in to activities related to the overarching theme of the episode. Memorable experiences include trying a Japanese "beauty witch's" exhaustive skincare routine in the "Quest for Perfect Skin" episode; performing an esoteric song and dance in the "Noh Theater" episode; and putting his olfactory nerves to the test with licensed odor investigators in the "Smells" episode.

As a conclusion to each program, Barakan typically summarizes his thoughts and experiences in the company of the particular episode's subject matter expert. His background as a seasoned freelance broadcaster lends itself well to his thought-provoking narratives and reflections, and masterful video editing allows the episode to flow from Japanese to English dialogue without missing a beat. Japanology Plus is a wonderful, entertaining introduction to what makes Japanese culture so unique and alluring to the rest of the world.

Check out NHK World on Facebook and Twitter, and enjoy learning about Japan and its culture through its entertaining and educational programs!