Thursday, November 15, 2012


October 5th marked one year since my mother's passing. I can't tell if this past year was fast or slow for me but having survived the first year of grief, I feel an odd sense of relief. I've had waves of emotions in between my normal routine and started to figure out how to exist without a mother. I call my dad about once a week and we chat for about an hour each time and I've noticed that he has also developed his new routine to get through each day.

In Japan, there are family gatherings after someone passes away based on the Buddhist tradition--which most people follow. They are on the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th, 42nd, and 49th day after their death, with the idea that every 7 days the deceased will stand in judgement in front of a god (like St. Peter) as to weather they can go to heaven. So the families get together and pray for their soul. It's also common that the cremated remains of the deceased will be put into their grave on the 49th day, though in some cases people wait a year.

Then the tradition continues to families getting together on 1st, 3rd, 7th, 13th, 17th, 23rd, 27th, 33rd and/or 50th year after a person dies.  Each time, you go to a temple, a monk will read a prayer, you pay your respect, and you go eat. I remember attending these things for my grandfather on my father's side who passed away before I was born. I found this tradition amazing.  It's put together to truly remember someone and honor their life.

This is a side note, but I recently found out that my father, who was baptized Catholic in his early 70s waited until then--though he had an interest in converting many years prior--because as the first born son he felt obligated to his father to remain a Buddhist until the last of the gatherings (in our case it was 33rd year). This may also have been because there was a huge fight when my father married my mother, a Catholic (they reconciled pretty fast), so he may have felt this to be a respectful gesture to his father, but that's just my speculation.

Being that my family is Catholic (particularly my mother who almost became a nun), none of the above traditions technically apply.  But, given that we're Japanese, there is a little bit of a hybrid situation as it did in funeral service.  So my father and brother felt it would be good to have a ceremony to mark the first year since my mother's passing with a private mass and a luncheon with close relatives. And at that ceremony, we would put my mother's remains in the crypt, which is located at the church that my family attends (my parents bought a space there some years ago and paid for everything so we wouldn't have to. More on that topic later). So I took a solo trip back for 10 days.

I made a trip back with my family this past spring but it's still strange to stay at my parents' house without my mom. I did not sleep much during my stay and I realized it was partly stress. I was put in charge of sorting and finding ways to get rid of my mother's belongings. I took care of some last fall, right after her death (which was hell), and some this past spring. But the woman owned a lot of stuff so there was still a mountain of things to go through which was also adding to the stress.

Then there is the whole inheritance situation.

Let me tell you the complicated, multiple-hoop-jumping process that is international inheritance transactions. First is the obvious division of the estate, which was smooth because my dad, my brother and I get along, THANK GOD. But then, we had an accountant prepare an official document which has to have all of our signatures and official stamp, called "Hanko." Everyone living in Japan has to own one of these that has your name on it in a unique design and that very stamp is registered with your proof of residency. You use Hanko on all official documents and it serves as a notarized document.

Like these. They are all the same name but different designs

Do I have one of these? No. Because while I am a citizen, I am not a resident.  So, I have to get my signature notarized where I reside, which is Seattle, and the way you do that is to go to the Japanese consulate. This past spring was all about me and my brother going over multiple bank and investment documents that belonged to my mother, requesting all forms that needs signing (including a document that states that we give my brother permission to be the executor), and carrying those back with me to the States so I can get them notarized.  I took a trip to the consulate and just camped out at a window, signing and thumb printing (in place of a stamp) each in front of the staff, who I must say were very kind and patient (I realize that is what they are there for but still). Then I sent them back to my brother via registered mail so he can proceed with moving funds to my bank account in Tokyo. All of this cost about $350 by the way.

During my last visit to Tokyo I went to my bank and got information on how best to transfer funds internationally (which has different rules according to where you are moving the money--in the case of the US, you have to keep the Patriot Act in mind). I was exhausted. I hope it all goes through before my daughter goes to college.

Then there is the matter of the US accounts.  My father, being a finance expert is super smart about money and has a couple of US accounts which are joint accounts with my mother.  He has to present a death certificate to remove my mother's name from the account, which is of course in Japanese. Most large banks have a Japanese staff somewhere to say that that document is authentic, but just to be safe I called the American Embassy in Tokyo and asked what people do in these situations. They told me that anyone can translate the document, but the translator has to get a notarized paper what states what they translated was true. So I translated the death certificate, made the appointment and took a trip to the US consulate which is located on the same grounds as the embassy I learned and went through so much security, it wasn't funny.  I am now an expert on what consulates do in both countries.  I should start a service.

I also tackled my mother's belongings with much more momentum than the last two times. We have this custom called "Katami Wake" which translates to "Keepsake gifts" where you share the belongings of the deceased with close friends and families so many people can have a piece from that person.  This is obviously a very daughterly task so first took out my mother's jewelry cases and spread them all out on the dining room table.  The woman liked to accessorize. "Jeez, mom" I actually uttered. She and I went through things right before she passed away when I was visiting last fall. I took a bunch then. But still there was a ton. I took a couple of more things and then I sorted some stuff for my three nieces to use later. I categorized things by types and made a display.  I did the same thing with her purses.

 Do you see what I'm saying?

Then I invited my female cousins and had a party.  I threatened them to take as many things as they could.  They were modest and polite about it but took things.

I actually didn't expect my male cousin to take things.  However, it's awesome that he took this Egyptian thing saying it would go well with his other Egyptian stuff.  Sure. Just take.

After that, I went through all the rest of my mother's every day clothes that was left and bagged them up and told our very faithful Filipino cleaning lady, who has been working for my parents for years and loved my mom, to take whatever she wanted and she took all the clothes, purses, and the accessories I left out for her.  I LOVE HER AND WANT TO MARRY HER.

I wrapped up some others for my aunts which I gave away at the luncheon and one of them busted it open on the spot and put it on her. I also gave away some small items to my close friends who knew my mom since their childhood, which made them happy and very touched.

I read a book called The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion last year and in it, she said she held onto one set of clothing and a pair of shoes that belonged her late husband and couldn't put her finger on why until she realized that she was keeping it in case he came back. I can relate to this. It is difficult to get rid of someone's belongings because it's admitting that they are truly gone, and because you feel they might be angry somehow. I keep wondering and hoping my mother approves of the choices I am making, which is silly but is pretty profound. But at the same time, this felt good.  Pieces of my mother's spirit was spreading to people who loved her. I would not have been ready to do this before this point, so it was the right time. I was now entering the next phase of my grief and survival.

I am nowhere near done, but put a pretty good dent in it this time.  Maybe it is good to be so far away so I have some distance and time in between these trying tasks. Or maybe that drags out the sadness.  Either way, I don't have a choice to do it a little bit at a time. My brother thanked me up and down for taking care of this.  I laugh a little at our gender specific roles we've played in this aftermath.

The ceremony was nice and quiet. I cried during the mass all over again. We watched my father put the urn into the designated space in the crypt and I couldn't help but think about some day in the future when we would do this again with my father. We watched the man seal the marble plate with my mother's name on it and it was done.

Rest in peace, mom

This was not a restful trip but productive.  I cheered up my father just by being there and I took care of things.  I also had just enough time to see my friends and shop for my husband and daughter who was lighting the torch and waiting for me back home. I realize I'm lucky I have someone to go home to -- both ways.

The street in front of my family's home

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I've never voted in my life.  Not because I don't care, but because of my legal status. I left Japan when I was 15 (way before I took interest in politics), and I was on a student visa from 15 until 24, then on a work visa until 27, then obtained my permanent residency or green card (which, by the way, is not green). As a resident alien (title I love), I can work and therefore required to pay taxes, but two things I can't do is vote and serve on a jury duty. The latter is perhaps a gift in some ways (though I realize it's an important civic duty), in that I can just write "not a citizen" on a post card and not worry about getting out of work or being stuck in a difficult case for days, but the not being able to vote is tough.

Especially today.

There are issues at stake that are important to me and people around me as I have spent nearly 30 years in this country.  I wish so much that I could express my voice in a form of a vote, but I can't.  People have asked why don't I just become a citizen.  It is a logical question to them, but very complicated, emotional question to me and I choke on the answer every time. One is the identity. As most of my family is in Japan, I am still very much connected to my home country, despite the fact that I have been in the US twice as long.  I think it's because that is my origin of my being, where I  was raised in my formative years, where the house I grew up is (with people who raised and grew up with me in it), and where I go to be with the people who really know my true colors, and ground me in between my adventures.  Changing citizenship would feel like I am throwing away all of that and severing my roots from my body. That's not necessarily true and it sounds dramatic, but that is how it feels.

The other is the practicality. If Japan offered the option of a dual citizenship as many countries do, I would probably obtain citizenship in the US. But Japan doesn't, so having a green card is the closest thing to having dual citizenship.  Should something happen to my family in Japan, I could go and stay longer than a tourist would be able to and have the rights to do things that visitors don't.  Should some situation arise in the US where I felt unsafe, I could take my daughter there. And that is another thing--opportunity for my daughter.  Because I am a Japanese citizen and her father is a US citizen, she has both.  She can have that until she is 22 and she has to chose. At this point, she is likely to chose the US citizenship which is what I expect and am fine with, but should she choose to go study in Japan during college, she can have the benefit of a citizen and possibly work there, etc.  It opens up more choices for her.

Most Japanese people I know in the US keep their green cards like I do for similar reasons. We're not an immigrating people anymore.  The wave of Japanese farmers that came over (a.k.a Isseis) in the 1800s came for better life like all the other immigrants.  But then there was a period of time in the US that banned Asians from immigrating and after that was WWII when Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were interned which caused all kinds of emotional turmoil about where they belong.  Then Japan rebuilt during post war and became big and strong (I apologize for this totally over simplified history, BTW) so the need to immigrate went away for the most part.  Now, Japanese people who come to the US are either for school or if their company sends them.  Most of them go back.  Handful of them don't--like me. Coming here changed my life. It opened doors that I couldn't have imagined and it helped me to find who I am.  Not to mention I would have never met my husband who thinks I'm funny. That alone is a life changing event.  I care deeply for the future of this place and I work hard every day to contribute in gratitude. Yet I have no voice because of the choices I made. It's hard being me, I know.

So I can engage in conversations and perhaps inform people who might be on the fence. I can give money or my time to places that I believe is going to do some good or doing great goods. Maybe things will change for future elections for me but for this one, I have to once again sit on the side line and just route.

Do the right thing, America. I believe in you.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bento Marathon

I think the word "bento" has become somewhat familiar to certain Americans these days.  For those who are unfamiliar, bento is a boxed lunch, unique to Japanese culture (if you want to totally nerd out, click HERE). As I have written a lot in the past, we take our food seriously and so it is important for us to have good food even when we are on the go. There are all kinds of bento to be had all over Japan for all occasion. But what I want to focus here today is the kind mothers have to pack for their children to take to school. Let me paint you a picture.

Moms in Japan take pride in their cooking. That is not to say that there aren't any dads who cook (for instance, my brother is an excellent cook), but there is an enormous pressure for moms to cook well. And bento that they prepare for their children says everything about how much they care about their children's well being. It is a status thing and a point of pride. And if you don't prepare a perfect bento, you have failed as a mother. That is of course not true, but that is what they think. I have a friend who is a high-powered career woman who gets up at 5:00 a.m. to prepare her daughter's lunch everyday. Then she puts breakfast on the table for her family, gets herself and her daughter ready and puts her on the right train (kids who go to private schools commonly commute on subways--I was one of those kids) and gets in to work by 9:00 a.m.  If that were my schedule, I would be asleep at my desk by 9:25. She said she went to the first parent meeting and the teacher said, "You are going to be preparing bento for the next 12 years. Mothers, pace yourselves." This is how seriously moms take it. 

The most important bento of all during the school year is for the annual Field Day. The whole family comes out to watch various sporting events in which all kids are forced to participate and the bento that each family brings is the statement of the family. Moms have to totally put their game faces on and do some serious cooking to not shame the family.

Up to this point, I did not have to prepare bento on a regular basis because my daughter's Japanese preschool served the most delightful, well balanced, home cooked Japanese meal every day.  But that is no longer the case for me BECAUSE MY DAUGHTER STARTED KINDERGARTEN. I realize I live in the States and no one expects me to make a perfect bento everyday (and many won't even know the word), but I feel the need to do at least a decent job in following my cultural tradition. It must be my DNA. So I went to the local Japanese book store and purchased a bento cook book. Yes, there is such a thing and the section on that topic was pretty sizable that I stood there for good 15 minutes selecting just the right book that was at my skill level. 

Photo of said book

One of the most common and beloved Bento item is called omusubi or onigiri, which translates to "rice ball." They looks like this:

The standard shape it triangle and we make these by hand.  You wet your hands, put some salt on the palm of one hand and scoop some rice onto your hand and gently make this shape with your hands and toss it in circle until it becomes this shape. We all learn to make these at some point in our lives. You can make them plain or put something in the middle, like a small piece of grilled salmon, pickled plum (also shown in the first photo above), and a bunch of other things.  You have three of these and can call it lunch. Delicious. 

This is a side note but we love it so much that convenient stores all over Japan now has a huge section of nothing but these with many different ingredients

 This is one really delicious and cheap way to eat in Japan, just so you know.

There is a film called Kamome Shokudo (excellent food movie, by the way), in which, the woman  who runs the diner refers to onigiri as "Japanese Soul Food." My daughter will always eat these no matter what. So that is the first thing I packed. The important thing in obento is how you present the food. If you want to go nuts, you can do things like this:

Who has the time and patience to do this before 8 a.m.?

 OK, this is kind of amazing.

Seriously, people need to stop.

Or you can go totally simple and cheap and prepare the most traditional bento:

This, I can do.

This is called "Hinomaru (Japanese Flag) Bento." It's rice with Ume (pickled plum) in the middle.  That's it. This was popular during war time or in the rural country side back in the day. Nothing fancy, just some starch to get through the day.  I think the equivalent is like having a boiled potato. Might be just stylish. Or totally unbalanced.

While I would like my daughter to take joy in eating, I am also realistic and know my limitations so I will do what I can to give her a fun looking lunch. It's a part of my culture I enjoy and want her to also appreciate it, if not now, down the road.

 What's achievable: salmon musubi, chicken karaage and carrots in stackable bento box

How it looked in her lunch box on her first day

I'm pacing myself.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olympic Pride

I love the Olympics. Not to be all cheesy but it's an event in which people feel national pride, root for their country and unite in... well, watching TV, I guess. It's also always eye opening as to where our country stands in comparison to others in the world of sports. And I realize, at the same time, that my world geography is terrible.

It is difficult to catch any footage of Japanese athletes in the U.S. unless they were in the events in which the U.S. was also strong. The first Olympic I experienced here was in 1984, my first summer after moving. I spent 10 weeks working at a horse-back riding summer camp in the middle of nowhere in California because I felt I would lose my freshly acquired English if I went home for two and a half months. I was a nerd. My mother's friend in California who lived near my boarding school recommended this camp to me and there I was, working in the kitchen, cleaning horse stalls, milking cows and mingling with American kids. There was no TV there and we were in bed by 9:00 pm and up by 5:30 am. I was 16 and clearly didn't know better. My mother sent me newspaper clippings of how Japan was doing while it was happening and my parents also recorded the opening ceremony on VHS and sent it to me to watch when I got back to school. I felt removed and home sick, but also was having such a great time that all of that seemed less important than it had been. I kept the clippings in my journal (ah, journal keeping).

Every Olympics since then is just a series of "What's happening with Japan?" I would watch the screen like a hawk to spot a Japanese athlete and track them in the background. If they are close to any Americans competing, I would hang on to every word being said about them. If they did any kind of a feature on a Japanese athlete, I would automatically tear up as if I were related to them. I felt that if TV in the U.S. was mentioning them, my country was noticed at that moment. In occasions like that when you realize how your culture is viewed in a foreign land, you hope that people have a good impression.

Then came the winter Olympics in Nagano in '98. I remember that whole "emphasis on the first syllable" pronunciation lessons by NBC and I remember thinking "that's nice that they care." I received a phone call in the midst of that from someone I only sort of knew who put me on the speaker phone to ask what I thought of that. He explained that he was with his colleagues and one of them who is Japanese felt this was not 100% accurate and this sort-of-friend wanted to know my take. I told them that I felt touched that NBC would be so culturally sensitive and put efforts into pronouncing it correctly. I said it's a heck of a lot closer than how it has been pronounced (with the emphasis on the second syllable as that is the natural tendencies for English speakers) and really, who cares? He later told me that this Japanese dude he knew was a total jerk and he wanted another Japanese person to challenge him. Ugh. How embarrassing. 

I remember watching the opening ceremony, which was oddly in the daytime there to accommodate the prime time TV airing in the U.S. (or some such reason), and was once again beaming with pride. They opened the whole ceremony with a then-famous sumo wrestler who held the highest honor and status as far as athletes in Japan performing a ritual to bless the event.

Side note: this wrestler, Akebono, is not even Japanese. He is Polynesian.  

Okay, so the figure skater Midori Ito lighting the torch was both moving and awkward in that she looked like a super hero yet seemed trapped by her costume:

But it was exciting to witness my home country host this and sad that I was not there to share the Olympic fever. Or buy any goods.

The worst though was the Vancouver Olympics figure skating. If you recall, Kim Yu-Na, super cute South Korean skater took the gold which was unusual and exciting.  Mao Asada of Japan took silver. Then a Canadian skater Joannie Rochette took Bronze and because she was local and Kim Yu-Na was sensational, they covered more of those two during the medal ceremony.  In fact, there was no shot of Mao Asada. Like she was not there. I actually said, "Oh come on!" Granted, Japan took gold in Turin and we got all kinds of coverage then but still. SHE GOT SILVER AND I THINK YOU CAN MAYBE SHOW HER FOR A SECOND WITH HER MEDAL. Sigh.

This time around, however, technology is on my side. I can now stream Japanese TV in real time on my computer. Not to mention the amount of websites available that will tell me how every athlete from Japan is doing at practically every moment. It is bliss. Of course with all of that PLUS the American coverage, I am not getting anything done but dammit, I am following my fellow countrymen who are doing their thing. 

Japan has been depressed since the earthquake and there is a lot of "What's going to happen to our country?" feelings floating around so we could use some pep. Just yesterday, in the men's 400 medley relay in swimming, Japan took silver. You may not have noticed this so much because Michael Phelps was also swimming his very last Olympic race and his team took gold. But this silver was huge for Japan. Kitajima, who has competed in the Olympics in the past did not earn any medals this time around and since this was his last one his teammates said, "We can't let him go home empty handed." So they swam hard and won a silver medal for him to take home. See? That is a good story. Thank you, internet streaming.

I am certain that I am not the only one who is rooting for my home country, the U.S. being the melting pot and all. 

I can only imagine what technology will provide in the future.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Country Handbook

I have an American friend who lived in Japan for several years because her husband is in the Navy.  I am not certain how much of this is common knowledge but US Navy and Marine Corps reside in different parts of Japan--when I mentioned this to a coworker she said, "that's creepy." I had to clarify that US is not occupying. It is protecting Japan from places like North Korea (among other things which are not the point of this post). 

Anyway,  this friend once sent me a card she got from the Navy to carry around that said:


It is conveniently on two sides-one in English and the other in Japanese. I am not certain how they are going to understand any directions given by the native who can only read the Japanese side nor do I understand why they list a phone number on there as if to say people who get lost don't know how to use a telephone and need to ask a native to dial. This card is now posted on our bulletin board next to some comic strips.

Needless to say, I was delighted when the same friend now moving for the second time in US since returning from Japan sent me Country Handbook: A Field-Ready Reference Publication. People, this is a good read. If you want to know Japan in a nut shell, this is the way to go. I have only thumbed through it and have learned a lot about my own country. It has everything from history, culture, geography, religion, government and politics, you name it. But the one I laughed out loud was "Gestures." It says:

The Japanese indicate "come here" by waving the open hand with the palm facing downward, much like Americans wave goodbye. Failing to realize this causes frequent confusion among Americans. It is impolite to make this motion toward a superior. 

This is true. My husband noticed this watching my brother call his daughters. I did not realize this until he pointed out. Then it says:

The American sign for "OK" forming a circle with thumb and forefinger, means "money" in Japan. The Japanese sign for "no" is to wave the open hand in front of the face, as Westerners do to clear an odor from in front of their faces.

Well the "OK" thing is half true. We know it stands for that but it is also true that we use it to indicate money. The waving thing is dead on.

When referring to themselves, Japanese will often point to their noses, much like Americans point to their hearts.

I still do this. Can't change it. Again, this is something I didn't realize I did until my husband pointed it out.

Pointing is considered offensive. Spitting, sniffing or blowing your nose are also considered impolite. Laughter is frequently construed as evidence of embarrassment or nervousness rather than amusement. The shrug, used in the United States to imply indifference, means nothing to Japanese. Neither does winking.

Allow me to point out that while it says spitting is impolite, Japanese men spit freely on subway platforms far more than I've seen Americans do. I would add to this list by saying burping is considered impolite and Americans burp far more openly than Japanese.  I can't tell you the number of times Americans said to me "don't you guys consider burping a compliment to your cooking?" "No, that's you" I want to say. And the shrug and the winking thing--it's not that we don't know what those are. We've seen it in movies. We do it in OUR movies. People just don't do it. If you do (and you are Japanese) you would be chastised for "trying to appear cool" and are therefore a dork. 

Another thing that made me laugh was the section on Prime Minister.  It has a picture of Shinzo Abe, who was indeed the Prime Minister in 2007 when this book was published. However, if you know Japan at all, you would know NEVER to commit to doing such a thing because we are notorious for Prime Ministers who quit. Since Mr. Abe, we've had five Prime Ministers.  Five. In five years. "We have proven that we don't actually need a Prime Minister to run the country" My brother uttered once.

Might I add, nowhere in this book do they say "under any circumstance, DO NOT PUT CHOPSTICKS IN YOUR HAIR." I clearly need to write for them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Shellie May

This is Shellie May:

Do you know her? I didn't either. How about if I said, she is the girlfriend of Duffy:

Yeah, I know. I had that blank stare too. 

I took my family to Japan just few weeks ago to do our annual visit which included checking in on my father and running around hither and yon with my brother to gather various paper work for the inheritance procedure, which stressed me out so much that I broke out in hives.  But that is another post altogether. 

We had told our 5 year old daughter that we would take her to Tokyo Disney Sea this time, since last year we took her to Tokyo Disney Land. I know, the kid is totally spoiled. I also find it amusing that she has only gone to Disney parks in Japan. 

I have never been to Disney Sea. It's been open for 11 years and yet I've not gone. I've been to Disney Land plenty. We love Disney Land. We once went there on my husband's birthday and he forced me out of bed at 7am by jumping up and down and we proceeded to spend 12 hours there. Last year when we took our daughter we got to see her tiny mind blow up when she saw Cinderella's castle. It was like a commercial. So we were excited to go. Before we went, we spoke to my three nieces ages 19, 17, and 12 to get the low down. They coached us on which rides are good for a 5 year old, which rides are likely to have a long wait but are fun, what food to get, etc (by the way, the Gyoza Dog by 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea ride is not to be believed). Then they said, "are you gonna buy her Shellie May or Duffy?" and I just stared at them.  

"Who are they?"  

"You don't know who they are?"


"Aren't they Disney characters?"

"I have no idea.  Are they?"

Then my sister-in-law, who was listening laughed and said,

"Is it possible they just made them up for Disney Sea and are not actually based on any stories?"

Then my youngest niece Ayana told me the whole deal. Shelly Mae and Duffy are apparently the toy bears Minnie made for Mickey. Nope. Doesn't ring a bell. I'm not saying it didn't happen, I just don't know about that story. Then she went on to say that they are THE things to buy at Disney Sea (but not at Land), and if you own them, you bring them there to show off to people that you have them. I said "I see...well, that sounds pretty silly."

She was right.

It is the most brilliant and frightening marketing tactic I've seen. I know we're talking about Disney so I shouldn't be surprised, but the amount of those bears carried by people at the park was incredible. It was also like a sociology experiment in how to make people feel left out. And we went on a weekday after a holiday in Japan so the park was pretty empty.  The people who were there were young couples playing hook and college kids playing hooky, and some families with young children. But the majority of people there were adults.  Carrying bears. Before you judge, let me explain (though I was judging throughout the park).

Japanese people like cute things. If you know of any Japanese stationery goods, it's stuff with cute cartoon animal characters on them. We like things that are compact and cute. Even grown men like cute things. Look at Anime. Cute things are not just enjoyed by kids, but by all ages. I have no idea why this is. Maybe because we take work and life so seriously that we find some odd comfort in looking at cute things. Similarly, Japanese people like to drink even though we process alcohol very poorly (hence, I don't drink). It is a sight to see when you get on a subway in Tokyo at 11:00 p.m. and it is PACKED with drunk people and people who just got off work. Good times. Japanese people also obey trends. If enough people wore underpants on their heads, the whole country would follow suit.

Anyway, this obsession with cuteness is particularly spread amongst young women in their late teens to early twenties. There are girls who actually believe that Micky Mouse lives at Disney Land and they come with a back pack with 25 Mickey key chains dangling from it and wear Mickey ears and carry serious Nikon cameras and take photos of him (not WITH him) like he is an actual celebrity. Creepy. I felt weird being the only one around who actually had a child who wanted to take a picture with him. And along with that are people with Shellie May and Duffy obsessions. I saw so many couples who wore matching mouse ears and carrying those bears I wanted to punch them. I kind of get young women doing that but I wanted to go up to the men and shake them and shout, "JUST LOOK AT YOURSELF!"  I'm sure that is very sexist, but come on!

 Donald surrounded.  If you look closely, the girl just left of Donald is wearing Mickey ears AND carrying a Shellie May purse.

There are various spots at the park where you are supposed to perch your bear and take a photo of the scenery.
On it, it says "For their safely, do not seat children here."

Anyway, after about 6 hours of being there, our 5 year old said she wanted Shellie May. Great. We had told her that we couldn't buy a bunch of stuff for her because going there was expensive on its own, but that we will buy her one thing. So we couldn't really argue with her. We went to a store and she immediately grabbed one that was dressed in the most hideous pink dress. I looked at the price tag and it was nearly $40 so we started showing her smaller, slightly more tasteful ones but her lower lip was begin to quiver so just from pure exhaustion, we compromised and got her a bigger one but without the dress. As we spent the next two hours at the park with Shellie May before heading home (because our daughter wanted to make sure Shellie May got to ride all the rides, too), we realized that her face and paw prints are shaped like Mickey's head. Creeeeepy. Also, she is tinted pink.

So we now have one. I am not going to bring this bloody bear back to Tokyo Disney Sea, but then maybe I should so that I won't get roped into buying another.

Friday, April 6, 2012


There are several customs in Japan about admiring the changing of seasons. One of the biggest celebrations around this motif is cherry blossoms. As it is the flower that symbolizes Japan, my people are very serious about viewing and appreciating the beautiful trees that tell us the beginning of things.

Spring (April to be specific) is the beginning of school year. Most businesses also run their fiscal year from April to March and welcome in new recruits in April. With the budding of flowers, we celebrate new beginnings. March, on the other hand is the end of a cycle. Graduations happen then and as some cherry trees start to bloom, we associate the falling pink petals with the bittersweet feeling of saying good byes to our friends. Super poetic and melancholy. I can't tell you how many songs have been written with this theme (see below video as one example).

Then there is the HANAMI tradition. The word HANAMI translates to "flower viewing" and it is thought to be a very peaceful custom of having a nice picnic and and enjoy the blossoms. Lovely. You'd think that. Until you see the complete mayhem that is, actually, the friggin' "flower drinking." I will preface by saying that this may just be in Tokyo--for that is a city which will change your concept of "crowded." Japanese people by nature are raised to follow the trend and be like everyone else. This flower viewing thing is something you just do no matter what the cost. Please take a moment to picture in your head the hundreds and thousands of people who shove each other without any mercy on subways fighting to get the best spot under trees in parks. If companies decide to do an outing around this event, the newest employees are sent out HOURS ahead with a tarp to secure a good spot. Then they are chastised if they fail. If that's not bad enough, people bring so much booze it turns into a complete nightmare. It does not matter whether there are children around. Business men and women with their suits disheveled are stumbling around the park in broad day light. Attractive.

So.Very. Crowded.

I, fortunately, did not experience much of this as I grew up because I had parents who did not feed into this kind of shenanigans. I spoke to my father just yesterday and he said he might ask a friend out to go to this restaurant that has a garden with cherry trees and they apparently serve special meals around this time of year. They even light up the tress in the evening and you can have a nice quiet dinner looking at the blossoms. Now THAT, I approve. He went on to say how much cherry blossoms there are in Tokyo and you don't realize it until they bloom. He spoke with a lot of excitement in his voice about how beautiful it is right now. In the same conversation, he also mentioned that this year commemorates the centennial celebration of Japan's 3,000 cherry trees that were given to the US in Washington DC. "What a perfect gift we gave," he said proudly. My heart warmed to hear that spring had arrived to my father, who lost his companion last year, and that he was noticing and enjoying it.

Mayhem aside, I have to say I do appreciate that my culture puts a great deal of importance on nature's beauty. Just today, there were five posts on Facebook from my childhood friends in Japan as they photographed their nearby cherry blossoms, and I imagine more will trickle in. Those photos have reminded me that it's something to take notice for my people. Our neighbor has three cherry trees in front of her house and every year I look out the window and think of my graduations past and get a little nostalgic.

I leave you with a song that was made popular almost 10 years ago called,
Sakura (cherry blossom) by a singer song writer, Naotaro Moriyama. The song (as you will see in the subtitle) expresses the feelings of graduation as I mentioned above. He is backed by a high school choir from Miyagi, where the earthquake hit hast year. Their collaboration makes the song even more meaningful, and the images shown here are when it's not crazy--as it's intended.

I wish you happy Spring.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Year Later

It has been one year since Japan encountered earthquake and tsunami that took the lives of nearly 20,000. I did some things in my small ways last year, but I have not continued by efforts since because of my own tragedy. I would like to contribute again and continuously towards this seemingly endless recovery process.

I realize many things have happened since then. But if you could take a moment to think of the victims and perhaps contribute to appropriate organizations (such as American Red Cross-Japan Disaster Relief, or Peace Winds), I would be so grateful.

I pray and hope for Japan. I have faith.

Photo by Greg Baker, AP

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


A few days ago, I took my daughter to go see The Secret World of Arrietty, the newly released film by Studio Ghibli. I can do a whole other post on the world of Miyazaki/Ghibli films for I am a total nerd, but today, I am going to touch on translations and casting that I find interesting when these films cross the ocean.

When I see a Japanese film with English subtitles, or vice versa, I listen and read at the same time to see how things are translated. Depending on the nature of the film, sometimes lines are totally altered to get the humor across or to explain what people of that particular culture take for granted. In Miyazaki's Spirited Away, which was the first of his films to get a wide theatrical release in the US, there was a lot of that because while the setting was fantastical, the notion of a bath house and different kinds of gods are imbedded in Japanese culture. There was also the whole thing about the protagonist's name. Her name is Chihiro, written in Japanese as 千尋. In the Japanese version, Yubaba (the witch) takes away the second character and leaving her with just 千, pronounced Sen. In the complicated written language that we have, every character has at least two pronunciations--the Japanese and the Chinese. So the first character of her name went from being pronounced one way to another. And it made sense in Japanese, that she took away part of her name and the sound changed. I was curious to see how that would get translated and it was just that she took away her name and gave her a new one. I don't blame them because how do you explain THAT? But in other, less complicated situations, I was also mighty impressed as to how Disney snuck in a word here and a sentence there to casually explain the setting.

Something else I learned when I read an interview of a very famous Japanese subtitle writer/translator is that in the case of subtitles, you have to condense a phrase into something like six words at a time (or less) or human brain won't process it. Now, that is hard because you have to not only be concise, but also translate all the nuance in that one phrase. In the case of a voice over, the length of the lines has to match the movement of the mouth, I imagine--which is differently challenging. There is an art to it, for sure.

In the case of
The Secret World of Arrietty, there was not too much cultural confusion because the base story of The Borrowers originated in England. But, as I was watching the film in English, I noticed something that is very Japanese in this version that I did not pick up when I watched it in Japanese. Nodding. Japanese people nod a lot. If you see us talking from a distance, you can tell we are Japanese because we nod constantly. We nod often when we listen as if to say "uh-huh," and we nod to punctuate things while we talk. And when we are in the listening side, there is a sound that accompanies it, which is, "m." This is slightly challenging to translate because Americans don't nod at the rate that we do. In the film, sometimes nodding was left silent. Other times, nodding was given some grunting sound, and in others, given a short word or sound like "hmmm." I was imagining the team of translators figuring out what to give to which and was appreciative and entertained by the choices they made.

Then there is casting. I'm always interested in how Disney casts these films knowing the kind of voices and celebrities they use in Japan.
I think they do a pretty noble job of matching the voice quality and finding similar personalities of the Japanese actors for the most part. As animated films in the States do, Miyazaki gets people who are right for the part but also has some name recognition--lately, anyway. They are not always the most popular at the time, but they are people who have made a mark playing a certain type of role. For example, in Ponyo, the role of the mother was voiced by Ritsuko Tanaka (see left), who in the '90s was known for playing young, career women who were funny and independent and "one of the guys," kind of characters women aspired to be. In the States, that voice was Tina Fey.
In Howl's Moving Castle,
Howl was voiced by Japan's super star hunk, Takuya Kimura (see right--Incidentally, he is my total guilty pleasure but that is also another post). In the States, it was Christian Bale (I'm not gonna lie. I think he is also hunky). See what I mean?

I like to give my stamp of approval. Like anyone cares. That would be one of my dream jobs--to cast the US voices for Miyazaki film. But I digress.

Here is the trailer in Japanese:

And here it is in English:

You can see their efforts. It's fun for me to experience Japanese films in the theatre in the US. I watch the audience's reaction as if I made the film--it's National pride, or something. I pay attention to what people find funny or not funny and how they seem to like it. Miyazaki seems to now have quite the fan base here so the audience for his films are ready to like it, which is nice. I once saw an interview with John Lasseter who said that when artists at Pixar get stuck on a project, they pop in My Neighbor Totoro for inspiration. That's saying something.

As we were leaving, I asked my daughter which version she liked. She thought for a moment and said, "Japanese," which is interesting because she has a better comprehension of English than Japanese. Perhaps it's because she saw it in Japanese first. Or maybe because she felt that was right. I'm OK with that.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Snow Man

In the United States, snow man is made typically with three snow balls, like such:

In Japan, snow man is typically made with two snow balls, like such:

I have to say, perhaps this stemmed from our body types and find it kind of amusing.

Also, kids in the U.S. draw yellow sun:

Kids in Japan draw red sun:

My hybrid child draws it with a yellow crayon even though she goes to a Japanese preschool.

Go figure.

Monday, January 9, 2012


On the way to Santa Barbara airport, we blew past this lovely little hut. I screamed at my husband to stop and turn around the car so I can take a picture.

That's right. It says, "Orient Laundry." Love that Chop Suey font. Totally reminds me of the Chinese characters from Thoroughly Modern Millie who kidnaps orphan ladies, put them in the laundry hamper and sell them to slavery. Awesome.

Sadly, this joint is closed. Otherwise, I would commute from Seattle to get my laundry done here.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


In my culture, people who are in mourning are not supposed to say "Happy New Year." New year's cards is are big tradition (like Christmas cards here), but if you lose a family member, you are supposed to send out "I'm in mourning" announcements prior to the timing of New Year's cards so that people won't send you anything that indicates celebration. I am in that group this year.

2011 was difficult. From the earthquake to my mother's death, it was a year that challenged my mental and physical strength in stress, concern, grief, obligations, and sleepless nights. But because of that it was a year that I also experienced a lot of love in my marriage, my child, friendship and community. It was a year of great loss and confirmation that I am blessed.

So as I look forward to 2012, the year of the dragon, I hope to nurture the connection I established with people and slowly regain my strength to grow bigger and stronger for the next challenge.

I wish you a good, healthy, peaceful year.