Category Archives: Life in Tokyo

My Thoughts on Japan’s Half-Black Miss Universe

Ariana MiyamotoLiving in Japan I have had so many of my stereotypes about Japanese people tested and broken, and I’m so delighted to have one of my deepest, darkest beliefs tested once again.

In March, Ariana Miyamoto, a mixed-race woman of Japanese and African-American descent, was crowned Miss Universe Japan.

Japan…I’m amazed!

Issues with beauty pageants aside, I never expected Japan to place a black or even half black woman in such a position. In my four years here, I have watched Japan stretch and grow and change for the better, becoming more inclusive and making more effort to respect other cultures, but I had no idea the country was capable of this.

While living here, I’ve come to realize that, as in many other parts of the world, there is a bias toward Anglo features when it comes to determining beauty. The most visible representation of this is in Japanese anime. You would think a country as homogeneous as Japan would almost exclusively feature protagonists that look just like them in their animation right? But Japanese anime is full of blond-haired beauties and dashing blue-eyed heroes.  And you’ll rarely find a black character at all, much less as a main character.

So to see Ms. Miyamoto crowned was extremely, pleasantly shocking for me. However, she has faced some backlash. By her own admission the reception has been mixed, with a number of people saying she shouldn’t have won because she’s not “really Japanese”. But I’m still so happy that she was chosen.

There are so many things I love about Japan, and the racial issues have been one of the things that hurt my heart while living here. I’m really rooting for Japan when it comes to being more flexible and considerate in regards to other cultures, so this has me grinning from ear to ear.

Way to go Japan! And congratulations Ms. Miyamoto!

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Face up to Blackface in Japan

Time to get a bit heavy for a minute.

Japan, there are so many things I love about you, like Taiko and Katsu Curry. But we need to have a little sit down about this one right here.

rats_star_32424

This is in response to an upcoming performance on national television by the J-pop groups Momoiro Clover Z, and Rats and Star and who are notorious for performing in blackface.

For the people who understand, especially the thoughtful, conscientious Japanese like my many friends, thank you for your spirit of open-mindedness and cooperation.

For the others…

Please just don’t.

I get that you like cosplay, but I gotta tell ya, I’m really not that interested in your impression of me, because honestly it’s kinda messed up.

Going through the comments on the net I have, to my bafflement, seen many arguments in defense, dare I say in support of Japanese Blackface.  Let me break down what’s problematic about them.

  •  Japanese don’t have the same history, they don’t know any better. 

Bzzt. Not buying it. There is this skill we humans use when we haven’t had an experience, but want to try to understand what it must have been like for someone else.

It’s called empathy.

So this defense is really not a defense at all, because all you’re saying is that the Japanese are so lacking in empathy they can’t tell when they’re doing something incredibly offensive.

Which, incidentally couldn’t be further from the truth. In my years of experience here, it’s become clear to me the Japanese pride themselves on being able to practically mind-read. They’re very good at picking up social cues. There’s even a buzzword for those who can’t: KY, or Kuuki Yomenai. It means someone “can’t read the atmosphere”.

But if the Japanese needed some help walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, they could always think back to how it felt when Chinese actresses played the lead roles in Memoirs of a Geisha, or what if felt like to watch Katy Perry prance around in a half Chinese-half Japanese “kimono” at the AMAs.

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I refuse to believe that, in 2015, all of Japan is so “KY” about blackface,

  • It’s not racist, it’s just offensive. 

Oh, well that’s alright then.

….What?!

  • It’s an homage. They like black people. 

From Merriam-Webster online:

Homage (Noun). “Something that shows respect or attests to the worth or influence of another.”

Some homage.

Maybe, just maybe, if the very artists you are homage-ing would be horrified by what you’re doing, it’s not an homage!

What the hell? You don’t get to tell people “this is our homage to you and by God you’re gonna like it.” That’s not how to homage peeps.

Mockery (Noun) “An insincere, contemptible, or impertinent imitation”

That sounds like a much more fitting definition for Japanese blackface. Paying homage to musicians or a people you claim to like, without bothering to acknowledge the dark history of what you’re doing, sounds pretty insincere to me.

  • But you’re wearing a yukata in your profile picture you big old hypocrite.

I am, and I look pretty cute if I do say so myself.  What I didn’t do is my parody of what I think Japanese people are while I was wearing it. By that logic Japanese shouldn’t be wearing t-shirts and jeans.

  • This is Japan. They can do whatever they want.

Oh, absolutely. There’ll just be consequences that’s all. This stubborn mentality is what’s holding Japan back as a world power, in my opinion. This is the same mentality prevalent in the archaic business practices, in the three hour meetings that eat up time and resources, in forcing subordinates to stay at work until their bosses leave, even if that’s not until ten to midnight.  What people don’t realize is that there’s so much more at stake here than just “making the blacks happy.”

If Japan wants to be taken seriously as a world power, hosting the Olympics etc., they need to respect other cultures. If they don’t, the international media will rake them over the coals, just like they did Russia over their treatment of gays. Not necessarily because black lives matter (which they do), but in making Japan look bad, they get to make themselves look good.

Again, I will say there is much to love about Japan. I don’t think all Japanese people are horrible, ignorant dinosaurs. I have a lot of wonderful friends and students who make a great effort to understand me, and give me lots of hope and love for this country. But like in every other country, there are some unscrupulous people who just want to make a buck, regardless of their disrespectful actions, and the damage they’re doing to their country’s reputation.

Foreigners living in Japan shouldn’t be enabling.  Like staging in intervention for an alcoholic friend, if we really have love for this country, we have a responsibility to speak out about things like Japanese blackface.

 

I’m in Love with Taiko

** This is a re-post from my old blog. **

Taiko

No, Taiko is unfortunately not the name of some cool and sexy Japanese guy. It’s beautiful, traditional Japanese drumming.

One of the things I really love and admire about Japan is the traditional music. There’s something about the sound of the shamisen, koto and yes the booming Taiko drum that just resonates with my soul. The pounding rhythm of the Taiko is aggressive, it’s commanding — it’ll crash your brain and force you to listen. And beating the drum requires not only strength, but style. A Taiko drummer also needs to be a dancer, and the perfect form of a Taiko master combines strength and grace, like a hunting crane. A Taiko performance is nothing short of art.

How did I get involved in Taiko? I saw the opportunity for a free Taiko lesson posted on TimeOut Tokyo, and I knew I had to try it. I had my misgivings: Will I be able to understand the instructor if the class is in Japanese? How much will it cost if I want to continue? Will I have to buy a big Taiko drum? But the music was calling, so I pushed all those worries aside and sent an email saying I wanted to try the free lesson. Some of my fears about language were eased when the reply had pretty accurate English grammar.

Now I’m hooked. I’ve been taking lessons for four months, and I’m in the middle of learning a routine for my first concert. There are days when I feel lazy and I don’t want to go to class, but I remember the rhythm, and I drag myself to the train station, and once I’m in class surrounded by the drumming, I’m always glad I went.

What’s a typical lesson like? Well, I get to the studio and give my usual chorus of konban wa (good evening) to everyone I see. If I’m early I help our sensei (teacher) and the other students with setting up the drums. We use three huge drums, and take turns practicing.

After the drums are set up I go get changed. Taiko is a workout, especially when we’re practicing the fast rhythms, so I need my workout gear. This is the time I usually practice my minuscule Japanese, by talking to the other students. And they also get to practice their English with me.

Then I tape up my hands with elastic bandages. If I don’t I get bruises and blisters on my hands from drumming so hard. Soon after that sensei will call out, “Hai! Hajimemasho! (Let’s Start)” Then we do some stretches, and then get into drumming practice. Though I can’t understand a lot of what’s being said, I can get it from context. But if I ask another student who speaks English they’re always willing to explain. At some point we get some one on one time with the sensei, and though he doesn’t speak English he shows me what I’m doing wrong by doing a hilarious caricature of me. Uh…point taken sensei.

These Taiko lessons have been a great way to challenge myself physically and mentally. The style of Taiko I do is Miyake Taiko, and I’m really, really trying to have passable drumming form before the concert. However, I am slightly worried about the “waiting pose” we have to make when it’s not our turn to drum. It’s a crouching sit that starts to hurt after about one minute and makes my legs fall asleep! The last thing I want is to get up to drum and fall flat on my face…

Still, I think I’ve stumbled onto something incredible here, and I’m already excited for the next lesson. They are two hours long but I don’t even feel it. Once the drum beat starts everything else fades away. There’s only a thunderous rhythm that vibrates first in the soles of my bare feet, then travels up my legs, up my spine and hijacks the beat of my heart. The nagging chatter of the everyday worries of life is no match for the powerful boom of the Taiko drum.

My Feature on InterNations

Internations

Check me out!

logo-old@2xHere’s an interview I did for InterNations, which is a great site that connects expats from around the world.

Here’s my interview, in which I talk about getting ready to move to Japan, my favorite blog post and one of the funniest things to happen to me out here.

Click here to read it!

 

The Beginning of the End: Tokyo T-minus Six Months

keep-calm-it-s-the-final-countdownあけましておめでとうございます!

Happy New Year!

2014 was a successful one for me: I made some big moves in my career, met more amazing people and improved my Japanese the most out of any year I’ve been here. 去年一所懸命歯働いたよ。(Last year I worked super hard!)

However, this year will be bitter sweet, as the countdown to lift off from Japan has been officially initiated.

It’s not because I hate it here. For the most part Tokyo has been good to me. There have been bumps along the way: random police checks, the occasional drunk asshole shouting “gaijin” at me, and hunting for an apartment in a discriminatory marketplace. But the good times far outweigh the bad. Tokyo is a vibrant, lively city that will always have a piece of my heart.

The reasons I’m leaving have more to do with life in general. As I approach my third decade on God’s favorite piece of space debris,  there’s a lot I want to accomplish both personally and professionally.  I don’t feel it will be easy to do those things in Japan.

That said, there’s a lot I need to accomplish in the half year I have left. From soaking up all the Japanese I can to saving money, this year’s gonna be full throttle.

Study-mangaThis year I’m taking on the dreaded kanji–Chinese characters used in the Japanese alphabet. At the absolute least 2000 are needed for literacy. I might be able to easily recognize 300. Still, I bought some manga from the second-hand bookstore down the street. I figure the pictures should help. They must be for kids or something because they have furigana (phonetic spellings) next to the kanji characters.

I’m also going to my first writer’s conference in New York this year. I’m planning to do a pitch session for my latest novel, which I’m currently getting critiqued. Honestly the chances of finding an agent at the con aren’t great, but I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.

So while this year will be the end of an era, it’s only so I can usher an new, brighter era full of more success, adventure and growth.

楽しみにする–I’m looking forward to it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Number One Best Japanese Food Ever

Rock Lee Curry

I can’t remember when I first encountered this delightful Japanese delicacy. I can’t remember when I first caught that now-familiar scent wafting through the streets of Tokyo. It’s like it’s always been with me, the craving always a part of me, and no diet or empty bank account or reasonable shop hours can stand between me and my most favorite of favorite foods in Japan.

You MUST eat it!!!!!

You MUST eat it!!!!!

I’m talking about Japanese Curry baby! When people ask me what my favorite Japanese food is and my eyes light up, my mouth starts to water and I emphatically scream “Japanese Curry!!!!” They laugh at me. That’s because it’s like coming to North America and, after sampling all the wonderful artery-clogging delights of the West, declaring your favorite food to be grilled cheese sandwiches, especially cut into neat little triangles with no crust.

It’s pretty much what they feed kids to teach them how to use a spoon. But you know what? I don’t care. Do you hear me? I DO NOT CARE!!

It’s delicious.

It’s chunky and thick and and savory and aaarrrrgggg. I love it. It can been sweet as the smile of a newborn puppy or hot as the fires of Hitler’s bedroom.

I consider myself a curry connoisseur because…because I do, and without question the best curry franchise in Japan is GoGo Curry. If you come to Tokyo you can’t miss it. It’s got a big gorilla on the sign. image (1)

And what is curry without katsu–that delicious abomination of fried, battered pork famous in Japan. Whenever Japanese people tell me Japanese food is “so healthy” I usually say *cough* katsu *cough*, but God bless them for inventing it. GoGo Curry has the best katsu curry out. Just look at it.

image (2)

I like GoGo curry because their curry is really thick, unlike a certain “Number 1 Shop” that shall remain nameless. And look at that rich dark colour. It’s just as full of flavour as it looks. You can’t see it but under the curry and katsu is rice. And those white things on the side are pickled shallots.

It’s also easy to get the ingredients to cook curry yourself, but I can’t even come close to matching the perfection of GoGo Curry. Mine always lacks a certain…edibility, so I prefer to just go out and buy it.

So there you have it. Keep your sea urchin and raw horse and fermented soy beans. My favorite Japanese food will always be a steaming plate of Japanese Curry,

You must eat it.

 

Budget Japanese for the Cheapskate

If you, like me, are a starving artist, a student, or just suffering from scroogitis, this list of free or relatively cheap resources for learning Japanese should appeal to you.

 

Free Lang 8 Lang 8

This is a site where you can upload diary entries any language and have native speakers check them, and it seems to be dominated by English and Japanese speakers. You just create a profile, upload your diary and wait for others to come by and check it, although it helps a lot if you go check some of the English diaries people have up. I like this site because people can make correction and comments too if they want. And more than one person can correct the same diary so you can learn different ways to say one thing.

imagesJLPT quiz N5-N1 apps

I’ve got these on iphone and ipad. These are great for practicing before the JLPT (Japanese language proficiency test). Better to use these as a gauge than a study tool though, because they don’t give you much info about the answers,  but based on the JLPT test I took, I’d say they’re in line with the levels.

 

Tae Kim’s guide to Learning Japanese

This one’s another app, and the only free textbook I’ve seen. I’m not a huge fan of textbooks, at least not on their own. But it does help put the grammar in perspective.

Imiwa?

A decent Japanese dictionary app, but honestly, sometimes it doesn’t have words I’m looking for. But eh, it’s free and it works most of the time. It’s that or pay for an electronic dictionary.

 

Paid

Japanesepod 101.com

This site’s very popular, and you’ve probably heard of it. It’s a website full of podcasts, PDFs. and practice tests. I highly recommend it…but a pro membership is about $200usd a year. But this guide is for cheapskates remember? When you first sign up, they give you this “ultimate getting started” offer, where you can get pro access for a month for just a dollar, and all their podcasts are downloadable.

You see where this is going.

If you’re a true scrooge you’ll sign up, spend the month downloading all the podcasts at your level and not renew. However… They’re always adding new stuff. If you sign up for their newsletter they’re always sending out offers, and I was able to get a yearlong subscription for half price. And they have a lot of resources besides the lessons like a grammar bank,  dictionary. great practice tests for the JLPT, and a PDF breakdown of the grammar for each lesson. It’s worth the money.

iKnow

iknow

Looove this one, because I can use it when I’m commuting which is a loooot these days. It’s a website but the also have an app, and it’s primarily for learning vocabulary, though you can pick up some grammar through the example sentences. There’s also a dictation feature you can use to practice your pronunciation. It’s about $70-80 a year.

Volunteer Classes 

This only applies to expats in Japan, but there are a surprising number of free or super cheap (not more than $20USD a month) Japanese classes taught by volunteers. The one I go to has been really great. I only had to buy the textbook. However the focus is heavily on conversation, so If you’re looking to learn Kanji you might need to sign up for “real” classes, at a school or university.

So those are the main resources I use to learn Japanese. How about you?