Guide books give you the big picture. They rarely focus on the tiny details that make a city or country what it really is. Here is a list of the “little things” I’ve noticed so far that make Japan unique.
I am in no way an expert (obviously), so I can’t say with confidence that all of Japan can apply to this list. However, each item is on this list because I have seen and/or experienced the topic in question many, many times.
Everybody poops, but not everybody pees
Tarō Gomi is a Japanese author of children’s books. In 1977 he published a very informative book in Japan that didn’t reach English speaking countries until 1993. This book is known in English as Everyone Poops. If you were a kid in the early 90s you most likely read this book at some point. I know I did. It taught me a lot! Elephants make big poops! You poop, I poop, he poops, she poops, the list goes on and on. In summary: Everyone poops.
Pooping is ok! It’s normal, right? Since I knew about this book before I came to Japan, and knew that it was by a Japanese author, I assumed poop would be a common, respected table conversation in Japan. It might be. I don’t speak Japanese, so for all I know it very well could be what everyone is talking about during lunch at work.
“How was your poo today?
“I haven’t had mine yet.”
“What?! I’ve already had three!”
“Wow! You’re lucky!”
I digress. Poop. No big deal.
But DO NOT let anyone hear you pee! I think it will come as no surprise to many of you that the Japanese have some very high end honey buckets. Top of the line Johns. Luxury loos. I could go on. One feature seems to be prevalent on just about any toilet you bless with your sweet behind is a button often marked with a musical note, used to mask the sound of your tinkle-tinkle. Press this button and no one has to know what you’re doing in there! You could be practicing the tuba or tap-dancing (or both?). No one would know the difference. Make as much noise as you want! Of course, this lovely sound (which is just the sound of flushing) could also mask your magnificent poos. But everyone uses it every time they go to the bathroom. I once made the mistake of not using it, and the lady who was in the bathroom at the same time as me frantically showed me the button afterward, clearly highly embarrassed that she had to suffer through such atrocious sounds. Needless to say, I always use the button now, even though I feel a little silly when I do. I mean, everybody pees, right? Right??!!
Life is a musical
I’ve been living in Japan for two months at this point. And, if I’m not mistaken, I appear to be involved in some sort of live-action musical. Every day when I arrive at work, the one morning song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bihp6gwTdeg) plays over the speakers. This, it appears, is my “Welcome to Work” theme song. The students appear to arrive in perfect choreography, riding their bikes in formation, waking in steady, evenly spaced lines. (I’m not being sarcastic about the orderly way they arrive. That is actually true.) And, of course, they are all wearing the same outfit. Here is my challenge for you: explain how that is NOT a scene from a musical? Ok, ok, none of them are singing as they enter the building. But they do all share in a chorus of “Hello, Heidi-sensei!” followed by hysterical giggles. I think that’s close enough to singing in unison.
Not only is there music in the morning, but music plays during lunch (often Japanese pop although sometimes randomly there is the theme music from the film “Spirited Away”).
Cleaning time, which follows the final period of the day (yes, that’s right, the KIDS clean the school in JAPAN. What do you think of THAT, American children???), is accompanied by a rather elevator/jazz music rendition of “I Love You Baby” and then a slightly depressing sounding Kenny G-type number. Every day. The same two songs.
It’s not only the schools that play music. Every Tuesday I attend Japanese class at “Oasis” which is a community center (that includes a library—my favorite hangout). At 9 pm, closing time, an instrumental version of the song “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” made famous by that Disney film “Cinderella,” plays. Once I hear that song, I know my two hours of embarrassing myself is over.
My favorite bit of arbitrary music comes at 5:30 pm every day. The other musical pieces I mentioned all serve a particular purpose; to mark the beginning of the day, closing time, etc. At 5:30 however, the speakers that are placed strategically throughout the city begin to play a quaint little chiming noise. I have yet to figure out exactly what this is meant to signify. I’ve asked a few people and no one seems to be able to answer me. It’s not school being over. It’s not a work-day-being-over chime, since most people work pretty late in Japan. My assumption is that it’s a really old tradition from back when most people did go home at 5:30. I could be totally wrong though. It could be the chime to remind me to clip my toenails. I may never know. (I did read once that it’s a Japanese superstition that you should NEVER clip your toenails after dark, so this very well could be it.)
Cute is as cute does
This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Most people are familiar with my close personal friend, Hello Kitty (who is referred to as Kitty-Chan here). “Cuteness” has become synonymous with “Japan” these days. I can confirm that this is true. There is cuteness everywhere. In fact, cuteness is so important that many cities have their very own mascot. I don’t mean the “Vikings” or the “Tigers.” They have specifically designed characters that represent their city.
The most important qualification for a Japanese mascot is its cute factor, of course! However, I’ve seen quite a few that have seemed to miss the cute factor and dove right into the creepy factor instead. The city where I live, Yoshikawa, has a mascot that seems to be straddling the line of cute and creepy. Namarin is a darling pink little girl. She wears a lovely flower on her head. She has rosy red cheeks. She also has a catfish for a head. No, you didn’t misread me, she is not a catfish. She is a girl with the head of a catfish. This leads to many important questions. Does she have separate organs for the human part of her and fish part of her? Which bathroom does she use? “Women” or “River”? Does she have two different brains in that enormous noggin of hers? Are they constantly battling her for control?
No…must…go…to…work…and be a…contributing member…of society…
These are the questions I need answered. But the only answer I got from my co-worker was to “why a catfish?” Apparently, catfish used to be prevalent in the river here, although they are no longer. However, many restaurants are famous in Yoshikawa for their catfish dishes. So, Namarin best be staying away from cutlery. Otherwise she might lose half a head. Although that might come as an improvement.