Monday, 26 November 2007

Elevated Ettiquette

Once upon a magical economical time in Japan, known as the Bubble, money flowed like water and was spent in vast quantities on just about everything and anything. In that environment employing beautiful young women to do things for you was easily done and, given how rewarding it could be, also very popular. The immaculately uniformed and gloved elevator ladies were such an example. With the "collapse" of the Japanese economy, however, most of these charming ladies had to hand in (or would it be more apt to say hand out?) their gloves.

Nowadays a receptionist or security guard may step in to the elevator to push your floor's button before exiting the elevator and bowing you onto your journey. The rest of the time, however, you are left to push your own buttons. I have heard of ingenious places that set the elevator to stop at every floor, but that could take a while, especially since Japan has some tall buildings! Upon entering an elevator in Japan, however, you are likely to find that, with its wonderful ability to adapt itself, Japanese society has solved this potentially disastrous situation.

The solution to this dire problem is that one of the people on the elevator, normally a young woman, will take on the role of the elevator lady, minus the uniform and gloves! While she will not announce each floor and will rarely ask others which button to push, she will stand right by the elevator buttons, pushing and holding 'open door' while others are exiting or entering the elevator and then immediately press 'close door' once said exiting/entering has happened.

There does not seem to be a process for deciding who will take on this role, the passengers do not play a spontaneous game of janken (rock-paper-scissors, the game used in Japan to decide teams/roles/etc, equivalent to flipping a coin or reciting eeny-meeny-miny-moe). Becoming the elevator lady seems to be the role of whoever is standing beside the button panel.

As I mentioned, this is normally taken on by young women. I have also noticed, however, that when I am in an elevator with only men, one of them will step up and take the role. Wanting to show my comprehension of Japanese culture, as well as the fact that I can be just as submissive as any Japanese woman, I recently stepped up and pushed those buttons as if I had a pair of white gloves on - much to the apparent surprise and delight of the all-male elevator passengers. I don't intend to quit my day job and pursue a career as one of the last few elevator ladies, however, as much as a few 5 year-olds I know might want to!

Monday, 19 November 2007

Bug's Life

I've talked before about how much I enjoy the visits and trips that have been a part of my program. After having been invited to join my other professor's study group on their monthly trip since I started in April, I was finally able to take my professor up on his offer.

There were about a dozen of us: high school and university teachers, a zoo employee, graduate and undergraduate students and even a fourth grader! We met at a train station about an hour out of Tokyo and were picked up by two vans from the local community centre, where we were to spend that and the following day.

The usual practice is for the centre to bring out a box or so of their un-classified 200-100 year old documents for the group to (attempt to) read and classify, putting each one in a special envelope filled out with the relevant information. This time we were in for a special treat, at my professor's request the centre had brought out some of their damaged documents. These were letters and official documents originally belonging to an important local family. This particular bunch were dirty and dusty and had been (or were still) infested with paper-eating bugs of various sorts. So, we donned aprons and face masks and dug in, some of the worst damaged documents needed to be pried open page by page with a specialized pick.

On day two, our pile of documents to be read was dwindling and a few of the group worked on their own research with some of the documents. A few of us were taken to another room to sort and place in envelopes stacks of very dusty and dirty (but bug-free) shrine and temple prayer papers. They were easier to read and sort than the other documents but after a few hours my fingers were black and my electronic dictionary was covered in dirt.

The community centre provided box lunches for us both days and put us up at a very nice hostel in a large park at the height of its autumn glory.

Everyone was very kind and helpful - the elderly men at the community centre were clearly delighted to have a foreigner join the group and asked me to send them a blurb about the experience. The other students and members were endlessly patient with my questions of what to write where and to verify I was correctly reading the document.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually enjoyed the trip and while I won't be able to join them for the December trip, I am looking forward to the chance of a future trip!

On being an undergrad again... Take two

An added note about what does and does not happen in public in a Japanese classroom or in general... This time, about personal grooming.

It is very very common to see young women doing their make-up on the train. Now, I'm not talking about simply refreshing their lipstick or blotting their nose and forehead with oil absorbing paper (although both of those happen all the time), I'm talking about women with a large mirror propped on their knees running through their entire make-up routine - including curling their eyelashes with large curling contraptions.

I was still, however, surprised and very amused to notice a guy sitting in the third row of my class last week with a set of tweezers in his hand. Under the cover of the other hand held shielding the lower half of his face, he put the tweezers up his nose, jerked them back out, examined them to see the hairs he had removed, and wiped them off on his notebook before going at it again! I couldn't believe what I was seeing!!

Later that night, when drinking with my advisor (the professor of the class earlier that day), I recounted the story to him. His reaction, however, was one of respect for the guy who had been able to tweeze his nose hairs without reacting to the pain, rather than being annoyed about lack of respect or anything else!

Sunday, 18 November 2007

On being an undergrad again...

While I am sitting in on graduate-level courses, in preparation for starting my masters in April, the majority of my courses, the ones towards the curatorial certificate, are all at the undergraduate level. Going back is never easy, nor is it a particularily good thing...! I find myself taking classes with Japanese kids 7-10 years younger than me and I often feel more of a connection to the elderly man who sits across the aisle from me!

This is, of course, not to say that I don't love my classes, or that I'm not learning tons, but still...

It is little things like not being able to drink while the professor is lecturing as it is considered rude (but it is fairly common for students to drink and or eat during breaks) have me reminiscing fondly of my days at U of T where the number of Nalgene bottles equalled that of the student population. (I know, I know, me thinking fondly of U of T - yes, it does happen... occasionally!)

What really annoys me (and leaves me feeling old and stuffy) is my Japanese class. This term I am only taking one, an oral presentation class for second year foreign undergrads (Chinese and Korean natives who will be completing their undergrad in Japanese at Meiji). It is a small section, with only 15 students registered. Despite the fact that attendance makes up a large section of the final grade, and missing more than a certain number of classes results in an automatic fail, we never have all present. Class is 90 minutes only once a week, starting at 10:40 am on Tuesday morning. There are normally about 5 people present at the start of class and another 5 or so will meander in over the course of class, with students occasionally arriving past 11:30. In a large class, especially if you sit near the back or hide yourself behind somebody else, nodding off or having a whispered conversation with the person beside you will go over with out comment by the prof at the front. In a class of less than a dozen, however, putting your head down on your arms for a nap is something I'd consider incredibly rude! Carrying on a conversation with the person beside you (at a level loud enough to annoy the stuffy Canadian on the other side of the room) despite being asked to stop doing so by the professor, is something that wasn't accepted in most of my ELEMENTARY SCHOOL classes, but since it has been more than 2 decades since I started elementary school, perhaps my memories are fading with age?! Or, perhaps these other students are simply rude and don't respect the professor or value the education they are receiving?! But that's just my crotchety opinion!

While the students I am referring to are foreigners, they are foreigners who speak Japanese very well and are used to fitting in with Japanese society. My other classes are either much larger or smaller graduate courses, and so can not provide a useful comparaison. Would Japanese students in the same situation do the same thing? The Japanese are famous (infamous?!) for falling asleep just about anywhere and everywhere - especially on trains. It is quite common for people to have a short cat nap after finishing their coffee at Starbucks, and anytime of day roughly half of the students sitting at the university library's study tables are asleep. The average Japanese will explain this phenomenon along the lines of the stereotype of the over-worked and sleep deprived Japanese business man or student.

I must admit to enjoying a nap myself on the train, especially on those lucky nights when I get a seat on the way home after my evening classes!

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Museum Love

Since I'm sure that by now many of you are sick and tired of hearing how much I love my job at the museum I thought I should warn you before I launch into raptures...

Right, so you've been warned!

I had a really good day at the museum today! I've been given more and more responsibility recently and am enjoying all sorts of new projects. In conjunction with the museum's reopening a number of new initiatives are being considered and I'm involved in the rewriting of the museum's promotional material. One of the curators and I began by creating a brand-new 5 page bilingual illustrated leaflet. While I really enjoy variety, one of the few complaints I have about working at the museum is that I seem to be endlessly starting new things but never finishing them. The bilingual pamphlet, however, was an exception as I inputted the Japanese text at the start, translated/wrote the English text, had a voice in lay-out, and then finally copied and folded the first 50 copies before formally presenting a copy to the director and placing them in the exhibit space. I proud to add that those first 50 copies disappeared quickly and a professional printers are to be used for subsequent printings! Now I realize my role was nothing more than that of assistant to the curator, it was still awesome to be involved at all steps along the way! Today I spent about 30 minutes discussing modifications and improvements to be made with the curator in charge.

I've also been involved with the preparation for two different upcoming exhibitions-one with a museum in France and the other an individual in the US. This has me using all my languages and learning lots!

Today the curator I normally work for asked me if I'd like to tag along on a group tour that she and one of the other curators would be giving in the afternoon. It turned out to be 80 grade 4 students from a nearby elementary school! They were divided into two groups and then taken on a tour of the exhibit space and one of the historical buildings in addition to watching a short video. I hung to the back, answered a few questions and explained a few things to the kids during their free time. It was the first time in over a year that I've interacted with visitors to the museum and I both enjoyed it and noticed that it was significantly easier than the last time (taking classes in Japanese improves my language skills a lot more than teaching English ever did!). The curators suggested that I get involved in more of the group tours - both kids and adults, and also asked me to start thinking about ideas for pamphlet/worksheets for kids. (somehow I think that anything I come up with will be geared towards Brownie-age girls?!)

All of this goes along with what I am discovering to be my main interests in the museum field - museum education and visitor services.

Monday, 12 November 2007


I went back to the hospital/doctor last week as my prior complaint had returned a month or so after I had finished my antibiotics. They took what seemed like a litre of blood and whatnot and had me go back on Friday for results. I had the same doctor as my first visit and again he kindly made the effort to speak in English. He had a thick stack of papers that turned out to be my test results and he went through each one carefully.

"Your maslfhweo (English approximation of Japanese medical term said quickly and under his breath in an attempt that I recognize using myself when unsure of the exact word to use) level is..... NORRRRRRUUUMARU!" (the last a version of 'normal' said at about twice the volume and with four times the oomph as the rest of the sentence) He would then point to the numbers printed on the sheet to confirm my normalness. Now, of course whether one number was 40 and the next number was 0.1, or the other way around would make absolutely no difference to my comprehension. I haven't taken biology or anything like it since grade 10!! Not realizing my lack of comprehension, however, the doctor pushed on... Your lksjfoawr," he said, "level is.... NORRRRRUUUUMARU!!" Your sljfoewei level is also..... NORRRRUUUMARU!! This went on for quite a while (as I said they did take a lot of bodily fluids). He ended by telling me that my various systems were also norumaru.

All this norumaru-ness is a good thing, and the doctor seems quite confident that there is nothing wrong with me, but I'm still left wondering why if nothing is wrong with me I don't feel quite so norumaru? To his credit the doctor was very understanding and said that I should come back the minute I don't feel right, even going so far as to recommend the best time for me to suddenly feel sick (~3pm on Mondays or Wednesdays, when the hospital is apparently at its emptiest).

On a side note - if I needed confirmation of Japan's rapidly aging population I certainly didn't after a morning in the hospital's waiting area. In the nearly three hours I spent there I only saw one other person under 30. Everybody else seemed either over 70 or was accompanying a parent in said age range.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Just what the doctor ordered!

The weather has been getting steadily cooler in Tokyo but only in the past few days has it actually begun to feel like fall. Since I like sleeping with my window open at night I've had to get out another blanket and warmer pjs. This weekend I got out of Tokyo and enjoyed some beautiful sunny autumn weather, crunched through leaves, and all that good autumn-y stuff! I also got to take a look at a 1500+ year old painted stone burial chamber, visit a small museum and an aquarium, have some good food and drink...

My professor's major was originally archeology and while he has been heavily involved with digs in Alaska, he has also been involved in numerous digs across Japan. One of the digs, at a 7th century tumulus, unearthed a stunning painted stone burial chamber. The team spent a long time monitoring the conditions inside the chamber before they moved in and built a series of chambers leading up to the stone chamber so that the paintings could be protected and studied. A few decades later the chamber is still in excellent condition and the outer chambers are opened to viewers in the spring and fall (when temperature and humidity are similar inside the stone chamber and outdoors).

The next morning we left our hotel and headed off to see a small museum nearby before heading to an aquarium. I was rather excited to discover that the aquarium had a penguin exhibit and spent most of my time watching them swim about in the underwater viewing area.

When we arrived at the aquarium, however we had yet to have breakfast, so decided to eat at the aquarium's food court. I was quite disturbed to find that the food court specialized in sushi - there has got to be something wrong about an aquarium serving sushi, right?! Not 30 minutes after having eaten a bowl of rice topped with raw tuna and green onions (my absolute favourite) I watched three tuna swim past me. My professor says that his reaction to many aquariums is "mmm - that looks yummy!" I just find this all very disturbing. It didn't stop me from enjoying my negitoro bowl, however! ;)

No Japanese tourist spot would be complete without omiyage - souvenirs. The most popular are edible, and often include the local specialty (grape and peach flavoured candies in Yamanashi prefecture, yuba pickles in Nikko, natto in Mito...). If there is no special local product then cookies or Japanese sweets will be imprinted with the picture of or made in the shape of a local tourist attraction. Dolphin shaped cookies for sale at the aquarium were pretty standard. The stone-tool shaped butter cookies from a stone-age historic site, however got me giggling. Aside for their golden colour, they look very realistic! I was also amused by the wafer sandwich cookies with the same designs as those found on the walls of Torazuka's stone chamber. These souvenirs are bought by Japanese tourists and then taken home and given to friends, family and co-workers in a sort-of apology for the traveler's absence.