Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Fear and Trembling

Occasionally I discover a writer I wish I could have included in my anthology, such as Belgian Amelie Nothomb. I just finished reading her darkly comic autobiographical novel Fear and Trembling, about a young Western woman who spends a year working in the accounting department of a large Japanese corporation. Early on, Amelie makes the mistake of showing initiative and is severely dressed down by her superior. I felt less bad about all those novels I read at my desk when I had no work to do.

The novel is less about being a foreigner in Japan than the relationship between Amelie and her beautiful but cold supervisor, Miss Fubuki Mori. However, Amelie scatters observations about the country throughout the 136 pages of the book. For example:

"Everyone knows that Japan has the highest suicide rate of any country in the world. What surprised me was that suicides were not more common.

"What awaited these poor number-crunchers outside The Company? The obligatory beer with colleagues undergoing the same kind of gradual lobotomy, hours spent stuffed into an overcrowded subway, a dozing wife, exhausted children, sleep that sucked them down into it like the vortex of a flushing toilet, the occasional day off they never too full advantage of. Nothing that deserved to be called a life.

"The worst part of it all was that they were considered lucky."

This passage doesn't strike me as particularly original. In fact, most of the Westerners I know in Japan have voiced similar opinions. I'm always going around saying that Japan is a stressful country and that Japanese people don't know what it means to be happy, but maybe we're all wrong. This book was first published in France seven years ago. Since then, women in this country have been delaying marriage (there's no more talk of Christmas cakes), birth rates have declined, and the divorce rate has increased. I'd like to think that this indicates Japanese women, at least, are choosing happiness.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Junk Food for the Dead, part 2

A few weeks ago I mentioned a roadside shrine for someone who presumably died in a traffic accident. The weather has taken its toll, so it had been looking like nothing but a rice bowl full of rain and a bunch of beer cans standing on the corner. Like garbage, I mean. Today I noticed two fresh bouquets of cellophane-wrapped flowers, but I couldn't help wondering when does something like this cease to be a monument and begin to be trash?

Big Brother is Watching

A few days ago I had my semi-annual scheduled chat with the head of the Deaf School Kindergarten where we talked about my daughter's future education, etc. M.-Sensei said that she felt I was holding back, and that if there was anything I wanted to complain about, I should go right ahead. Well, she didn't say it exactly like that, but it's true that the other mothers complain much more than I do and she's right in thinking that I am rather reserved. At any rate, I thought I'd throw her a bone, so I said that I thought the school memos pertaining to homelife were intrusive and unnecessary. I'm talking about the memos the teachers send home telling us to put our children to bed early and wake them up early, even during summer vacation, or to make sure our children wash their hands before eating and gargle with water after playing outside. I also don't like it when the teachers ask me to write down what my daughter does from the time she gets up in the morning till she goes to bed at night. And I don't like it when the teachers tell me to take my daughter to the doctor to get medicine when she has a runny nose. It's none of their business. Yet, in Japan, schools seem to feel that they are the directors of our children's lives. M.-Sensei thanked me for sharing and told me that probably nothing will change. I told her that I would just have to get used to this way of thinking and learn to ignore it.

Today there was a meeting for the parents of upcoming first graders at the Deaf School. We mothers were told to get our kids used to waking up early and going to bed early, to make sure our kids brush their teeth and wash their faces and eat three meals a day. I seem to have made some progress because for once, I wasn't irritated at all.

Friday, February 24, 2006

"Pregnancy Diary"

It has always seemed to me that while harping about Japanese trade restrictions, American farmers and policy-makers have failed to understand Japanese consumers' very real concern with food safety. Even characters in Japanese fiction show an awareness of the dangers of pesticides and preservatives. In the story "Pregnancy Diary" by Yoko Ogawa, a woman tries to destroy her sister's unborn baby by feeding her jam made from American grapefruits. She gets this idea after learning that imported fruit is treated with the highly carcinogenic antifungal agent P.W.H., which is known to be harmful to human chromosomes.

Perhaps American agriculturists should do less lobbying and more reading.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Scarlet Fever

Last night Jio was really itchy, so I took him to another doctor today, one in the town where we used to live whom I basically respect. She did a proper throat culture and diagnosed my boy with scarlet fever. She also pointed out that he would need to take antibiotics for ten to twelve days. Now I've pretty much lost my faith in the doctor we went to yesterday, which is a shame since it's only five minutes away. Also, he has a really nice waiting room with a grand piano and a coffee table book on the films of Woody Allen in English. And the nurses make tea for you while you are waiting for test results! I don't understand why he couldn't be bothered to do a throat culture when I'd suggested my son might have scarlet fever. Didn't he believe me? Would he have lost face if two tests turned out negative? At any rate, I am glad that I went in for that second opinion.

Japanese Doctors

I'm feeling confused and frustrated due to my inability to trust Japanese doctors. Last night, my son was feeling achey and tired and came down with a fever early this morning. Sounds like the flu, right? But he was also itchy, and he seems to have a rash all over his body. He had a flu shot and when I took him to a doctor near our house, he tested negative for influenza. The doctor said that it might still be influenza, but it was too early to tell. I mentioned that a kid at Jio's kindergarten had scarlet fever last week, so the doctor said he'd prescribe antiobiotics for that. The thing is, I couldn't tell if he was just humoring me or not. Apparently there is a test for scarlet fever, but he didn't conduct any tests beyond the flu one. Also, he only gave us antiobiotics for four days, but according to the information I have in English, one should take antibiotics for two weeks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Figure Skating

The husband, who is all about sports, being a baseball coach and all, is very worried because so far the Japanese have won no medals in the Turin Olympic games. He woke up at 5a.m. to watch the short program of women's figure skating. I heard him exclaiming to himself, so I knew that Japan's great hope, Shizuka Arakawa, had done well. She's now in contention for a medal.

Yoshi woke me up to see Sasha Cohen. A bit of trivia: At one time, Sasha and I had the same literary agent. Her book sold, mine didn't. But I guess it makes sense. Sasha is an Olympic skater, going for the gold, while I am a university educated housewife. Anyway, I was glad to see her stunning performance.

Noriko Ibaragi

Renowned Japanese poet Noriko Ibaragi died on Sunday at the age of 79. By way of tribute, check out her poem "A University Graduate Housewife." I don't know about you, but I can certainly relate to this one.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Ceremony Suits

I've been wearing the same suit to ceremonies over the past seven years. With four major ceremonies coming up (graduation from kindergarten, entrance ceremony for elementary school, two each) and a possible job interview, I figured it was time for a new suit. I hopped over to Ebay to check out the selection and got carried away. I bid on a gorgeous black silk cocktail dress that I have no occasion to wear and won! Luckily for me, the seller reneged and I kept my money. I didn't get the cashmere Chanel outfit either, but I did manage to buy a couple of Armani suits for less than the price of one teeny tiny jacket at Sogo. I'm not huge or anything, but Japanese women are very small and it's hard to find clothes that fit well here. Anyway, after I bought the suits I thought, I need new shoes! Then I remembered that everyone will be leaving their shoes at the door and shuffling around in vinyl slippers.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Murderer Mother

A few weeks ago I suggested that it was a not a good idea for small children to walk to and from school alone. It appears that it's also not a good idea to carpool with mentally unstable mothers.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


I just got the latest issue of MotherVerse, which features a deeply moving essay by my good friend Michele Corkery. Michele and I both took part in the Ploughshares Writers Conference a few years ago, back before we had children. There's also an essay by me, on the birth of my twins in Japan, which will appear in the anthology This Changes Everything: the Challenges of Motherhood in the fall. (I'll keep you posted about that.)

One of the things I like about MotherVerse is that the editors strive to present the voices of mothers around the world. In this issue, there's a story by Taiwanese writer/mother Eugenia Chao. The previous issue had a story set in India. I'm looking forward to learning more about mothering around the world through this new journal.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Obligation Chocolate

The Japanese Valentine's Day practice of giving chocolate to boys was confected (pun intended) by chocolatiers in this country. Not only have Japanese women been conned into spending lots of yen on chocolate for their honeys, but also they're expected to give giri choco (obligation choolate) to guys in the office, etc. According to Kaori Shoji's article in today's newspaper, sales of giri-choco amount to 30 billion yen each year. My husband heard on the radio that 70 percent of Japanese women hate Valentine's Day. It must be a drag having to buy chocolate for men you don't really like. My advice: stop buying the chocolate, ladies!

This whole thing gave me an idea for another commercial holiday. How about if we have a day when we give books to the people on our lists?

Monday, February 13, 2006

Signs that My Daughter is Japanese

1. When she is playing with her dolls, she makes them bow to each other.
2. Her favorite dessert is red beans in syrup.
3. She wants to be Sailor Moon when she grows up.
4. She is looking forward to giving chocolate to a boy that she likes on Valentine's Day.

As for #4, I don't think she even realized until this year that girls give boys chocolate on February 14 (and get nothing themselves). In the past, she has gotten cards from her grandparents in the United States, and candy from her Japanese grandmother and from me. This year, her teacher talked to her about who she'd be giving chocolate to and she also saw the whole thing enacted in a cartoon on TV. So today, after school, we went to the grocery store. She picked out a large bar of chocolate in a Pokemon box (after I told her the one with wrapping and silver ribbons was a bit much for a six-year-old) and brought it home and wrapped it herself. She cut a red heart out of origami paper and wrote her name and this boy's name on it. The other six boys in her kindergarten will be getting giri chocolate - one KitKat each.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Where on Earth is My Bagel?

How's this for a book concept: A little boy in rural Korea suddenly has a hankering for a New York bagel. That's the story sisters Frances and Ginger Park set out to tell in their modern fable Where on Earth is My Bagel? Grace Lin's illustrations of the boy, Yum Yung, and the Korean countryside bring the story to life. My son, a Japanese-American boy living in rural Japan likes bagels, which have been hard to get around here up till recently. I thought he'd like this book, and he did.

A bit of trivia: Co-author Frances Park and I had short stories in the same issue of Chaminade Literary Review several years ago.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Writing Open the Mind

The first time I met Andy Couturier here in Tokushima, we went to a coffee shop and started writing crazily, in an attempt to lose sense of meaning. I can't say I succeeded, but having Andy as a guru certainly changed the way I felt about my craft. At the time, I was working on a novel, trying to make every word publishable. But Andy reintroduced me to writing for fun, for the pure joy of it. I was later privileged to join one of his workshops,where we tried many of the experiments in Andy's recently published book Writing Open the Mind. The section headings are intriguing in themselves: Oysters in the Mouth, Aroma Shiftings, Mess Makings and Energy Risings, Word Kleptocracy, etc. I guarantee you that as soon as you crack open this book, you'll be itching to write.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


For some time now Lilia has been very effectively communicating her desire for a wheelchair. I understand her wanting to be independent and mobile, but I also understand her inclination to be lazy. I worry that if she has a wheelchair, she will completely give up on physical therapy. If she put as much energy into trying to walk as she did in resisting her therapist, I believe she'd make some progress! Nevertheless, after talking it over with her father and various teachers and therapists, I've decided to order a wheelchair for her. Today, during her PT session, Lilia mostly played house by herself while I perused catalogs with her therapist. In one catalog, a kid in a wheelchair was playing field hockey in a living room with other kids. In another picture, a couple of kids were piled onto the wheelchair. Wheelchairs are fun! Wheelchairs are strong! And cute - there was one upholstered in a pink panda print.

Lilia is already pretty good at getting around in a wheelchair. She can turn and brake, even though no one has ever taught her how to use one. After PT, I was chatting with her therapist. Lilia took off down the hall in one of the center's wheelchairs. She disappeared around the corner and when I went to see what she was up to, I found the chair parked next to a sofa. Lilia was sitting there looking at picture books. She managed to change positions with no help at all.

A Few More Thoughts...

Today's headline in The Japan Times is "Koizumi puts bill for female succession on back burner." You can just hear the whoosh of breath as those conservatives in the Diet let out a great big "Whew!"

I wish the very best for the princesses, but I can't help thinking that Kiko-sama, at 39, is of an advanced maternal age. It's pretty obvious that she's also been under pressure to conceive a boy and that this baby isn't just a happy surprise. Will they do an amnio? And what if it turns out to be another girl? And, forgive me for saying this, but what if it turned out to be a boy with Down's Syndrome? Would everyone suddenly rethink what it means to be disabled? Or would the child be hidden away and never spoken about again? Or worse?

It also occurred to me that it would be rather interesting if Aiko-sama did become Empress and marry a foreigner, like maybe royalty from an Asian country. I know it'll never happen, but think of it: the Japanese could suddenly have a good relationship with another Asian nation with just one wedding! Isn't that what they used to do in Europe?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Princess is Pregnant!

The big news in Japan is that Princess Kiko, wife of Prince Akishino, is pregnant. This complicates matters for the Crown Prince and Princess Masako and their only child, Princess Aiko. The government has been considering changing the law of succession which currently allows only male heirs to take the throne in order to allow Aiko to become Empress. Those who are against this change argue that if Princess Aiko marries a commoner, she'll become a commoner too and the royal family will be just like everyone else. According to law, when a woman is married, her name is struck from her biological family's registry and added to her husband's registry. That's what happened to the Emperor's daughter when she married a couple of months ago. Now she is presumably an ordinary housewife. This could be circumvented, I think, if the Crown Prince and Princess were to adopt Princess Aiko's commoner husband, just as sons-in-law are adopted in non-noble families with only girls. Some lawmaker said, "What if Princess Aiko gpes abroad and marries a foreigner with blond hair and blue eyes?" Well, that would be the end of the world, wouldn't it?!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Keeping the World Safe for Democracy

I just finished reading Evan Wright's gonzo account of being embedded with the Marines of the First Recon Battalion as they headed for Baghdad. Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War pretty much puts to rest the notion that the U.S. military is made up of underprivileged youths who were duped into service with the promise of travel and money for college. The guys in First Recon were there because they wanted to be, and they had no illusions about why they were there.

Early on, "a twenty-year-old redheaded corporal jumps up as more helicopters fly north. 'Get some!' he screams. Then he adds, 'They kill hundreds of people, those pilots. I would have loved to have flown the plane that dropped the bomb on Japan. A couple dudes killed hundreds of thousands. That f**cking rules! Yeah!'"

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Ritual

Today we engaged in the age-old Japanese ritual of Shopping for Desks for our soon-to-be first graders. All over Japan, thousands of parents of 6-year-olds are doing the same thing. There is probably not a seven-year-old in the land that doesn't have a desk for the voluminous amounts of homework he/she will be doing over the next twelve years. I myself did not have a desk until I came to Japan at the age of 22 and dragged a used desk out of the garbage up five flights of stairs to my 3DK apartment. I didn't have any homework at Lake Hills Elementary School and I think I mostly sprawled across my bed in high school and college.

The husband and I had a brief tiff in the furniture store when I tried to tell him that a swivel chair with no arms is not the best seat for a kid who can't even stand up. Lilia's therapists are always emphasizing that it's difficult for Lilia to concentrate on studying when she has to worry about keeping her balance. Yoshi is apparently in denial. We bought the swivel chair anyway, but I'm going to look into having a chair specially made for her.

Anyway, party's over kids. Pack up the toys 'cause you won't be playing much come April.

Friday, February 03, 2006


Today, being the first day of spring on some ancient Japanese calendar, aka Setsubun, we threw dried soy beans at the oni. Jio wanted to wear the oni mask this year, so he and his dad donned masks (I really meant to take photos, but the batteries in the digital camera weren't charged; maybe tomorrow) and Lilia and I tossed beans. Meanwhile, my mother-in-law picked up the beans from the floor. Oni is sometimes translated as ogre, but it's a very special Japanese kind of demon. In picture books they have red or blue skin, curly black hair, two horns sticking out of their heads, and fangs. They tend to go around in loin cloths, swinging clubs like cavemen. The oni supposedly comes out on this night and if you throw dried beans at him while shouting "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi" ("Out with the oni! In with happiness!") he will go away. And then you eat the number of beans that corresponds with your age in order to insure good health, etc.

Lilia, ever the ham, put on her pink cape and Power Rangers mask (actually, Maji Ranger here in Japan) in order to confront the oni. My little girl, the superheroine!