Thursday, January 10, 2008

Recently I returned to my native country, the United States, for the first time in three years. Having become used to life in Japan, I knew that America would probably have some surprises for me. They began before I even left, at Narita Airport.


“What I’m looking forward to is getting back to the States and reading a newspaper with a REAL sports page,” said a loud voice about a dozen spaces behind me in the check-in line. “They’ve got lots of basketball coverage here. The Japanese are crazy about basketball, I don’t know why, nobody plays it here. But they just ignore football. There’s nothing in the newspapers about football. They just don’t care.”

Yes, Americans are loud. At least some of us are, and I’ll admit that I’m one of them. However, it seems that a lot of Americans will get loud with anyone, whereas I prefer to talk to people I already know. I believe that Japanese newspapers do have REAL sports pages because they cover baseball, soccer, sumo, and other sports that the Japanese public is actually interested in, even if American football isn’t one of them. However, it never crossed my mind to say so to the man standing behind me in line because I don’t know him.

Whoever he was, he was less constrained than I, for the next thing he said to his companion was, ” So, you’re flying from here to…?” The two were obviously total strangers, but the second man’s monosyllabic replies didn’t keep the first man from gabbling on and on.

In Japan, I get chatted up by total strangers about twice a year, and it’s usually some drunken old man on a late-night train who wants to practice his Occupation-era English. The fact that I’m a big scary foreigner might have something to do with it, but I never see the Japanese grabbing each other’s lapels for surprise conversations either. During my week in the US, though, I was conversationally approached by at least ten different people. For example, I rode several buses, and three of the drivers wanted to talk to me.

Sometimes this talkativeness was uncomfortable. One day while my father and I were shopping at a large discount drug store in Colorado, he asked me to look for some lip balm. An old woman spun around suddenly and exclaimed in our faces, “Floor mats, that’s what I’m lookingfor! I need some floor mats for my car, and they don’t have them here!”
On a flight from Minneapolis to San Francisco the woman sitting next to me was full of questions which I answered as briefly as possible. She had dirty hair, baggy eyes, swollen lips, and a large protruding glob of what might once have been bread stuck in her upper teeth. I’m afraid I may not have been successful in controlling the expression on my face, so she soon turned back to her traveling partner. He was a pale, thin young man with large eyes, a large Adam’s apple, and an NRA (National Rifle Association) baseball cap which had a swatch of Episcopalian rainbow ribbon safety-pinned onto the side. Despite his near-total silence, she kept up a steady stream of chatter across half a continent. She clearly had a case of what the American writer Michael Chrichton has described as “verbal incontinence.”

American chattiness is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Had I been thinking more clearly, I could have turned it to my advantage. My first few days in the US were spent in Minnesota, the state whose governor is former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura. I am currently trying to sell a review of Ventura’s autobiography, and I easily could have could have pumped the Minnesotans I met for their opinions on the job he has done so far. Unfortunately, I was so taken aback by the idea of strangers talking to me that I brushed off some people who could have been helpful. In Colorado, I saw my father make a potentially useful business contact with someone who began talking to us at a bus stop. About rocks, of all things. And then a few of the loquacious strangers were just plain interesting, such as the septuagenarian skier who spoke to my parents and me on a chairlift.

This sort of thing must have happened to me in America before, but I never noticed it. After three years in quiet Japan, it came as something of a shock.


One person who didn’t speak to me was a Minneapolis taxi driver who was more interested in listening to his morning radio program. When I left America three years ago, the comfortable and usually intelligent humor of radio acts like Harden and Weaver (older Washingtonians will know who I mean) was already a thing of the past. Morning radio had come to be dominated by jarring, lowbrow, short-attention-span ” morning zoo” programs that were sometimes zany but often just obnoxious. The taxi driver and I were listening to one of those.

The hosts of the program were having a contest. Whoever called in from the most unusual location would win a pair of tickets to a New Year’s Eve extravaganza. The caller on the line during my taxi ride said she was phoning from Dennis Green’s house. The hosts immediately got very excited, but it took me a few minutes of listening before I realized that Dennis Green was the coach of the Minnesota Vikings football team. The caller was the baby-sitter for Green’s three-year old daughter.

Feigning disbelief, the hosts told the baby-sitter to put the child on the line to prove it. They proceeded to interrogate her about her father. Most of the questions (like “What’s your daddy’s name?”) left her sounding very confused and slightly frightened. (To a three-year-old, daddy’s name is Daddy. Even I know that.) When she finally admitted that her favorite color is purple, apparently the team color, they left her alone.

I hope the baby-sitter got fired. I was shocked that someone entrusted with taking care of a child would show her off as some kind of freakish curiosity. I was also disturbed that the radio hosts didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with what they were doing. I was even more disturbed by the idea that a large chunk of the public regards this kind of thing as legitimate entertainment.

However, this problem is not limited to the United States. Here in Japan, on July 23rd, 1999, a domestic airline flight was hijacked by a man with a knife shortly after it took off from Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The pilot was stabbed to death. Television reporters immediately raced to the pilot’s home to ask his wife what she thought of this, and that is how she learned what had happened to her husband.

About fifteen years ago, a video called ” Faces of Death” was controversial in America because it showed film footage of executions, suicides, and fatal accidents. These, days “reality TV” programs showing much the same thing have become commonplace in both the US and Japan. It is true that most of these programs are produced in the United States, but the fact they have found an audience in both countries is a bad sign for everyone.


Before going to America, I had read that the paper currency was being redesigned. I had even seen a few of the new $100.00 bills in Japan. However, upon being handed several crisp new $20.00 bills at the currency exchange desk I was surprised by how weird they felt. I don’t know if the US is now using of new type of paper or if I had just gotten used to the feel of Japanese currency, but they felt stiff and a little rough. It was odd.

Odder still was the fact that I actually flinched the first time an American cashier handed me my change. My first purchase was an 80-cent postcard. Handing over a dollar, I received two dimes. They were so tiny that after three years away my sense of touch no longer recognized them as coins. They felt more like collar buttons or watermelon seeds. Even the Japanese one-yen coin, a small aluminum disk of almost no value, feels more substantial in the hand.

On top of that, there are now at least six different versions of the US quarter in circulation. The quarter is a 25-cent (25 yen, or 0.25 euros) coin that has George Washington on one side and an eagle on the other. Usually. In 1999, the US Mint issued five different versions of the quarter. The Washington side has been slightly redesigned, and the eagle is gone. In its place you can find one of five different designs representing the first five states to join the Union: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut. In 2000, five more quarters will be released, representing Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Virginia. This will continue until every state has one. Ten years from now, there will be over fifty different 25-cent coins in circulation, and still more if the occasional drives for DC or Puerto Rican statehood have succeeded by that time.

The Pennsylvania coin is dignified enough, with a goddess of some sort extolling ” Virtue, Liberty, Independence.” Can’t argue with that. The Georgia coin looks like a video arcade token, with a plump, deeply cleft peach framed by a map of the state’s borders. Perhaps when Iowa’s turn comes around, their coin will carry a diagram of an ethanol molecule.

Before I get carried away, I should point out that a similar thing is happening in Japan, though on a smaller scale. This year will see the introduction of the first new Japanese paper currency in decades, and a new coin as well. Japanese coins have floral designs, while paper money has portraits of intellectuals. The 1000-yen note, for example, carries a portrait of Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), the author of many famous novels including ” Botchan,”
“Kokoro,” and ” I am a Cat.” The 10,000-yen note features Yukichi Fukuzawa, (1835-1901), a Meiji-era Westernizer who wrote over 100 books. In between is the little-used 5000-yen note, bearing the likeness of the little-known Inazo Nitobe, who was a bigwig in the League of Nations.

The newest intellectual to join this lineup is a woman, but it’s revealing to see how far back in time they had to reach to find her. She’ s Shikibu Murasaki (c.978-c.1026), author of ” Genji Monogatari” and star of the soon-to-be-released 2000-yen note. ” The Tale of Genji,” as it is often called in English, is widely considered to be the supreme masterpiece of Japanese literature. Given that, and considering that her nearest modern competition would probably come from the insipid Banana Yoshimoto, I’d have to say that she’s an excellent choice.

As for coins, the large and heavy 500-yen piece is being redesigned this year, but for reasons more practical than esthetic. The 500-yen coin is worth $4.90 (4.88 euros) but it has the same size, shape, weight, electrical conductivity, and general appearance as the Korean 500-won coin, which is worth only 45 yen (44 cents or 0.44 euros). Criminals have been taking advantage of this similarity in increasing numbers by importing large quantities of Korean coins which they use to dupe Japanese vending machines. Many of them don’t even bother making a fraudulent purchase. They just drop 500 won into the machine, hit the ” cancel” button, and receive back over ten times as much money as they put in. It’s a very quick and profitable but totally dishonest procedure which the owners of vending machines don’t like. As a result, nearly all of the machines have been equipped with coin slots too small for the large coins to fit into. This is inconvenient for the public and vexing to the government, which understandably doesn’t like to see its coinage rejected. This is especially true in Japan, which probably has more vending machines per capita than any other country on earth.

Hence, the new coin. The biggest difference in its appearance will be a slightly yellowish color due to the use of a new metal that will change the coin’s electrical conductivity, thereby helping machines to recognize it. There will also be a new feature inside each of the large zeroes in the number 500. It won’t exactly be a hologram, but the newspapers says that a ” hologram-like” design will appear in each of those spaces.


After washing my hands in a public restroom in the US, I discovered that Americans are still drying their hands with a type of hot air blower that I have come to regard as old-fashioned. It has a big round nozzle that emits a jet of warm air. You have to stand in front of the machine for the better part of a minute rubbing your hands in the stream of air before them are reasonably dry. The newer Japanese machines don’t use a round stream of air at all. Instead, they shoot out a very thin and highly concentrated SHEET of hot air that is so powerful that it actually produces a dent where it touches your skin.

My parents found this concept disgusting when I tried to describe it, but I persist in thinking it’ s pretty cool. Once or twice though the sheet of air is usually sufficient, but I like to put my hands in again and again so I can watch the dent move up and down my skin. I know it makes me look weird, but people think that about me anyway, so why worry?

Another technological breakthrough that was absent in America was fully automated ski lift tickets. In the US it is apparently cutting edge stuff when the lift attendant uses a scanner to read the bar code on your ticket. In Japan, though, the lift attendants never bother with your ticket because the gates to the lift area can read a magnetic card in your pocket all by themselves. If your card is valid, the gates will open and let you into the lift area.

Thinking about it now, it occurs to me that neither of these systems is much of an improvement over the old-fashioned way of having a large date stamped on your ticket in ink.

Slightly more practical is the “Wax Boy”
service available at some Japanese ski resorts. It’s a coin-operated ski-through hut located right on the slope that will wax your skis while you wear them.
To those who view the US-Japanese relationship primarily as a rivalry I say: don’ t let Wax Boy and the souped-up hand dryers get ou down. There are still some areas in which Japan clearly lags behind. For example, despite all their vaunted techno-prowess and alleged service-mindedness, the Japanese still haven’t discovered how to make an ATM work on holidays or after 9:00 PM on weekdays.

It seems we still have a lot to learn from each other.