Thursday, April 22, 2004

From the "Japanese public behavior" file

Rather than greeting released hostages with an outpouring of sympathy and national unity, the Japanese public criticized the hostages for being in Iraq and putting their own interests before those of their country. Wrote the Japan Times:

"While the three were in captivity, they and their kin drew sharp public criticism in Japan, having put themselves in harm's way after being warned to steer clear of Iraq. They were castigated for causing trouble and a fair amount of grief for the government."

Wednesday, April 21, 2004


As promised, I have added pictures from the 19 April 2004 Chiba Lotte Marines game, as well as some more pictures from the Giants game.


It has been several weeks since I last wrote, and while it seems like I have done a lot since then, it mostly involves becoming more familiar with life in Tokyo. Most importantly, I have started playing baseball with the Sophia University team, which has provided and will continue to provide a rare glimpse into Japanese life. Between getting back into playing shape and trying to communicate with my teammates, this may be one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Hardly any of my teammates speak English, and I lack the Japanese baseball vocabulary, making it difficult to ask even the most basic questions during practice. The most striking example was my first time pitching off a mound a couple weeks ago. The catcher spoke no English at all, and could not understand my halting Japanese. Needless to say, trying to get feedback on my performance was nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that in the end this will rank as one of the defining experiences of my life in Japan. My classmates are either foreigners or Japanese who have lived abroad, so without baseball I would not know a purely Japanese social setting. As such, I have noticed several different responses to my presence in their midst. Some of my teammates view me as a novelty and make every effort to practice their English, test my Japanese, and become friends with me. Others, whether for lack of English ability or some other reason, deliberately keep their distance from me. However, whenever I do anything (pitch batting practice, field groundballs during batting practice, attempt to do the needlessly complicated warm-up drills, etc.), the eyes of all my teammates are upon me, normally accompanied by "Go Harisu!" Every day I feel more a part of the team, especially after last Saturday's izakaya party. Izakayas, not quite bars and not quite restaurants, are establishments that specialize in all-you-can-drink parties, usually for two hours. You sit in a traditional Japanese-style room, shoeless and cross-legged on tatami mats, and servers continually bring out snacks, bottles of beer, sake, and pitchers of "sour," a drink made out of a Japanese alcohol called shochu mixed with fruit or flavoring. Saturday night, after a five-hour practice, the veteran players treated the new players at an izakaya near campus. As you can imagine, one feels more accepted in a group after a couple hours at an izakaya.

As for the manner of play and the practices, I find them consistent with a quality I have observed throughout Japanese society: the Japanese call it "makoto," which roughly means "sincerity," but could be more accurately described as the Japanese respect for doing things the way they are supposed to be done. In baseball practice this means expressing one's gratitude upon entering the field or beginning a round of catch by removing one's hat, lowering one's head, and saying "onegaishimasu" (a very polite, respectful way to say please), or shouting support for the team throughout infield/outfield practice. On Saturday, for example, the coach singled out a shortstop for being insufficiently loud during practice and made him scream his lungs out before finally hitting his final groundball.

Makoto manifests itself in a variety of ways, and I think it is what I like most about Japanese society. The Japanese more or less recognize that there are appropriate ways to behave in public and obligations one must meet in whatever public roles one plays. For example, I believe this is the appropriate way to understand Japanese baseball fans. Some Western observers have compared attending a Japanese baseball game to attending a Nuremberg rally, with all of the fans chanting and singing in unison. Having seen two Tokyo Giants game and more recently a Chiba Lotte Marines game (Monday night), I am convinced that this view is downright offensive. Yes, Japanese fans chant in unison from the first pitch to the last pitch, but it is more a reflection of a fan's obligations than a surrender to primal urges. A fan is expected to support all of the players on the team and to follow the game closely: what better way than by standing while your team bats and staying to the last pitch, even during a blowout? Monday night's Marines game was against the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, and was the second game the Marines played after breaking a 10-game losing streak that sent the team into the cellar. A weather forecast that called for rain meant that much of the stadium was empty, but the Marines cheering section in the right field stands was almost full, and there was not a quite moment at any time during the game.

A few brief asides on the game before continuing on the subject of makoto (though not too much, since I am going to try to write an article on Japanese baseball in the coming weeks that will include more details): Bobby Valentine, former Mets managers, is managing the Marines for the second time, and he is viewed as some kind of redeemer sent to deliver the Marines to the championship (see the picture of the Bobby Valentine shrine on the webshots page); the refrain of the team song goes, "We love, love, love, love Bobby, we love, love, love, love Bobby;" Bobby Valentine apparel is sold alongside player apparel, which I cannot imagine happening anywhere in the United States (I now have a Bobby Valentine t-shirt); Japanese fans remain the most positive sports fan I have ever seen -- during games it feels as if the other team is not even there, since the fans do not react to anything the other team does (home rums, good defensive plays, etc.); Something familiar: "YMCA" played over the loudspeakers, though instead of singing most of the fans whistled along (admittedly being surrounded by a bunch of Japanese people whistling 'YMCA' was slightly unsettling); I recently decided to visit all 12 Japanese ballparks, so expect more notes about "yakyuu" (Japanese for baseball).

I have a couple more examples of how makoto manifests itself. First, train rides are almost entirely silent but for the sound of the train and conversations between students. People mostly sleep. It is a relief to not have to listen to someone jabber on and on in public, and of course reflects the Japanese understanding of public behavior. One more example, which I think sums it up perfectly: at a diner/coffee shop near my house a little while ago my server spilled a little coffee on the saucer just as he was setting it down. Instead of giving me the cup just the same, he returned to the kitchen, cleaned off the cup, and placed it on a new saucer. I have a hard time imagining something similar happening at an American diner.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004


My article on Passover in Tokyo in the Jewish Forward: Japan Teaches One Jew the True Meaning of Diaspora

My Webshots page: Japan

3 April 2004 email

I have been here for about ten days now and every day I find something new and exciting. The mysteries of Tokyo seem endless; in many ways it is a giant maze that invites exploration. I am doing a home stay with a family of four living in a neighboring prefecture (state) called Chiba. It takes little under an hour by subway to reach downtown Tokyo. My host father does not in fact live at home, but rather is stationed with the Japanese Coast Guard on the island of Hokkaido. Thus I am in the house with my host mother and two host sisters, ages 24 and 20. They giggle amongst themselves quite a bit, like another pair of sisters that I know. I am more or less a part of the family now. Every day we joke together, eat meals together, and talk about our days, like any other family. The meals, of course, are fantastic. The varieties of Japanese cuisine are endless. I am sure many of you would be surprised to learn that I have had sushi only once since arriving here. I find myself eating noodles (soba or udon) or donburi (meat over rice) much more often. The other joy of living in a Japanese home is that every day ends with a dip in the ofuro (steaming hot bath), surely one of the finer aspects of Japanese living.

I could not have picked a better time to come to Japan. The old standard lavishes praise on April in Paris, but I am sure Tokyo can give Paris a run for its money. All of the major boulevards and waterways are lined with blooming cherry trees, and every breeze carries a veritable blizzard of blossoms as well as their smell. Every day crowds stream into the city parks to hana-mi (literally 'flower view'), resting on the grass with drinks and food for hours. The other day I went to Kitanamoru park, near the Imperial Palace, for hana-mi with my host family. I will never forget strolling through the sakura, with the smell of the blossoms mingling with the taste of baked sweet potatoes sold by vendors in the park. It is easy to love Tokyo when one is surrounded by such beauty. Naturally the blossoms will soon be gone, and then will come the rainy season. I guess we will see how I like it then.

Early last week I had the opportunity to escape from Tokyo briefly, as the program took an overnight trip to the country town of Nikko. Nikko is home to the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, as well as a handful of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples associated with his tomb. The most impressive thing about Nikko is how it demonstrates the seamlessness with which Buddhism and Shintoism merged in Japan. One walks through a Buddhist temple, exits, enters a Shinto shrine, exits, enters a Buddhist temple, and so on in rapid succession. Another interesting note is that the phrase 'hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil' comes from panels decorating the stable at the shrine. The panels depict three monkeys performing said actions. The second day of the trip involved a visit to Nikko National Park, which incorporates several locations in the mountains around Nikko. We saw Lake Chuzenji, a resort lake that at this time of year seemed more like Alaska, and Kegon Falls, a giant waterfall.

Returning to Tokyo after the trip, I gained a greater appreciation for just how crowded Tokyo is. Tokyo moves like a mighty river. Its residents don`t merely move about: they flow. Whether crossing one of the city`s many broad intersections, entering or exiting a train, or streaming through one of the giant train stations, Tokyo-ites are a relentless force that can carry away those who are caught unawares. I do not exaggerate. I experience this every morning going into the city. While it is of course cliche to call the trains crowded, crowded does not begin to describe it. The doors open and no matter how much space is available in the train, everyone on the platform is boarding. After the first day I learned to move as far away from the doors as possible lest I get pushed out of the train as others flowed in. One experiences something similar on the sidewalks in just about every part of the city. Walk too slowly and you are likely to be pushed to the side by a swarm of Japanese rushing somewhere.

In addition to the cherry blossoms, the best part of Tokyo in the spring is without a doubt the new baseball season, which began with the Yankees and Devil Rays playing exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants (the Yankees of Japan) and the Hanshin Tigers (the defending champions) and then playing against each other. I had my first Japanese baseball experience this evening, when I went with a friend to the Tokyo Dome to see the Giants play the Tigers in the second game of the first series of the season. It is comforting that I can watch a game that is more or less the same 6,000 miles from home. We sat in standing room seats, which were essentially behind the last row of the bleachers. Having adopted the Giants as our team, we sat on the right field side, the designated Giants sections. (It is nice that I was able to to choose freely the team to root for, as opposed to receiving it like an heirloom. And since I could pick, why not pick the Yankees of Japan. NB: my love for the Cubs remains true.) The experience was something like a college football game, but without the rowdiness and with a professional level of play. The die-hards epitomize die hard; the best part of the game was joining in the chants that accompany every player as he steps to the plate and the team songs that are sung repeatedly throughout the game. Unlike American fans, however, the fans are respectful of the other team; when a Hanshin player hit a grand slam that turned out to be the game winner (the Giants lost 5-1), the Giants die-hards clapped respectfully. Imagine that happening at Fenway Park, or anywhere else for that matter. The tone throughout the stadium is overwhelmingly positive. The game would have been better outdoors, of course, but all in all it was a great experience, so great that after the game we went to the ticket booth and bought tickets for next Friday's game against the Yakult Swallows. It is probably a good and bad thing that the Tokyo Dome is a twenty-minute walk from campus. As you can probably tell, I will be back. Often. Especially since Tuffy Rhodes, the three home-run wonder from the Cubs ten years ago is playing center field for the Giants.

I think I have written enough for now. I hope I have given a sense of my life in Japan for the time being. Hopefully it won't change too much when classes begin a week from Monday. I have pictures of most of the things I just described. If there is a demand for them, I will figure out how to upload them. I hope to hear back from all of you. And now, ofuroni hairu.

Shinjuku at rush hour (from 29 March 2004)

Words cannot describe what it feels like to be in Shinjuku Station at rush hour. It seems like the entire population of Tokyo is rushing to one of the numerous train lines that stem from the station, a giant race to get to where one wants to go and it is every man for himself. I was in the area with a group of 15 of my peers, getting a drink for someone`s birthday after spending the entire day doing a citywide scavenger hunt. After a conversation with a confused transportation officer and a bit of luck, I managed to find a train going in the direction I needed to go, but not without sweating a bit. This train system is remarkably efficient and convenient, but when the crowds are flowing past one loses one`s train of thought so to speak. I cannot imagine a busier place in the world.

The scavenger hunt was an excellent way to get acquainted with the city. It brought us to all corners of the city, if only for brief spurts. One of the stops was at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which features one of the best views of the city around. It is astounding to think about the number of people who live within the space visible from the towers: the Sears Tower's view of the Midwest pales in comparison. Nothing, in fact, is more striking about Tokyo than the people. There are enormous crowds everywhere one goes, even in the 'quiet' neighborhoods. It is exhilirating in a way, but also exhausting. Perhaps the most crowded area is Shibuya, a major youth quarter shown often in Lost In Translation. At the main Shibuya intersection, it feels like charging into battle as two crowds on opposite sides of the street charge into one another.

I know that I picked the right country to come to because I have baseball to watch on TV every night. Last night the New York Yankees played an exhibition against the storied Yomiuri Giants, Japanese equivalent of the Yankees. It marked the return of Matsui Hideki to his former home, and he thanked his fans by hitting a giant home run in his first at-bat. Also of note is that former Cub and current Japanese all-star Tuffy Rhodes has moved from the Osaka Buffalo to the Yomiuri Giants, so I will likely have an opportunity to see him play in a very different setting than the last time I saw him.


I decided to create this blog so as to archive the e-mails containing the accounts of my life in Japan, in addition to web-only updates whenever I find the time. So check it out.