Team Japan

I often wonder what it is that drew me back to Japan. I grew up here of course and have that sense of belonging but so did my siblings and they are happily living in the US. What specifically made me want to come back and not them?

First, I can’t discount the influence of a single encounter. I was living in Colorado at the time when my sister told me about a ski resort that was looking for staff. Having nothing better to do I thought, “what the heck” and spent the Winter snowboarding in Shiga Kogen. I didn’t have any plans to move back to Japan until then and that single introduction probably changed my life. Who knows if I would have found a different path back to Japan (I have the feeling I might have) but when I spent that Winter in Nagano I knew I had to stay.

Now that I’m here though, there are a few specific reasons that I just like Japan better than anywhere else. First, Japan is an endlessly interesting place to study. Churchill’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma quote actually describes Japan better than Russia. There is a simultaneous depth of culture and weirdness that in my opinion is not found anywhere else. For example, any aspect of Japanese culture from its history, food (which has it’s own branches), art forms, religion etc. is a rabbit hole that you could spend years going down. As a guide, I’m constantly making new discoveries because of the sheer volume of things I want to know. After living here 23 years I’m still asked questions about Japan on every tour that stump me. Second, I relate to Japanese peoples’ personalities better. Most Americans are willing to bare their life stories within a couple of meetings but in Japan – as with myself – it takes some time. It’s not that Japanese people don’t open up, someone just has to be in the inner circle before they do. There are a few ways to get into that inner circle including alcohol and speaking Japanese so I often experience a side of Japanese people that someone who doesn’t speak Japanese simply can’t. And perhaps superficially, Japanese food is just healthier and higher quality than American food of the same price. It’s easy to eat healthy and feel good here whereas in America it takes a conscious, concerted effort.

Another reason I have stayed is that I feel like I have more to contribute than I would living in the US. Speaking English and Japanese in Japan is a valuable skillset whereas in the US it wouldn’t be a significant advantage. In the US the competition for everything from houses to jobs to venture funding is fierce whereas in Japan, there just aren’t as many people competing for the same resources. Macro economically competition is good so it’s the reason the US is so far ahead but as an individual, it’s nicer being in a small pond. I definitely have a competitive advantage here that I wouldn’t in the US. I stand out here and while I hated that as a kid, I realize that it’s valuable as an adult. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone who meets me remembers me because I’m this weird white guy that speaks perfect Japanese and those connections often come in handy sometime later.

Finally, this is a bit simplistic but despite its issues, I fee like Japan is still one team. I hate to say it but being ethnically homogenous probably helps. And while I am not, as you may have noticed, ethnically Japanese, I do feel like I’ve been let onto the team. I feel like I have skills that can contribute to making a better society, to brining more business here and to diversifying Japan in a positive manner. That’s what makes living here interesting for me.

Farting on Elbert

I just finished one of the most ridiculous, memorable and difficult weeks of my tour guiding career and I wanted to share some stories from this experience.

Japanese people are sometimes so… well, Japanese. Mannerisms, ways of doing things, habits. It’s so distinct and noticeable and sometimes hilarious.

For example, before and after any amount of exercise, Japanese people always want to do a group stretch. Now this wasn’t a problem when we started climbing Flat Top Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park at 5:00 AM. Returning at 2:00 PM, however, was a little different. Oblivious to passers-by, the Japanese tour guide decides to do our group stretch in the middle of a busy walkway. Right as we are doing a stretch where you thrust your hips around in a circular motion, a shuttle bus pulls up right behind. Since I’m the closest to the bus, the passengers get a full backside view of my thrusting buttocks. Sometimes you just have to ignore what other people are thinking and go with the Japanese flow.

Then there is the fact that everything in Japan is individually wrapped and packaged. At a supermarket in Estes Park, the attendant and I somehow got to talking about how she had just moved from Boulder where they used far fewer plastic bags. Just as we’re finishing this conversation, the Japanese tour guide decides that each sandwich needs its own bag: 9 bags for 9 sandwiches. The attendant is rolling her eyes and I can faintly hear environmentalists crying in the distance but all I can do is watch disapprovingly.

There is also the lack of appreciation for good beer. Asked to recommend a good Colorado beer the first night, I went with Blue Moon. It’s a local beer and I think it’s pretty darn good. Snubbing their noses at this, they fell in love with the high quality choices of Coors and Bud Light, ordering them at every restaurant. Again, all I could do was chuckle and drink my Fat Tire or Colorado Native as they talked about how much they loved their piss water. Whatever floats your boat I suppose.

Now for the naming of this post. Since this was a hiking tour of Colorado, the highlight of the trip was climbing Mt. Elbert, the highest 14’er in Colorado. Leaving our hotel in Leadville at 3:00 AM, we hiked much of the 4-mile ascent in darkness before watching the sunrise across the mountains and finally summiting. The views were absolutely breathtaking and the weather was perfect.

Sunrise on Elbert

Sunrise on Elbert

I’ve always heard that Japanese people consider burping to be ruder than farting. I initially doubted this, as I had never heard Japanese people burp or fart very much. Everything changes on the mountain though. For some reason (maybe the night before’s pizza), everybody experienced abnormal levels of gas, and the tour guide (the worst of them all) instructed them to just let it out. “Better out than in” is roughly what he said. And oh did they let it out. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a prolonged, continuous chorus of flatulence; at one point I was actually jealous. And that was just the men! Like most places (I would imagine) the women did not partake. What was really strange was the lack of reaction. Every time someone farted, I expected a courtesy chuckle or a snide comment. They just ignored it and continued on as I listened in amazement.

Our Gasy Group

Our Gasy Group

Ultimately, I think the way people travel reveals a lot about them. The Japanese tour guide was often so obsessed with keeping things the way they were in Japan that he forgot to let the guests enjoy the way things are in America. In Estes Park, he asked the hotel manager which television stations were in Japanese. Hmmm, sorry buddy Japan is not the center of the universe. He made me ask for the bill at the beginning of each meal in order to “not keep the guests waiting”. And instead of eating local food, we went to Thai or sushi places and had Japanese “Obento” lunches. That’s fine, but when I was allowed to take them to BBQ or local steakhouses they loved it. And food is just one part of it: To me, travel means letting yourself adjust to all aspects of life in another place.

The night before they left redeemed it all. Talking about American culture during the trip, I had explained that hugging was just as common as shaking hands. Since ceremony is everything in Japan, we all got in a circle and talked about how great the trip was and how good my Japanese was and how thankful we all were. Towards the end, in accordance with American culture they each wanted to give me a hug. I proceeded to give 8 people a series of the most awkward, arm-flailing, bent down hugs I have ever experienced. But the fact that they were willing to try something new and appreciate what Americans do made it worth all the effort. That’s what it’s all about.

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Breaking the Rules in 3 Cultures

As Americans, we like the idea of breaking rules. It feels anti-establishment and counter-cultural, like we’re sticking it to the man and coming out just a little ahead. We use phrases like “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission”  and “rules were made to be broken” to demonstrate this defiant, independent attitude. Interestingly enough, I believe America’s rule-breaking mentality actually makes it harder to break the rules. There are more lawyers in the state of Texas than the country of Japan and probably the continent of Africa because in America, catching rule (or law) breakers is now an industry.

Japan is a little different. Most Japanese wouldn’t dream of breaking the rules because conformity and loyalty are of the utmost importance. Japanese work culture dictates that you stay longer than your superiors because leaving early would be a sign of disloyalty. Falling asleep at work is viewed as a positive development because it means you have labored for the company to the point of exhaustion. In fact, some workers fake falling asleep at work to convince people they have been working hard! In this sometimes absurd culture, local proverbs like “The nail that sticks out gets hammered” demonstrate Japanese attitudes toward breaking the rules.

Perhaps counterintuitively, in Japan it’s easier to break the rules, especially for someone like me who can never fully conform to society anyway. For example, everyone knows that the best skiing is under the ropes. But in Japan no one goes there! I spent entire days snowboarding outside the boundaries. Occasionally ski patrols caught me but I would reason with them in Japanese, apologizing profusely and lamenting my foreign ignorance. At other times (I am somewhat ashamed to admit), I used the language card and only spoke in English. They would point at the rope, cross their arms into a big X, and be on their way.

Finally there is Kenya, where some would argue there are no rules. I would say there are rules, but they often exist to extort money from ordinary people, like when I was talking on my phone while driving. The instant I saw a police officer I jerked the phone away, but just a moment too late. She gave me a lecture about how dangerous it was to talk while driving (even though I was inching along in traffic) and eventually said she could either take me to jail, or I could give her 500 shillings ($6) for lunch. I chose option C and pleaded with her to forgive me this one time since I was from America where the rules were different. Employing my usual strategy when dealing with African police, I simply wasted enough of her time that she let me go.

Now to my point. Wherever you are, I think it’s important to think outside the box to create the kind of life you want. That often involves breaking rules, at least society’s rules on the right career path or who you’re supposed to be or how you should live your life. I like Frank Zappa’s quote when he says,

“If you end up with a boring life because you listened to your mom, dad, teacher, priest or some guy on television telling you how to do you S***, then you probably deserve it.”

I’m not encouraging anyone to break the law or wear Guy Fawkes masks. I just think nonconformity goes hand in hand with living intentionally because everyone can do something special, unique and interesting with their lives. But before you do that, people will think you’re crazy. To me, that is what breaking the rules is all about: finding that unique thing that you were called to do, even when other people (and sometimes yourself) tell you it won’t work. I am slowly learning that purpose for myself and I am trying deliberately to pursue it. It’s risky, but it’s the way I strive to live my life.

I will leave you with one more quote, this time from Sir Winston Churchill:

To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour