Kumazemi Crisis

At the height of summer, I thought I couldn’t stand one more day of incessant, ear-splitting cicada screaming. “Miiiin min min miiii,” as they spell it here (pronounced “mean”). I noticed when I came back this week that the sound was quieter, less frantic. A fat, metallic green corpse lay belly up on the bike path in the morning. Then I had to step to the side to avoid a black carcass on the station escalator, the rolling motion rocking it back and forth like a baby against the guard cover at the top.

I wanted to get a beautiful picture of a cicada for this post, and if you google them you can find plenty, but when I went out to the park today, I couldn’t find a single one. I didn’t hear one, either. Only crickets and birds–much gentler sounds.

My brother, Onini, came to my rescue, though, with this shot he took when he was here in the summer. He said it nearly deafened him as he walked by.

Here’s one in a tree in my park, if you squint a little to see it.

And here’s a recording I took of one very excited fellow calling for a mate. See if you can last through the whole thing, and then imagine that multiplied by 100s, all day every day for a whole summer.

Japan has many varieties of cicadas, but one variety, the kumazemi, or “bear cicada,” is growing in number in western Japan (the area from Osaka down). These black creatures are the biggest, baddest, and loudest of the species, growing to 7 cm and buzzing at up to 94 decibels, enough to cause permanent hearing damage in humans.

What’s more, they think that the optic fibers dropping from poles to houses are dead branches just perfect for burying their eggs in. Over 1,000 homes per year in Osaka report lost Internet connectivity due to cicadas, or at least they did. NTT researchers have now developed cicada-proof cables, after observing that the females first scratch the bark off with their ovipositors before drilling their holes. If they can’t scratch through the surface, they won’t drill.

Ah well, whether they’re drilling into tree branches or fruitlessly scratching at optic fiber cable, I guess that frenzy of mating and ovipositing is just about over now. The cicadas drop, and then the leaves begin to change. Autumn is coming.

It’s a lonely, nostalgic time, as the darkness falls earlier and earlier at the end of the work day. But let’s enjoy the flaming leaves before they fade and the reemergence of the cozy kotatsu blankets. Let’s remember that we can’t have beginnings without endings.

A friend of mine read my post about returning to Japan alone this week and sent me this quote to comfort me:

“But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke

Here’s to new paths. I’m rather grateful that I don’t need to burrow through optic fiber cable to find mine.

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Singing the Osaka Dialect Blues

Last night I dreamed I was sitting across a huge conference table from one of my company’s high-level executives. He was in the place of honor in the middle, of course, and I was one chair off from the middle on the other side.

He spoke to me in chatty, informal Osaka dialect. He was one of those “Osaka ojisan” AKA “Osaka ossan,” the iconic middle-aged Osaka guy. Many of my coworkers are Osaka ossan.

Even if you don’t read Japanese, you can get a nice impression from the photos in this article called “Osaka Ojisan Psychology”: http://city.living.jp/osaka2/tokusyu/120831/psychology.html

Anyway, in my dream, even when he spoke to me in the most down-to-earth, guttural way, I responded in perfect, standard, humble-polite, women’s form.

I woke up with tears of triumph misting my eyes.

Then my bubble popped.

I’m an eternal optimist, but when it comes to my ability to ever accomplish this feat outside of dreamland, I’m also a realist. Faced with Osaka ojisan talk, it seems I will always slide into Osaka ojisan responses. Not to mention that almost all of the people I work with directly are men, so I rarely hear how women talk in these situations.

My current manager speaks with one of the strongest Osaka dialects of anyone I know, but unlike the archetypal Osaka ossan, he clearly enunciates every syllable. Most of the guys slur their syllables together and trail off in the middles of their sentences with suggestive naa’s and maa’s, leaving their listeners to fill in the rest. Not so my manager. Every syllable is crisp and loud, every sentence complete. He performs his Osaka dialect like a Shakespearean actor.

Unfortunately for me, this adds fuel to my tendency to mirror his Japanese.

“Sugu sen t-akan,” he says. (“We gotta do it right away.”)

In my dream, I would have responded something like, “Soo desu ne. Sugu shinakute wa ikenai no nee.” A nice long and flowing confirmation, feminine and respectful and confident, without being obsequious.

In actuality, I say, “Soo yo. Sugu sen t-akan wa.”

Then I cringe inside. He gives me one of his quizzical looks, and the conversation is no longer about the work but about my odd Japanese. Anyone in the vicinity overhearing me gives a little snort of laughter.

When Americans hear that men and women have different language forms in Japanese, and that people use different forms depending on the power relationship, they tend to jump to the conclusion that this locks women into a subservient role. The reality is much more complex than that.

For instance, women managers can wield women’s Japanese like a sword. One woman in my office, who’s at the manager level, can turn any of the Osaka ojisan in the room into a quivering bowl of jello with a single polite-yet-firm turn of phrase. Gender inequities in the workplace may have kept her from being a company president by now, but not women’s Japanese per se.

I also wonder if the codified politeness forms that make power relationships explicit are one of the reasons Japanese people are often so hesitant about speaking English, even when they’ve studied it for years and have a strong grasp of the language.

The same power relationships exist in the U.S. (I won’t speak for other English-speaking countries), but they aren’t expressed explicitly in the language, or at least the ways they are expressed are less obvious, perhaps more in body language than in verb conjugation. A Japanese person must have the opposite problem from me–of having an innate tendency to explicitly differentiate the relations, but on finding themselves unable to, becoming tongue-tied.

I’ve been asked a lot about the different nuances of might and may, and would and could. As if cracking the code of these verbs would give them the answer to this conundrum.

Well, I’m going to strive this week, just once, to pause when my manager says something to me, to breathe for a second and focus on not mimicking what he says when I answer. Practice, practice, practice.

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Let’s Twist and Shout Instead

Nothing gives you more insight into your own culture than seeing someone from a very different culture adopt it wholesale and express it as-is in his own language.

Recently, a famous Japanese professor from MIT came to speak at my company, inspiring us to be freer, more creative thinkers. His slides flourished one or two giant kanji characters, screaming “FUTURE (未来)” and “CRISIS (危機)” and “EXPRESSION (表現),” and flashed photos of a hurricane vortex sweeping toward a continent or a blue-white iceberg piercing deep into an arctic sea. I felt slapped in the face by the American trope.

His message was the same, essentially, as the one that I preach day after day: that operational efficiencies and incremental innovations, based on visible trends and big data, are crucial for big companies. But just as crucial is nurturing disruptive innovation approaches, trying to understand and collaborate with individuals and extreme users hanging out at the frayed edges of the normal curve, living in the land of low probability. Because that’s where the thing to topple all of the big data and redefine the curve will come from.

Anyway, fabulous. He had an inspiring, exciting message, and he made people feel bad about themselves. As if what they’re doing now is worthless. In a more exclusive second meeting, he looked at some of our latest innovations and declared them boring. He thrilled us with his verbal slaps and derisive laughs. His magnetic presence and bold criticisms sent an electric shock through us.

Which we probably needed. Sometimes I, too, feel we are too humble and cautious and, dare I say it, just possibly a wee bit boring. (But so very nice.)

I’m afraid, though, that he rubbed me the wrong way. What struck me was his use of the macho metaphors that pervade American technology and business strategy. Metaphors I don’t normally hear in Japanese innovation and strategy meetings, or at least not as brazenly. Conquering, battling, charging the mountain peak. War Western style, blunt and in your face, not the intricate maneuverings extolled in Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, where sidestepping can have as much power as a direct attack.

These confrontational war metaphors were more appropriate for the industrial age. You know, back when you actually knew where the boundaries of a product’s stakeholders lay. (Here are the developers, the suppliers, the manufacturers, the competitors, the customers, etc., all neatly laid out in a linear chart.) That was before high-tech product lifecycles ramped up to lightening speed and information flooded the world.

Many companies are moving towards codesigning products and services with as well as for customers, whether the customer is an individual, a business, or a government. New kinds of partnerships are forming, companies are sharing and leasing intellectual property rather than simply hoarding and guarding it, and platform-based horizontal ecosystems (example: Android apps and devices) are emerging as more the norm than rigid, capital-intensive vertical integration (example: Sony Playstation and its games).

Apple, of course, is always the elephant in the consumer electronics room these years, with its powerful success in controlling its whole value chain.

Let’s all pause, now, for a little Apple envy…

Sigh.

Remember the old days, when only your nerdy older brother loved Apple?

Anyway, in an environment where your competitor is potentially also your partner, your supplier, and your customer, is war really the right metaphor? In this situation, conquering is less the challenge than coordinating. Who owns what, who is responsible for what, how do we communicate?

I vote for dance as the new metaphor. On my train ride home, I fantasized about rewriting the professor’s presentation. Innovation would be about choosing the ideal partner, feeling the rhythm of the landscape, leading and following, choreographing moments of stillness between frenzied crescendos of interaction, creating patterns together, and finding the right touch–light enough so that no one freezes or stumbles, yet firm enough to keep the movement flowing.

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The Neba Neba Boom

The cafeteria at work served okra again today. I’m Southern, so you’d think I’d be a big fan, but the sliminess makes me gag. (Though a large dose of cajun sauce might change my attitude.)

“You should eat neba neba foods,” says my manager. He’s a bit of a health nut — he runs marathons, plays American football, and takes breakfast bars on trips to eat instead of the hotels’ breakfast buffets. “They are good for your blood.”

“Never never,” I respond in English. He cocks his head to the side and gives his slow smile and a polite chuckle.

I seem to have arrived in Japan during the “neba neba boom (ネバネバブーム).” Neba neba’s most frequent translation is “sticky,” but we are not talking about caramel apples and gummy bears. Nope, everywhere you turn now, you’ll find okra garnished with bonito flakes, slimy yam grated on your soba noodles, wakame seaweed in your salad, taro and Egyptian jute (モロヘイヤ) on your rice, and, of course, natto, natto, natto (gooey fermented soybeans). The food service at work has embraced the fad wholeheartedly, no doubt encouraged by the employee food committee.

The claim is that neba neba foods contain beneficial proteins and acids, the main one being mucin, which eases digestion, prevents colds, and minimizes aging. Other health benefits include lowering cholesterol and strengthening joints and cartilage.

For natto, the claims are more extensive.

“You should eat natto,” my coworker says to me at lunch. “It’s good for women of a certain age, and we should eat a little every day.” I suppose she means it balances women’s hormones?

Natto has also been billed as a diet food. Eating two packs a day can bring about 3.5-kg or more per week losses, one study claims to show. I can well believe it. If I ate a whole pack of natto in the morning, I probably wouldn’t be able to eat anything else all day.

Natto isn’t a native Osaka food; it’s from Tokyo. In the past, my Osaka friends supported my dislike of natto as a kind of regional loyalty. Now, though, the fad has trumped that. But seriously, natto sushi in the convenience stores? Next it’ll be the McNattoBurger on Ronald McD’s menu.

Just for you, dear readers, I bought some natto today on my way home. I stirred it 100 times, as prescribed, to whip the white stringy sliminess into a frenzy. Here it is:

Now that I’ve bought it, I should eat it. It came with packs of soy sauce and mustard to make it more palatable, and to eat it properly, I should beat in a raw egg. A woman my age really should learn how to eat natto. Anyway, otherwise it’ll sit in my refrigerator from now until it’s moldy as well as fermented. I almost tried it when I took the photo, but I just couldn’t. I’ll think about it tomorrow.

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Empty Nest, Osaka Style

I landed back in Osaka today after three weeks of home leave in California.

It’s still hot and humid here, though cooler than when I left, which isn’t saying much. And it’s quiet. Every trip, I forget how quiet the public spaces are and on return wonder if I have wax in my ears muffling the sound. People don’t talk. They nap or text or read.

The engine of the airport limo bus hums softly. Nothing squeaks or jolts. I float home on its muted purr.

Occasionally, a monstrously loud sneeze rips through the silence. I have never heard men sneeze as loud anywhere as in Osaka. No one seems to notice, though.

The sun settles down over the port, its late afternoon rays pooling in a final strip of gold over the white towers in the east. Where the light has passed, the concrete city looks diminished.


I saw my daughter off to college this trip. Her funny, quirky comments on life, cosmetics, physics, and boys will no longer send me into fits of laughter or give me little shocks of insight. No more Friday night movies.  No more guilt and sadness when I leave on a business trip, or joy when I return–notes of welcome and farewell in the entrance hall, surprise flowers on the dining table.  No more shared tears of growing pains, for both of us. For almost nineteen years, she’s given me a purpose in life.

So many things I wanted to show her, so many experiences I wanted to share with her, but never had a chance.

Well, she’ll visit at New Year’s and we have phone, email, and Skype. And it was time for her. She fought hard to get where she is.

So. Here I am in Osaka for another year. Now I can write that novel, practice my banjo, explore all the places I haven’t been, improve my Japanese, catch up on my sleep, stay in touch better with friends, volunteer and do good works. Right? Today I’m a new me, embarking on a new adventure. I wonder why it all rings a little hollow.

Still, today the clouds sweeping across the Osaka sky, their edges glowing in the dying light, seem to etch a message of hope and meaning. If only I knew how to read it.

My Uncle Bill told me, if I feel sad or lonely in the coming months, to look outside myself and notice little things, to practice wonder.

Maybe that will help me learn cloud script.

Home at last…and the moon is waiting for me as I round the corner to my apartment. The moon’s language is clear. It says, “You are not alone.”

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I’ve Finally Been Published!

By somebody besides me, I mean.

One of the building managers, in the standard beige, many-pocketed jumpsuit, came into our office a few weeks ago. He bowed politely as he entered the room and made a beeline for Takeda-san. He bent over her desk and consulted with her for a while in a hushed voice.

Then he strode back out again, bowing and yelling to the room at large, “失礼しました!” (“Sorry to have disturbed you!”).

Takeda-san came over. I could tell she wanted something, but she can take some coaxing to get it out. And she talks in such a roundabout way, I often have no idea what she’s saying.

“It’s like this,” she said. She pulled on my sleeve and looked at me with her pleading look, as if I should be able to read her mind and save her the pain of spelling it out for me. I laughed and pulled on her sleeve back. Then she sighed and showed me a piece of paper with some Japanese written on it. It was something about pushing a button.

“How would you say this in native English?” she asked.

The existing English translation was something like, “After use, please push strongly this button.”

After taking several angles of questioning with her, I finally understood that the building managers were making a sign for the bathrooms, since (apparently) the advanced toilet design was so subtle that people couldn’t figure out where and how to flush them. I know I had had some trouble with them when I first started.

I gave her my best shot at a native English sentence. I didn’t even give her the caveat that some people from New Zealand or India or other places where they also speak English natively might not agree with my rendering.

A little later, the gentleman from the building management department strode back in with a loud, “失礼します!” (“Sorry to disturb you!”) He grabbed the corrected English translation from Takeda-san, bowed repeatedly to me, thanking me several times, and then charged back out again.

Several days later, this sign appeared over the toilet:

Wow, you really can’t get clearer than that.  And the English is pretty native, I’d say. For a Californian.

Now, every time I go to the restroom, I can admire my own writing. Published!

Mr. Reader, I don’t know if this post meets your standards of musingly visionary, but I promised you I’d write again, so here I am. It’s at least a start.

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Gaijin Space

Gaijin Space

Gaijin Space

Gaijin space, if you don’t know, is the space left on the sides of foreigners on the train seats. I’ve experienced it plenty. Often people will stand rather than sit next to me. One time a fellow, even though there was plenty of space between us on the seat, got up and moved to a different seat when one came available. Another time, when a mother pushed her little girl towards an empty space beside me, the girl looked at me with wide, terror-stricken eyes, pulled back, and came close to tears, while her frazzled mother kept pushing her. I got up and moved to a different seat so they could sit down.

My office mates had never heard of gaijin space and tried to come up with explanations.

“It’s probably not really discrimination,” said Gondo-san, an enthusiastic young materials scientist whose desk is littered with wires, small tools, tiny sticky notes, and textbooks on business English and entrepreneurship. “I don’t think it’s that sophisticated, not to that level. It’s more at a subconscious, inarticulate level.”

“I think they’re probably afraid that you’ll speak to them in English,” said Mit-chan (the for-women-only nickname for Miyazawa-san). “They think, what if she talks to me, asks me for directions, how will I respond?”

“Yeah,” said Takeshita-san, an even more enthusiastic young software programmer who eats candy and cakes all day long. “You should wear a sign that says, ‘Japanese OK.'”

“Um,” said Mit-chan, giving him her lethal big-sister look. “That might make things worse.”

Monorail Men in Black

No gaijin space for these folks

I don’t mind the gaijin space. I can spread out and breathe a little. And I understand. I generally don’t really want to sit next to them, either, at the end of a long day.

(No sitting happens in the mornings. I just hope the wheelchair corner has some open wall space, so I can rest my bag on the rail.)

Occasionally, though, I’ll get the opposite. It’s as though they pick me out of the crowd as the perfect train benchmate, and they cozy up right next to me, even when many seats are open. Tonight this happened twice.

Modern Monorail Samurai

This young man sometimes takes the wheelchair spot on my first, emptier train. That's okay. I think he needs it more than I do.

The first time was a young fellow with longish, shaggy, bleached red hair, green knit hat, shiny patent leather purple and black high tops, rolled up jeans, and orange puffy jacket. He was petite, but when he plopped down he took up about three spaces. When someone stood in front of him and tried to sit down, he surprised me by sliding towards me rather than towards the gentleman in black on his other side. He scooted right up next to me until the fur on his hood tickled my cheek. He plunked his white patent leather sports bag onto his lap and pulled out an iPad. He started looking at photos.

My Morning View on the Monorail

I got lucky this time--wall space!

Really, iPads weren’t designed for discreet viewing on crowded Japanese trains. I wonder if Apple did a user case scenario of this situation. The photos weren’t outright porn, and there were some cartoons mixed in, but I blushed at a couple of them (the one with the Ronald McDonald statue–really!). He seemed rather bored by the whole business. I tried hard not to see, to focus on my Zadie Smith novel on the much, much smaller screen of my old iPhone.

Still, he seemed a tame enough, squeaky clean young ruffian, and it was rather novel to have someone sit so close. I was sorry to see him go.

He disembarked at Ibaraki station, and a long-legged, cool-as-ice, hot-as-fire middle-aged woman walked on, probably about my age, but with a whole lot more ambiance than I can ever hope to achieve. She wore a knee-length blue linen jacket over a fuzzy red sweater, a multicolored sparkly scarf, tan ankle boots, red knit hat, dark blue-black jeans, and a nonchalant the-world-is-my-cherry attitude. I wondered if she was from a different country, or maybe Tokyo, she walked with such lanky, laid-back grace. No makeup; well-manicured, short nails with no polish. I wanted to be this woman.

She started towards the bench across from me, paused, then turned and with a slight smile and the tiniest bit of eye contact with me, slouched down right next to me and pulled out her iPhone and started reading. I came close to hugging her. I didn’t want to get up when my station came. I wanted to talk to her and find out her story.

But my transfer station was announced, and reluctantly, I got up and left.

My Last Train of the Day

There's always plenty of space for everyone on my last train home at night.

I have an overactive imagination, but I thought that maybe for these two people tonight, at a subconscious, inarticulate level, I felt like a safer alternative for a seatmate than the tired, serious businessmen in black trench coats.

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