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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July McAtee, Global R&D Disaster


In several places on that form I was complaining about a few blog posts ago, I entered my title as 惨事 (“disaster”) rather than 参事 (“councilor”). I’ve only been studying Chinese characters for thirty years. In the online review system for the form, my manager’s terse comment came back: 役職など正しく記入して下さい。(“Please enter your position, etc., correctly.”) And then in my performance review this week, I got a lecture about how many careless mistakes he’s noticed in my writing. Does he, perhaps, attribute that to my having a careless personality? Perhaps I am careless, in the Japan context.


The first character here is “san” meaning join or participate. It has a more ancient meaning of three, and an even more ancient meaning as the name of a Chinese constellation with three stars.

The second character is the first with the heart or emotion radical added. Phonetically it’s still “san,” but it means tragedy.


The second character in both words is “ji,” meaning event or situation. So a “participator in events” (参事) is a councilor (or that’s the way my company translates it), and a “tragic event” (惨事) is a disaster.

I wish I could blame Microsoft’s Japanese typing system. (I’m from Silicon Valley; we reserve the right to blame anything on Microsoft.) I wish I could blame the poorly designed online form or the stress level in the office.

But in truth, as I learned in business school, that would be leaning on my attributional bias, where we attribute our own errors to the situation and others’ errors to their personality.

In truth, it was probably payback for my years as a technical editor, when writers quaked in their shoes when I handed them their reviewed manuals. (Once, to my horror, a writer literally cried as he took his copy with shaking hands.) I occasionally found Dilbert comic strips about Anne L. Retentive (the sociopathic proofreader) anonymously tacked on my cubicle wall. I really didn’t want to make anybody cry! I just wanted it right.

Now, of course, in this enlightened age of up-to-the-second information, proofreading is a thing of the past, or so they say. But here in my office, even though our job is creating new revenue streams not technical manuals, it still matters. My excitable, tough-love manager thinks I’m a proofreading disaster, and he’s probably right.

However, every evening I fully unplug my attributional bias and pat myself on the back for managing to keep my job at all (two plus months and counting) when I only understand 60% of what’s being said, get much less (or zero) of what’s not being said, and miss many vital announcements in the hundreds of Japanese emails that stroll through my Inbox every day.

I think I’m just writing this blog post to burn the event into my brain and never make this particular mistake again. That’ll leave room for the next mistake.

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The U.S. South Is Japan in Disguise

Okay, well, some things about the South and Japan remind me of each other, such as people not always saying what they mean or meaning what they say. But here’s further proof:

My nephew, an upstanding young Southern gentleman, just posted this picture of a delicacy that he supped on in an establishment known as Kooky Canuck.

Kooky Canuck ice cream balls

The Avalanche from Memphis's Kooky Canuck

When I first saw it, I was sure he was eating a giant-sized serving of Osaka’s popular street food takoyaki–pan-fried octopus balls drizzled with savory sauce and mayonnaise. The dripping red sprinkles even look like the red pickled ginger strips that go on takoyaki.


Takoyaki from an Osaka Roadside Stand

Equally disgusting looking, equally delicious in a down-home kind of way. What do you think, does Memphis = Osaka coated in lots of sugar?

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Drowning in Bureaucracy

Please, someone, save me from my company’s online accounting system.

I have to buy my plane ticket for Berlin in three days, but I can’t buy it through the online system without my director’s online approval. However, I can’t fill in the online approval form until I know what hotel I’m staying in and the exact cost, but I won’t know my hotel until I hear back from our German office, which could easily take more than three days.

Preparing for a Stressful Day

Not to mention that, even if I had all of the information I needed, I can’t figure out what anything on the online system means. I’m registered to receive the English version. This means that about 2 out of 50 screens are partially in English. Or rather, they use words that exist in the English language. For instance, I get random pages that read “Address Batch Settings” and “Set CUGs.” Huh?

The Help notes from the Address Batch Settings page helpfully told me that

  • The Toolbar is displayed in the upper part of the window.
  • The Activity name is displayed.
  • Edition items of each activity are displayed.


For users (what’s a user, I wonder?), it says, “Set a user to the destination. Select a user from the User list or CUG member list.”

No thanks to this “help,” I finally figured out that the page is for filling in my list of approvers: my export control reviewers (輸出管理責任者), first approver, second approver, and final approver. (検印(一次、二次、最終)).

I was pretty sure I knew who all my “reviewers” were, but I can’t make the system find them (or anyone), and it won’t let me fill them in manually. It is humanly impossible to “set a user to the destination.”

By the way, you must attach receipts to an A4 size sheet of paper, but remember never to tape them on. Only use glue. Otherwise, the whole thing will come back through a string of accounting group people to your group’s secretary to you, and then you have to “circulate” (回して) it all the way back again. It could be months before you get your ¥6000 for that alien visa re-entry fee.

Below are some business terms that are (sadly) making themselves cozy in my everyday lexicon. Anyone who isn’t trying to navigate an atrociously designed online accounting system in order to get reimbursed for expenses had better just stop right here, unless you’re looking for a quick way to fall asleep.

The bureaucracy:
経理 (けいり): accounting
総 務 (そうむ): general affairs (policies, insurance management, entry badges, supplies…catchall for pretty much everything administrative not found in accounting, personnel, or IT)
人事 (じんじ): personnel

Terms for accounting forms:
出張申請(しゅっちょうしんせい): travel authorization application
出張旅費精算(しゅっちょうりょうひせいさん): travel expenses reimbursement
現金立替精算(げんきんたてかえせいさん): currency exchange adjustment
日当手当精算(にっとうてあてせいさん): per diem allowances reimbursement
海外渡航精算(かいがいとこうせいさん): overseas travel reimbursement
状況照会(じょうきょうしょうかい): status inquiry (for what, I can never remember)
予算単位 (よさんたんい): budget code (everybody’s got one)
日帰区分(にっきくぶん): no. of travel days
仮出金(かりしゅっきん): cash advance
固定資産(こていしさん): fixed assets
手数費(てすうひ): fee
手続き(てつづき): paperwork, forms, arghhh

Don’t even get me started on the expense categories…I want to cry whenever I open up that screen.

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Escher’s Dream

Like a hundred thousand pieces of a living jigsaw puzzle, we walk in silent columns, men in black suits and white shirts going to the Company, speckled with a few women in colors.

In the other direction come the elementary students in bright yellow hats, marching towards school. They laugh and swing their heads and their water canteens, but they stay in line.

Yellow hats one way, black suits the other

Yellow hats one way, black suits the other

In the middle, on bicycles, older students in dark blue uniforms, housewives in lacy pink and gray, store workers in faded cotton, and older people in cardigans, zoom in and around the marching columns.

We dance in a slow rhythm built from decades of routine. When the columns intersect–the yellow hats turning a corner, the black suits going straight, and the bicycles crossing both lines, the dance slurs and spreads. It sometimes slows, but never stops.

(Except when a “green aunt” (緑のおばさん) is present–the ladies in green who guide and safeguard the flow of children at intersections.)

Keep moving. Adjust your direction slightly and glide through the others like streams flowing down a hill. If you stop to wait, bicycle brakes scream, walkers jump, a look of irritation passes briefly over faces. Don’t do that. If needed, nod briefly in apology, and then resume the dance.

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Osaka Breakdown

Last Wednesday, I found my people. Actually, my friend Kelly found them and took me to them. They gather for Osaka Bluegrass Night at Live House: Another Dream (, a basement bar near Namba station) on the second Tuesday or Wednesday of every month.

A mandolin player in blue jean overalls, orange T-shirt, big belly, and prickly white beard sat on a box by the door picking a tune. He smiled and nodded at people as they walked in. Banjos, mandolins, basses, guitars, dobros, and fiddles leaned against the walls and across tables.

The Mitsuya Clan family band

The Mitsuya Clan

Many performers were husband-and-wife duos and family bands. There were two full-fledged all-men bands. Oh Danny Boy was played. The Southern moon was longed for. Lost lovers were mourned. Spoons were slapped on thighs. CDs sold on a table at the back were promoted self-deprecatingly. People whooped for the banjo breaks–me included. Musicians mixed bands, swapped instruments, walked around mingling with all the tables. Kelly and I were probably the only two people in the whole (modestly sized) audience who didn’t get up and perform at some point.

Chiko, mother-and-wife in a family band called The Mitsuya Clan (in my sadly washed-out picture), took us under her wing. At one point, she got up on stage and insisted that Kelly and I get up and introduce ourselves.

“July is from Memphis, Tennessee,” she said. “She plays the banjo and has been looking for bluegrass in Osaka, and her friend Kelly from China brought her here.” She waved us up on stage, and so we went. Completely caught off guard, I made a bumbling, half-English/half-Japanese self-intro, not quite knowing whether to act Japanese (bowing) or bluegrassy (waving). Kelly, bless her heart, cleaned up after me. After that, people dropped by our table, patting me on my back and telling me to bring my banjo next time. They asked Kelly if she played or sang. “No,” she said. “I’m her personal manager.” (Pointing at me.)

I most enjoyed some of the singing. They sounded straight out of Kentucky, with the wailing tones, the high-lonesome sound, the ballad croon, the four-part gospel harmonies, and a bit of a Japanese accent on top of their Southern drawl. One couple wrote their own lyrics in Japanese.

The gathering was a little quieter than bluegrass events I’ve been to in California, but otherwise seemed exactly the same. Chiko had just returned from a camping/jamming festival somewhere in Japan. Her daughter (in the picture) was getting ready to go to Ireland to hone her fiddling skills. One dobro/mando/guitar player (on guitar in the picture) had recently graduated from the Berkeley School of Music and was himself struggling to find enough bluegrass in Osaka to fulfill his music-playing desires. Yet another mando player, Toshio Watanabe, was nominated for a Grammy this year. Everyone swung by his table at some point to pay him homage. To me, he said, “Oh, well, I’ve just been at it for so long, you know. It’s not that I’m so great.” (Here’s one article I found:

Many of the people there had been playing bluegrass since the 60s.

Woo hoo!

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A Tip for Working Your Stupid, Crazy Gaijin Image

My friend Kelly from China who’s lived in Japan for many years gave me a trick for when I want to seem like a really stupid foreigner, to get rid of unwanted attention.

Instead of saying “Nihongo wakarimasen 日本語分かりません…I don’t understand Japanese,” say “Nihongo taberimasen 日本語食べりません…I don’t eat Japanese.” She says it works like a charm. They politely back away.

I wish I’d tried that on the pushy NHK collection guy who came to my door at 9 p.m. last night. Apparently, the government requests all Japanese citizens and residents to contribute a monthly fee to the national television station—one price for terrestrial broadcasts and a higher one for satellite broadcasting. He almost wouldn’t leave when I insisted on taking his info and asking my coworkers before making any payments. I thought he’d shove his way into my apartment. Finally, though, he agreed to leave me with a payment hagaki, along with a warning that he’d be back if I didn’t pay. “If you own a TV,” he repeated. “If you have a single TV set in your home, whether or not you connect it, whether or not you watch it, you must pay.”

My coworker Akai-san explained that only about 50% of Japanese people actually pay this fee. She herself splits the difference between compliance and rebellion and pays the terrestrial but not the satellite fee. And they still come to her door once a month. She told me not to worry about it, just to look in the video doorbell and ignore it if it’s them.

“How do you know it’s them?” I asked.

“It’s always the same guy,” she said.

Well, I’ll definitely remember this guy—gaunt face, thin sharp nose, hunched over shoulders, huge mop of chunky black hair, giant point-of-sales device strapped over one shoulder. And a grumpy I-hate-my-job look.

Next time, if I accidentally forget and answer the door, maybe I’ll just say, “Nihongo taberimasen.” (Though, of course, I’ll pay! I’ll pay! At least the terrestrial part…)

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