Ten Quirky Objects

Here are 10 objects that pretty much any Japanese person would recognize, but which may not be so familiar to foreigners. How many do you know? (Bonus points for knowing the Japanese name as well.)

There hints above the pictures will become visible if you highlight them. Click here for the answers.

#1 Hint: Kind of the opposite of a lawnmower.

#2 Hint: Usually at least two meters long.

#3 Hint: Not a nunchaka!

#4 Hint: For women who want to look more Western.

#5 Hint: It might help you sleep better.

#6 Hint: Used for cleaning.

#7 Hint: Standard equipment in a soapland.

#8 Hint: Used with something green.

#9 Hint: Associated with death.

#10 Hint: They’re protecting something.

Click here for the answers.

Industrial Wasteland 3

Kawasaki’s industrial zone has a strange, dystopian beauty.

The air stinks, it’s noisy, and the area’s not very pedestrian friendly, but it’s quite an interesting place to take photos in.

These photos were taken on the man-made island south of Kojima Shinden Station. See a satellite image here.

How Japan Selects Astronauts

I’ve been reading an interesting book called Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. It’s about the quirky side of space exploration–things like what’s involved in getting an American flag to wave on the windless moon, having sex in space, and why urine illuminated by the sun is one of the most beautiful sights you can see in space.

Anyway, it actually starts out with the selection process that Japanese astronauts go through, and some of the methods they use are unique to say the least. First, there’s the paper-crane test. During a week-long continuous observation session, candidates have to fold a thousand origami cranes. These cranes are then analyzed by a team of psychologists to see how the person deals with boring, repetitive tasks and time constraints. The psychologists check whether the folds get less precise at the end of the task, and see how they compare with the first ones.

Like a lot of things in Japan, there’s an explanation for why it’s done, but no other countries have anything similar to it, and you’re left wondering if there wouldn’t be a test that’s more closely related to actual space missions.

The book also compares Japan’s test for how astronauts with unexpected situations. The Canadian Space Agency asks candidates to practice escaping from burning space capsules and sinking helicopters, and jump into wave-filled pools from great heights. The author, Mary Roach says, “…I asked Tachibana whether he was panning to pull any surprises on his candidates, to see how they cope under the stress of a sudden emergency. He told me he had given thought to disabling the isolation chamber toilet.” Another test involved delaying lunch by one hour.

Groin Groin

Japanese pigs say “buu buu.” I guess someone thinks that English ones say, “Groin, groin.”

The Surprising History of the Japanese Cold Mask

I was watching a documentary called World War II in Color and HD when I noticed that some pre-WWII footage of Japanese people getting off a train showed a man and woman wearing face masks. I thought masks were quite a modern thing here, so I was surprised and looked up the history of masks in Japan. It actually turns out that they’ve been used for almost a century.

Masks were first made in Japan in 1879, and were originally for use in industry. They were not the disposable type that are common today, and they were black or blue so that they did not show the dirt. The masks were built on wire frames and were not very comfortable. During these years, however, they were not common and were worn mostly by factory workers.

There was a worldwide flu pandemic between 1918 and 1920, and it arrived in Japan around 1919. Interestingly, it was the H1N1 Virus, the same bug which made headlines again in 2009, that gave rise to cold masks. The flu epidemic killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world, and 390,000 people in Japan. Masks became common in many countries, including Japan.

The Japanese government put up scary posters like this one. It says, “Beware of cold-causing germs! You’re risking your life if you don’t wear a mask!”

There was so much demand for the masks that makers could not keep up with it, and decreased the quality of their products in order to increase their production. After the epidemic, masks remained popular, and designs were improved. The wire frames were replaced with celluloid and the filters were made more effective.

In 1934, there was another big influenza scare, and masks became even more popular. Every time there was another outbreak, they gained in popularity, and the quality and comfort became better.

After World War II, when Japan began planting huge forests of cedar trees, it caused an epidemic of pollen allergies. Today, almost 30 percent of people suffer from hay fever, making masks even more popular.

One other reason that people wear masks is Japan’s guilt-based morality system. People don’t want to give other people colds, but they feel they have to come to work. They don’t let their co-workers down, so they wear the masks in order not to give other people their germs. However, the WHO warns that there is no evidence that masks stop the spread of disease in community settings, and that using them improperly (which pretty much everyone in Japan does when they take them off repeatedly) can actually be more dangerous than not wearing one.


History of cold masks with lots of old masks, ads, and illustrations (in Japanese): http://www.tpa-kitatama.jp/museum/museum_06.html

History of cold masks (in Japanese): http://www.mask.co.jp/osato/mamechishiki/rekishi01.htm

WHO information about masks: https://www.meanwhile-in-japan.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Adviceusemaskcommunity.pdf

The Joys of Condo-hunting in Japan

My wife and I are looking to buy a condo, and we found a couple of really nice-looking ones in Yashio, a station about 20 minutes from Akihabara on the Tsukuba Express train line. One of the ones we found, a place called Comfill Yashio, was surprisingly cheap, and when we asked the salesperson why the price was so low, the only thing she could come up with was, “Actually, our company made a mistake. We set the price much too low for such a nice building.” My wife started interrogating her,  and when she asked about why it had double-pane glass (quite rare in Japan), it came out that there is a highway right beside it, and maybe that was the reason. (She also told us the apartment we were interested in was facing away from the highway when it was actually facing right toward it!) We also found out later that it was zoned commercial rather than residential, so anyone could build a factory practically next door if they felt like it. However, another big reason for the low price may be this building right here.

According to the signs outside it, this is an Aleph (formerly Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that carried out sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995) dojo (training center). They say things like “Aum, get out of your den fast! Get out! Get out!” or “This is one of Aum’s dens.”

I have to say that apartment hunting in Japan is quite an experience. At another place we looked at we noticed that the furniture in the model room seemed really small. It turns out that a lot of places put smaller furniture in the rooms to make them look bigger.

At another place we went to, they proudly showed off the entrance area with its wide sidewalks and parking area, without telling us that it’s scheduled to be removed when the road gets widened in a few years. Apparently, they tell you this on the day you sign the contract.

Another thing that makes it really fun is that there is a huge preschool shortage, and we’ve had to eliminate a lot of good-looking rooms because the waiting lists at all the area preschools were too long.

Anyway, the search continues.

Kasai Rinkai Park

There’s a lot more to Tokyo parks than just Yoyogi and Shinjuku-gyoen. Kasai Rinkai Koen is a seaside park on the edge of Tokyo Bay between Odaiba and Tokyo Disneyland. It’s the largest park in central Tokyo, and is home to an excellent bird sanctuary. There’s also an aquarium, acres and acres of grounds to stroll in, and a huge field of poppies that blooms around Golden Week.

Getting there:

From Tokyo Station, take the Keiyou (not the Keio) Line to Kasai Rinkai Koen Station. It takes about 15 minutes and costs 210 yen. The park is just a one-minute walk from the station.

Tel. (03) 5696-1331

Website: http://www.tokyo-park.or.jp/park/format/index026.html (In Japanese only)

The Minami-senju Fashion Plate

Here’s an unusual-looking character that I often see around the Minami-senju area.

Uniquely Japanese Job Interview Questions

On the surface, Japanese job interviews are a lot like Western ones, and the interviewers ask you the regular questions about where you worked before, your strengths and weaknesses, and the reason you applied for the job. But there are also a good number of questions that you’d probably never hear in other countries. When I changed jobs recently, I noticed that a lot of the questions I got asked dealt with how I felt about living and working in Japan, rather than focusing on my qualifications for the job. When Japanese companies hire a non-Japanese staff member, they’re often worried about whether the person will fit in with their coworkers, so there tend to be a lot of “Do-you-like-Japan?” type questions that are a really important part of their decision.

I think that there are two main things employers are worried about in Japan: 1) Is the person going to get along with his/her Japanese coworkers and not cause friction? and 2) Is the person going to stick around? When they ask you about what you like about Japan, what you think about working at a Japanese company, etc. they want to hear how much you know about Japanese business culture and make sure that you’re not going to head back to your home country in six months. Foreigners who have alienated all their Japanese coworkers, and people disappearing back to their home countries are huge problems, so it’s really important to convince a potential employer that you’re going to be able to get along with people and that you’re going to be around long enough to make it worth their while hiring and training you.
When I was helping do interviews at my old company, I sometimes heard  people saying they came to Japan because they wanted to date Japanese women or that something to keep in mind when working at a Japanese company is that Japanese people are uncreative. Obviously, this kind of answer isn’t going to make a good impression on a potential employer.

Below are some questions that often get asked at Japanese job interviews, sample answers, and important points to remember when answering. I don’t know if the answers are great or not, but I got a job in quite a competitive situation recently, so I hope  they’re at least worth reading.

Q. What do you think is important for foreigners to keep in mind when working at a Japanese company? Read more