Tag Archives: Japan

Confessions of a Kawaii Mind

It all started out so innocently: one small, plush Totoro. I remember standing in the aisle of a crowded shop in Osaka, trying to justify the purchase.  On the one hand, 1700 円 is a lot of money for a toy.  On the other hand, Totoro!  It’s a cultural experience! I can use it in show and tell! I can take him home and teach my friends about Japanese culture!  The rationalizations went on and on, all the way to the cash register.  Thus began my slow descent and so I find myself making a difficult confession:  My name is Meagan and I am addicted to all (alright — most) things cute.  Or, as is more commonly said in Japan, I love the kawaii!! \(^o^)/ *

Four years ago, when I first visited Japan, I did not see this coming. I walked around a shopping mall during my first visit and was confused by the stuffed animals hanging off of teenagers’ backpacks.  Surely it’s fad.  Perhaps it is something Japanese teens do ironically.  When I moved to Japan I quickly learned that no, it is not ironic, nor is it limited to teenagers.  It is perfectly acceptable for grown men and women to have full-sized teddy bears dangling from their cellphones, handbags, and pencil cases.  Cute stuff is everywhere.  Why own a plain folder/ phone case/ toilet brush when you could have one covered in kittens?  Not only did I become accustomed to the phenomenon, but I surprised myself with how quickly I adopted it.  Only three months after arriving in Japan I found myself in that shop in Osaka, contemplating my first Totoro purchase.

A completely normal pencil case for a 17 year old boy in Japan.

I did not realize how fully I had embraced the kawaii until I returned home to visit my family and friends and I noticed how“grown-up” they all are. My friends all carry handbags devoid of plush animals.  Their pens and pencils are mostly solid colours, with nary an animated character in sight. None of my loved ones in Canada – not a single one – owns a cutting board shaped like a baby animal.

As I near the end of my JET career and my time in Japan, I have started to wonder what my re-adjustment to life at home will look like.  I have a recurring daymare in which I am meeting new people and my phone rings.  When I take it out of my purse I reveal several Beanie Babies dangling from my phone. Everyone around me recoils, exchanges a look, and telepathically agrees that they must never speak with me or my Beanie Babies again. Ever. ** Making new friends might be tough.  

Is it possible that my fear is a bit exaggerated? Sure, I suppose it’s possible.  But the reality is that once I return to Canada I will slowly start to assimilate with North American norms again.  For better or worse, I have only a few months left to shamelessly bask in cute culture, and I am hoping to take advantage of it.   Now please excuse me, an adult just showed me her pencil case.  It is shaped like a chipmunk and it is wearing a bow tie. I have some squeeing to do.

*I  do not understand Japanese emoji. I think they all look like bats. 

**For the record, I do not actually own any Beanie Babies or phone charms… yet.   


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The OTHER Worst Portmanteau

It should go without saying, but for those of you unfortunate enough NOT to live inside my brain, the worst portmanteau is “cronut.” My spell check does not recognise the word and I absolutely will not add it to my dictionary.

The other worst portmanteau is “Japanniversary.” Yes, this is a thing. People talk about their Japanniversaries.  If were such a person, I would have written a celebratory blog post on August 1st. I didn’t.

I will, however, take a bit of a break from my busy schedule (of sitting directly under my air conditioner and looking at pictures of grown-up Neville Longbottom) to tell you about my life in Japan after two years.

I suppose language is the obvious place to start.  The best way to think about my language capabilities is to think of what a two year old child can do with language. I can make two or three word “sentences” with nouns and verbs.  Ask me to use the appropriate article, however, and I will panic.  I can also understand some of what store clerks, etc. say, assuming they speak slowly and use simple language — as though I were a toddler.

Carrying on with the toddler theme, I am starting to have issues with rules.  The simple knowledge that I am not supposed to do something makes me want to do it so badly. After two years of mostly following all of the arbitrary (not really) rules of Japanese society, I am craving a bit of individualism these days.  In other words, I JUST WANT TO WEAR NAIL POLISH!!! Thankfully, I do have the impulse control of an adult.  This might be the main reason why not many toddlers make it past the JET programme’s intense screening process.

I suppose the biggest difference between my life now and two years ago is that I no longer have anxiety about doing normal activities, like paying my internet bill or sorting my trash.  I have that all figured out now.  In fact, I am partially responsible for teaching the newly arrived ALTs how to do things like pay their internet bills and sort their trash.  That’s a bit strange.

On that strange note, I shall conclude.  Life here is good. It is frustrating at times, as I continue to adapt to Japanese culture, but that will always be the case. Overall, life is good.  Now I will let you all go on with your daily lives. I know that you all, like me, have very important responsibilities to tend to.

Wizardry, indeed.

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In a few weeks I will have been living in Japan for two full years. This is the longest I have stayed in one place since I was 17. In honour of this anniversary, I thought I would post my reflection on my first year of living in Japan. This post was originally published in the 2012 Welcome edition of the TRAM, Toyama AJET’s magazine/blog. (Side note: I am now an editor of the TRAM. You can check it out here!)

Confusion: My First Year in Japan

When I was asked to write a reflection on my first year in Japan I hesitated a bit. I would love to write an essay about all the things I learned and the epiphanies I experienced. However, the truth is that I really don’t know what happened that year. It whizzed by in a big ball of confusion. I don’t just mean that I was confused; I was like a host for confusion, spreading it around like a virus. Anyone in my vicinity was susceptible.

I managed to confuse the entire school during the fall term’s opening ceremony. I walked up to the microphone and started to deliver my self-introduction flawlessly. Unfortunately, it was the principal’s turn to speak. I had to return to my seat and try again a few minutes later.

Outside of school presented an entire world of bewilderment. In the winter I got influenza and went to the pharmacy to buy a thermometer. I remember standing in a feverish haze, staring at a wall of thermometers, trying to figure out which one went where. Finally, I grabbed a thermometer and approached the till. I mustered up my courage and spat out “Sumimasen… doko?” while miming placing the thermometer in my mouth and underarm. Thankfully the lovely lady at the till stopped me before I had to mime any other potential locations. Still, she looked appropriately horrified a she pointed to her underarm. I thanked her and she rang me up. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when she went home that night. You will never believe what happened to me at work today . . .

Despite the confusion – or perhaps because of it – I managed to carve out a comfortably strange niche in my school and neighbourhood. The teachers at my school were so kind after I screwed up the opening ceremony that for a few moments I actually believed it could have happened to anyone. My students were a bit more skeptical of my brand of weirdness, but I was able to win over most of them within a few conversations about K-pop or soccer. As for the pharmacy, every time I return the clerk gives me a huge smile and slips some freebies into my bag. We are basically BFF.

I would like to say that I make fewer blunders now that my Japanese is improving. However, I recently learned that I have been confusing the Japanese words for “girlfriend” and “subway” every time I used them. (No, they sound nothing alike.) So I am sure that this next year will bring with it many more grim “Meagan in Japan” stories. So it goes.


One the one hand, taking this picture suggests that I have embraced the “cute” culture in Japan. On the other hand, I still think that seeing 4 oversized Poohs on the side of the road is strange enough to merit a photo op. I think we can agree that I have not yet fully assimilated.

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What’s more fun than studying Japanese on a Sunday night?

Trick question.  The answer is: everything.

I was sitting down to do my Japanese homework and thought… hey, you know what I haven’t done in ages? Write a blog post! So, here we are.

For those of you who may not know,  I am still in Japan.  I have re-contracted to stay here for a third year, beginning at the end of July.  That means that, if all goes as planned, I will return to Canada in the summer of 2014.

I went home for a quick visit in March.  One of the questions that I was asked most often was “So, your Japanese must be pretty good now, eh?”  Ha.  Let’s talk about my Japanese skills. But first, let’s talk about Japanese in general.  There’s an interesting infograph that compares the speed and information density of several languages.

As you can see in the graphic, Japanese is an incredibly fast language.

However . . .

So, what does this mean for those of us struggling to learn Japanese as a second language?  First of all, it means that listening comprehension is tough.  Even if you can understand a fair bit of vocabulary, it can be difficult to pick out key words from a long string of formalities in speech.  Secondly, even if you know a lot of vocabulary words, it takes a while before you can confidently string them together into anything that resembles proper grammar.

But what about me?  Well, I’m getting there.  I study with a tutor once a week and I spend at least a few hours a week studying on my own.  At this point, I can pick up on the main idea of conversations in the staff room, although I can never follow the conversation entirely.  If someone asks me a question in simple Japanese, I can usually understand but sometimes I take a while to process the information.  For example, today I bought frozen tortillas at the foreign food store.  The cashier asked me if I wanted an ice pack to keep them cool.  I understood this question, but there was a lag of a few seconds between her question and my comprehension.  The delay was just long enough that she started to panic because she thought I hadn’t understood.  Still, I considered this a victory.  After all, neither of us had to resort to charades to communicate.  (Not that there is any shame in charades.)

In casual situations, especially ones where I know the context, I can usually grasp the basics of what is going on.  However, in formal situations I remain lost.  In March I attended my school’s graduation ceremonies.  As I sat in the gymnasium before the ceremony began, I wondered how much of the ceremony I would understand this year.  As it turns out, I understood almost the same amount that I had the year before: nothing.  The hundreds of hours of Japanese studying that I had done in the previous 364 days were meaningless when it came to formal speeches.  Although, I can say with certainty that the principal did not use the phrase “the bookstore is in front of the station,” at any point during commencement.


Sometimes I wonder if my textbook was written specifically for me.

While formal speech is difficult to understand, I am equally baffled by excessively casual conversation.  Anything that has a lot of slang or is in a non-standard dialect is  difficult for me to understand.  This is troublesome because my prefecture, Toyama, is noted for its distinct dialect.  In fact, somebody once told me that trying to learn standard (Tokyo) Japanese in Toyama is akin to trying to learn the queen’s English in Alabama.  Do-able, but tough.

This is starting to read like a list of excuses, which is not my intention.  It is, however, intended to be a description of the realities of learning a language through immersion.  In theory, it should be so easy to learn Japanese while living in Japan.  However, real-life immersion involves a whole lot of factors beyond the repeat-after-me routines of a classroom.

The good news is that studying Japanese has become a lot more fun now that I know enough to use it.  Being able to have toddler-style conversations with my coworkers is very rewarding.  Any time I ever successfully read kanji I feel like a genius.  Most importantly, I am hopeful that in the future all of this studying will help me win it all in the final Jeopardy question.

“So, your Japanese must be pretty good now, eh?”   Nope, but I’m working on it!


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A little recap of things I saw and did in 2012.
(The song is “Lucky” from Said the Whale.)

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January 13, 2013 · 9:36 pm

How Japan Surprised Me

*I wrote this article in October; then I let it fester in my drafts folder for a few months.  It was timely when I wrote it, I swear!*

I came across an article this week, about ways in which Japan will surprise travellers.   There are a pieces of the article that are very accurate.  The “expensive, yet affordable” bit is right on the money.   Unfortunately  I think the article falters in the same places that so many pieces about Japan struggle.  It does well in describing Tokyo, but it makes sweeping generalizations that just do not hold up outside  of the major cities.   It reiterates all of the usual clichés about Japan:  Technology! Tradition! Nintendo! Kimono! However, despite the title,  I was disappointed that the article fails to dig deeper and find the aspects of Japan that might actually surprise travellers.  The following is my take on the situation, how Japan continues to surprise me.

 Stylish in ways you have never seen

A Crocs display in a shop.

A Crocs display in a shop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This first heading almost made me do a spit-take.   “Stylish in ways I have never seen” is exactly how I would describe Japanese fashion, but I don’t think the author is using it as a euphemism, at least not in the same way I do.  The author discusses   “looks that reveal detailed attention to beauty and a person-as-canvas philosophy.”  In Tokyo and Kyoto, where the author seems to have travelled, I will admit that fashion is spectacular.  However, travellers leaving the major urban centres may be surprised to see that the rest of Japan is not stocked with Harajuku girls. When I first arrived in Toyama I remember being struck by the prevalence of Crocs.  To be fair, they are a very practical choice of footwear in one of the rainiest parts of the country.   Still, I think we can all agree that Crocs do not belong in a conversation about style, even (especially)  if they are Hello Kitty-themed. Yet crocks are a staple of Japanese fashion, at least in my corner of the country.

Technology meets tradition — and fantasy

Yes.  And no.

Japan has had ultra fast bullet trains connecting major urban centres for decades now.   On the flip side,  the train I take to work looks like it could have been an alternate home for the Boxcar Children.  Just as with fashion, technology outside of the major cities in Japan can take you back in time, to a time when everything was a bit slower, and a lot less convenient.   The best example is  money.  Japan is a cash-based society.  Perhaps because of low crime rates, people have had little push to move towards alternate forms of payment.  Almost no small stores accept credit cards, internet banking is relatively uncommon, and a debit card system is unheard of.  Instead, people carry around massive amounts of cash, a bank card and their bankbook.    Yes, you read that correctly,  a bankbook, like the one I received when I opened up My First Bank Account in 1988 and promptly lost because it was already becoming  obsolete.

Not just big buildings and highways

In the CNN article, the author discusses the architectural wonders of Japan’s cities, as well as the beauty of the country’s gardens and temples.  All of this is true.  However, what really surprised me about Japan was its natural beauty.  The Japanese summer provides some of the lushest green landscapes I have ever seen.  If you step outside of the city you will be surrounded by endless rice paddies.  In Toyama we are spoilt by mountain and ocean views.   As a Canadian, I have a tendency to be a snob when it comes to natural wonders, but Japan can certainly hold its own in terms of rural landscapes.

The cleanest place in the world.

And no review of Japan’s virtues would be honest without mentioning Japan’s toilets, a marvel of modern technology and a cause for profound gratitude from travellers  This is no place for a disquisition on Japan’s sanitary technology other than to offer a heartfelt arigato. Thank you.

Ok.  I agree that Japan is amazingly clean.  I also agree that any review of Japan ought to mention toilets. However, I don’t think the two thoughts belong side-by-side.  Not because the toilets are unclean; by global standards they are immaculately kept.  The issue is that toilets merit an entire chapter.  It is true that many Japanese homes and businesses have beautiful, western style toilets.  The toilet seats are often equipped with heating  and other rear-pampering luxuries, which really deserve an entire post to explain. (In the context of a Japanese building with no central heating, for example, a heated toilet seat seems much less extravagant.)   However, the flip side is that many public wash-rooms have traditional squat toilets, which can be daunting to unsuspecting Westerners.  There is a hilarious, but useful wikiHow about mastering the squatter.

Toilet in Japan

Toilet in Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like in some other parts of Asia, public toilets in Japan often do not have toilet paper.  Sometimes there is a dispenser outside of the stall, but it is wise to always carry tissues on your person.  Soap is also a rarity in Japanese public restrooms.  For a country that insists on wearing masks the second somebody sniffles, there is a shocking lack of soap in public facilities.  Hand sanitizer will become your best friend.

All of these things, good and bad, are just a part of living in Japan.  I rarely think about any of them in daily life.  Well, except for the toilet paper, it is important to keep that one point in mind, lest I be caught unprepared.  The internet if full of Crazy Japan stories, but my experience here has not been all that crazy.  Almost everything that has surprised me at first has made sense once I learned about the cultural background.  Again, except for the toilet paper issue; I still don’t know why toilet paper is not amply supplied.

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One less item on the bucket list

I did something truly remarkable a few weeks ago. I have tried to write a post about it. Unfortunetly, I have been too busy to write the post that this event deserves. So, here I will tell the story the exact same way I have been telling my elementary students.

1) This summer I went to Mount Fuji.

Setting forth into the night.

2) We climbed the mountain at night.

Headlamps snake their way up the mountain

3) There were many people on the mountain.

About 10 000 people climbed through the night to see the sunrise.

4) We saw the sun rise from top of the mountain.

Sunrise from 3, 776 meters

I wish that could find the time to write a proper post. I had a lot of intense feelings about the climb. I did not like climbing through the night, nor did I enjoy climbing with thousands of other people on the trail. However, I am glad that I did it and very proud of the accomplishment. Someday, when I am old and grey, I will show people this picture and tell them about that time I hauled myself up a volcano in the middle of the night.

We did it!


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