Archive for the ‘Hokkaido’ Category

Naivete vs. stupidity: An Inakadelphia rant
June 10, 2010

I’ll start this by admiting that I was already having a bad day before I sat down to write this. I ordered a new bicycle online, and the shop failed to inform me that it was out of stock, and that the shop was on holiday all week, even further delaying shipment. Eight days later, and I haven’t received a single email or phone call. And I won’t even get into the fascist “no cancellation” policy.

Naivete is defined as a lack of sophistication or worldliness. The sohpistication part has nothing to do with the naivete I’ve experienced on a daily basis in my Japanese juinor high school classrooms. The complete and utter lack of worldliness has everything to do with it.

I’m beating a dead horse with the whole marijuana symbol, but I just noticed today that the new class banner for one of my 2nd grade (8th grade in the U.S.) classes is a giant pot leaf with “Enjoy & Happy” written underneath. And, of course, it has the classic red-yellow-green “Rasta” background. Again, when I made a comment about it being the symbol of an illegal drug that is rather frowned upon in Japan, the teacher told me she had no idea what it was. Just read my previous post if you want to know how I feel about this whole situation.

In several schools, I’ve used a “guessing game” worksheet as part of my self introduction. Instead of boring them with a long speech, I allow them to take guesses about general questions; i.e. what is my favorite food or how many brothers and sisters do I have. One question was “Where am I from?” The most common response? “France.” When I explain that French is the language of France, and people in my job must be from ENGLISH-speaking countries, I get the typical “EEEEeeeeehhhh!?” shouts of disbelief from my students. I also got India, Finland, Germany, and Italy (and again blew their minds when I said that English is not their native language).

Granted that white people often look older to Asian people, I was rattled when a student gave a honest guess at my age and came up with 48 (his father is only 42). I’m 24… And I’m gonna be looking for him on the dodgeball court.

It is finally summer here in Hokkaido, and today is a scorcher. I expected the interior of my school to be a bit cooler than the outisde. Unfortunately, when I opened the sliding doors into the staff room, I was blasted with heat as if opening the oven after preheating to 400 degrees. All 24 windows were closed and locked. Half of the inhabitants were visibly sweating, fanning their faces with notebooks or folders. “Hot, isn’t it” replied one of the new guys that sits behind me.

Surely you guessed that this is the stupidity part of my rant. If you are uncomfortably hot… maybe you should open the windows. But, no. I interrogated my English teacher as to why the windows aren’t opened, even cracked, and she replied that “I wish we could, but the men don’t like to have them open. I don’t know why. Even on the hottest days of summer, they usually keep them shut.”


Furthermore, students wear track suits as their school uniform here in Kitami. Long pants, long sleeves, with full-zip “turtleneck” style tops. After gym class, my students were panting and sweating all over their desks. But more than 3/4 of them had their jackets zipped to the top of the neck. I suggested that they take off their jackets. They said no. I suggested that they unzip it a little bit. Nope.

Stupidity is being uncomfortable for the sake of being uncomfortable. I don’t care what country you are in. There is no rule against taking the jacket off or unzipping it. They are all wearing baggy t-shirts underneath, so I won’t accept “being uncomfortable about their bodies” as an excuse.

I don’t call something stupid because it is different from my own ideals or my own culture. I call something stupid when it defies logic, reason, and the basic notion of common sense.

I could live in Japan for 1000 years and still never even begin to understand the bizarre, backwards, and utterly insane ways of thinking that I’ve encountered. All I know is this: thank GOD for the exceptions to the rule. You keep me from getting completely jaded by weirdness.


Smelly fish Friday
May 21, 2010

I don’t mind processed tuna, but any kind of fish with the scales left on it makes my stomach turn. I’ve just never acquired a taste for fish… I don’t mind crustaceans and cephalopods, but fish is revolting.

Well… In Japan, the giant island, fish is obviously a staple of the Japanese diet. And, thus, fish is served often in school lunch.

Today was one of those days, and I knew it the moment I stepped into the teacher’s room. The stench almost knocked me out.

To make matters worse, it was served alongside some heinous mix of Chinese spinach and other assorted strange veggies. I love spinach, but not this awful Chinese-Japanese bastardization. Popeye would cry if he saw this.

Another soup-and-plain-white-rice-only day here in Kitami City…

Convenience store booze bazaar
March 6, 2010

Back in the States, the availability of alcohol varies greatly. New Jersey has liquor stores, Pennsylvania has beer distributors, and New York has cases of beer at the convenience store.

However, in the land of beer vending machines, alcohol is easier to come by than anywhere I have previously experienced.

There are 3 major convenience stores operating on literally just about every street corner in Japan: Seicomart, Lawson, and 711. In Japan, convenience stores are called コンビ二, or “conbini,” the shortened and katakana-ized form of convenience.

My favorite is Seicomart for the low prices (although 711 admittedly has better food). All of them, however, have a vast selection of alcoholic beverages.

This Seicomart, in Bihoro, had a wine and whiskey selection to rival many liquor stores back home, alongside 2+ gallon jugs of sake. The staples, such as Smirnoff, Beefeater, and Bailey’s were also in attendance.

Next to innocent bottles of Coke and green tea lies the beer/wine cooler section. While I (sadly) haven’t seen 40s in the conbini, there is a plethora of Japanese beer, shochu, and Smirnoff Ice-esque drinks. Sadly, for the cost of 4 beers here, you could enjoy a 2 hour nomihoudai at a local bar. Who sets the insane price of beer over here?!

Eye mod purikura
February 15, 2010

Headed to Sega for some Initial D 5th Stage and, of course, Valentines Day purikura.

Purikura is the katakana-ized form of “picture club,” and involves taking photos in a large booth, followed by using electronic styluses to draw on and edit them. Purikura booths come in many varieties and can be found in just about every arcade and shopping mall in Japan.

This particular purikura had several strange options, including air-brushed-looking skin and a ridiculous eye-exaggerating mod. It looks great for Japanese, but a big-eyed foreigner comes out looking like an alien.

My first zine piece: Musings on pot leaf pen cases
February 2, 2010

After being in Japan for six months, I finally buckled down and wrote something (other than a lesson plan or blog entry).

HAJET (Hokkaido’s branch of JET) has a great e-zine, titled the Polestar, and the editor contacted me about contributing in light of my background as a writer. It was easy to zone in on a topic: marijuana-themed merchandise’s pop culture presence (especially among young students, i.e., my students) and the contradiction it creates in light of the stifling Japanese anti-drug laws.

I’ll post the link here for the February 2010 Polestar, as well as paste the article’s contents below. I am also thrilled to say that this month’s cover photo is mine. Unfortunately, the editor flipped the mag’s layout to landscape, so my shot was cropped.

I would also like to add something that didn’t appear in print. While researching for this piece, I came across a lot of gossip involving my fine town. Kitami was once famous for being the biggest mint producer in the world. Now, it’s the biggest onion producer in Japan — and allegedly, the biggest pot distributor. Several reliable sources claimed that there is a massive underground gang presence in this town of roughly 120,000. I was even told that a large number of downtown bars are used as money laundering fronts for the drug trade.

I can’t confirm any of this, and for my own safety, I don’t care to dig any deeper (I just finished reading Tokyo Vice, and the last thing I wanna do is get tangled up with the yakuza). But I will say that, on more than a couple of occasions, I have walked into a bar or nightclub bathroom with an open window and the lingering smell of marijuana. Its existence in Kitami is undeniable.


By: J.T. Quigley

Any foreigner living and working in Japan has
been made aware of the hefty penalties for
being caught with marijuana and other illegal
drugs. For those of us on JET, pre-departure,
Tokyo, and regional orientations undoubtedly
warned of the severity of drug violations.
Even the U.S. Department of State cautions,
“Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking
in illegal drugs, including marijuana, in Japan
are severe, and convicted offenders can
expect long jail sentences and fines.” However,
there appears to be a profound contradiction
when it comes to marijuana’s stringent
illegality versus its rampant pop culture
presence in Japan.

Between 2008 and 2009, the Japanese
media converged on a flood of reefer-specific
allegations against national
celebrities, including four sumo
wrestlers, a national-team rugby player,
an actress, and a rock musician. While
college students using marijuana is
nothing newsworthy in the West, Japan
was shocked when students from
prestigious Waseda University were
busted with plastic bags full of pot.
According to GlobalPost, Waseda
administrators made scathing
statements after the fallout, including
the following: “Students foolish enough
to try marijuana all too often end up
physically and mentally ruined, perhaps
leading lives of crime.”

Although there may have been a major
crackdown on marijuana usage here,
most Japanese appear ignorant to the
fact that children are wearing pot leaf
t-shirts to school and using pen cases
with “CANNABIS” printed across the top.
“There is a distinct cognitive
disconnection between the cultural
taboo of recreational drug use and the
prevalence of its iconography,” said
Simon Daly, a first-year ALT in Engaru.

A trip to the local shopping mall yields
numerous options for marijuana-themed
goods. In Kitami, the local
Village Vanguard chain has an entire
section devoted to pot, including shirts,
posters, curtains, and pen cases covered
by images of the illegal green plant. “I
hate to see children wearing those kind
of clothes, using those kind of school
supplies,” said Takuya Sato, a third grade
teacher at North Kitami Junior
High School. “I hate more to see parents
letting them wear and use them. I hate
ignorance. There are no regulations for
these drug-themed items.”

Do most Japanese draw a connection
between marijuana, the illegal drug,
and the symbol of a green leaf with
seven points? “I don’t think many
Japanese know what marijuana looks
like,” said Sato, “They don’t even know
that the colors [often] behind the leaf of
marijuana [merchandise] come from
Rastafari” (Adding insult to injury, one
pen case even had “Rasta Drug Rush”
printed on it). Perhaps many Japanese
simply make a connection between the
symbol of marijuana and reggae music,
which seems to be especially popular in
Hokkaido. But with all the media
attention, nothing is stopping young
people from finding out the true

In the past decade, Japan has seen a
rise in ganja-related arrests, especially
when it involves cultivation. According
to GlobalPost, the number of “green
thumbs” arrested for growing pot has
doubled in recent years. The celebrity
convictions of the last two years are
proof that marijuana isn’t only
increasingly popular as a fashion
symbol, but as an actual controlled
substance. Could there be a correlation
between the acceptance of marijuana’s
iconography and this staggering
increase? “Yes, it could be possible,”
says Sato. “Some students know what
the [marijuana symbols] are and what
they mean. The younger generations
are not ignorant like their parents.”

In the “inaka” surrounding Kitami,
marijuana grows wild. “It’s common
local knowledge that the Japanese
military introduced marijuana to
Hokkaido during WWII to use as rope,”
said a local Kitami region resident who
requested anonymity. “Depending on
what circles you belong to, it’s definitely
available.” A drive around the outskirts
of Kitami in the summer time can prove
the wild pot’s prevalence. Signs are
posted on the side of some roads where it
grows, requesting that upstanding citizens
call the police if they see any stopped cars
or pedestrians picking buds. There is
obviously a source for anyone bold enough
to break the law.

Something caught my eye recently that
embodied the Japanese marijuana
contradiction. After emerging from the
teacher’s room at one of my junior high
schools, I came across a group of my 3rd
grade students. They had their hair slicked
up in “pureboi” fashion, bright-colored
Nike high-tops, and holes in their tracksuits.
The “cool” kids. One had his back against
the wall with his track jacket unzipped. His
black t-shirt had a giant, cartoonish, pot
leaf with arms and legs. One hand was
flashing a peace sign, while the other
gripped a smoldering joint. It wasn’t the
shirt alone that caught my attention (although
the cartoonish weed plant brought back
memories of the outlawing of Joe Camel
ads back in the United States, because it
was deemed that a cartoon targets children).
What bothered me was that the student
was leaning against a Japanese public service
announcement, part of a series in the national
“NO! DRUG” campaign. The campaign logo
that the letters “NO! DRUG” are superimposed
over? A green, seven-pointed leaf of the devil’s

In a country that blindly wears shirts with
botched English and names a bar a “Rounge,”
someone should step up to stop the naivete.
Parents should stop and think about the
meaning behind a symbol before ignorantly
purchasing it for their child. Age limits
should be enforced, as they are in
many Western nations, for purchasing
drug-themed merchandise. Who is stopping
Nazi Swastikas from becoming the next
uneducated symbol craze? Thankfully,
there are people like Sato-sensei who are
pushing back against the ignorance. Being
able to read and understand English seems
like a good start in ending the reefer

“I always ask the student the same
question if they wear marijuana t-shirts,
rock t-shirts, any English-printed t-shirts as
well,” said Sato. “The question is, ‘Do you
know what your t-shirt stands for?’ If they
don’t know, I teach them what, then I say
to them, ‘Your t-shirt is very cool, but if
you wear it without understanding what it
says, that is uncool. So study English!’”

What’s in a name? The business behind Japanese product naming
January 27, 2010

As an ALT in Japan, we are all more than aware that our gaijin neighbors won’t be with us forever. Each year, new waves arrive and seasoned veterans go back to Western reality. My good friend Carol is a volunteer for Kitami’s Red Cross hospital. She has been here for 2 years, the maximum for volunteers, and heads back to England in February. As she was selling and giving away her worldly possessions, I headed for the bookshelf. I’m a prolific reader, and finding English-language bookstores isn’t so easy (and I prefer instant-gratification to waiting for Amazon Japan).

I came across a small tome of bizarre Japanese news stories by the name of Tabloid Tokyo, compiled by Mark Schreiber. It has been a very entertaining between-classes read.

One chapter, which discussed product naming, was particularly interesting to me. Pocari Sweat is my favorite drink in Japan. When I came here on a La Salle travel study in 2006, we joked about how Pocari Sweat must be made. Surely, there is a mythical creature called the Pocari, roaming the backcountry of Japan. They are herded and either frightened, heated, or squeezed to render the delicious Pocari Sweat, which is then bottled and distributed around Japan. We had a lot of drunken jokes on this topic, but we never got down to why it must really be called “Sweat.”

This article doesn’t explain the naming of my favorite Japanese (non-alcoholic) beverage, but it does provide insight into the method behind the madness when it comes to assigning a name to a product here in J-Land.


dacapo (February 19, 2003)

Melty Kiss. Sweat. Pocky. What gooey, goofy environment begot these syllables? And attached them to consumer products — a chocolate treat, a drink and a chocolate-topped stick-shaped biscuit, respectively? And expected them to sell? And was right?

A product name is a mysterious thing, dacapo finds. It can be as blandly descriptive as “Green Gum,” as lovely, if meaningless, as “Saran,” and as devoid of meaning and beauty alike… as “Walkman.” Walkman — therein hangs a tale.

When Sony’s portable tape player debuted in 1979 it was called Stowaway in the U.K. and Soundabout in the U.S. Both names yielded to the drab pidgin-English Walkman, its Japanese appellation. Now you can look Walkman up in some dictionaries and find it defined, a mere name no longer.

This next story takes us back to 1958, when Japanese product naming was a prosaic matter of identifying the merchandise. Haguromo Foods’ Sea Chicken (an unacknowledged variation of the American “Chicken of the Sea”) broke the mold. Sea chicken? What on earth was that? At first, sales of the canned tuna went nowhere; the idea of an imaginative product name was ahead of its time. But — thanks in no small measure, dacapo says, to the cute cartoon “sea chicken” that starred in the ads — the times soon caught up, and sales rocketed.

What’s in a name? Product success or failure, that’s what. In 1985 Itoen surmounted numerous technical difficulties to produce the world’s first canned green tea. Its name was Kan-iri Sencha — Canned Green Tea — and it flopped. In 1989, the name was changed to Oi-ocha, derived from “Oi! Ocha!” — a husband’s curt but typical demand to his wife for a cup of tea. Sales soared.

Is there a pattern? A standard? Euphony, one might think — but Walkman? The message, perhaps — but Pocky? On second thought, maybe Glico did have a message in mind when it dreamed up Pocky. It comes, the magazine says, from pokkin — not a word but a sound, the sound the stick-biscuit makes when bitten.

“Ad budgets are shrinking,” explains an analyst the magazine consults. “If you can’t advertise a product, the name itself must be the advertisement. It has to have instant impact.”

If a random survey of your neighborhood convenience store turns up names wackier than most, the reason is clear. Convenience store cash registers keep track of what items sell and what items don’t. Those that don’t are swept out — no appeal, no second chance. If your product name is selling your product, you better make it good.

Many sound-names are word fusions, some ingenious, some tortured. AIBO, the dog-robot that went on sale in 1999, comes from AI, artificial intelligence, and a slice of the second syllable of “robot.” Cray-pas is “crayon” plus “pastel.” Kobayashi Pharmaceutical’s intestinal medicine Gaspitan pairs intestinal “gas” with “pitan (quick stop).”

For years, Japan’s top-selling car was Toyota’s Corolla, suggesting flower petals. In 2002 it was overtaken by Honda’s Fit, suggesting… what, exactly? Fitness? Fits?

Fuji Film’s disposable cameras looked like cardboard boxes. “Honto ni utsuru no? — Does this thing actually take pictures?” a skeptical customer might ask. The affirmative answer became the product name: “Utsuru’n desu.”

As with product names, so with corporate logos. Staid is out, cute is in. Would you trust your savings to a bank named Tomato? When Sanyo Sogo Bank became the Tomato Bank in 1989, it seemed a bit flaky — but people were growing tired of the solid but chilly dependability conveyed by traditional names. Depositors laughed and gave it their blessings. So now you’ve got banks with names like Sakura (cherry blossom) and Mizuho (vigorous rice plants).

Well, why not? It’s harmless, fun, in tune with the times. With subatomic particles sporting names like strawberry quark, why shouldn’t a bank call itself  Tomato? Or a drink, Sweat? Or a magazine, dacapo? (MH)

Carol, you will be missed… much like I will be missing Pocari Sweat when I return to America.

A new record
January 19, 2010

The downtown thermometer hit a new low over the weekend…

It has also been snowing quite consistently, as you can see. Hopefully hitting the slopes this Saturday.

December 16, 2009

Parallel universes
November 13, 2009

Even in my small Japanese town, random places and objects remind me of Philadelphia. Here are some things I spotted in Kitami that make it feel a bit more like home…

Across the train tracks from my apartment lies the 北見しんきん (Bank of Kitami).

It is the only modern architecture to be found among the drab and decaying buildings that make up my city. My office, called the Parabo building, might actually be the biggest eyesore in town.

Kitami Shinkin is covered in color-changing LEDs, and reminds me of a miniature version of the Amtrak building, which often lights up with Philadelphia team colors and logos. I can see it glowing in the distance on the bus coming home from Sapporo, much like I used to see the faraway sparkle of the Amtrak building while driving south on 95.

While riding my bike home from Koizumi Junior High last week, I spotted another familiar Philly landmark, albeit a bit bastardized in usage. The Love Park symbol is being used for some kind of Pachinko (Japanese gambling parlors) campaign called “Love Juggler and Love Sea Story.” Interesting…

I’ve also seen the LOVE Park symbol on student’s pen cases and notebooks.

Even at work, I bump into things that take me back to Philly, like…

A poster for La Salle High School in Hakodate. I did a double-take when I spotted this at one of my junior high schools.

School lunch that I actually enjoy: Installment #1
November 12, 2009

I don’t eat fish. I don’t eat sashimi. I don’t eat sushi. There, I said it. I live in Japan and sushi makes me vomit. Get over it, people.

This will begin a weekly (hopefully multi-weekly) installment of Japanese public school lunches that I not only tolerate, but actually really enjoy.

Today’s fine piece of mass-culinary magic (Japanese school lunches are made in school lunch factories and delivered by tractor trailer every morning — I am dead serious) is udon and shrimp shumai, with a side of cheese balls wrapped like candy. This is one of my favorites, and usually comes around once or twice a month.

(Sorry for the vertical photo, my iPhone equilibrium isn’t so great).