Thursday, September 10, 2009

'And can you get some rice?...'

I'm not sure if that's quite how she put it, pregnant with our second child and her hormones popping like Jiffy-Pop. But I got the basic idea. 'And get 100% Hitomebore or Koshihikari, not the blended kind.' God forbid.
I stood in the aisle at Hashi Drug, staring down at the selection: mostly home-grown Fukushima, in five or ten kilogram bags. I've traveled fairly extensively throughout Japan in my eight years here, but for all the vast, sweeping fields, not to mention the Japanese penchant for using every square centimeter of flat land they can find to eke out a few more grains to contribute to the national haul, it is still difficult for me to comprehend feeding 120 million people this way. Then again, considering the girth of some of the school children waddling around, McDonald's and Pringles seem to have a hand in the equation.
I'll spare myself and all of you the underlying psychological dynamics, but I have a hardened habit of considering the cost per unit among different brands when buying my meusli or spaghetti sauce or coconut wafers. Money and I have never gotten along, and I need to get the most out of the few friends I have.
Today, five kilos of rice (pure Hitomebore) was going for 1680 yen. (I used to try to convert kilos to pounds and yen to dollars simultaneously to compare Japanese and US prices but the stores always closed before I could come to any conclusions.) Next to this, a ten kilo bag sold for 3480 yen. I scratched my head.
Simple math.
Vintage Japanese logic.
Before I came to Japan I read a book (didn't buy it, just read it in the bookstore over several visits) entitled Culture Shock: Japan, the words sprawled across the black cover in a devious, blood-sucking font for maximum effect. Among the many pages of information I didn't find at all shocking ('Japanese people often give fruit as gifts when they visit someone's home, beware!') was the admonition that if one doesn't understand something, one needn't bother asking why. Just accept it. Like the locals do.
I asked anyway.
For the first few weeks.
Why policemen in Japan sometimes cruise around with their lights flashing for no readily apparent reason remains a mystery to me - and perhaps to the police as well. I recall once seeing a cruiser stopped at an intersection, lights on fire and waiting to turn, and nobody coming the other way slowing or stopping to let him through. 'Not very polite for Japanese people,' I thought, followed by the question 'So what do they do when there's an emergency?' Answer, for police and ambulances and fire trucks: blast a recording over the on-board PA system asking everyone very politely to get the hell out of the way please if you don't mind and please be careful. I speak Japanese, I am sure of this.
Why do the radio stations here refuse to play an entire song? On the odd occasion they even decide to begin to play one? I never used to mind if someone switched off 99 Luftballons.
Why is the Ministry of Education so steadfastly adamant about making sure 20 million schoolchildren all learn to say 'ice', 'note' and 'maybe' for the English 'ice cream', 'notebook' and 'I have no f-ing clue.'
But just as you can't force democracy on an Islamic state (damn, I swore I'd stay away from politics here) you can't expect another culture to conform to your own ideas, no matter how right you may be. A quote from George Orwell's Burmese Days comes to mind: 'Most people can be at ease in a foreign country only when they are disparaging the inhabitants.' And it is true for me at times - when I find out an undersized letter costs more to mail than the standard size does; when my mailing address changes and I haven't even moved; when I'm told I can't ride my bike according to automobile traffic laws, I clench my teeth and shake my head and curse the entire populace under my breath.
But I am also fascinated, awed and humbled by the Japanese Way. The unending politeness. The generosity. The white-gloved cab drivers. Another eight years and maybe this sarcastic, cynical, opinionated rockhead from New Jersey might learn a thing or two.
Though I don't expect to ever understand why a case of beer has to cost forty bucks.
If anyone can explain that one I'll buy them two five-kilo bags of rice.