Monday, April 19, 2010

Fish Heads Aren't Even the Worst of It!

I have a piece of paper with 500 written on it stuck to my fridge. It reminds me of this unbelievable statistic: the average American consumes the same quantity of food as do 500 Ethiopians. It's not meant as a guilt-laden diet plan; “make yourself so depressed about the state of the world and you won't want to eat!” Rather, it is a reminder of a principle that has long since vanished from our doorsteps in the West: moderation. Our society encourages thoughtless consumption, from Hummers that end up in the driveways of cookie-cutter homes in the suburbs to pasta dishes for children that contain more saturated fat that an adult should consume in four days. If someone is selling it, we think it must be a good idea to buy it.

With this cultural heritage, I was thrilled to be making my way to Japan in 2008. Known as a society heavily influenced by it's religious and artistic aestheticism, Japan could be the poster-child of “less is more” and “quality not quantity.” What I couldn't anticipate was the wreckage that the principle of motainai wreaks on school lunch at my junior high school.

Motainai is kinda like “waste not, want not.” In a conversation you'd use it to explain why you'd saved the scraps of fabric from a sewing project just as much as you could use it to explain why you stayed up late watching the Olympics. Applied to school lunch, this principle forsakes wisdom and pushes the boundaries of sanity.

Our school lunch company is, from what I can tell, incapable of counting or reading a calendar of events. If half the teachers will be away for a sports conference the company does not give us less food; we simply eat twice as much. Why? Motainai. The lunch company also keeps track of the food we didn't eat and sends my school a report card.

Class competitions are held to see what class leaves the least amount of milk bottles behind. Variables like chronically absent students and those with allergies are not taken into account. Allergies in general are not considered by the company; there was a student at my school last year who is allergic to seafood, all seafood. Almost everyday we eat fish, especially in the summer, and he simply went without. No meat replacement was ever offered.

So I was not surprised, really, when after informing one of my teachers that I didn't eat today's soup because I'm allergic to clams, she said “Motainai.” Not a command, necessarily, but certainly a sentiment that expressed as much or more disappointment in me having an allergy than in the school lunch company for not providing me an alternative.

Any principle, even moderation, observed entirely for it's own sake loses all meaning. Motainai is a good idea when it encourages students to try foods they don't like or aren't familiar with. And it's a good idea when it encourages us to soak in every last moment of an event. And it's a good idea when it makes us appreciate the labor that's gone into our food manufacturing, making us thoughtful in our consumption. But at junior high schools all across Japan motainai has gone terribly wrong.

I have become an expert at force-feeding myself and ignoring my gag reflex all to satisfy a principle that is, in the meantime, rendered meaningless.

Monday, April 5, 2010


What started as just curiosity has now become a new obsession. Almost a hobby. I've gotten purikura in almost every city I've visited. This is purikura:

Purikura is the Japanese version of photo booths. You slip coins into a slot, and several small photos are taken. Usually friends and lovers take them together. And that's where the similarities end.

In purikura you have a choice of several different booths, sometimes over twenty. They're often in multistory arcades but just as often they are attractions in and of themselves. They are most popular with young crowds but even college graduates will get some purikura with their friends to celebrate the occasion.

Once you insert the coins the madness begins, and quickly. You need to select how you want to be tinted and if you want your eyes to be colored/sparkled. Then you decide which 4-6 backgrounds you want out of about 100. Some are just plain colors or patterns but others have cute images like on my example of purikura.

Once you decide how you're gonna pose (before each shot you're shown models posing in your selected background in case you can't come up with anything on the spot) and the photos are taken it's only half over.

Then you go to a smaller, adjacent booth with two chairs and a screen with two "pens" attached. Now you go about decorating your tiny photos. There's tons of hearts and stars, cutesy sayings in Japanese and English (the one above is, "Suki, suki, daisuki: Like, like, love"), date stamps, pen color choices for writing your own message, and hoards of cute images like puppies and cakes and smileys.

It's incredibly overwhelming at first but the more you go to the purikura dens the more you're used to what they offer and pretty soon you're purikura-ing just like a giddy group of high school girls.

Purikura is probably not a legitimate hobby nor is it probably what the JET Programme has in mind when it recommends getting involved in cultural activities. But it is fun, really, really fun. And, as if it couldn't get better, you can peel off the backing and your purikura becomes a sticker!