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.

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.

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: http://www.who.int/csr/resources/publications/Adviceusemaskcommunity.pdf

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 the rest of this entry »

Earthquake Sickness

BURBANK, CA - NOVEMBER 13:  US Secretary of th...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Sometimes when I’m sitting at my desk, I suddenly feel the ground shaking, but when I look around, everyone else is just sitting there calmly. I always feel really stupid, and I was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Last night, however, my wife did the same thing, and then this morning I came across an article about ‘jishin yoi (link is in Japanese only).’ ‘Yoi’ usually means ‘drunk,’  but ‘kuruma yoi’ is ‘car sickness’ and ‘funa yoi’ is ‘sea sickness,’ so ‘jishin yoi’ can be translated as ‘earthquake sickness.’

The article defines it as “feeling dizzy or shaky even though there there is no earthquake happening.” Apparently, it’s becoming quite common in Japan due to the terrible earthquake and all the aftershocks these days.

I wonder if there’s a word for my other neurosis, obsessively checking the radiation levels in Tokyo every five minutes (The link is in Japanese only, but the first column is the maximum, the second is the minimum, and the third is the average. The normal level is 0.028~0.079 micro sieverts.)

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The Hardest-working Homeless in the World

Japan must have the hardest-working homeless people in the world. I think I’ve seen about two panhandlers in the 17 years I’ve lived here.

I did some reading about them on this government survey and this blog. It says there were about 25,000 in Japan as of 2003, with 7,757 in Osaka, 6,361 in Tokyo, and 2,121 in Nagoya. It seems Osaka has finally found something it can beat Tokyo in!

An amazing 64.7 percent of homeless people do some kind of work, and 73.3 percent of those do some kind of waste collection. In 2003, about 35.2 percent of homeless people had a monthly income of between 10,000 and 30,000 yen, and 18.9 percent had an income of between 30,000 and 50,000 yen. However,around 2004, the price per kilogram for aluminum went up from 80-90 yen to between 150 and 170 yen, so they are probably earning more.

Japan’s homeless are a lot older than in other countries. 23.4% are between the ages of 55 and 59, 22% are between 50 and 54, and 20.3% are between 60 and 64.

The All-Japan Telephone Answering Contest

The Annual All-Japan Telephone Answering Contest is held in November every year. According to the contest’s official website, “The purpose of the Telephone Answering Contest is to preserve correct, eloquent Japanese, as well as measuring the improvement in the service-level and words of each firm’s response to telephone calls.”
It is held annually by the Nihon Denwa/Denshin Yu-za Kyoukai (Japan Telephone and Telegraph User’s Association).”
The contest has been held since 1962, and at last year’s contest in Tokyo, there were 10,510 entrants.

This seems to be a really big event, with nice production values, as you can see in the below YouTube video (contest starts at 0:51). Bizarrely, the entrants are given the caller’s lines beforehand, and are allowed to plan out their responses. They are judged on first impression (15 points), basic answering ability (20 points), communication skill (20 points), sales ability (30 points), and final impression (15 points).

Last year’s winner was a receptionist from Yasukuni-jinja named Hitomi Tanino. She practiced her three-minute conversation for two hours a day over a period of four months.

By the way, on the contest site, there is also an advertisement for the Moshi Moshi Kentei, a telephone answering test with four different levels.

Here is the Telephone Answering Contest’s Official Site (in Japanese only).

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