Wednesday, 26 December 2007

日本のクリスマス Christmas In Japan

Every year people all over the globe celebrate Christmas, the festival has long exceeded religious boundaries and the ideas of giving and showing love and emotion to people close to you, as well as to people in need has won the hearts of many...

It is also celebrated in Japan with more than 90% atheists in the country. You can see Christmas decorations in every shop and even cities don't save on money to let their streets shine with bright Christmas lights. City and big shopping centers will struggle for the biggest, most abstract and most expensive looking Christmas tree. Tree? Well take and form roughly shaped like a tree, e.g. a cylinder. Oh and the typical English Christmas songs can be heard from every shop, even konbini (Japanese convenience stores) play the jingles. The sings might seem a bit to fast and remixed for the ear used to the slow and relaxing songs known from home, but well Japan is after all a fast country without rest. As a bonus many people will sing Schiller's "Ode An Die Freude" to Beethoven's ninth symphony, the traditional Japanese Christmas song. In the stores you can also see yet another Japanese Christmas addition, the traditional Christmas cream cake, which is a must on those days.

So apart from temperatures you usually have in the middle of autumn, in fact you still can see autumn colors on natural trees next to the Christmas trees. It looks pretty much like at home. Looks... sounds... smells...
But it doesn't feel like it. People are still hasty, angry if they have to wait for 5 seconds, because they can't overtake your bicycle, they will not greet you or anyone a merry Christmas and appear and leave work as scheduled (25th and 26th of Christmas are no holidays in Japan).

So that's it? That's all there is to Christmas in Japan?
No of course the modern commercial soul has been very well copied to Japan, since it makes revenues skyrocket every year. So parents have to buy presents to their children, buy! self-made presents are an indication for a poor family after all. However if you grow older starting from being teenaged, you will not spend Christmas Eve with your family. Since if you do you will be a social outcast, a loser among your friends and classmates. So what do you do, hang out with your friends? No that's still a loser. The imported Christmas is said to be very romantic, ergo you have to have sex. So sometimes as far as an advent calender in advance you will search for a date. Anything is ok, as long as it leads to sex. And everybody knows that code, you just have to ask "Are you busy on the 24th?", which directly translates to "I want to have sex with you, let's not be social outcasts!". This pressure will drive teenagers as far as calling someone they met one single time 6 month ago in a bar. Everything is better than being the one not having sex on Christmas.
What when you grow older, maybe marry and have an husband or a wife? It doesn't change much. Instead of finding a date, as a husband now have to worry about finding a present for your wife. However this is not that difficult, since the actual things is much less important as the price it cost. So you just go to the next shopping mall and buy some designer anything and best even pass it with the designer bag it was given to you to your love. She will look at it, recognize the price and mimic the romantic expressions as seen on TV. Afterwards you will have an expensive dinner and then, of course, end up in a Love Hotels (special hotels with the sole purpose of having sex there, they are quite frequent in Japan).

But what about your friends, shouldn't you express that you love them?
No, you don't want to have sex with your friends, so no presents, no card, best is not even to call them, since they might thing you don't have a date on Christmas.

What about the poor?
Do you really need to ask?

It is sad, but to be honest I think you can't blame them too much. What is celebrated in Japan is of course not the traditional festival you find in Europe, North America and other parts of this planet, but an adaption of the modern commercialized version of it. After all if you look around in the traditional Christmas countries you will recognize that it becomes more and more a commercial festival every year. It is said to see to what extent one can actually commercialize love, how you can have Christmas without everything that is important on Christmas.

So what did I do, what did the other interns do?

Christopher a friend and Japanese classmate of mine, who is doing a foreign term at 宇都宮大学 (Utsunomiya University), invited me to a Christmas Party for December the 21st. It was much like every other party, but we introduced a nice Christmas tradition from kindergartens the "Weihnachts Wichteln", a kind of present exchange. Every guest will bring a little present in a moderate price range. Then at some point of the party, everyone will get one present by chance. That way you never know who will get your present, nor who brought the present you got it the end. It was quite nice, and the people from Utsunomiya I met at the party are all really nice and kind. :)
Also unlike in parties here, the majority of people was not able to speak English and everybody conversed in Japanese. Its the first time I would use Japanese to talk to other non Japanese people :). It was a quite cool experience. But of course there were also a big bunch of interesting Japanese people, like one boy who was very interested in the protection of the environment.

December 23rd we had a Christmas Common Room party. Alas when I came home on the 22nd, getting no sleep at all from 21st to 22nd, I was so sleepy that I could not attend and slept for 14 hours. Yet I can depict how it was. The other interns had the same idea as Christoph and made a present exchange. Furthermore they invited all the Japanese persons from our office, which we knew. Since we are foreigners and having a foreign Christmas party, it is ok for Japanese persons to come, everybody is equal and the same after all. And it is much better than staying at home alone :). So indeed a lot of Japanese coworkers and friends of us came to the party and the pictures I've seen and stories I've heard speak for a wonderful party!

December the 24th I was awake again and met with Lukas, a friend and Japanese classmate of mine doing a foreign term at the 学芸大学 (Gakugei Univeristy) in Tokyo. He is currently visited by his brother and very good friend Felix. Along with us came Moni, yet another friend and classmate from me, and Matthias, another German studying also at the 学芸大学. We met in 上野公園 (Ueno Park) and went to the robot exhibition and the natural science museum. It was really impressive. At the exhibition Toyota and Honda would make performances with their newest robots. Toyota's robot being able to play trumpet and violin, giving us a Christmas Song concert and Honda's Asimo showing us how he can actually run and climb stairs as well as do a lot of jobs his "family" asks him to do over the phone. Quite impressive. Apart from that you could see the history of robots in Japan, both in comics, novels, movies and in reality. There were a lot a highly precision handcraft "robots" displayed, like the iron samurai who was able to pull out an arrow, put it precisely on his bow, pull and shoot. All mechanical only by winding up a key. In the natural museum we almost run out of time before they were closing, so we run through it and saw skeletons of dinosaurs and other items from a prehistoric age.
Afterwards we would celebrate Christmas by going to an 居酒屋 (Izakaya, Japanese all you can eat/drink pub) and doing Karaoke, with two Japanese friends of Lukas, who apparently found no date and suddenly asked us to go out with them at the evening of the 23rd, when we already would have had other plans ;).

My impression of this Christmas is not wholly negative. I have seen and heard very well, that the Japanese people are in need for real love and friendship and accept them warmly and happily, as well as being able to show friendship and love to others. However a very strange form of Christmas has been introduced in Japan, by big shopping malls, the TV and Love Hotel owners, which dictate Japanese people what to do on Christmas. And since Japanese people are very law abiding, especially concerning social laws, they submit themselves to this perverted form of Christmas. But all hope is not lost! If you show them other ways and invite them with a little actual love (not the stupid sexual kind) and friendship, they will gladly accept it and cast themselves free of the chains of society. (And of course return an equal portion of actual love and friendship to you) :)

Changing the world can happen anywhere at anytime
Wish you all a merry Christmas and a wonderful 2008

P.S. thanks to Christoph for this article about Christmas in Japan (in German)

Monday, 24 December 2007

大ロボット博 Great Robot Exhibition

Meeting with my friends Monika, Matthias and Lukas, who is again being visited by his brother and Felix the king in Ueno, we plan to go to the large Robot Exhibition in the museum in Ueno Park. The entrance fee would have been quite huge, but Felix found an ancient high school student's ID, in which he is 16 and where he scrapped the date. So they believed all of us to be roughly 10 years younger then we are...

The exhibition hosts a large variety of things and ideas connected with robots, beginning with movies like Metropolis and the first novels and comics dealing with the idea of robots. The term itself came up in a play in Czech were writer Karel Čapek raised both the idea of artificial humans, which he called robot (they were more closer to androids by today's concepts) and the idea of them being exploited by humans. An idea which follows us until today in recent works about robots, like the Mang/Anime universe of Ghost in the Shell.

The exhibition continues with toys and figures, which are featuring robots from the first appearance in Japan in the Manga Astro Boy by famous 治虫手塚 Osamu Tezuka, often considered the father of 漫画 Manga, to figures of the long running Gundam series.

After this introduction we enter the main hall of the exhibition, which hosts the actual robots and all kinds of that. They range from useful and a great aide to human life, like a robotic wheelchair for the handicapped or little helper robots for elderly people, to field and track robots being able to overcome a nasty landscape and finally robots simply displaying the technological state of their researchers. The highlight of this hall is without doubt Toyota's partner robots, who make a real stage performance all of their own greeting everyone, holding a speech and announcing a performance of Christmas songs played by trumpet. Because their most renowned highlight is to be able to play human instruments from trumpet up to violin.

robot for nasty landscapes (e.g. on Mars)

wheel chair robot

Here you can see a complete external exoskelet, which allows handicapped people to move legs and arms

next to violin and trumpet, we also have piano playing robots

Every car producer in Japan seems to have robots as a side project


For me the second highlight however was an unexpected finding of Japanese "robots" from the mechanical age, that means no electricity all sparrow powered. The high skills of those artists found their peak in a "robot" of a 弓道 archer Samurai, who with the sparrow pulled tight, will consecutively take three times an arrow from his waist, put it into a real tiny bow, tighten it and shot at a distant target with a high precision! To achieve such precision with wheels and chains is really amazing!

one of the mechanical robots

Finally you could also stand amazed before a huge replica of dark Cyberpunk SciFi dreams modeled into dark and scary real life or watch an actual manufacturing robot spot the tiny holes in construction parts and grab them with a 100% precision in milliseconds of time. The speed and precision was so amazing, that it was actually scary to watch.

the fast and scary 100% precise find and place robots

Also notice the Robot Lords standing in a circle around the godess

After a merchandising shop we could take the stairs to the second floor, entirely dedicated to Honda's Asimo (Most probably named after Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest Science Fiction authors after Jules Verne). Asimo (IV), according to Honda, is already almost able to execute an amazing variety of difficult tasks and interact with a family. To illustrate that we could watch another real life performance of Asimo trying to follow the requests of his test family members.
The father forgot his keys, calls Asimo and asks him, whether he left them in the living room. Asimo searches for them and is able to find them and bring them to the father. Yatta!
The mother tells Asimo that she expects her friends to come over and asks him to prepare the table and their friends favorite drinks. He does as told, looks the favorite drinks up in his conversation database (a database filled with things he learned in real conversation) and prepares them. Yatta!
The daughter tells Asimo that she will have a date tonight, and that her date wants to dance with her. However she is not good in dancing and wants to practice with Asimo, thus she asks him to learn a certain dance, until she is back. This should probably illustrate the ability to download/extend Asimo's capabilities with new ones using the internet; In the performance however he watches a video of a dancing instructor and then mimics the movements (which is unrealistic without human intervention imo). Yatta!
Finally the son calls and tells him, that his friends called off the soccer playing, but he really wants to play. If he could play soccer with Asimo. Asimo agrees and shows to the audience (us) that he is not only able to kick the ball, bt also to run around the stage really quickly, a thing having been unable to two legged robots until very recently. Yatta!

Asimo learning how to dance

Asimo playing soccer


When we leave the exhibition, without noticing, we entered the Ueno National Museum and found ourself between dinosaur skeletons, ancient stones and a chronological evolution of human tools. Just as we started to become fascinated the 6 o'clock jingle told us to leave the museum. Outside a huge real sized blue whale said Good Bye to us and we left the world of marvels.


Asimo II

Asimo III

another state of art robot technique are human facial expressions, which they can mimic to a scary extent

Sunday, 16 December 2007

憎愛関係 Love-Hate Relationship

my thoughts after living in Japan for half a year....

憎愛関係 Love-Hate Relationship

Oh how I hate your simple-mindedness,
only looking around you and never afar
life is easy as long as all is the same
and of course you do what you're told.

Oh how I love your plain-friendliness,
always helping when around you help is needed,
loving peace and harmony all around you
and of course you're always polite to everyone.

Oh how I detest your organizedness,
every week at least one fruitless meeting,
the whole world a tight working schedule
and leaving the organization, unthinkable!

Oh how I embrace your fantasticness,
every year wond'ring anew of blossoms and colored leaves,
the whole world a place of magic wonders
and delving in fantastic worlds, routine!

I can neither hate nor love you,
once you showed your dark mask of apathy,
the next day you spin strings of golden compassion;
your whole existence, a paradox.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

歓送迎会 Welcome And Farewell Party

This Wednesday we had yet another company party. I never told you about them and thought you might be interested about a typical party in a Japanese company.

Firstly we got a company mail, which told us to reply in case we intend to attend. This is because having many employees even within one team, it is often hard to find a place to host them all.

The most common reason for making a party in our company is both to welcome new employees and say farewell to leaving ones. In this case this meant the welcoming of three new interns: Juan from Colombia, Marco from Italy and Mathieu from France and one new regular employee Wang from China (Ph.D. at Tokyo University). But also a farewell to Alex from Quebec and Bert from Peru. This time there was a third reason with some middle bosses wanting to apologize for a very boring work, everybody had to do for one week.

Middle Bosses yeah, even within our small team the company structure is quite hierarchical. There is the big boss Shozakai-san (社長), two team/department bosses Owa-san and Miyazaki-san (課長) a couple of middle bosses, mini bosses and the employees and interns. The Mini-Bosses are usually in charge of one or several interns and the development of their corresponding languages. The middle bosses are supposed to coordinate between them and decide on language wide projects. Our 課長, Owa-san (尾和さん) finally is in charge of the language modeling team and 社長 Shozakai-san of the Pattern Recognition branch of Asahi Kasei.

The parties are usually held 1 hour after the common end of work hour (18:00 o'clock). This means by no means that on a common day everybody would stop working at 6 pm, regular employees will continue far longer from time to time, some people, especially new employees everyday. New employees sometimes feel bad because of their lack of experience and thus want to compensate with extra unpaid over hours. So over hours are unpaid? No, this is a common misconception, over hours can be entered on your pay check and you will be compensated for them. However! not everyone enters her/his over hours, even when having worked overtime several times. Again especially new employee s don't feel right about postulating compensation. Some of the longer employees however do work over hours and do enter them in their pay checks.
Like this there is never on no day a time, where more than 3-4 people would leave the office. Everybody leaves at some point after her regular working hours.

In case of such a party, people will usually come directly to the party, with a bit delay of the Shachou (社長), because of being more important and workers who really have to work longer, because of important projects. In our case we gathered this time in a Bar&Dining place. Common is always Tabehoudai (食べ放題) and Nomihoudai (飲み放題). Eat&Drink as much as you can. This is actually very cheap in Japan. Each had to pay 2000 Yen (15 Euro, 18 Dollars) in spite of the fact that the welcomed and farewelled people do not have to pay.

So we had a merry dinner and thanks to the kind help of some of our Japanese employees the kitchen agreed to make me a salad, so I could also eat something ^_^ (Oh and there was a vegetarian pizza, I could also eat). At dinner we would talk about all kind of stuff, work related or unrelated, often about language and culture, since our team is very special with people from so many cultural backgrounds (With every intern being responsible for a different language, she or he comes from a different country).

people leaving the company will be given a little farewell present (usually a little fan), from left to right: Owa-san (our team's boss), Alex (Quebec), Bert (Peru) the two guys leaving

After the merry meal, some decided to go home, while most went on to the almost culturally obligatory Karaoke. Japanese Karaoke means going to a Karaoke place, where you will be given a soundproof chamber with television sets (for the lyrics) a mixer with several thousand saved songs, wirless computer terminals to choose songs from and two micros. Soft drinks and Ice Cream is free for alcoholic drinks you can again get a Nomihoudai 飲み放題. So everybody would sit in this little room and passing the terminals around, they would decide about songs to sing. It is good to choose songs everybody knows, which however is a bit difficult in our special case ^=^.
Our big boss Shozakai-san sang three songs, and even our a bit shy and introverted Teamboss Owa-san would sing a song. Everybody laughs a lot, drinks a lot (or eats a lot of ice cream in my case) talks a lot and usually has a lot of fun. Usually everyone is encouraged to sing at least once. However this is not as easy as you might think. For my case at least, while I love singing very much, I never tried it in accord with a song being played. So my Karaoke singing actually sounds horrible and I was asked to please stop the first time I tried it (another party). I guess I have to practice a bit till next time.

Usually the Karaoke part is open end and in this case would go as late as 3 am with everyone including the Big Boss showing up at work the next day, completely sober as if nothing had happened. Crazy!
For me I left at 1:30 am, since I was awake for 22 hours at this point, standing up early to be able to call my parents in Germany (time lapse).
In the end Shozakai-big_boss would generously pay the horrible amount of money (you don't even wanna know how expensive this Karaoke is) for everyone and the party people would slowly try to find their way home to their beds.

Yeah and that's it for our company, who considers itself traditional Japanese. However while for our company such parties happen every now and so often, when new people arrive or old ones leave (which is more often than on other companies, because of the 1 year internship program), other companies will do similar parties more frequently.

taking the incredible hardships of going to a party to report for you

here you can see half of the Karaoke room and people

big boss Shozakai-san sinning with a wig

even our team's boss Owa-san allowed us to place a wig on his head and posed for pictures :)

Most Karaoke bars provide a room with costumes, as you can see we made good use of that

that's me spiderman

I looked like a fat sack of potatoes in this costume :/

Sunday, 9 December 2007

版画展と原宿 Art Exhibition And Harajuku

Still suffering under too much JLPT, I headed out again the next day after the hiking for Tokyo. Having seen wonderful natural landscapes, it is time for artificial ones and for seeing humans and their works.

So I joined my dear companion Hong Lun (Singapore) to Tokyo.
Arriving in 新宿 (Shinjuku), we had a little lunch in the 小田急 (Odakyuu) basement floor, where you can find all kinds of food (but next to none vegetearian cuisine, of course...) and then continued for the 6th floor of the 小田急 shopping complex.

小田急デパート Odakyu Shopping Mall

On this floor at the rear end of the building artists can exhibit their pictures and visitors of the mall can enjoy them. While both Hong Lun and me were disgusted by the shopping mall and it's products (you know these expensive ugly cloths and stuff), the art exhibition was quite nice. There were two rooms, displaying the works of two different artists.
We mainly came for the works of Ikuo Hirayama (平山 郁夫), a still living 77 year old traditional Japanese artist, whose art reflect his deep wish for peace. The exhibition was named: 祈りの旅路 (The journey of prayer). I was lucky to have my dear friend Hong Lun to my side, since he could explain to me how the artist tried to display all the similarities between China and Japan and traveled back to the roots of both Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, which are found in India. The message of the pictures is thus very simple and still fundamentally true and important: We should not constantly look at what differences we can find between us, but should look at the similarities. Since the first leads to conflict and war and second to harmony and peace.

Hirayama-sama seems to be very fond of camels, which make a big part of his pictures. Being placed between the pictures displaying mosques, temples, cathedrals, pagoda, shrines they give the exhibition the impression of actual movement, you can see the journey by traveling on camel backs from one pictures to the other :).

In the other room we found paintings of modern Versailles (France) in an traditional European way of painting. I think it is called impressionism. The painter however was also Japanese, but he lived in Versailles for over 20 years of his live. We were lucky, because the painter himself was present and would explain his pictures and talk to us. It was quite a language experience talking to the painter in French helping out with Japanese, where my French ended.

新宿 Shinjuku

We had some more language experience, when we left the 小田急 Odakyu building for 新宿 Shinjuku. There was a guy asking for pictures of cell phone ornaments. Hong Lun, curious and courageous and I asked him for the purpose and where he was from. He was an art student from Berlin making a photo series about Japanese cell phone ornaments, which are incredibly popular here. Sometimes, he would tell us, you can find tiny cellphones with ornaments three times as large hanging from them. The language experience was, since Hong Lun is perfectly fluent in German (he is studying in Darmstadt), we could talk in German to this guy from Berlin.

autumn expression right in front of Tokyo's biggest station (Shinjuku)

We went on to explore 新宿 Shinjuku without having any specific aim. We found a vast number of young girls, all dressed in a nice fancy way, something between pop-punk and pop-goth waiting in a huge line to get signatures from their favorite boy group band, releasing their new album in some store (see impressions below).

there were many girls waiting

the boy group band, they were all standing in line for

Some had quite cool outfits

原宿 Harajuku

And on we went with the infamous 山の手 Yamanote line (the circular railway in the center of Tokyo) to 原宿 Harajuku. While Shinjuku is the center of young adult culture in Tokyo, Harajuku is the same for the youth and for young fashion. Hong Lun would relate that sellers would come from as far as Hong Kong to see the newest fashion articles and buy the newest stuff here, to resell it in Hong Kong. So it was not surprising to see many foreigners here.

As soon as we left 原宿 Harajuku station, we saw that autumn colors also invaded Tokyo. They give some interesting contrast to the all too grey concrete structures and streets. Here are some of my impressions:

impressions of Harajuku

竹下通り Takeshita Doori

The most interesting hot spot in Harajuku is the 竹下通り (Takeshita street). You can find many cool little gothic lolita stores, punk stores, record stores, hip hop stores and many other kinds of crazy shops. We went one time to end and back, looking in interesting stores. Here's some of the stuff we saw.

Gothic Lolita

A Japanese interpretation of Goth culture becoming more and more popular. The Japanese interpretation is to appear incredibly baby cute, while using known Gothic symbols and mainly black colors. For example we saw some cloths having vampire bunny bats on them. While visually pleasing, I didn't like that the store would also sell Hakenkreuze and different symbols of Nazi-Germany. So we left the store.


We saw some street sellers selling unexplainable wildly jumping little wire clowns for 1000 yen each. Hong Lun warned me, that he and Youngki (Korea) fell for such people already. And explained me that there is a trick to make them jump like this. Indeed when looking reeeeaaaally carefully, you could see tiny strings leading to a person having one hand in his trousers while insignificantly operating a cell phone. I wanted to warn the people, but Hong Lun said, he is afraid of getting beaten up, so I succumbed and we left the people to their fate of being tricked :/.


I made some pictures of a costume store, showing incredible clothing.

Hip-Hop Superheroes

In yet another store, which appeared to be a Hip Hop store, we found kapu-sweaters, which you could transform into super heroes costumes and become Venom (from Spiderman), an X-Man or a kind of power-ranger robot. In ordinary sweater mode, nobody would expect them top be costumes! While being a nice idea, I feel reluctant to pay 16.800 Yen for a sweater (100 Euro, 150 Us-Dollar).


There are some Crepe shops in the middle of 竹下通り selling some really delicious crepes for a little bit overpriced 500 ¥en. Hong Lun and I could not resist and we made a break eating crepes here :)

Punk Store

Weee I thought, finding a real punk store! It is called Tokyo Punker and looked cool at the first glance. However when I wanted to take a picture, a lady got really angry, screamed at me and made me leave the store...
However there were enough cloths outside to illustrate why I would never enter this store, except out protest, criticism or mere disgust. As you can see on the t-shirt, the Tokyo Punker, seems to like to combine punk hair and outfit with Nazi ideology... How very disgusting. I am really angry that such a shop can call itself Tokyo Punker, and that apparently many Japanese punks buy such crap. :/

the shop obviously sells both to Nazis and Punks...

Daisou 100 ¥en Store

Finally we entered the biggest 100 ¥en store in central Tokyo area. We made perciculars (small colorful pictures, where you make all kind of weird poses) and bought some stuff for a small amount of money. In contrast to 1 Dollar / 1 Euro stores, 100 ¥en stores have almost every article a super market has, from food to gardening and the quality is not as bad, as you might think.

After that the sun already started to set and we made for our long way home to Atsugi. We saw a lot of interesting things and made some nice and some bad experiences this day, it was really a round day.


Hong Lun trying on some new shoes, but they were too slippery and thus he didn't buy them