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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Tales From Kevin Blackburn (and Myself) #2

While I await two to three weeks to pass until I can get my Acer touchscreen computer back from the manufacturer—it types everything backwards on the keyboard, and I can’t call up the touchscreen—I am limited to writing these blogs at lunch time at work.

It is the only way I have left to keep up my stupid streak of writing a blog every day since February of 2011.

I need to keep things short and sweet.

Without much further ado about nothing, allow me to represent a short piece written by Kevin Blackburn, a CIR (Coordinator of International Relations) who lived in Batō (馬頭町, Batō-machi), Tochigi-ken, back in 1990-2.

As a CIR—well… I have no idea what they really do… and I don’t mean it as an insult - rather I’m sure duties vary from CIR person to CIR person.

Batō… this was a tiny little hamlet then (13,195 people as of 2003), that has since been merged with the hamlet of Ogawa (6,939 people as of 2003) to form the town of Nakagawa (which has a population of 16,956 as of 2015)…. which is down by 3,178 people in 12 years…

The Nakagawa area is getting older… and will, I feel, one day disappear… so all we’ll really have left will be Kevin’s thoughts.

But, in case I have not made things perfectly clear in the 7+ years I have been writing this blog: Every situation is different for anyone coming to and living in Japan… but, also… you can read all you want on Japan, and you are still going to get blown away by the complexity of Japanese society and culture.

Like all CIR’s, Kevin was damn-near fluent in Japanese writing, speaking and reading - and as such, one would assume he knew quite a lot about Japan.

From the September 1991 issue of Tochigi-ken AJET’s The Tatami Times monthly newsletter (as edited by me), we have Kevin Blackburn’s:

International Corner
The one serious question I am asked the most is, “What has been the most difficult thing about living in Japan?”
Without question, it is the rigidity of Japanese society.
There is a “way” to do everything, and that makes Japanese culture appealing.
The tea ceremony, the making of sushi, the wearing of a kimono—there is always a “way” to do it.
From a distance, it’s fascinating.
From the inside, it’s stifling.
There is also a way to cross the street, a way to raise your hand in class, and a way to use towels to wash dishes.
I am constantly causing problems by unintentional (and, occasionally intentional) breaking of these rules.
I held a party at my apartment for some high school students, and was thoroughly chastised by one student for using a drying-type cloth to wash my dishes,
Last month, I did not wear a hat when I helped plant rice.
I had more friction with the Japanese over that decision than at any other time in Japan.
You can’t plant rice without wearing a hat (I did, and the rice & I are fine).
It’s worse for the Japanese, who are expected to know and follow every rule.
I sometimes think my greatest value is in showing my coworkers that by looking at life from a broader perspective, not only will it be more enjoyable, but will be a more open approach to problem solving that Japan needs now.


Amen, Kevin. It’s the real reason I believe that us early JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme people were sent to Japan.

Teach English - sure… I guess… but really, it was to internationalize the Japanese.

When there were people who would take the time to stop, gawk, point and shout out: “Hora! Gaijin-da! (Look! A foreigner/outsider” as I rode my bicycle about Ohtawara, then surely the fact that it had diminished by the time I left was encouraging.

My Ohtawara Board of Education (OBOE) boss, Hanazaki-san (Mr. Hanazaki) would correct other Japanese people who dared to call me “gaijin”… telling them I was “An-do-ryu sensei (Andrew the teacher).

It was all about attempting to bring Japan out of this insular world it had lived in for (then) 120 years, and still kind of lives in.

Imagine… using the wrong cloth for washing and/or cleaning one’s dishes? Hell… I didn’t know this one, either!

I bet none of the male high school students at Kevin’s get-together knew about it either. I’m just guessing that anything to do with the kitchen would be the domain of the Japanese female. Yes, that’s a sexist comment, but Japan is still largely a sexist institution.

I was with Kevin - fug your rules. I never wore my indoor shoes in my apartment! I vacuumed the carpet! I kept it neat and tidy! If I didn’t want to wear my indoor shoes, I don’t have to.

If I want to wear my outdoor shoes inside, that’s my right, too!

Maybe these things were important to Japanese society 150 years ago when the world was muddier than it is now (no sidewalks, roads… cars, bicycles, trains)…

… but Japan could maybe do away with some of the rigidity that makes its people seem like they have a pickle up their butt (sometimes).

Wear a hat when planting rice. Why? I am going to assume that in this case it was to prevent Kevin from getting too much sun on his dainty complexion.

Talking to many women who were NOT farmers in my home town of Ohtawara (Big Rice Field Field)… the city so rural they had to have the word “field” in it twice”, to have a tan would imply that you have been out working in the sun… something only a peasant would do.

Of course, in Kevin’s case they may have simply wanted him to wear the proper clothing to avoid getting sunstroke.

To Kevin’s point of Japanese rigidity, I agree with him… but I wouldn’t really want to see it go the way of the __________ (insert extinct animal here), as I find these points of Japanese society and culture to be interesting.

Kevin made the fatal point, in my mind, of finding fault with the Japanese without also checking to see if similar faults exist within his own culture.

I’m not talking about the culture of Kevin, but rather a North American culture.

It’s true that I could pick up a bow and arrow and hit a target… but to do it the Japanese way is not only time-consuming in its form, but distracting in its zen. In Japan, it's all about form and substance - but mostly about form.

But why is there a “way” of doing things in Japan?

I am sure there are books and books on the subject: though the best I have ever read was Japaneseness (click HERE) available via

I would essentially assume that without order, there is chaos.

Look… us ‘westerners” know that you are supposed to hold the fork in one’s left, the knife in the right hand… that with the cutlery at a table setting, we use the implements from the outside in…. that you don’t tuck a napkin into one’s shirt collar, that you don’t swirl a glass of Merlot wine and chug it back, that you don’t slurp your soup or noodles… there are just a few of OUR rules. Maybe they differ from the Japanese… maybe they are the same.

At the home of some of my Toronto friends, I am expected to remove my shoes (though no indoor footwear is provided), but at other homes I can keep the shoes on. How do you know when to do what? Obviously always offer to take off the shoes… but wouldn’t it be better if there was just one rule?

You’d always be correct.

But being told to keep your shoes ON is fare less stressful to be told by some hysterical friend that they had just cleaned that floor! and then you see them rush to drag a mop and sponge to wipe away the vestigial traces of your invisible footprints as you struggle to take off your shoes and sheepishly place back at the entrance way.

Then again… in the grand scheme of things… who really gives a shid.

I’ve never done that faux pas, but whatever. It's happened before. Heck, it's probably happening somewhere in the world right now.

I have enough class to know that if I really had to, I could avoid a scene and simply clean the house again later. I mean… I’ll have to eventually, right?

Also, to put the boot to Japanese rigidity, I kind of like the fact that as a person who has a home, I have the option of wearing or not wearing footwear in my place, and offer the same courtesy to any guest unlucky enough to come over.

Kevin, buddy… my point is that we are/were just guests in Japan. It’s not really our place to complain about how bad Japan is at something (which you didn’t really do), but rather it’s up to us to adapt.

Hey… at least we all know there’s such a thing as a washing towel and a drying towel, and never the twain shall meet.

I would bet that many a homemaker around the world would ALSO have two separate towels for two separate jobs. If you think about it guys, to use one for the other IS kind of gross.
Try not to use a washcloth on your dishes that isn't normally used for washing even a hot dish like this. 
Yes… the Japanese have a lot of rules—as do us westerners (Do you hand her the money or place it atop the back of the toilet?), but I do agree, Kevin, that Japan seems to have a lot of rules of stiff etiquette.

Too much? Too many? No longer make sense? Probably. Let the revolution begin.

Kanpai, Kevin!
Andrew Joseph
PS: Apparently this length of blog is what passes as short and sweet for me. Sighhhhh.


  1. I guess your computer jumped dimensions to Bizarro world. (I want to ask about the circumstances leading up to this issue, but I won't.)

    As for cultural/societal rules -- you have to adapt to the norm of where you are ... or be judged by the locals. (This also applies to the cultural shift that occurs when you cross state borders in the US.) And you only touched on the gender differences ... I can tell by looking if a towel is a wash cloth, dish rag or dish towel ... which may be a female thing but could be cultural as well.

    Hope you get time to eat lunch!

    1. Well... I did mention that even I know enough that there are towels for cleaning and ones for drying, and even ones for drying one's hands/
      As for Bizarro World - nice reference - no idea. Hudson was using it to play a game he always play on Friday. Wife and I never went on the computer after 8PM when Hudson finished... woke up on Saturday - and .was ti ereht ,poohW. Acer issue, I suppose. I couldn't even call up the touch screen keyboard.
      And... I always have time to eat lunch! Bad Bye. or is it Hello in Bizarro World?