Monday, December 27, 2010

The History of Japanese Pedestrian Traffic Rules

I learned something really interesting on my last trip to Japan, and I know everyone reading this blog reads it sometimes for educational purposes, so...

In the U.S. one customarily defers to the right when walking down a sidewalk, to avoid running into oncoming pedestrian traffic. In Japan however, pedestrians do not defer in either direction when on the sidewalk. It is not uncommon in the land of the rising sun to be caught in a "shall we dance" pas-de-deux right in the middle of the Shibuya Scramble Intersection for hours. I wondered why such an efficient and over-logical people would run into this problem and discovered why.
The origins of this behavior can be found 300 years ago. In the Edo Period, when urban planning began on old Tokyo, people walked right into each other, at which point samurai swords would be drawn (lower castes would draw bamboo sticks, and women would draw ninja stars). Whoever successfully swung the sword through their opponent's torso first would naturally win the right of way, which frequently ends up being a left of way, because sword sheaths are usually kept on the left side.
This practice became unwieldy and messy, not to mention all the deaths meant women were now working overtime to replace human capital with babies. Lots and lots of babies. Women, tired and more fearful for their lives, learned to duck quick when swords were swung at them on sidewalks. They deferred by bowing. This is where the customary Japanese greeting originates. Bowing is a literal "bowing out." Now a de rigeur greeting, bowing is still a traditional Japanese's preferred hello.
Unfortunately, bowing out has become so inculcated in the Japanese moor that no one gets killed in pedestrian battles anymore, and many an educated academic blame this act for the precipitous decline in the country's population. The Akita Prefecture has been hit particularly hard, where the population has more than halved in the last twenty years. It is no accident that Akita translates to "faceless halves."
One peculiar exception to the rule of no rules in pedestrian traffic is on escalators. Misbehaving on an escalator is a crime punishable by excommunication. And visitors are not exempt. Anyone who's been on a Japanese escalator can tell you, one always rides on the left, leaving an aisle open to the right for those wishing to use the escalator as a traditional set of stairs, and step up or down. This practice too, has a peculiar ancient origin.
An enduring myth of heaven and hell in the Shinto religion is "The Stairway to Heaven," believed to have been first communicated in the Jomon period, when the very first steps were created leading up to animist shrines to the Gods of fertility and crop. In "The Stairway to Heaven" myth, it is believed that only those deceased who have had enough faith in the stairs while alive, will be carried to that "other side" in a moving stair. This is where the phrase "spirited away" comes from.
In the myth, those who didn't believe in the moving stairs would of course, start walking up the stairs to heaven. Unfortunately they would end up in hell, as punishment for not believing in the moving stair.
Today, those who still believe in Heaven will stand paitently on the left column of an escalator, while the right side is reserved for atheists, nihilists, felons and Koreans to walk up or down.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Uh, who just left me their phone number without a name?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I will never:

Wear Uggs
Wear cargo pants
Wear polar fleece as my outermost layer
Pick my nose in public
Stop using my hands to eat
Make glottal chewing sounds while eating
Not laugh maniacally

I will, however:

Wear ill-fitting shoes
Wear unflattering clothing
Wear the same long underwear several days in a row under everything
Pick my belly button in public
Not necessarily wash my hands when I should
Slurp my noodles
Fake a laugh


This is the first Christmas Card I’ve ever received from my father. At my 31 years of age, it was fifteen years in the making. I assumed it was a twenty dollar bill sandwiched in a Hallmark, to make up for lost time. A tax. I stuffed it in my purse and we walked into the restaurant for “catch up family dinner.” And I pre-empted the duty with wet-eyed boasting that I loathe Christmas.

Anne: It reminds me of all the things I want but don’t have.
Dad: You’re too young to hate the holidays. You gotta take it easy.
Anne: So… what about that North Korea, eh? Crazy town.

He tells me I ate a lot of sashimi as a toddler. When I was three all I wanted was sashimi. My sister laughs, “and what did I eat?” she asks.

Dad: You ate a lot of udon.

So funny. No wonder we look nothing alike, my sister and me.
She tells me she’s jealous of our ability to converse at length in Japanese about “issues.” Like North Korea’s embargo on conversations about Christmas joy.

Dad tells me we ought to go hiking/camping soon, but that I probably couldn’t handle the mountain he’d take us to. It’s 8 hours of difficult climbing, he says. It takes five teeth to hold my tongue.

As we part ways he tells me to call on him for moral support more often. I want to punch him in the face with my saddest stories. But I am satisfied. We’re one small step closer to whatever that pit was he left when I turned sixteen.

I open the Christmas Card in my sister’s parking lot, and I cannot read the English.
I cannot read the English.
I cannot read the English.
I cannot read the English, because the handwritten Japanese, in a beautiful long-hand I’d always tried to emulate, blinded me.

This is for 15 years of Christmases I missed.
I hope we have more now.

I am buried in the fear of an emotion I worried I would never have again, but I am going to use this fear to create a courage. To take the risk fifteen years in the making, of refusing to fight.

Tonight, I become a pacifist.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Crystal Math

I am insecure and border on psychotic when I weigh over a certain number.
I am an arrogant cannibal when I weigh under that number.
This is what I look like:

95-105 Lbs. This only happens when I'm severely agitated or trapped in a dungeon with nothing but a dripper of fen-phen and a rack of shake-weights. Weightlessness gives me the very courage I need to withstand the fear of yo-yo-ing back my fat. Whenever I'm in that dungeon, I think, "finally, I can live in Japan." Also, "maybe I can eat my way through chicken-wire..."

105-115 Lbs. I love athletic activities but this is my peak confidence zone, so I'll overcompensate with Sex Drugs and Rock n' Roll. Gym? What Jim?

120-125 Lbs. Lock down and initiation of what I call The Cosmetics Paradox. The fatter I get the more makeup I wear. It's also The Workout Paradox. The fatter I get the more often I go to the gym. I reward my good behavior with food and stay fat. Then I hate myself even more, become reclusive. This is also when I get really into building and crafts. The last time I weighed 125 pounds I built a shed! Yeah, installed a drip-feeder and an oscillating dumbell for the small animal I planned on keeping in it...

Now take these numbers and confound them with age.
I am 31 years old, over my number, and could care less. I've dipped below the number and hated myself; jumped over the number and assumed the world. And you know what I've learned in all of this?

Fuck math.