I’ve always been impressed with how serious Japan is about education, and a lot of energy is spent on coming up with ways to teach children more effectively, especially with so few of them popping out these days. Recently, Japan’s test scores have been on the decline, indicating that the country is losing out to other Asian nations on the education front. Scores on the TOEFL, which tests academic English, were especially embarrassing, with Japan tied with North Korea at the bottom of the list — although to be fair, 140,000 Japanese took the test, compared with just 50 students from the Kingdom of Bhutan, which isn’t exactly comparing apples to apples. In order to combat the fall in Japanese test scores, there’s been a slew of TV programs designed to improve knowledge of subjects like history, math, English and kanji. One show I caught a few days ago placed famous “talents” (actress/singer/idols) in a mock-up of an Indiana Jones-style ore car, hurling down a bluescreened mine shaft. Questions popped up in front of them, and the people in the ore car had to choose the answer by leaning left or right. If they chose correctly they escaped from the mine, but if they chose wrong, their ore car was cast into a pit of flaming CG lava.
Japan is grieving right now after the tragic death of Minako Honda, one of the brightest JPOP stars of the 1980s (right up there with Seiko Matsuda and Akina Nakamori). The 80s were a special time in Japan, when people were filled with an unstoppable optimism about the future of their nation, and the bouncy, fun pop stars of the era left a deep impression on everyone. Japan can be a superstitious place, and a lot of beliefs about how luck is generated revolve around a person’s name. There are lucky and unlucky kanji, for example, and even the number of strokes in a person’s name are believed to affect their karma. For example, when we named our daughter, my wife made sure to choose kanji that had the same number of strokes as her own name, so her daughter would share in her own good luck (since she was lucky enough to meet me, ha-ha). Last December, Minako officially changed her stage name to Minako Honda. (本田美奈子.), with a period as part of her actual name (similar to the way JPOP group Morning Musume is always written with a small circle at the end). Her goal was to improve her own personal luck and aid her stage career, but this was not to be: tragically, she was diagnosed with acute myelocytic leukemia a month later, which has many superstitious Japanese (including my wife) nodding knowingly about the dangers of trying to influence your own destiny through artificial means.
Winter is threatening to descend on Japan in earnest. Because Japanese homes lack central heating, it can be hard to keep warm, especially for a San Diego gaijin like me. We’ve turned on our kotatsu, which is a low table with a blanket over it and a heater inside; you put your legs in the kotatsu, which warms your whole body, and for the complete Japanese winter experience, drink hot green tea and eat mikan (mandarin oranges) at the same time. In lieu of central heating, we use stand-alone kerosene heaters called “stoves” (suto-bu), or electric-kerosene heaters that blow heated air (called “fan heaters”), the latter being better for you since they have a built-in 3 hour reminder to open a window and let some fresh air in. Kerosene heaters are economical, but the smell they make when you turn one on or off can give you a headache, and don’t get me started on the freezing agony of having to go outside and refill the kerosene tank when it runs out.
Glico has declared that November 11 is Pocky Day, because of the way 11 11 looks like Pocky sticks lined up. In celebration (?) of this day, we’ve added stock of several flavors of Japan’s most favorite snack. Remember, you can always buy Pocky by the shrinkwrapped case and get 15% off.