Steve Tainton

Pissing on the tracks

The ups and downs of life in Japan


I am often asked what my first impression of Japan was. I cannot say that I clearly remember, so much being modified by the passage of time. I can, however, say that the one impression that I had of Japan that was truly erroneous was that of the wise old Japanese man, the Zen-like, silver haired gentleman who went about his affairs with a sense of higher purpose unknown in the West. I had viewed the different genres of Japanese film and whether it be the stone faced business tycoon or the nerves-of-steel martial arts sensei, all had a great reverence in their behavior that imbued me with respect for their age and wisdom. Sadly, that impression was done away with the first time I witnessed the urinary behavior of a certain old man that couldn’t quite resist the urge to have a ‘slag’, as the British say, from the platform of the train tracks at my local station. From that day forth my image of the stately, elderly Japanese man has transformed into an image of an intoxicated buffoon whose best gag is to utter ‘OK’ in the presence of a foreigner in ordered to exhibit his command of the English language – well, at least he’s not pissing on my pant leg.

The word Oyaji in Japanese might be rendered by the English word ‘geezer’ except that it finds its way into everyday speech much more commonly than its English counterpart. Perhaps this is a reflection of day to day reality in a country whose population is so rapidly aging that they predict the year 2050 will see one million centenarians. An oyaji has many identifiable features; sake-stinking breath, a disregard for anyone around him, a penchant for hacking up phlegm (and almost as often spitting it at his first convenience - in the middle of your path, undoubtedly), a gravely, emphysema induced growl for a voice, and most of all a love for the drink. I imagine that for every Aikido master that spent his formative years learning the art of self-discipline and violent agility, there are a thousand Japanese men who spent their evenings in the izakaya refining their vulgarities and enriching beer brewers. The worst of it would be a trifle if they remained at the izakaya , but there reaches a point in every evening when the oyaji must make his way home and often he finds himself hopelessly trashed on the last train where he does one of the following: a) urinates in between the cars b) vomits between the cars c) urinates on the tracks d) vomits on the tracks e) in a sad, but true case, falls into the tracks and is run over by an oncoming train along with two would-be rescuers who, all three, perish. So, as you can see, the oyaji is a sanitary, safety, and social hazard.

What gave birth to such a crude creature? In most countries it is the youth who run wild. Why is it that public enemy number one in Japan looks like your grandfather? I have a theory by which there is an inverse relationship between the rising price of golf course memberships and the consumption of sake by Japanese men over fifty. Stateside our seniors are kept out of trouble by pursuing a small white ball over great distances of terrain rendering them too tired at the end of the day to find their to the local public house. Unfortunately, Japanese seniors are left unoccupied for the better part of their day and with increase in ‘early retirement’, read obligatory retirement, the only amusement they can find is the pachinko parlor or the bar. If you lose at Pachinko you will want to drown your sorrows with a drink and if you win, then you will want to celebrate your good fortune with a drink. In either case you’re drunk. To further complicate matters, we know that elderly people often suffer from bladder issues, to state things lightly. It is not too much of a cognitive jump to figure out why peeing against walls, down drainage ditches, off platforms and into train tracks has become something of a national pastime for the oyaji.

There are, of course, other manifestations of drunkenness we can observe from our friend. He is known to practice a mean golf swing on the train with an umbrella in place of a club (I am always amused when his glances up as if to follow the flight path of the imaginary shot – I wonder if he is seeing two balls?) I already eluded to his profiency in foreign language. “Hallo. How al you? Fine tank you!” At which point it is strikingly obvious who is ‘tanked’. Occasionally he shows off his dance prowess with a two-step jig that is also know in some countries as stumbling drunk.

His ability for throat clearing might find him a mate on the plains of the Serengeti. Alas, I have probably overlooked some of his other talents, but our hero needs not me to sing his praises. He sings them on nightly basis. He will be playing soon at a train station near you. If you’re quiet, you might be able to hear him now. Just don’t get too close; he likes to mark his territory.

Going to shopping (or The National Hobby)

The two most prominent mistakes, or errors for the academic – because you must first have knowledge of something to make a mistake, made by Japanese students of English are the phrase going to shopping, which is simply caused by inserting a superfluous preposition, and the use of the word hobby, as in What are your hobbies?, where the word interests or another phrase, such as What do you do in your spare time? would be more natural. These errors are somewhat revealing. One is a grammatical inaccuracy, while the other is a matter of natural phraseology – both areas of difficulty for Japanese learners of English, but I digress. The irony is that these two frequent errors are often spoken in the same breath. “My hobby is going to shopping.” Linguistic problems aside, this seems to summarize the behavior of Japanese people when they aren’t at work. That is to say, they go to shopping. Wherever that is. Going to shopping is truly the national pastime, I mean hobby.
Actually, I have taken some liberty with the reader and led him/ her to believe that I am ignorant of the whereabouts of Shopping. In fact, I have been there. Of course, like most newly arrived in Japan, I spent a fair amount of time speculating on the location of this mythical place called Shopping that I was always hearing about. “I went to shopping yesterday.” “We’re going to shopping after class.” They all seemed to know where it was, but I was in the dark. I figured that Shopping was a katakana derived name for a mega-shopping-complex that the locals all frequented. Imagine my disappointment when a less green resident put my on to the fact that the students were simply making a translation mistake. Kaimono ni iku. Kaimono means ‘shopping’, ni means ‘to’ and iku means ‘go’. The mystery unraveled as did my hopes of discovering the fabled consumer Eldorado. This said, with the blindfold removed I was able to appreciate the true nature of Japanese shopping for it existed all around me. There was nowhere I could venture where the signs of this activity were not prevalent. Be it Department Stores, Outlets, Supermarkets or even the local Convenience store, I soon realized that going to shopping was omnipresent. It was a satori-like experience. The world as I saw it before was but an illusion and as if a membrane was removed from my third eye I awakened in a consumer paradise that far exceeded my whimsical expectations of a mere mega-shopping-complex that existed somewhere. It existed everywhere.

The Japanese are voracious shoppers. They do shopping like Americans do burgers – in a frenzied state of excitement. I sometimes find myself completely ignored in a shopping environment. Surely someone should be staring at me. But when there is shopping to be done even Gaijins must be disregarded lest the last 500yen blouse/shirt/hat/freeze-dried pack of natto be missed out on. Hordes of middle-aged housewives roam department stores on the weekdays sniffing out bargains on anything and everything. The only variance on their routine is that the weekend sees the husband and children in tow. You see, shopping is the national pastime, er hobby.

Some say that the Japanese are Shinto when they are married and Buddhist when they die. The marriage ceremony in Japan is often Shinto (although this is rapidly changing toward a more Western style) and funerals are Buddhist. Otherwise, most Japanese have little day to day religion, or so it is thought. In my mind, the Japanese are Shinto when they marry, Buddhist when they die, and shoppers at all other times. So, I am raising the bar. Shopping is not the national hobby; it’s the national religion. Like all religions, there must be a deity/deities, a temple of worship and offerings to be made - enter the depato, Hello Kitty™, and the ichiman (10,000) yen note. The depato is actually Japanese for department store and one of these divine halls can be found immediately proximate to any self-respecting train station in Japan. A depato is made up of numerous clothing shops and cosmetics stands with typically a supa (supermarket – you’re catching on) in the basement. For those who reside under rocks, Hello Kitty™ is a nauseatingly cute cartoon character that adorns a host of nauseatingly trivial items that can be purchased for the purpose of gaining merit with the shopping gods. To make such purchases, you will need at least an ichiman yen note because there is very little you can buy in this country for less than that sum. That withstanding, even the less fortunate can partake in the national religion (the clergy would never forget the masses) at the local one hundred yen shop, the US equivalent of ‘Everything-for-a-dollar’ stores. 100yen shops are found in all but the most posh depatos and offer the little guy his place in the sun even if he can’t spare ichiman yen (though don’t think there’s too much Hello Kitty™ to be had for 100yen).

I am a bit too harsh, a bit too sarcastic. I understand the need of the Japanese to shop. It is, after all, a consumer society. Food and sundries must be had to live. Furthermore, in such a populace society it is hard to find a place where one can stroll around protected from the elements, not too mention noise and air pollution. I certainly prefer the relatively breathable and acclimatized air of the depato to that of my neighborhood. If you live in the Kanto area, you will have to drive for hours, probably in traffic, to arrive at any area of natural value, so a trip to the depato might be more economical and even environmental (there’s usually plenty of bicycle parking). Really, I shouldn’t be too harsh on the Japanese about their shopping addiction. In fact, I don’t have much on the agenda this afternoon; maybe I’ll go to shopping myself. Now where was it again?

Natto ( or Why I Am Still Here)

When meeting an individual that is not from Japan it is the duty of any patriotic Japanese person to ask of said individual whether or not they like natto. Natto is some bean-like thing that is enveloped in a gooey film; imagine the dung of a small rodent if you will. The smell is off-putting and in the animal kingdom a species typically will not try to ingest something that smells unpleasant - call this a defense mechanism, I think it is quite sensible. Somehow or other, someone, at some point in the history of Japanese culinary development put their survival at stake and risked poisoning to confirm that natto tasted bad. How then is it that natto became a mainstay of the breakfast meal for many Japanese? I leave this question to someone more diligent in background research than I am. It suffices to say that natto is an unpleasant, yet edible bean that a nation full of people pride themselves on being able to stomach. Which leads me full circle to where I started. A Japanese person will invariably ask, at first opportunity, someone of different nationality if they ‘can eat’ natto. (If the question is in English I always respond ‘yes, I have a mouth’ and play upon the translation error that has been made). Essentially, the questioner wants to know if I like the mean bean – and I don’t. Now, I could write off the question to cultural curiosity, but what fun would that be? Instead, I have developed an entire thesis around why Japanese people consistently put forth the question, which will eventually lead me to explain why I have spent so much time being asked the question.

It is well known to any student of Japan that the Japanese consider themselves to be quite unique. They often will go to great lengths to point out just how unique they are. I am also unique; I have a birthmark on my left hand. Anyway, the old ‘Do you like natto?’ routine is further proof of this (that the Japanese think themselves unique and not that I have a birthmark on my left hand). It goes like this. The general Japanese populace has discovered that natto is unpopular with foreigners. This should really come as no surprise because I am sure that many Japanese people persist in eating the acrid stuff out of national pride. In any case, alerted to the fact that foreigners don’t like natto, the Japanese see a great chance to score a double victory. By liking, or claiming to like, natto they assert their uniqueness, “You see, we Japanese are truly different!” and they gain points for being tough, as in “Wow, how can you eat that!?” We all remember the kid in elementary school who would eat anything on a dare in a pathetic bid for popularity, or at least notoriety. “Hey guys, how much will you give me if I eat this beetle?” So, there we have it, the Japanese have scored twice in one-fell-swoop and this within only our first meeting.

From now on let the one-up’s manship continue. Today it is natto tomorrow it is the unique Japanese summer with its humidity (only the Japanese air becomes damp) and then on to the Japanese four seasons (as opposed to the one or two enjoyed by the rest of the world). So, you now understand that asking whether or not someone from abroad likes natto is a clever plan on the part of our Japanese hosts to keep us locked in a brainwashed state of submission to their uniqueness.

Wherever there is deceit and cunning I will make my presence felt. Like a fraternity member who fills his brothers cups from the keg first, I must make a stand and defend my fellow gaijins. To this end, I have stymied the Japanese and their natto scheme for years by following this simple, but brilliant scheme. I lie. I lie like a prizefighter at the end of his career in gambling debt to the mafia. I lie like a whale committing suicide on the shores of some cape. I lie like the ill-conceived bridge that connects Chiba to Kanagawa and cost millions of yen and that no one uses so that they charge a toll fee equivalent to one months salary of a sushi chef, which further makes the bridge unpopular. I lie and tell every last person who cares to ask that I, a foreigner in Japan, like natto. In that instant I perceive a certain defeat in the eyes of my interlocutor, away washes the humidity of the summer, away washes the four seasons and I am triumphant for a brief moment… and then I am asked, “So, can you use chopsticks?” The fight goes on. And that is why I have been in Japan so long.

Safety Japan (or The Kindergarten Society
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956)

I would not be surprised to discover that the famous US editor, H.L. Mencken had spent some time in Japan. Certainly, if he hadn’t, he would have found ample evidence of his above assertion. Several years back there was a public safety campaign aimed at drivers. The catch phrase was Safety Driver , as in “I’m a safety driver”. This slogan evidently adorned bumper stickers. Unfortunately the campaign had ended before I arrived in Japan. I say unfortunately because I enjoy Engrish as much as anyone. The remnants of the campaign nonetheless can be heard frequently in the speech of my students who believe the word ‘safety’ is an adjective. In a discussion I had with a student when I first arrived in country I specifically remember him telling me, “Welcome to Safety Japan”. I was forced to wonder if there existed in some parallel universe a Dangerously Japan, but my thoughts were cut short as I was given a rundown on the various features of Safety Japan, none of which I can accurately recall.

Part of my loathing of Safety Japan is that the whole notion is not based on the fact that Japanese people are necessarily safer than other nationalities, – What is safety after all? Crime rates slightly lower, cancer rates slightly higher, where’s the gain?- rather the idea of Safety Japan is based around the preconception that other places are more dangerouser, I mean more dangerous. Certainly Japan rates statistically well relative to other countries when talking about violent crime, but one could find striking disparities within a nation from one area to the next. There are certainly parts of Tokyo that I would not care to venture after dark. Not that I have ever felt threatened in Japan, but then again, I never felt threatened in my small New Hampshire hometown. Regardless of what would be obvious to most travelers – that safety has more to do with being in a particular place than a being within a national boundary – for many Japanese the rest of the world is dangerous in varying degrees. For instance, everywhere in America is dangerous, but Canada is devoid of danger. Australia isn’t dangerous because there are many Japanese tourists. Same goes for Hawaii, which means Oahu and more specifically Waikiki for the Japanese traveler. While we are on the subject of Hawaii it should be noted that Hawaii is a good place for Japanese people because many Hawaiians (i.e. second or third generation Japanese) can speak Japanese, or at least so I have been told by my students who are all paying me fistfuls of cash to speak English. Is anyone confused?

So the world is a dangerous place. And who is profiting from this? To the best I can tell it is the Japanese travel agencies in cahoots with Japanese owned overseas tourist ventures; hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, even hostess bars (I meet a hostess who had worked for years in Australia and never spoke English there). The package tour is Japan’s answer to the American RV motor home. Mostly frequented by retirees, these package tours offer airfare, hotel, tour guide, meals and every assurance that no tour member will have to come into contact with the indigenous population – phew! Usually the package tours are grossly overpriced. However, if you are looking for upscale accommodations, there are deals to be had. Several non-Japanese friends of mine have used the tours and the insight they gained was remarkable. At certain points in the tour they were herded into souvenir shops and told that ‘these are the best prices you’ll find”. Of course there was no comparison shopping, stop at one store for Hawaiian shirts, stop at another for Macadamia nuts. My friends, not fearing the locals, went out on their own and found that, shockingly, the stores connected with the tour were not necessarily giving the best deals. To believe that such chicanery exists in the Japanese travel industry makes me question the fundamental notion of Safety Japan. I, for one, am outraged. Well, not really. People pay for their ignorance and ignorance exists to be profited from.

It is not only the world outside of Japan that is dangerous. Japan itself can be a dangerous place. I have to believe this is the case, why else would I see the plethora of warning signs and hear an incessant cacophony of announcements that contain words like be careful, dangerous, watch out. I am constantly reminded that I must step off the escalator or that I should stand away from the train tracks. I hear that running to board the train is “very dangerous” and I shouldn’t do it. No matter where I go I am told to watch my step. I wonder at how many times I was pulled back from the brink of discovering my own mortality by one of the above-mentioned signs. Doubtlessly I have escaped sever maiming due to an altruistic announcement made in a train, bus or department store. To think that in some places such preventative measures are not taken makes me truly feel happy to be in Safety Japan. Some signs that I see are not necessarily for my safety, but they benefit myself and others anyway. Take the sign that reminds me to flush the toilet, it’s really helpful. Then there’s the female voice at the department store that says “Thank you for your coming”. I always check my fly after that one before realizing that it’s only Engrish for “Thank you for shopping with us”.

The sum total of Safety Japan is that it is a place where everyone can be happy and avoid unpleasant experiences that may happen elsewhere (unless you consider being pushed into a packed train and then commuting for two hours an unpleasant experience). I feel that I should give something back to this society for having harbored me in its protective womb for so long. I would like to propose that there be a sign or announcement, if not both, at Narita airport somewhere in the international departures area, perhaps in the immigration lobby or at the metal detectors, that states in several languages the following, “You are now leaving Safety Japan. Please do so at your own risk and be careful! Have a nice trip”. You never know who might accidentally exit the country without meaning to.

Hidden Gorge(or A Day Out With A Thousand Of Your Closest Friends)

Several summers ago I was invited to go on a road trip to the countryside. The proposition was an attractive one as my routine rarely took me too far off the railroad track, never mind the beaten track. My friend had that rare commodity for an English teacher in Japan – a car – which meant freedom from the drudgery of public transportation, so I didn’t hesitate to accept his offer. Evidently he knew of an area where he had done some fishing that would make for a nice barbecue and beer venue. I was more disposed to the beer than the barbie myself. In any case, that Saturday came and the weather was great. We all piled in the car and headed out for a bit of R&R, a day away, a communion with nature, fun in the sun – enough already.

When I was in High School there was this great little swimming hole that we used to go to when the weather warmed up in late May or early June. It was called Troll Bridge Road because it was located off Troll Bridge Road; I don’t claim we were particularly clever with our topographical nomenclature. To get to the swimming hole you would park your car in what was a dead end road leading into a field. Then, you would hike a quarter of mile across the field, duck into the woods, follow a path several hundred feet and you were there. It was a magical place. I don’t mean in a JR Tolken sort-of-way with hobgoblins and fiendish elves (or trolls, a bridge or even much of a road), rather it was quite beautiful and secluded. There was a river that had formed a pool where the water backed up due to a natural half-dam. The pool was deep enough to swim, even dive in, yet the flow of the river kept the water cool and prevented stagnation. On the far bank a rocked leaned over the pool and someone possessing as much daring as they lacked sense had fixed a rope swing to a tree limb that overhung the water. A fair number of people knew of the place and you could expect to find a few kids skipping class out there on any given afternoon. Despite its popularity, you had a feeling of solitude, or at least intimacy when you went there. I mention Troll Bridge Road because it immediately jumped to mind when my friend started to describe the river area where were headed while in the car.

As we drove away from the urban sprawl of the greater Tokyo area, I had a sense of elation and realized that I had only been out in rural Japan on one previous occasion when I traveled to Gunma by car. We exited the highway and weaved through a series of back roads, one becoming less trafficked than the next until we found ourselves in the forest. Imagine, a forest in Japan. I was taken aback. We even had to stop and ask for directions from a local farmer’s wife whose surprise at being asked for directions in that neck of the woods was easily doubled upon spotting the white people sitting in the back of the car. We eventually came to a spot in the road where there was a small dirt parking lot that might accommodate three small cars if the occupants didn’t mind exiting through the sun roof. The parking area sat on the top of the river gorge, thought the view was obscured by heavy forestation. We had to walk down the road several hundred meters before veering down a treacherous footpath that was fairly well-disguised. After an ankle twisting descent through the trees we emerged onto the river. What I intend with the description is this – the place was damn hard to find! Damn hard to find is a good thing when living in one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Damn hard to find means escape from the constant brushing up against others, scooting aside, shifting in the aisle to let-someone-byism that is life in Japan. Ah, the open air, I was refreshed and relieved, if not somewhat disappointed to find that the river was more a riverbed due to the lack of water and that the riverbed was more a concrete bed due to the, well, uh – concrete. Nonetheless, we had achieved relative isolation. We dropped our coolers, popped open our sun chairs (the concrete proved a stable surface, at least) and prepared to relax. We even cracked a beer in celebration though it was not yet noon.

And then it happened. I can’t remember a precise time, but I had already finished one Asahi beer, which added a surreal quality to the spectacle. It was most likely just before noon. The salary man must have risen a bit late after a hard Friday night’s drinking. The wife had probably already prepared the bento boxes the night before. I imagine the kids were only waiting for Dad to hop in the driver’s seat and captain the adventure, so that by the time he did get up and into the car they probably had drank enough green tea to drive them and their little bladders into a frenzy, which meant at least one stop at the konbini (convenience store for the layman). So, by the time they arrived and parked – god knows where – the wiley English teachers had already cracked open their first beer and kicked back to relax, but not for long.

The flow of people was like some sort of dike breaking. It started with a trickle of people bobbing down the trail and emerging onto our riverbed. And then, it increased to a steady stream of Papas and Mamas and little Takahirokuns and Emichans all rambling down the path and setting up shop. They seemed to be coming in waves after a certain point – probably my third Asahi because now I really started to drink. The whole thing became fantastic. They were coming from all directions, walking out of the woods, appearing forth from small caves, emerging out of the stream itself. Dozens, hundreds, could there possibly be thousands? Was I really in Shinjuku? JR Tolken-like, trees transformed into tots, the shrubs became salarymen, water fountained up into human form unfolded a beach chair, said ‘sumimasen’ and sat down beside me – arrrggggggghhhhhhhh.

I had been an utter fool to think that I could escape the masses so easily. I was so shortsighted that I never took into account the fact that many Japanese people, like my friend, own automobiles for the express use of ‘getting out’ on the weekend. Perhaps, it was the long drive or the seeming obscurity of our chosen spot, but somehow I had naively believed that I had found somewhere in Japan where the people weren’t. I saddened slightly and brushed past a few strangers while excusing myself on the way to our cooler for another beer. I was going to get drunk, if nothing else. My problems took a more serious turn when the urge to urinate took me. As the day wore on I found myself hiking further and further into the woods to relieve myself - this despite the fact that the average Japanese taxi driver or Oyaji, they are often one in the same, drains his waste on your flowerbed at high noon.

And so I gloomily drank and wished I was in an izakaya where I wouldn’t have to get my own drinks or walk so far for the toilet. As the sun set I waited in line to hike back up the trail, get in the car, wait in traffic, eventually arrive home to my chicken coop of an apartment to resume life in the most densely populated region of one of the most densely populated countries in the world, all the while haunted by memories of elves, hobgoblins and a place called Troll Bridge Road.

Hashi joozu!*(or The Pleasure Of An Opposable Thumb) *You use chopsticks well

“The chopstick is multipurpose; it serves the Japanese as fork, knife and spoon. They eat soup with it they cut food into small morsels with it; and they use it to pick up food and carry it from the plate to the mouth. You can do it, too.”

-unknown (as found on an internet guide to “Things Japanese”)

- “Can I really!?”

-me (upon reading above quote)

If I had a yen for every time a Japanese person complimented my chopstick use, I would be able to open a performing arts theater at which I would charge admission to the viewing public to watch me manipulate food items into my mouth with the damn things. I would then bring out a troupe of well trained primates and have them use chopsticks for the pleasure of my audience. I envision several gibbons, a couple of baboons and a chimp all dressed in kimonos. And I would stand in the center wearing my jinbei (think Japanese robe with knickers) surrounded by my monkey friends and after much applause we would hold hands and bow in unison. But alas, this will remain only a dream for, although I am often paid compliments on my chopstick dexterity, I have yet to be paid in money.

It is beyond me why anyone who has used chopsticks would think it a feat of small motor skills to eat with them. Granted chopsticks can prove awkward to the novice user, though even the novice should be able to shovel food from ‘the plate to the mouth’ as expressed by the anonymous, semicolon-loving author of the above quote. After several days of applied practice all but the most clumsy should be able to keep their clothing stain free while using chopsticks. I dare say that one could outright master the use of hashi, as they are called in Japanese, within the space of a mere week. I don’t intend insult my Japanese hosts in making such a bold claim; surely they all struggled long and hard to master the tricky utensils, but perhaps they should be reminded that the foreigner struggles to master fork and knife when he or she was three years old as well. Approaching adolescence with one’s hand-eye coordination at full development it should not be considered especially challenging to hold two small pieces of wood in one’s fingers. Writing, sewing, tying shoes, walking and chewing gum at the same time may all be thought of as human accomplishments on a par with the use of chopsticks. So, for those who would be prone to undue flattery, please compliment me on my ability to knot my tie or on the ease with which I teach irregular verbs and decide where to drink beer after work at the same time, but not on my use of the cursed hashi ! Thank you.

Among other annoyance that I have encountered on the subject of chopsticks is that of waribashi. These are disposable, wooden chopsticks that keep whole lumber companies in business and leave whole swaths of forest razed. I fear researching the true extent to which these wasteful little things are responsible for environmental destruction (let’s not lie, I’m just too lazy). Imagine a world in which metal forks and knives only existed in homes and every restaurant, eatery, store and shop that served food distributed disposable, wooden utensils instead, and you pretty much have Japan. In addition to being horribly wasteful, I often have little choice in whether I want them inserted in my shopping bag or not. For instance, I have frequented the same convenience store for several years. As I don’t cook, I venture into the establishment once a day, if not more. In the course of my time spent in the store I have made friends of the clerks. However, for every time I politely ask them not to deposit the little timber-killers in my bag, they sneak them in three times without me noticing. I can’t quite figure it. They know I live nearby. It’s not like I’m a construction worker on lunch who’s going to picnic in front of the job site. Do they think I don’t have access to chopsticks in my apartment? Like I wouldn’t be able to purchase a pair anywhere in Japan. My mom pulled the same thing nonetheless on my first Christmas home after moving to Japan. Unbelievably, she put a pair of chopsticks in my Christmas stocking (yes, I still get a stocking. Stop chuckling!). They came in their own wicker carrying case. If my mother were as sarcastic as I, the joke would have been a good one. My mom was completely on the level, though. Of course, I have abused her on the subject ever since and I promise this is the last time, so here goes: Mom! What the hell were you thinking? I live in a country where chopsticks outnumber people at a ratio of a thousand to one. Why would I want to come back to America and get a pair of them in my stocking!?

Not only are waribashi a terrible environmental idea, when you do need them they are always substandard. There are several classes of waribashi: The ones that are attached at the top in a block shape – they’re the best, they always break apart clean. The ones that are attached lengthwise, but are long and often come with a toothpick – because there was an acre of woods still standing after the chopstick quota was reached. The ones that are sized for a preschooler and double as a toothpick – because the eatery you’re at is exceptionally cheap, not because they care about the forest. The first, and best, category is reserved to izakayas and other restaurants where washable, reusable chopsticks would be a feasible alternative. The second, and second best, category of chopsticks is usually found at stores in close proximity to your domicile, thereby rendering them unnecessary. The third category, which should be reserved to day care facilities and orphanages, will most likely be found anyplace where you would actually need to use waribashi. Oh well, shiyou ga nai (let’s ignore the problem). That’s life.

The lesson to be learned about chopsticks is this - if we continue to produce disposable, wooden chopsticks at such a rate, we will soon deplete the earth of precious woodlands. Among the negative effects of lost forests, species such as the gibbon, baboon and chimpanzee will decrease in number, nearing extinction. Should this come pass, the only place you would see such wondrous primates is at zoos and amusement parks where they will display their virtuosity with the tool of their very destruction…along side a jinbei clad gaijin who rants like a howler monkey.




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    American, 31 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Vincent


    Filipino, 30 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Arafat


    Bangladeshi, 24 years old. Currently living in Thailand

The Hot Spot


Will I find work in Thailand?

Will I find work in Thailand?

It's one of the most common questions we get e-mailed to us. So find out exactly where you stand.


Need Thailand insurance?

Need Thailand insurance?

Have a question about health or travel insurance in Thailand? Ricky Batten from Pacific Prime is Ajarn's resident expert.


The dreaded demo

The dreaded demo

Many schools ask for demo lessons before they hire. What should you the teacher be aware of?


Teacher mistakes

Teacher mistakes

What are the most common mistakes that teachers make when they are about to embark on a teaching career in Thailand? We've got them all covered.


Can you hear me OK?

Can you hear me OK?

In today's modern world, the on-line interview is becoming more and more popular. How do you prepare for it?


Contributions welcome

Contributions welcome

If you like visiting ajarn.com and reading the content, why not get involved yourself and keep us up to date?


Renting an apartment?

Renting an apartment?

Before you go pounding the streets, check out our guide and know what to look out for.