Prevention

Recently, I needed to transfer money abroad. Even though I have online banking, I cannot use it in this case because I have to fill out a number of extra forms. That’s nothing completely new to me, other countries I lived in have had these sort of restrictions as well. Because I knew that it was unlikely to find an English-speaking clerk at my bank’s branch office, I phoned their help line first to find out which documents I needed to bring with me.

stack of papersThe list included my cash card and seal, but no further form of ID, interestingly. Of course, I needed information as where to send the money as well: name and address of account holder and bank, IBAN and BIC,… no big deal. But then, on top of that, the bank also wanted to know a) what the money was for (or at least proof that the account overseas was mine as well) and, besides making sure that I actually have enough money for the transfer, they also wanted to know b) where I got it from. Surely, that’s none of the bank’s business, is it?

Of course it isn’t, and to their credit, they only took a brief look at the documents for my foreign account and at my salary agreement (the one I made with myself, no less) without filing or copying them. That’s a start. So, why wasting my time – and theirs – with that to begin with? Because of the Act on Prevention of Transfer of Criminal Proceeds, a new Japanese law that has come into effect last October, if I understood correctly.

Whenever I read of a law like this – or passages like the one in my work contract forbidding me to associate with yakuza – I am seriously asking myself how naive the persons who came up with that idea can possibly be. Do they really think that a hardcore criminal will be deterred by two extra hoops he has to jump through or an extra piece of paper he has to forge? Have those lawmakers never heard of international crime organisations?

Because I am pretty sure these rules are for individuals only. I can’t imagine that companies have to fill out extra forms every time they send money to a new supplier abroad. And nothing is opened faster than a company in Japan and a couple of letterbox companies elsewhere with attached bank accounts. And never mind that paypal for example doesn’t need any kind of paperwork when sending money to or receiving it from abroad.

So, what’s the point of these laws and regulations? Security is a standard excuse these days, and probably, if you can regularly present a handful of recently caught small fish to the excitable public, they will feel more secure indeed. I call it surveillance, especially of the standard, law-abiding citizen. Because the biggest criminals don’t give a shit about the law – they are well-connected to, or part of, politics anyway. In any country.

Disclosure

whispering Japanese girlsThe general foreigner’s view on the Japanese is that you cannot have a deep conversation with them, that they are reserved and polite and friendly and very reserved. My experience is a bit different. Of course, if you chat to random people they are friendly and polite, but you won’t get anything of substance out of them – just like in the West. But I have noticed that people here are more willing to disclose very personal things about them very early in a relationship, things that would take a Westerner years of close friendship before spilling them.

Exhibit one:
When I was fresh in Japan, I looked for somebody to have a language exchange with. The idea is that you meet for an hour or so, you talk 30 minutes in one language and 30 minutes in the other. On a notice board I found the advertisement of a Japanese woman my age who was looking for somebody who speaks English. I called her up and we met for coffee.

So far so good, I found her nice but also a bit odd, somehow, and then… During that very first meeting, she told me that she had some sort of mental disorder and she was on heavy medication and in and out of a mental hospital here in town. That was totally unsolicited, and I would never, ever tell that to anyone I just met and wanted to be friends with. We did meet for a couple of months or so, but then she became very pushy, so I am not seeing her any longer.

Exhibit two:
In the beginning of this year I was advertising English classes. I got an email from a man and we met for 30 minutes to get to know each other and to find out whether to move forward with classes. He – a soldier in the Japanese army who doesn’t want to kill anyone – talked for 25 minutes straight about the time when he went to Australia to visit a friend for Christmas and got promptly in the plane already hit on by an Australian MAN. Funny story to look back at for sure… However, I could see that he was still deeply disturbed by it all these years later, and such a story I would not disclose to anyone (and he hadn’t told his family about it he said).

What I found disturbing about the meeting was that we briefly talked about where to do our classes and he said “Oh, just give me your address and I’ll go there…” Nononono, that’s not how this is going! We have not met since; he only contacted me twice afterwards and I was very, very busy indeed… I don’t think seeing him on a regular basis is a good idea, but I don’t really know how to tell him that.

Exhibit three:
I met a lovely elderly woman in a friend’s cafe, and she chatted me up and we decided to meet regularly. The second or third time we met, I asked her to “tell me about you”, which she did – not leaving out any details. She told me that she didn’t have kids because she had had three miscarriages before she and her husband gave up trying. That’s a very sad story and even though I would tell it eventually I guess, I would wait for the relationship to have deepened a little more.

Which it did, actually! We have now been meeting for almost two years, and we always have great fun together. She is very intelligent (studied Chemistry back in the days) and has an amazing amount of energy, and although we mostly meet at her place to sit and chat and drink tea and eat chocolate cake, we sometimes go out together. I’m very glad I have met her, and we have had many very personal moments together since.

Yozakura

Last night, I went out with the girls for what is called yozakura, night-time cherry blossom viewing. My friend had booked a terrace seat at an Italian restaurant, right next to the little Takase stream that runs through town parallel to Kamogamo river. There we ate Italian delicacies: a number of starters, among them the bruscetta shown below, two types of pasta, a small pizza, and of course, tiramisu for dessert. We also shared a bottle of wine – alcohol is an important main ingredient of any hanami party – and all the while we admired the sakura that grow on the other side of the Takase stream and have their branches hang over the water. We had a lovely dinner and lots of fun!

yozakura 2017Unfortunately, it seems as if this was the last day of this year’s hanami season, which, as a whole, was not very exciting. Except for the days just before the cherries burst into bloom, the weather was cool, overcast, and rainy all through last week. And after I had come home yesterday, a storm set in with heavy wind and rain, badly bruising the delicate cherry blossoms over night.

However, there are types of cherry trees that bloom only towards the end of April – with a bit of luck, the weather will be warmer then and I can go and sit underneath another cherry tree somewhere in town…

Fast Cars

The other day, I went to my favourite pizzeria for dinner. It’s a bit off the beaten tracks, but the food is excellent, and there is even a real Italian wood-fired pizza oven… Usually, the place is rather quiet, but that day there were already people sitting at the bar, having an animated conversation.

Gerhard Berger in 1991I have no idea how I got involved into it, probably because one of the guys wanted to show off his English. Our conversation went down a different road than usual though: Instead of double-checking whether I really didn’t come from down under, his first remark was: “Oh, then you know Gerhard Berger!” In general I answer these kind of questions in the negative: “There are 8 million Austrians, I have not been introduced to all of them, yet”, but of course, I know our famous Formula 1 racer! We went on to talk about Berger – retired now for 20 years – and how Ferrari is great and how much greater it would be to drive one instead just a Mercedes…

Funny how people start talking, isn’t it?

 

Raise

Compared to Tuesday, I had a more relaxed day today, so I can make good on my promise and tell you about the final meeting I had that day.

It has to do with my writing job over at facebook. I have talked about Kyotogram before: Since last November, I am writing very short articles about Kyoto and Japan, the important thing is the photo attached and not the text. In one week I have to produce 5 posts and attend one meeting, all that for a fixed salary. Besides the big boss and the team leader, there is a graphics designer on the team and another freelance writer like me, and we both get the same salary since we have the same contract.

Japanese currencyTwo weeks ago I initiated a meeting with the big boss and told him pretty much straightforward that I wanted a raise. The reason for this was that every time there’s a special or urgent job to be done, I am asked to do it – because my writer colleague is, let’s say, not quite as reliable as I am. She has now taken part in about half the meetings only, and ever since Christmas, her performance has gone downhill. And in February, out of 4 meetings and 20 posts, she did 1 meeting and 2 articles, an all time low. It’s not that her lack of productivity is directly affecting me, thank goodness, but since the big boss has talked about “fairness” when I signed the contract, I thought I’d ask him whether he still believes in that one.

Of course, I tried to avoid dissing my colleague (her work ethic is none of my business, and in fact she is a very nice girl), and we had a very constructive talk of about an hour in which the big boss assured me that everybody is very happy with my performance, and that the rest of the team relies on me, and that he was “aware of the situation” as he put it. And that he couldn’t say anything right now, but he would get back to me by the end of the month.

Fast forward two weeks: Since the end of the month is now, we had another one hour talk on Tuesday, after our regular meeting. Actually, both of us writers had what the big boss called a “six months review meeting”, and the outcome was as follows: The contracts for both of us will be renewed, but there will now be a new penalty for underachievement: Every meeting not attended will – literally – cost 3000 YEN, every unwritten post 1500 YEN.

Having a penalty like this is extremely unusual in a freelance contract; normally, you are paid for the specific work you do, and only for that; and the more you work, the more you earn. I am not sure why the contract wasn’t changed to this model altogether, probably because the big boss is on a limited budget, but I am not complaining. Because, no matter what the new contract says: I got my raise! Of course, “fairness” is still an important word in the whole thing, and the big boss has amended my contract by giving me additional responsibilities (which I have partly already fulfilled) so he can also officially justify that I earn more than my colleague.

I had a very pleasant talk with the big boss on Tuesday where I assured him that in normal circumstances I would not have dreamed of asking for more money, that this was simply prompted by the lack of performance on my colleagues’ side and his “fairness” argument. In return, he stressed several times that it is very, very rare in Japan indeed that a raise is given without any further discussion like it was in my case. And he also insinuated that there’s no room for further improvement for the time being, which is perfectly fine with me.

In conclusion, as I never had a “decent” job, so to speak (academia has fixed payment schemes), this was my very first salary negotiation! And I have learned the following:
If you go to your boss after a mere 5 months of employment and demand a 15% raise, and he just hands it over without any further negotiation or even comment,
then
a) he is really, really extremely happy with your performance and
b) you probably should have asked for more…

Busy…

Whew, I have been very busy today: I went out at 10 in the morning and came home at 8 in the evening… That was three meetings today plus early dinner, and now I’m tired – and I still have one more thing to finish tonight. At least the final meeting I had today was very, very productive and ended on a very positive note – I’ll tell you more about that on Thursday!

Going Out

Ever since I started my company, I have been teaching English to two retired ladies in their early 60s. Most of the times we just meet in the shopping mall nearby my place (because it has free parking), but sometimes we go out and do something special.

Like today. A common friend of ours is an artist. He makes shin-hanga woodblock prints, and this week he has an exhibition of his prints of spring flowers. Most of his pieces are flowers, actually, and he has a very distinctive style, not really naive, but not realistic either. I had seen much of his work – so I thought – and I was surprised that I could find something totally new to me. The picture below consists of four single prints, close-ups of seasonal flowers, from spring at the left to winter at the right. The coloring is interesting – the warm colors for spring and winter, and the coldest blue for summer.

Woodprints: Seasonal FlowersAfter visiting his exhibition, we went to a nearby cafe. We wanted to go to the cafe “Independant” in the basement of an old, Western style house that was built in 1928 and is still used today. Unfortunately, that cafe is closed in the afternoon for someStaricase to the Cafe Independant reason, but we could at least go downstairs and admire the lovely mosaic staircase. The basement itself is a single room with very high ceilings, heavy pillars, and typical vault architecture – it is definitely worth going there.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in another cafe on the second floor of the same building, eating chocolate cake and iced creme brulee and drinking tea and coffee. We were chatting about this and that – just like old ladies like me enjoy doing. I had a great afternoon!

Addiction

Today, I was on busy Tuesday schedule, and on top of everything it was raining. That means that I have to take the bus – and plan in extra time for that. I left lunch earlier than usual to take the bus to my afternoon appointment and got off the usual stop. And then and there I stood before a brand new Lindt chocolate shop!

Apparently they just opened a few days ago, and I had to stumble upon them immediately. There is a little cafe attached where you can have both hot and cold chocolate drinks and coffee, but mostly it’s the shop that’s interesting. They don’t have a large variety of chocolate types, but now of course it’s all about the little rabbits for Easter. But, what they do have, right in the center of the shop is a huge selection of Lindor balls, probably some 20 different flavours.

selection of lindor chocolateI love Lindor! And of course, I just had to go in there and shop – 8 different kinds today (among them orange, lemon, mint, and coconut) with more to come. Great, exactly what I needed: yet another way to fuel my chocolate addiction…

PS: Of course I ended up being late for my meeting, 3  minutes late to be precise. People were worried already: “But you are ALWAYS on time!”. Not sure if that’s a good thing?

Cold

I’m having a cold. Since last Monday I’ve had the sniffles, with a bit of temperature even in the evening. I know exactly what caused it, and looking back: It was worth it!

Last Sunday I spent 7 hours sitting in a rather unheated event hall in Osaka watching the first day of this year’s Spring Tournament of Sumo. It was rather unplanned, a friend of a friend bought the wrong tickets and couldn’t find anyone else to go with her, so we were four girls sitting high up there above the ring to watch sumo. Before entering the hall at about 11 in the morning, we bought food and drinks to last all day, and then we hunkered down and enjoyed the show.

Two sumo wrestlers preparing for their boutA sumo tournament lasts for two weeks, and every rikishi or sumo ringer has one match a day. The ranking after the tournament is determined by the number of wins each rikishi could score, and there are very complicated rules as to how and when to move up to the next level. I guess I’ll write about sumo in more depth in a Sunday post some day.

This was my second sumo event (I saw one in Nagoya some 8 years ago or so), and there were essentially three parts to the whole day. The lowest ranking rikishi start wrestling in the morning – the tournament was well under way when we arrived – and the last match of the day in the late afternoon is always the one of the yokozuna, the top ranked rikishi.

It may sound a bit funny, but you can actually notice a difference in the matches. The lower ranks seem to be more different in fighting strength, so many of the early matches are over very quickly, with one rikishi clearly dominant. The higher the rank, the more even the pairs, and a match takes much longer, including of course the going into the ring and clearing it with salt, the foot stamping etc. which is sometimes repeated several times before the match really starts.

It’s also not always true that the bigger fighter with more fat wins, often the not so fat ones are more muscular or agile and can thus make up for a lack of sheer body mass. Nevertheless, no matter what their size, sumo wrestlers are in a very good shape – or could you lift your foot over your head like the two guys in the picture above?

Altogether, I had a fun day last Sunday, and I gladly paid for it with the cold I caught (even though I could use a good night’s sleep by now).The greatest bit happened at the very last match when the yokozuna lost… This is always a big disappointment for the spectators, and they show it. Enjoy!

(This 2013 video is a bit loud in the beginning, but sound is not necessary for the fun part. In January 2017, Kisenosato became the first Japanese yokozuna in 19 years. He’s the one winning the fight in the video.)

White Day

Today is March 14th, and the Japanese celebrate White Day. It is the day when guys are supposed to “pay back” the chocolate they received a month ago on Valentine’s Day. Of course, just as I thought a month ago already, there are no especially nice chocolates around this time, but White Day gifts still appear to be quite difficult…

marshmallowsThe thing today is that men are allowed to make differences in the gifts they buy according to recipient: If he just has to reciprocate for what is called giri choco, obligation chocolate, from coworkers for example, simple sweets in return are fine. A favourite one in this case are marshmallows for some reason, probably because they are (mostly) white?

Girlfriends get special treatment, the present may be more expensive, luxury handbags and expensive jewellery are not unheard of. Once you are married however, there’s no need to worry about gifts any longer: After all, your wife has access to your bank account and will simply go out and buy herself a present – and deduct the price from your monthly allowance. Yes, at least the first part of this sentence is still true in some households!

The above information I have gathered from a friend of mine, and she said that in her youth, a boy was supposed to reciprocate with a present that was about 10 times as expensive as the one he received! Of course, this was back during the bubbly economy, nowadays this number has gone down considerably – to about 3.

Still, I cannot understand why there’s not more exciting chocolate around on White Day. The displays have shrunken a great deal and it’s more of the standard fare this time – maybe guys aren’t as picky as girls? My friend assures me though that the 3 times as expensive holds for giri choco as well. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the Japanese ways…