How to do radio calisthenics the right way

Every Japanese kid at some point in their lives has to do radio calisthenics exercises in the morning. Even though I didn’t go to a Japanese school, I stumbled upon this strange ritual at a local swimming school that my mom took me to for a few months in grade school.

I think this routine should be secret code for how to tell if someone is Japanese. You know, like a fraternity hand shake. I’ve also seen old Chinese people do a similar exercise routine early in the morning in parks all over San Francisco but cannot confirm that it’s the exact same thing. Anyone?

Gakko Project, an innovative cross-cultural education experiment in Naoshima

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I’m excited and honored that Kenta Koga invited me to teach a course at Gakko Project, a cool new initiative founded by the Yale undergrad to redefine cross-border education between Japan and the US. We’re going to be on Nao Island (Naoshima) from Monday to Wednesday next week. Kenta’s one of those innovative, entrepreneurial young Japanese leaders that we at The Tofu Project want to see more of. Stay tuned for updates from the event next week!

48 different kinds of ojisan

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The most entertaining thing I saw on Japanese TV while I was back last week was a special that had the subtitle: The 48 different kinds of ojisan: What one do you like best? Apparently it’s trending right now to study the ojisan zukan (old man almanac). If you’ve lived in Japan, it’s hilarious because you know you’ve all met these old men before. Maybe he was sitting next to you on the subway. Maybe he is your dad, or your husband.

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Christmas tree made of Santa Clauses

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If you’ve ever been in Tokyo in December, you know that you can’t escape Christmas decorations anywhere. When I exit my apartment door, the elevator hall in my parents’ building plays holiday tunes. Big companies sponsor extravagant light displays, mom and pop shops sell reindeer costumes for little dogs, and there are a gazillion different kinds of Christmas trees on every street corner. This one, made of tiny Santa Claus dolls, is one of my favorites. If you want to see it in real life, it’s in Tokyo Midtown.

Men in blue light and suits at Cloudforce Japan

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Yesterday, I spoke on a panel at Cloudforce Japan 2011–an annual event hosted by Salesforce.com. Before my panel, there was a keynote speech by CEO Marc Benioff. The entire room, which fit about 5000 people, was illuminated blue and almost everyone was wearing a suit. During our panel, Mr. Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, made a cameo appearance. We were all on World Business Satellite, TV Tokyo’s daily business news show, last night. Full segment should be online next week.

Taiga Ishikawa is Japan’s first openly gay elected official

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A big hooray for Taiga Ishikawa who–two Sundays ago–became the first openly gay elected politician in Japan. The 36-year old writer/activist published a book titled Where is my Boyfriend? in 2002, and runs a non-profit that hosts events for gay men. He just won a seat in the local assembly for Toshima Ward.

I know many gay Japanese men who moved here to San Francisco because of the lack of support and acceptance back home. When I grew up in Tokyo, gay men in the public eye were mostly just parodies of themselves on variety shows, or cross dressers, or just totally below the radar.

Ishikawa’s a great advocate for LGBT issues in Japan because he can talk about them without alienating the more sexually conservative masses. In the video below, for example, he distinguishes between transsexuals and gays in a very colloquial, non-preachy tone. “I don’t want to wear a skirt,” he says with a friendly laugh. “I just want to love men as men.” And then he talks about how he discovered he was gay, felt scared and closeted for a long time, and then eventually found out about others like himself on the Internet.

Inspirational post-earthquake bullet train commercial goes viral

Joi tweeted about this yesterday: an inspirational bullet train commercial has been going viral.

It’s a 3-minute spot featuring a shinkansen making its debut trip across the southern island of Kyushu on March 12, just one day after the earthquake. The commercial was pulled from TV stations in the immediate aftermath, along with all other advertisements–the stations feared inundating people with commercialism after a tragedy would be inappropriate–and just appeared on air a couple of weeks ago. In it, you see school kids in uniforms, farmers, Power Rangers, cheerleaders, and costumed mascots all cheering the train on as it makes its way across the country.

I love this because it’s really representative of Japanese solidarity. It’s really unselfish, non-aggressive, and community-oriented. One of the YouTube comments points out that the conductor and the cameraperson were crying the whole time as people ran alongside the train.

Viral gift-giving trend brings school bags, toys to orphans from fictional Tiger Mask character

A mysterious and awesome charity trend is taking place all over Japan right now: anonymous donors are gifting expensive school bags and toys at orphanages under the name Date Naoto. Date Naoto is actually a fictional character from the anime Tiger Mask; in the story, the character himself is an orphan-turned-professional wrestler who donates money to the orphanage he grew up in.

There have been more than 15 of these gifts from Date Naoto gifts so far; most of the donors are reported to be men in their 60s.

This is either a great act of anonymous viral charity or an elaborate marketing scheme by the creators of Tiger Mask. Either way, it’s a creative mode of giving and has brought a warm fuzzy feeling to the daily news. Also, how awesome is it that the latest catching trend is one of giving, not of buying?

(Thanks, Mom and Kazu Y!)

Hatsuyume, the first dream of the new year

If you’ve ever spent new years in Japan, you know that it’s full of wonderful cultural details, like eating noodles at the shrine after midnight, drawing your paper fortune from a cardboard box, lucky bags, and the symbolic but not-so-delicious osechi breakfast. I didn’t spent new years at home this year, but when I do, I really enjoy all these little rituals. The one that sometimes throws me off is the hatsuyume, or the first dream of the new year. According to tradition carried forth since the Edo period, whatever you dream about on the night of 1/1 is indicative of the year ahead. If you dream about Mt. Fuji, eggplants, or hawks, you’ll have a particularly fortunate year.

Up until a few years ago, I used to spend most of 1/1 carrying a mental picture of Mt. Fuji, eggplants, and hawks in my head, hoping for a lucky dream. Not quite sure it ever happened for me as organically as it’s supposed to. Can’t remember what I dreamt about last night.

Sheena Iyengar’s TED Talk: why she couldn’t get sugar with her green tea

In this highly informative TED video, Sheena Iyengar talks about how the way different cultures perceive choice can affect performances and relationships. The talk starts with a story about her trip to Kyoto: She wanted sugar with her green tea, but the waiter told her that you’re not supposed to have sugar with your green tea; when she insisted, she was told that they had no sugar. Then she ordered coffee, which–of course–came with sugar.

From the Japanese perspective, it’s their duty to protect those who don’t know any better. In this case, the ignorant gaijin for making the wrong choice… they were doing their best to help me save face.

She goes on to talk about how, in many cultures, having lots of choices is not necessarily considered a good thing. In the US, we’re taught that the more choices we have, the freer we are — but is this really true? 18 minutes of very insightful food for thought. Watch!

Tonoharu, a Lost in Translation-esque manga (+ Pink Lady UFO video!)

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There’s an interesting review and discussion over at Boing Boing about Tonoharu, a manga about an American who gets a job teaching English in a small Japanese town. Reviewers have likened it to Lost in Translation, and there’s a somewhat heated discussion about how racist that movie is in the comments section. Take a peek if you’re interested or want to contribute your two cents!

I love that Mark embedded a video of the famous Pink Lady song UFO kind of as an afterthought. Classic 70s tune written by a good family friend of mine.

via Boing Boing (Thanks, Lisa G!)

How to make teru teru bozu, a rain-stopping tissue paper ghost

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I saw some little cloth ghosts on my neighbor’s doorstep this morning (probably remaining from Halloween) that reminded me of teru teru bozu. It’s a little piece of Japanese superstitious folklore — by hanging these little guys outside your window, we believe that we can stop the rain from coming. I distinctly remember making a ton of these out of tissue paper one day before our annual school sporting event, forecast: rain. It didn’t work. But if you want to try it yourself, here’s how:

– Take one sheet of tissue paper and roll it up in a ball
– Take another sheet of tissue, wrap the center around the ball, and tie the nape with a rubber band, letting the loose ends hang down like a dress
– Draw a face on the little guy
– Once you’ve made half a dozen or so, hang them by their necks outside the window
– Sing this song: teru teru bozu, teru bozu, ashita tenki ni shite okure.

This adorable little girl Emily gives a great demo in this video:

According to Wikipedia, the song was written in 1921 and the folklore behind it is kind of morbid: a monk promised a bunch of farmers that he would be able to stop the rain with teru teru bozu, and when he was wrong, he was executed. Brutal!

Cell phone site for women tells you about menstruation, contraceptives

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A new cell phone web site called Luna Luna is a huge hit among women. It’s marketed as a specialty web site where women can ask questions about contraceptives, menstruation, and diet without embarrassment. Asiajin.com estimates that the creators make about $400,000 a month from selling access to this site to 1.8 million users at 180 yen a month. Wow!

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Man doing dishes naked in Kabukicho

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We spent the evening last night in Kabukicho, wandering around the yakuza-run streets with an amazing Belgian photographer who has spent six years shooting and hanging out with a famous yakuza family. This man was squatting behind a pop-up yakitori store where I received an offhand marriage proposal from a guy with many knife wounds.

Roppongi!

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I am grateful for this warm summer night in Roppongi full of drunken eyes and empty taxicabs and sidewalks that audibly warn you to watch your step. I love that the lady at the Korean BBQ restaurant leaned over me and tied a bib around my neck like a baby. The one place I hope I don’t go to on this trip is the bar Heartland; still, I enjoyed watching the sleazy white men flirt with sexy Japanese women as I strolled up the escalator to the train station. When I was a kid growing up in Roppongi twenty-some years ago, this was just a small residential neighborhood with single-family homes and small community parks. Even with all the change, the air still smells like home.