Monthly Archives: March 2014

Brownies, or a major project I undertook in Japan

This is not a cooking blog, so in general I don’t post recipes on here. Today I am breaking that rule. I am breaking it because this recipe’s existence is directly related to the fact that I live in Japan. See, in the U.S. I always made brownies from a box. I think they taste better, and I was so sick of all of those recipes that claimed they were better than the box, when they really weren’t. But box mixes are difficult to come by here. Not impossible, but difficult. I have to pay $6 at the foreign food store, or haul the box over with me after vacations. I needed a better solution. So, last summer, I took one of those recipes that claimed to be better than a box and tried it. It wasn’t great. But I modified it. Then I modified it again. About six batches later I came up with the following recipe. This blog is about my experience in Japan. This recipe is deeply tied to that experience. This reflects what I spent a large portion of last summer doing. It also reflects something I never would have done had I not been put in the position where nothing else was practical. Therefore, its presence on this blog is appropriate. 

I don’t have a fancy name for these brownies. To me, they are perfect. But you have to know how I like my brownies. I like my brownies thick, slightly under baked, and deeply chocolate. There is a lot of cocoa powder in here. But, I do have to say, coming from a brownie snob, these really are just as good, if not a teeny bit better, than the stuff in the box.



2/3 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup powdered baking cocoa
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup oil
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsps vanilla
1. Stir together dry ingredients
2. Blend in liquids. 
3. Bake in a greased 9×9 pan at 175 C (350 F) for 30 minutes.

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Cool English and It’s Influence on Japanese Band Names

Currently in Japan the younger generation finds English and French to be rather hip. Don’t misunderstand this. It doesn’t mean all of my students are falling over themselves to learn English. The elementary students like it well enough, as the lesson is highly activity and game based. In fact at my school, the students in first through fourth grades clear away their desks for the biweekly English lesson and sit on the floor. Over the next 45 minutes they will get up to sing a song, often with motions, they will likely work in groups, and they may dart around the room during an activity. Once fifth and sixth grades hit, they are confined to their desks. Textbooks are incorporated, and while we still do activities, it is rare for the students to stand up during the lesson. By the time they are given a thrice weekly English lesson in junior high, spelling and grammar receive heavy emphasis in the curriculum, tests are incorporated, and students smile a lot less frequently during the lesson. 
So what do I mean when I say French and English are hip? They appear decoratively on a lot of items: t-shirts, tote bags, pencil cases, notebooks, etc. Sometimes the English is spelled incorrectly, but not usually (that is one of the major components of their education, after all). Sometimes it just doesn’t quite make sense (I used to own stationary that said, “I’m sticky about my favorite things”). Sometimes it is crude (seeing a sweet middle-aged woman in a t-shirt with cuss words is so common it is almost cliche). Sometimes it is rather embarrassing for the wearer (I’ve consistently seen one woman wearing a shirt that says, “I like being simple minded). But most of the time it is completely correct, quite sappy, and very unremarkable. The mother of one of the little girls on my preschool bus wears a t-shirt with English on it several times a week, and I consistently notice this, but I can’t actually remember what any of the shirts in her collection say. I don’t speak French, but a coworker of mine does and reports that the words she sees on vending machines, advertisements, and t-shirts are as consistently incorrect as the English is. Occasionally I spot German, of which I do have a conversational knowledge. The quote that often passes through my head when I see Japanese usage of German is, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”
In addition to decoration, a common way English is used is in the names of Japanese musical groups. I’ve heard my students mention all of the following artists:
– Spicy Chocolate – they dress a little like rappers, but they sing pop love songs because that is what is popular in Japan.
– Perfume – Their big hit is called “Chocolate Disco.” Yeah, I don’t know what a chocolate disco is either. 
– Mr. Children – the picture in my head this name creates always makes me think of a kindly old man, like Mr. Wizard, singing nursery rhymes. Even though the band is a bunch of young Japanese dudes singing melancholy pop.
– EXILE – mentally I usually swap this with Exodus and begin thinking of Moses. I probably should keep it straight and just think of Napoleon or the Count of Monte Cristo.
– GReeeeN – I didn’t misspell this. They have four “e”s in their name because of the four band members. 
– ONE OK ROCK – I actually kind of like their music. But there is some indication that the name comes from the time they used to practice on weekends, which in butchered English is, “One o’krock”.
– BADBOYS – I translated this name for my students, and it made them peal into laughter. The tricky thing is, this term is loaded with meaning in English. It is everything from a naughty toddler to a criminal on the show “Cops” to the James Dean hottie. I gave the direct translation, but I know that doesn’t do it justice.
– Kis-My-Ft.2 – It’s pronounced, “Kiss my feet.” When I first heard the name, it made me laugh, and then I had to explain it to my students. Again, that also required some nuance of why someone would kiss another’s foot. 
– World Order – while the name always reminds me of a dictator, their quirky and brilliant dance moves make their music videos so very worth watching. 
Now, I am fully aware that American and British bands have their own set of less than intuitive names. I remember being puzzled when I first heard the names Smashing Pumpkins, U2, UB40, 98 Degrees, the Beatles, Fun., and One Direction (which direction is that?). I guess what I’m trying to say here is that no culture has a monopoly on crazy band names. 

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Bunraku and Suicide

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a bunraku performance. Bunraku is traditional Japanese puppetry. The puppets are about three feet tall, and three people orchestrate the movements of each. Two are covered head to toe in black garments. One of these moves the feet and the other moves one of the arms. The third person wears black but makes no attempt to cover his or her head. This person controls the head and the other arm. With a lot of practice, the three of them working together are able to make movements that are and reminiscent of an actual person and in their skillful hands, the puppet comes to life. Off to the side a woman might play the koto, a Japanese instrument rather like a lute, and someone else might read from a book, providing both narrative and a voice for the characters. 

The date of the performance came around and I opted to go. I had heard about this Japanese art when I was studying scrabble words and thought it worth while to watch once, it pleases the locals when the ex-pats engage in their culture, the performance was being sponsored by a friend of mine, and there was a chance I would get to see some of my students. Besides, it was free and close to my house!

Unfortunately none of my students were there. I later learned that the Japanese used in bunraku performances is old and difficult for kids to understand, on par with a performance of Shakespeare in the States, and most of the people in the building sported white hair. Nonetheless, it was interesting enough. I appreciate all of the work that goes in to synchronizing movements when three people have to work as one, and this truly can be considered an art form. 

Having only a rough knowledge of Japanese, much less the Shakespearan-era Japanese, most of the time I was left to guess what the plot was. For the first scene this was quite easy, as it was an intricate dance that two puppets performed. The second performance was done by a solo artist and the puppet mostly complained about how cold he was. The fourth performance attempted to incorporate some of the local cultural landmarks and the items Fukushima prefecture is known for, a move which endeared the company to the crowd. The third performance… the third performance bothered me. The post-performance discussion with other ex-pats led to a consensus that the two characters had committed suicide. After all, there are only so many reasons to jump off of a cliff. One coworker stated that the river god forgave them and they came back to life. Overall, it was supposed to be a happy piece. I think.

Here is the problem: I am never going to be okay with suicide. An ex-pat learns to fight battles, to stop viewing some issues as being a big deal when they really aren’t. There are plenty of things that aren’t right or wrong, just different. However, I am also a Christian and I do believe there is right and wrong in this world. And suicide is something I consider to be wrong. 

Understand this: I don’t cast this judgement lightly. I say this as someone who has been there and has felt the temptation to give up and end it all. What changed for me was when three separate alumni from my college committed suicide in the course of nine months. All three were two years younger than me. One was a friend, one was an acquaintance, and one was a friend of a friend. As news came in over the course of months I didn’t mourn for these men so much as I mourned the senselessness of their deaths. The friend, Stephen, was someone who had been there for me on some bad days. The acquaintance, Luke, had given me a ride to the summer camp where we both worked. For him that might not have been a big deal, but it was one of those circumstances where I didn’t find a ride until a few days before I left, and he was literally an answer to prayer, and I have never ever forgotten that. And the friend of the friend, Gabe, had been there for my friends on their bad days. I looked at all three of these men and realized they would never again get to impact someone’s life. I’m not belittling the pain they experienced that caused them to make their decisions to end it all. I understand that pain. But I also see the other side. 

In Japan suicide is often considered a thing of honor. The shame is too great, and to end the shame – to preserve honor – people commit suicide. But who is this really honoring? I was taught that honor, true honor, means to elevate others, to consider them better than yourself, to go out of your way to serve them. I came to Japan excited to learn how to honor others. And in some ways the Japanese excel at this. They are the first to jump in and lend a hand, whether that is shoveling snow after a snow storm or washing dishes after a party or tearing down the decorations after graduation. But in other ways, their sense of honor makes my stomach turn. A person who commits suicide does not honor others; he only honors himself. When he removes himself from this earth he ends the chances to honor others or to honor those who raised him by doing something great. And no matter how long I live in Japan, you will never be able to convince me that suicide is honorable.

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A Different Fashion World

My boss is taking my coworkers and I out for dinner in half an hour and I am sitting here in my room trying to read some fashion magazines. A friend is coming over for tutoring tomorrow, and if I finish reading them in time I can pass them off to her. The tempting thing is to just pass them off and not read them at all.

One of the realities of being an ex-pat is that we may or may not be aware of what is going on back in our home countries. The glory of the information age means we actually can stay on top of things if we choose. Overall, I would say I am pretty on top of current events, from the serious (a missing jet from Malaysia) to the frivolous (apparently everyone hates the latest Bachelor). But I can’t say that for everyone. One coworker is about to return to the States for the first time in two years, and a week ago I heard him express surprise that Americans without healthcare will now pay a fine. It’s old news in the U.S., ridiculously old news, but while I knew about that piece of legislation, I can’t say I’m on top of everything. Some things, like fashion, I really didn’t care about then and I really don’t care about now. I mustered enough energy to care about for a little while, but well, let’s just say my fashion style is classic and in part that is due to laziness. I don’t want to follow the latest trends. Sometimes that is because I don’t want to spend money, and sometimes that is because you will never be able to convince me that overalls, leopard print, sandals with socks, or jumpsuits is a flattering look. I don’t have energy to argue with you about this, so I’m just going to ignore you.

The reality of being an ex-pat is that we have a lot of other stuff already going on over here. I spend a lot of time processing conversations and anticipating conversations and thinking about how to communicate thoroughly. I spend a lot of time studying the local language. I even spend a fair amount of time trying to absorb the local form of love, for as I wrote in the post The Five Love Languages of Japan (, the ways the locals show love might not be the way I understand it best, and I have to meditate deliberately on the heart behind the actions that on the surface do nothing for me. There is an entire world here. Japan has its own fashion to keep track of, one that differs significantly from that in the States. The thin, stick straight, boyish figure is rampant here and fashion is cut to those dimensions, not the stocky, muscular, hour-glass shape that is my body. Here in rural Japan a woman does not show bare shoulders, but skirts that barely graze the bottom of the tush are deemed acceptable. That doesn’t work on my body, in fact, little works on my body. I’m too curvy for this country. At 5’5″ I’m too tall for this country. And my feet (8.5) are too big for this country, except sneakers where I can cheat and wear mens’. And unfortunately the 18 month old American fashion magazines sitting on my shelf feel so incredibly far away from my current existence that it is hard to take them seriously. 

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Bad Days

In grad school a professor once told my class that the number one reason missionaries leave the field isn’t because of discouragement from lack of response by the people they are trying to reach but because of conflict with other missionaries. Every missions trip I’ve been on contained hints and whispers of this. I’ve never gotten along with everyone all of the time. But I don’t think I could have imagined this.
Japan is not an easy place to be a missionary. It has never had a revival and the people, especially people of the Fukushima prefecture, are tough nuts to crack. But still I have hope for it. I see the impact – the subtle, slow, persistent impact – that my presence has on individuals, and I trust that it has an effect on the community. It can be discouraging to be a missionary in Japan, but on days like today it is not the locals that make me miserable, it is the other ex-pats. 
The specific nature of what is going on right now in my group is no one else’s business, and therefore I refuse to discuss it on this blog. I’m not writing this to air grievances. I’m writing this because I set up this blog to chronicle the various experiences I have as a missionary in Japan. And as much as we like to deny it, as much as we would rather sweep it under the rug, the pain of conflict is very real and very present in the mission field. 
Today? Today I am facing a misunderstanding. That comes at the heals of misunderstandings. I guess the clearest way to say it is that I no longer know how to communicate in a way that resonates love. And if I’m honest with myself, that is because I am no longer sure I have love for my fellow missionaries. I’ve stifled the expressions of it for so long that the feeling is no longer there. It is similar to how I got over each unrequited love: having gone long enough without exposure to the objects of my affections, not allowing myself to daydream about them or contact them or visit their social media pages, each man gradually floated out of my heart. I still think of each man on a regular basis, but I do not do so with hope that he will come and sweep me off my feet. I think of each with affection, for I still love who each was as a person and who each was as an instrument in my life, but I think of them with resignation, having accepted the fact that my future is not intertwined with his. My recent actions have been misinterpreted, but I cannot wholly blame that on the misinterpreters. 
What today has held is pain. The long, slow, agonizing pain of vast discouragement. The kind of pain that makes me forswear the go tos of chocolate and movies because those do not hold medicine strong enough to ease what is going on. I medicate by the remedy I developed when I was a child and my mother was angry, that of hiding in a quiet place and getting lost in a book. In ways I don’t understand that provides comfort. But not forever. My consciousness rises out of the pages, and I stare out the window until the agony of my thoughts is too extreme and I dive back into the book. 
Intermingled with the agony is the wishes: I wish I had a safe lap to crawl upon, a safe pair of arms to wrap themselves around me, a safe voice to whisper encouragement in my ear. I wish I had someone to tell me what to do next, to show me how to start loving again and not screw it up again this time. But when I turn to God, for today anyway, he is content to let me sit here and cry. 

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Say what?

A common problem for ex-pats is not understanding the language. But sometimes the locals speak English. When they do speak English, sometimes it can be difficult to understand them because of their accent. However, occasionally a local speaks English, does so clearly, and the ex-pat might still not comprehend the meaning. 

Today, for example: 

1. As an assistant junior high English teacher, one of my primary jobs is reading aloud sentences from the textbook. This allows students to hear correct pronunciation, and when they repeat after me, I can affirm or correct what they say. Today the seventh graders were dragging their feet. 23 kids in the class and half of the volume when the phrase is repeated back is provided by the teacher. So she came up with an idea.

“This time,” she said, “we will speak as if we are in a hospital.” She looked at me to proceed and gave me the nod.

Okay. How do people speak in hospitals? She had lowered her volume during the sentence, so I decided to go with that.

“Should I speak quietly?” 


And off I went in a stage whisper.

After I had finished, the teacher continued: “Next we will read the passage like we are in the gym.” She looked at me.

“Do people speak loudly in gyms?”


“I can do that.” And I projected throughout the next reading. 

2. On the drive home my driver asked me if I drove a natural car in the United States. 

“Do you mean a hybrid?”

“Hybrid, no. Natural car.” 

[pause] What could he mean? We arrived at our destination.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

“That is natural car. Yellow plate.” He gestured to our left. “White plates, not natural.” 

I hadn’t the foggiest. “I’m sorry, I still don’t understand. I will look it up on the internet and we can discuss it tomorrow.” 

“Natural” cars, for the record, are extremely lightweight. I’m guessing they get good gas mileage. We don’t have them in the States, and one website indicated they might be illegal there because they don’t hold up in crashes. 

So there you have it, two cases from this afternoon alone in which I am completely befuddled by my own language. 

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The Relationship in the Conflict

It’s midnight, and I can’t sleep. For some reason my mind won’t stop processing. And what it is processing is relationships. Not romantic ones necessarily. Just plain old friendships, or lack thereof. 

A certain person came to mind. I started thinking about how I didn’t really like this person, then began wondering why. I remembered that though we have many mutual friends and often hung out in the same circle, I felt rather ignored by the person. Then I remembered a few years later how the person had an issue with me, and instead of coming and talking to me, the person asked someone else to do it. An issue can’t thoroughly be discussed when I’m speaking with a middleman, so I took the critique. I didn’t protest. I tried to change. But I also felt the distance. I still feel the distance. 

There are others too. Others who used middlemen to address areas of conflict. And I still remember them. I remember these instances, 2, 3, 12 years ago. I remember the hurt. And it gets in the way. Whether I’m thinking about it or not, there is still that bit of fear when I speak to these people. The unresolved issue that hangs between us, never addressed, just suspended in the air, like a an elephant chandelier that you can forget about, until you can’t. Because the slightest hint of rejection – in a tone, in an eyebrow, in a glance away – and there it is again. My feelings of rejection arise. Maybe it was because there was no clarity.

Clarity. That is what I long for. Are you the girl from my high school who never spoke to me even though she sat behind me in ninth grade English who I presume ignored me from day one because of how I looked. My hair, my clothes, my face, my body, something must not have been good enough, because she never gave me a chance, not once in those four years. Are you like her? Or did I do something? Did I say something that offended you? Were my actions insensitive? Because I admit, there are many things I have said and done in my life which I regret. It has taken me a long time to learn empathy, and there are many times when I was “corrected” by stares. I wish I could tell those people that if they had only called me on it verbally, I would have learned quicker. I wouldn’t have had to process that awkward moment for a few years until I understood what I should have done. To have a gentle guide, oh, that would have made my process smoother! 

For I have had that too, the angry confrontation, yes, I remember one of those from almost twenty years ago. The angry burst. That even as a child I could see was in some ways about her and her insecurities, even as she called me out on legitimate faults. Then there are the gentle, “Here is everything wrong with you” confrontations from 15 years ago, and another from 10 years ago. How pointless those were, as my faults were listed, kindly, but not with any practical instruction. I carry no anger towards these two, not then, not now, but I also remember each person pulling away from the friendship soon afterwards. As if these drawbacks of mine were too much for them to bear any longer. 

There are many more, so many more, who constructed kindly, gently, and constructively. With them, the relationship strengthened. I cannot think of a single person who gently and lovingly called me out to the destruction of our relationship. But that “lovingly” word is so important. For those who called me out only to explain why they wanted to push away, there was – there is – damage. It has been when people showed me my flaws, then drew me in to love me tighter, that I have grown the most as a person. And their love has often been the thing that melted the flaw away. 


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A Different Attitude Towards Snow

It was snowy here in February. I’m not saying it snowed a lot. We had three or four snows, and one of them brought down over a foot. But in comparison to what the weather has been in the U.S., this winter, what we had was nothing. Except it is something. Not because the amount is something I’m not used to but because the Fukushima culture handles snow differently. 

I grew up in the Midwest. It snows there in the winter. The first flurries always seemed to come around Halloween, and I remember them continuing after March had passed. That phrase “In like a lion, out like a lamb” always seemed idiotic to me. In my world March came in like a lion and left like a lion. And we knew how to handle it. In high school my family lived on the town’s main street, and we mentally measured how much snow had come down by how frequently the plows went by. Salt trucks spread their cargo as the flakes first began to stick and plows were out within the hour to keep the roads clear. In college I moved to a wealthy Chicago suburb, one of those places where people pay others to do their yard work. The small landscaping businesses compensated for the lack of work in the winter by attaching a plow on the front of their truck and clearing driveways and privately owned parking lots. And among those who cleaned their driveways themselves, it was common to see snow blowers. I’ve never owned a snow blower in my life. My dad figured his kids could clean the driveway, and post college my roommates and I had short driveways. But every place I lived had a snow shovel. And a bag of salt in the hall closet by the front door. 

My Japanese town’s treatment of snow puzzled me for a long time. 

1. First and foremost because there is no snowplow in this city, not one. In times of great desperation a bulldozer is called and all of the snow is pushed into a corner. A few days later a crane might appear and systematically scoop the mound into a dump truck before it is disposed of in the river. But for the most part, the streets aren’t cleared. People just wrap chains around their tires and leave for work early. 

2. Secondly, I was puzzled because there are no snow days here. Where I went to high school snow days were built into the schedule, and if we didn’t use them, we got an extra long spring break. In rare form, the local Japanese schools did actually get a snow day this year. From asking around it sounds like it was the first in ten years. 

3. Thirdly, I was puzzled because sidewalk salt doesn’t seemed to be used here. My first winter in Japan I didn’t see it at all until March, and I was so shocked by it that a rather loud, “It does exist!” exuded from my mouth. Seeing how bad salt is for the environment, this omission doesn’t bother me too much. It still perplexes me, however, for anytime I walked on icy roads the usual “Konichiwa”s are replaced by “Kyotsukete”s. “Be careful” everyone calls out to me. Yes, I know to be careful while walking on ice. If you’re so concerned about it, why don’t you do something about it? 

4. And fourthly, I didn’t understand the lackadaisical approach often taken to clearing the snow. Where I grew up if the snow isn’t cleared but is just packed down by tires or feet, after the temperature drops overnight it will be a sheet of ice. Here is no exception. I spent many an hour my first winter using the afternoon sun’s warmth to give me an advantage over the glacier covering my junior high’s parking lot. 

I’m still not so sure I understand everything that goes on in the local heads. But here is my current theory about why Fukushima prefecture treats snow the way it does: They think the snow will take care of itself. 

In some ways, I guess they are right. Where I lived the last 23 years, we often experienced days at a time when the thermometer didn’t go above 32F (0C). Here it seems like most afternoons any spot not in the shade gets to 45F (8C) or higher. Fukushima is further south than where I grew up. The prefecture sits at the 37th parallel. That puts it on par with southern Kentucky and northern Arizona. I often forget how far south I am living. The, um, energy efficient heating practices make me feel like I live in North Dakota (see my December post Balmy New Hampshire for more on that). While it might feel cold inside, outside is warm compared to what I am used to. And if the snow is just going to melt in a few days, you might as well leave it alone. 

I can relate to that. My least favorite chore in the world isn’t mowing the lawn or taking out the trash or even changing a dirty diaper. It’s drying dishes. Because while the toilet won’t scrub itself and the carpet won’t vacuum itself, the dishes will, in fact, dry themselves if you give them a couple hours. And you know what? That snow will melt all by itself if you wait awhile. So grab a shovel, clear the street, and wrap some chains around the tires. It will probably only last a few days, and then everything will be clear again. 

Now, the reader may ask, “Do people still go to work and to school if the roads are that bad?” Yes, yes they do. With that exception of that once a decade snow day. The Japanese have a very strong work ethic, one that makes my Protestant German work ethic look downright lazy. But that is another post for another time. Suffice it to say, they don’t have a grid for not going to work just because the weather is bad or they are sick. 

Or the reader may ask, “What if someone slips and falls on the ice?” Well, that is a good question. I don’t have a complete answer. But a big concern in the U.S. is that someone will fall and break a bone and sue. I texted a couple Japanese friends and asked them if a store would be held liable for medical costs if a customer slipped on ice. Both said that the person who fell would be the one who paid for it. In Japan, at least when it comes to snow, it seems it is the responsibility of each person to “Kyotsukete” to be careful, not for anyone else to make it safe.

Have any other questions? Let me know and I’ll ask around.

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