Let’s start with talking about Hanko. For all you Finnish readers, I am not referring to the southern most town in Finland, but to a personal seal/stamp, used with red ink, that they use in in Japan instead of a signature. This is something that is vital for important official documents like bank accounts and property transactions, and big purchases like when buying a car. So it is really like a signature. And is used in Japan presumably because Japan’s character system of writing does not lend itself very well to signing.
Hanko is a 1cm round or oval stamp that has a character or some symbols on it (see photos). Many people have their name written in their hanko, but those of you who know me, can understand that it was not an option having my name as my hanko – my name is way too long to fit onto a 1cm space. Luckily, your hanko does not need to be your name – one can choose anything really. In theory your hanko could read: Godzilla, Cheeseburger, or Japanese toilets. I will not tell you what my hanko reads, but I can tell you that when I use my hanko people find it funny or cute and usually comment on it. In case you are wondering, No, my hanko does not say: Godzilla, Cheeseburger or Japanese toilets.
The hanko gets registered with the government so it really does function like a signature. No two hankos are the same even if two people had the same word(s) written on their hankos. I know what you think: ‘What a stupid system. There must be fraudulent use of hanko.’ And I am sure it is possible. That’s one reason why I am not posting any details or pictures of the stamp on my hanko. However, fraudulence in relation to signatures must be at least equally easy. For example, as a teenager I used to know several people who forged their parents’ signatures in their bad school reports and exam papers which they did not want to show to their parents. I also used to know more than one person who could forge their 18 year old friend’s signature, so that they could use their friend’s ID to get into clubs when they themselves had not yet turned 18. So, actually, it is probably easier to fake someone’s signature than one’s Hanko.
Hanko is extremely important at work. Not only do I need it for all official documents, but also for things like stationary order forms. And I have to go to the department office every work-day to stamp a sheet with my hanko. It’s a bit like clocking in in Finland or England.
The other day there was some confusion as to who had taught a particular class. When I went to ‘clock in’ an admin person asked me to stamp one class that I did not recall having taught. So I didn’t stamp it. My non-existent Japanese skills combined with the office staffs’ equally bad English skills meant that getting this confusion resolved turned out to be rather quite difficult. Initially there was just me and one member of office staff. Five minutes later I was standing there surrounded by nine members of office staff (I counted) speaking English and Japanese, miming, pointing, writing, and using diaries in an attempt to understand each other. They all were eager to help and were very nice and friendly but no-one spoke English. I felt like I was in some sort of surreal joke. How many Japanese admin people do you need to get a teaching rota issue sorted? -I really don’t know. Finally, a member of staff arrived who spoke some English and we could discuss the issue. But it seems that (a) Japanese people are accustomed to working in teams and gathering together to resolve problems and (b) that there is nothing unusual about large groups of Japanese people engaging in a job that in Finland and England would be done by one or two people. I mean, having nine admin people assisting a foreign lecturer who didn’t speak English in England or Finnish/English in Finland would be quite unusual. If you saw nine people behind a counter in England or Finland focusing on one relatively simple matter you could but wonder whether the system was operating rather inefficiently. In any case, the beads of sweat on my forehead when I was there communicating with the nine (lovely) Japanese admin people made me promise myself that I will put more effort into learning Japanese.
I opened a bank account in Japan some weeks after we arrived in Japan, when I had received my hanko, allowing me to deal with official documents and their ‘signatures’. As you might have guessed, the bank clerk did not speak very good English, so vocal interaction was rather minimal during the opening of my bank account. I was thrilled when about 10 days later the police came to deliver my bank card to our door. You see, my bank card had been delivered to our local post office, who sent me a letter saying that I can go and pick the card up from there or they can deliver (free of charge). So my work colleague rang them and asked them to deliver the card at 7pm that evening. Amazing service, right? Some days later I found myself in Zara (one of those few places that cater for Godzillas over here). When I attempted to pay with my new card the cashier looked at me confusedly and tried to explain something. I didn’t understand what she was saying. So, I assumed that she wanted to see some ID (since I was practically emptying the shop from its Large or 40-42 size clothes). So, I offered her my driving license. That didn’t help. After a while another cashier person came to help, and a third one. And eventually I managed to understand that my bank card was not a debit card but a cashpoint card only. Like, excuse me! I am not 14 years old or declared bankrupt! How on earth could that bank clerk assume that the best card option available for me is a cashpoint card? Since then, I’ve learned that in Japan you don’t have debit cards – they only have cashpoint cards and credit cards. Nevertheless, the bank clerk should have offered me a credit card, but she didn’t. To make matters worse, I found out in Zara that my English credit card company had assumed that my card (details) had been stolen and were being fraudulently used by someone in Japan (yes, me). Consequently, they had frozen my NatWest Master Card account and so I got some more disapproving looks in Zara. I think they thought I was some sort of a criminal. And they asked where I had got my Japanese cashpoint card from! Well where do you think? I have a little cashpoint card factory in my living room and I think it is a good idea to make cashpoint cards and show up in Zara with them to pay for size 42 clothes. Give me a break. Luckily, I happened to have enough cash on me so I didn’t have to leave the shop without my new clothes and completely stripped of my dignity.
The problem with having a cashpoint card is not only the fact that I can’t use my card to pay for purchases at shops, restaurants or online, but that I need to go to a cashpoint to take some money out. An additional, bigger problem is that there seems to be only a handful of cashpoints that accept my card, and the closest of these to our apartment is about 500 m away. Furthermore, banks in Japan are open extremely limited hours, 9am-3pm, Mon-Fri. And, crucially, the cashpoint opening hours are also extremely limited (9am-5pm)! What I find confusing is that Japanese toilets are over the top high tech with functions that most people, I am sure, would not use on a regular basis, and that Japan has (probably) the most highly functioning train services in the world but that drawing money out from your own account is more difficult than drawing it out of your Northern Rock account back in 2007. Consequently, when I do manage to go to the cashpoint I usually take out €1000 (or £700) at one go, and therefore for the following days I walk around with about €1000 or £700 worth of yens in my purse. Luckily, it is rare that anyone mugs or pickpockets you in Japan.
The other evening I was invited to a party. There were about 20 people there. The food was great (as Japanese food usually is), and the selection and quality of the beverages was also great but the quantity was not what I have got used to in England and Finland. You see, there were two bottles of wine and three bottles of beer. Initially I thought to myself – that will do nicely. Little did I know that I was supposed to share this with the other 19 party-goers. As a Finn who lived in England for 14 years that is strange, in particular because I felt like I couldn’t down one of the bottles of wine, like I wanted, but to restrict myself to two small glasses of wine and then having a glass of cold (bottled) tea, and some Coke. There was also some drinkable yogurt on offer but even though I really wanted to try it, I just could not make myself drink yogurt at a party, after two glasses of wine. I think no-one over the age of 5 years should drink yogurt (and indeed milk) in a public place, not even Finnish men. You see, Finnish men are quite at ease with drinking a nice pint of milk at a restaurant with their meal – I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
The reason for the ridiculously small quantity of alcohol at the party might have been related to many Japanese people’s bodies’ apparent inability to break down alcohol effectively, which results in them getting completely trollied by having just a single glass of wine or beer. I know what most of you Brits and Finns are thinking! You are annoyed that Japanese people’s drinking sessions are unfairly inexpensive. Imagine going to the pub, having one drink and heading home because you’ve reached your limit. I suppose the flipside of this is that even though many Japanese people would have cheap pub nights in England, their pub night is likely to end about 30 minutes after it started. Us Finns and Brits like our drink. Hence, most of us would probably find a 30 minute drinking session as disappointing as a 3 minute session of something else.
Celebrity moment of the week was when I met Ernest Shackleton’s grandson. Most of you Brits know who Ernest Shackleton is, but most of you Finns do not know this chap. So, it is probably worth explaining that he was a very famous explorer who carried out an expedition to the Antarctica in the early 20th century. His ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice and it was thanks to his leadership skills that all of his crew survived. His grandson was very nice and I talked with him about the Wife Carrying Competition and Air Guitar World Championship that they hold in Finland ever year (crazy Finns). It might be worth mentioning that he is an Anthropologist and that topics of my conversation are usually not quite as random as those.
Talking about celebrities, our (male) au pair is a bit of a celebrity over here. You see, he is 20, and he wears white vests and baseball caps. Wherever he goes the Japanese people (a) are excited because they think that he is Justin Bieber or (b) are amused because they think he looks exactly like Justin Bieber or (c) are amused by his wife-beater vests and baseball caps. I don’t get a celebrity reaction from the Japanese people. I guess they don’t know who Vanessa Feltz is.