Weill in Japan Jason Weill Web Productions
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in session

weill in japan: day 06

Classes officially got underway today. There are eight levels of instruction for the summer courses, from C1 (no prior experience whatsoever) to C8 (native speakers). When signing up for the courses, I selected C7, "Advanced Japanese," not realizing just how advanced it is. After a lackluster performance on the placement test, I was duly slapped down to C4, "Intermediate Japanese I." It's a little bit demoralizing to be knocked down three levels, although I personally feel that I would be better suited in the next level, C5. After a brief interview with the professor, she noted that I was fairly good at speaking proficiency, and wrote "C5" down on my paper. I wouldn't mind being transferred into C5, especially considering that most of the class was struggling today on material that I could do easily. Being in a class that is too low in difficulty is no guarantee of an A; on the contrary, it can lead to complacency and even arrogance. That's something I don't want.

Classes run from 8:30 AM to 12:30 PM with ten-minute breaks every hour, and on-campus facilities are open for a few hours after that. For example, today I bought some stationery, mailed my brother's birthday gifts home by air mail (cost to mail: ¥1550, including ¥140 for the box), ate lunch, talked with my fellow students, bought my textbook, attended a homestay orientation session, did my homework in the language lab, and played around in the computer lab before heading home.

The computer lab on campus is very convenient, and nicely outfitted: G4 towers with Office 2001, a few Internet applications (Telnet, FTP, WWW), and other utilities. Unfortunately, they still run Mac OS 9 rather than the UNIX-like OS X, but that can be forgiven. The great thing is that every day I can use the CD-RW that I have to transfer web page updates and other documents up to my Carnegie Mellon account for publishing to the web. Have I mentioned that they have US English keyboards? Very, very cool.

If you've never seen a Japanese keyboard, they can be very intimidating. Because of the addition of character set switching keys, the bottom row is very cluttered on both Windows and Mac keyboards. The space bar is often smaller than the SHIFT key on a typical American keyboard, making it tough to hit. Also, a surprising number of symbols are unshifted, so the SHIFT key must not be depressed to type '@', ':', and a few others I can't remember right now. The ENTER key is vertical instead of horizontal, making one's pinky travel unusually far. This makes Internet nomenclature easy to type, but it takes some getting used to. Also, the backslash is nonexistent, having been replaced with '¥'. A typical Windows path might look like "C¥WINNT¥SYSTEM32", for example. Overall, the changes aren't massive, but they can be annoying if you only want to type English characters.

Macs seem to be the platform of choice at ICU, as in Carnegie Mellon's administration. The choice seems logical here, since the Mac OS is far better than any other at displaying Japanese characters clearly. For example, the Japanese "Osaka" font used in Mac OS is much more attractive -- both on screen and in print -- than MS Gothic or Arial Unicode MS in Windows, in my opinion. The outstanding Japanese appearance was one of the factors that made me all but go out and buy an iBook last year, before I received my Compaq laptop as a gift.

money matters

As I've frequently noted, Tokyo is the world's most expensive city. New York is a distant second. After my early spending spree, I found that my cash reserves had dwindled from ¥30,000 to just over ¥2,000. My daily commute costs ¥370, and lunch is around ¥500, so that money doesn't go a long way at all. Credit cards are scarcely used in Japan, and this is the only place where I've seen shops that accept Visa but not MasterCard. (Guess which one I'm stuck with.) With ATM card in hand, I walked up to the on-campus cash machine. The machine beckons "Irasshaimase" ("Welcome") and an on-screen graphic shows a uniformed woman bowing at me. I inserted my card, waited for a few seconds, then notice the message "Kono kaado (something) gozaimasen." Out comes the card. Ka-chunk. Denied.

After I get off the bus at Musashi-sakai station, I decide to do some shopping at the massive Ito Yokado department store located next door. Inside, there is a cash machine. The cash machine bears a sticker with the English text, "Accepts only Japan-issued cards." Damn it! I try my card anyway, and it is promptly rejected. Next door is a branch of the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, a prominent Japanese bank. I try my card there. No luck. I show it to the women handing out flyers in the entrance, and ask for their assistance. After she tries it, no luck. I thank her for her time.

There is a large Lumine shopping mall next to my home station of Ogikubo. I ask the attendant at the information desk if there is an ATM nearby, and she tells me that there is one on the third floor. I ask if it will work with my card, and show it to her. She is doubtful, since it looks like a foreign card with the verboten MasterCard logo. I go up there, see the same English warning, try anyway, and get rejected.

That is the last straw.

Citibank is a huge multinational corporation with a large presence in Tokyo. I cannot believe that their ATM cards do not work here. I storm out of the Lumine mall to street level, looking for a phone booth with which to yell at customer service for 24 cents a minute. There is a booth near the exit. It contains... an ATM.

Inside, there is no "Japan-issued only" sign.

insert card

beep beep beep beep beep beep




arigatou gozaimasu

I'm not normally a praying man, or even a Christian man, but oh thank you Jesus thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. I took three pictures of the ATM for future reference.

I may now return to my regularly scheduled capitalism.


Japan has a wonderful assortment of toys, and they're not all geared towards children. One of the first stops I made in Akihabara on Saturday was to the Akihabara Department Store which is accessible directly from the station platform. There, there are die-cast models, games, robots, trains, books, movies, and all other sorts of diversions. Toys are also sold in capsule machines.

Sighting: a virtual tennis game which plugs directly into a television and is controlled by a small plastic paddle. One of my friends wants to buy it for the dorm lounge. Cost: about ¥6000 ($50). I didn't buy it, because this was before I was able to withdraw money.

Soccer is big now in Japan, as the nation is still in the afterglow from the World Cup. World Cup goods are heavily discounted, but Japanese soccer jerseys are still as much as ¥12,980 ($108). Maybe I'll buy one from a less-than-reputable shop.

I still need to buy souvenirs and presents for lots of people. More capitalism is on the horizon.

Japanese vending machines serve a dizzying array of beverages, including some delicious but small cafe latte, but I haven't found any candy machines at all. I have to buy my M&M's and Pocky from a human. This is unacceptable.

think big

As you might tell from the above, I've been taking in the atmosphere of many Japanese department stores. The layout is similar to an American department stores, with specialized departments, salespeople strewn about the store, and cashiers placed in strategic location. However, nothing the U.S. has can compare to the Japanese department stores, like Ito Yokado -- a store so large it is split into two locations on opposite sides of a street. How many department stores outside Japan have all of:

Wal-Mart has not expanded into Japan, and there's a pretty good reason why. In Japan, the secret isn't to build outward as Wal-Mart has done in rural America; it's to build upward.

One last big thing: typhoons. Typhoon Shatan is expected to approach Tokyo in the near future. Me no like.