Tax Office

I had to go to the tax office today to get some document. I put this chore off for a while, as the form I needed to fill out was in Japanese only, and based on previous experiences I was afraid this wasn’t going to go smoothly. I was wrong.

First, this is the line I had to wait in to get service:

That’s right, no line. I thought maybe I was lucky, but when I asked, the lady at reception told me they have a policy of minimum wait in line, so when there is more than 1 person waiting, they call staff from the back office to help. Reception is open every day, 9 to 5, no breaks. By the way, it’s hard to see in the photos, but there were pens and reading glasses available for the public to use, neatly arranged and not attached to anything.

The receptionist did not speak much English, so she fetched a young guy who did. He helped me fill out the form, and then asked whether I’d like to get it by mail, or wait 15 minutes. I said I would wait. It took 20 minutes, but on the 15-minute mark he came out to apologize for it taking longer than expected. When he approached me I was sitting on a chair, so he knelt on one knee to be at the same eye level when addressing me.

When I got the document I was surprised to see it was translated to English. I asked why, and he said: you’re a foreigner, so we help you by translating the fields for you. This is why it took longer… I was asked to pay 400 yen (4 US dollars) and left.

(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Magical Art Museum, Tokyo

The Sompo Japan museum in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is running a temporary exhibition called “Magical Art Museum – Illusion of Light and Shadow”.

This is not a standard museum exhibition. It involves active participation of the visitors, who interact with the “media art” works on display, thereby changing them. The interaction produces new lights, colors, sounds and movements.

It’s not a big exhibition, and can be completed leisurely in 1 hour. Perfect for a quick break during a word day if you’re in the Shinjuku area. But it runs until August 28, so hurry up…

 

 

Public Toilets

Public toilets in Japan are available almost anywhere: inside convenience stores (one on every corner), on train/subway platforms and in public parks. If you feel the need to go, you are rarely more than a couple of minutes away from a public toilet.

More importantly, unlike almost everywhere else in the world, these public facilities are impeccably clean. They are cleaned regularly and, crucially, customers generally do a good job in keeping them clean. (Incidentally, most of the cleaning staff are women, and they clean the toilets while you’re standing there doing your thing; a little unsettling for some foreign tourists).

Here’s an example. I was visiting Kanazawa last week, and entered a public toilet in a small park. This is what the toilet looked like. Note the cleanliness, the availability of toilet paper, the facilities for disabled people, the diaper changing area… And all of this in a touristy area, i.e. with lots of customers.

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(This is a post in the series “Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise“)

Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise

A couple of weeks ago, a friend complained on Facebook about a bad experience with a taxi driver in Osaka. One of the comments on his post read as follows (sic): “Folks, do calm down please. We’re as near as it’s possible to be to paradise. Consider most other places on Earth“.

That comment made me think how true that is. Japan is indeed as close to paradise on Earth as possible. Evidently, that is a subjective statement. It is based solely on my experiences, having lived in three countries and visited tens of countries. I’m sure there are people who will disagree.

So I’m starting a new series of blog posts entitled: Why Japan is the Closest Place to Paradise.

These will be short posts about daily aspects of life in Japan that will try to explain why living here is probably the closest a person can come to experiencing paradise while still being alive (assuming, of course, there is a paradise; because if there isn’t one, Japan  would be paradise itself). These are not going to be posts about the “big stuff”. They will focus on the small things that make up the mundane, everyday aspects of life. After all, we live most of our lives doing these mundane and common things, so the sum of them all largely determines the quality of our life.

(PS – My daughter pointed out that the small things in life do not necessarily determine where it is better for one to live. Things like family, friends, society, etc. are at least, if not more, important. Of course I agree. To clarify, I’m not saying that Japan is the best place to live. That is obviously an individual preference, a product of many factors. What I’m saying is that in many aspects of daily life, Japan is hard to beat. Thank you to my daughter for alerting me to this clarification).

Navel-Gazing Israelis

A very common human trait is navel-gazing, the tendency to think too much and too deeply about yourself and your circumstances and being incapable of taking a “bigger picture” look. A short and seemingly insignificant news item today demonstrates this navel-gazing trait among some religious Israelis.

Minister of Education and head of the national-religious party, Naftali Bennett, twitted something late afternoon last Friday. In his tweet he emphasized that although Shabbat has already started in Israel, he was abroad and it wasn’t Shabbat yet where he was tweeting from.

24 hours later, right after Shabbat ended, many attacked Bennett for tweeting during Shabbat in Israel. True to form, they quoted obscure halachot (Jewish laws) about making Jews read Twitter on Shabbat (as if Bennett’s tweets were the reason people were on the Internet on Shabbat) or making religious people enjoy/benefit from an action that desecrated the Shabbat (as if there aren’t dozens of such actions religious people benefit from during Shabbat in Israel).

More than anything, this over-reaction is an excellent example of how self-centered and self-absorbed many religious people have become in Israel. One of the downsides of the huge success of the Jewish State reviving Judaism to levels it have not known in history, is the almost complete unawareness of Israelis about the Jewish world outside of Israel. It is very obvious in the big issues –  the way they see (or more likely, don’t see) the non-Orthodox movements, the conversions done abroad, etc. But for me it is this small example that is so revealing about how deeply rooted this navel-gazing has become.

Who’s a Rabbi?

Hundreds of rabbis in Israel signed a letter supporting another rabbi, Yigal Levinstein, following the public outcry against him. Levinstein recently gave a speech in which he repeatedly referred to homosexuals as “deviants”.

Support from more than 300 rabbis. Sounds impressive.

Actually, not really.

A “rabbi” in Israel is someone who’s been ordained (received סמיכה). In ultra-orthodox circles this usually means that a prominent rabbi tests the knowledge of the aspiring rabbi – a matter of a few hours – and ordains him. In most cases there are no formal requirements and each community decides who to ordain. In national-religious circles (where most of the signing rabbis come from) this means undergoing a series of exams issued by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem. The exams are formally recognized by the State of Israel and are somewhat equivalent – in scope and difficulty – to a BA degree in Humanities.

In fact, I know several “rabbis” who were ordained after learning a couple of tractates in the Talmud and a few chapters in Shulchan Aruch (the leading Jewish Law textbook). Not only is their knowledge minimal; they lack the basic tools and skills to teach or guide other Jews, which is what rabbis are supposed to do. Some of them hardly open a book after their ordination.

The ease of rallying hundreds of rabbis to add their signatures to this letter is telling. It is a sign of the inflationary increase in the number of ordinations in Israel. If 300 rabbis can be asked to sign a letter in a few days, imagine how many rabbis are out there! As in all inflationary situations, the value of the goods decrease as they become more ubiquitous.

So I wouldn’t place too much importance on the title “rabbi”. Imagine a news headline about 300 people with a BA degree signing some petition. Would you be impressed? I guess not. Same here.

Cultural DNA and Trains

Tokyo is a huge metropolis. Many millions of people transit through the city every day, almost all of them using public transportation, mostly trains. I read somewhere that 90% of the busiest 50 train stations in the world are in Japan. Shinjuku station, the busiest of them all, handles on average around 3 million commuters every day.

Visitor to Japan are often baffled by how orderly the public transportation system is, despite the huge numbers. Everything and everyone seem to be working in perfect harmony and coordination, with very little noise and almost no friction. Of course, on the trains themselves people are squeezed up tight against each other during rush hour, but on the platforms, escalators, stairs, etc. everything seems to be working like a well-oiled machine. How is that possible, many ask.

Perhaps the following short video, which I shot this morning in Tokyo, can help explain:

There is no congestion in this simple pedestrian crossing. And yet, waiting patiently for the light to turn green, people are lining up perfectly on one side of the pavement. They do so because lining up is the right thing to do. People were there before you, so you stand behind them, regardless of whether you’re in a hurry or not. Also, the pavement is quite narrow, so lining up in a single file on one side allows people to continue walking freely on the other side. Basic common sense, basic manners, right?

Except this is not the case in most other countries in the world. Without naming names, the experience in other cities – handling far smaller numbers of commuters – is very different: people cutting in line, people not forming lines, people obstructing other people, people pushing their way through, people shouting, etc.

Japan works like this for two basic reasons: rules and respect. First, if everybody follows the rules, the system works. All it takes is a handful of people not following the rules for the system to break down. Why would I stand in line if someone is cutting in? Second, the deep-rooted understanding that my needs do not come before the needs of others. Rather, I will do everything to make sure the other is at ease and comfortable, even if it sometimes puts me in a disadvantage (missing the train, taking the next elevator, etc.).

If everyone follows the rules, and every person puts the other person’s needs before his, everyone benefits. It’s a deeply ingrained cultural DNA, but unfortunately not something that can be easily copied by other cultures.

The Killing of Hope

I just came back from a short visit to Israel, after a year of being away. I met family and friends, and as is the norm with Israelis, the conversations also touched on the matsav – literally “situation” – a generic term for discussing current political affairs.

My foremost impression is unfortunately not a positive one. Almost everybody I spoke with expressed some kind of “giving up” attitude with regards to Israeli politics. Regardless of political affiliation (and many of my acquaintances are right-wing supporters), there seemed to be a general consensus that prime minister Netanyahu is bad for Israel, but there is nothing they can do about it. One of my family members, a young man in his twenties, said he doesn’t vote because nothing can be changed, adding that this is also the case with many of his friends. Others spoke about the daily grind of putting food on the table (metaphorically speaking, of course) which has become so hard as to leave no room for thinking, let alone doing something, to change Israel for the better.

To me, this is a strong indication of Netanyahu’s success in his ultimate goal: personal survival. I reached the conclusion long ago that Netanyahu cares more about securing his position than about the welfare of Israel’s citizens, and this is why I think he should be replaced (and it doesn’t matter by who). Now it seems that his success is beyond my worst dreams, as he has also succeeded in killing hope. The combination of fear politics with the elimination of any potential political rivals has placed Netanyahu in the same footing as some infamous 20th century rulers, living no room for his “subjects” to effectively protest. In those cases only a calamity, or outside intervention, eventually changed things.

I want to believe that not all hope is lost. I want to believe that Israelis, one of the most resourceful and forward-thinking group of people on the planet, will find a way to better their lives by getting rid of the worst prime minister in the country’s history.

Zozo-ji Temple – Candle Night

Zozo-ji temple is a Buddhist temple in the Shiba neighborhood of Tokyo. It sits at the footsteps of Tokyo Tower. Every summer, the Candle Light event takes place at this temple. I had a stroll through the temple grounds this evening.

The event started in 2003 as part of a movement launched by an environmentalist group, under the slogan “Turn Off the Lights, Take it Slow”. Thousands of candles are lit in the temple grounds, and the walkway leading to the temple is filled with shops selling produce, organic food and… candles. At 20:00, after an inevitable countdown, the lights of Tokyo Tower go off and there is live music on an almost dark stage, lit mostly by candles.

The fact that most of the food stalls use electricity and the vendors at the various stalls use their iPhones to provide more light, takes away somewhat from the “all candle” atmosphere. Still, it’s a neat idea and the atmosphere here is both lively and relaxed.

Here are some pictures I took this evening:

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Entrance to the temple: “1,000,000 people at Candle Light”

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Stall selling by candle light

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Candle-lit stage

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Tokyo Tower before 8pm

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Tokyo Tower after 8pm

 

 

Different Standards

A couple of months ago it was revealed that the governor of Tokyo, Yoichi Masuzoe, was using his official car to be driven to a weekend cottage. He was also accused of using public money for private spending, such as gifts for his family and accommodation in high-end spas. The investigators who looked into these expenses – which amounted to a few million Yen (tens of thousands of US dollars) – stressed that this conduct was improper, but not illegal.

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A few days ago, following a public outcry, the governor resigned from his position over an expenses scandal.

Now, imagine the following heading: “Israeli PM Netanyahu Resigns Over Expenses Scandal”. Hard to imagine, right?

Netanyahu and his wife have been the subject of various investigations about improper (perhaps even illegal) use of public funds. The accusations include expenses in their private residence in Caesaria (aromatic candles, pistachio ice cream) to double-billing of flights abroad for family members, and more. True, nothing has been proven in court yet – also because Netanyahu deftly placed several spineless Attorney Generals in office – but the mere allegations are such that an honest politician would have resigned long ago. However, King Bibi and Queen Sarah rule on.

Different countries, different standards.