Friday, April 30, 2010

Unbecoming Speech

Back in the the '70s, I managed several restaurants, including a steak house, an Italian restaurant, a couple of fast food outlets,a delicatessen, and even an ice cream shop. I mention that previous career only so that you will understand that I actually know something about hiring and training waiters and waitresses. These days, my contact with service personnel in the “hospitality industry” (i.e., the bar, restaurant, and hotel business) is only as a customer, but I haven’t forgotten my past.

A while ago, I was watching a television program about the training of personnel in new restaurants. The program showed a couple of expert consultants and how they helped the managers of the soon-to-be-opened shops. One of the things that caught my attention was the training in language: the store managers and their service staff were being taught what expressions should--and shouldn’t--be used. I was very pleased to hear that one of the most common expressions I hear in restaurants, and one that has always bothered me, is in fact wrong.  The expression is: "(something) ni narimasu", as in, for example, when a waiter or waitress brings your order to the table and tells you, “Ebi (shrimp) tempura ni narimasu”.

That has always bothered me. It seemed to me that the expression was used in a misguided attempt to sound more formal/polite, even though "de gozaimasu" (a formal form of "is") would do the job quite well. I suspected that the phrase has become so common that service personnel, and their bosses, had begun imitating the mistake.

My Japanese, although it certainly isn’t native speaker level, is quite adequate for most situations, so I thought that I at least understood what “narimasu” means: "becomes" or "will become". My unspoken reaction to that very common " narimasu" expression has always been “OK, but what is it now?” or “How long do I have to wait before it becomes what I ordered?".  

I haven’t (yet) been so unkind--though I’ve definitely been tempted--as to ask the waiter or waitress directly.  Certainly so far whatever has been brought to me looked as if it was already tempura, or a steak, or a pint of Guinness, or whatever else I ordered. In some cases, it’s really intriguing to consider what it might be if it’s still becoming what I ordered. If something, for example, is becoming a raw oyster, then what is it now?

So, I was happy to see this consultant on the TV program sternly correcting the store managers and service personnel, using almost exactly the words that I’ve always thought: “It’s not becoming a sirloin steak; it’s already a sirloin steak!”

[This appeared in a somewhat different form a few years ago on a different website. Unfortunately, the phrase still seems to be as popular as ever.]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Limited Express

One of the DPJ's announced aims was to do away with expressway tolls. They said--and still say, in a vague and unconvincing way--that Japan's expressways would become, well...freeways.

The 1000 yen weekend and holiday discount was supposed to be a step toward this. I've talked about this earlier, and although I wouldn't call it a complete failure, it certainly has been far from an unqualified success. The real motivation seems to have been stimulating domestic tourist spending in the hinterlands rather than trying to learn anything from the experiment regarding making expressways free, as was sometimes claimed. It certainly "enhanced" traffic congestion.

Now the government has come up with a new plan, and its recently announced details seem to have made almost nobody happy. Based around a 2000 yen cap on tolls, it actually raises the tolls for short (under 70 km) runs, and puts the so-called Metropolitan Expressway on a stepped distance-based scale, with the highest toll for ordinary passenger vehicles 200 yen higher than the current flat rate of 700 yen.

Short-haul delivery companies and truckers are understandably upset, as are those who remember that just around the time that the Metropolitan Expressway was supposed to have paid for itself and become free, the tolls were raised from 500 to their current levels. Now they are, for many potential users, being raised again.

Nevertheless, these changes are being touted as reductions and  as steps toward making Japan's expressways toll-free.

Then there's the issue of whether it makes sense to buy and install the costly ETC equipment. I'll bet a lot of drivers who bought them to take advantage of the 1000 yen holiday rates are kicking themselves now.

I'm certainly not going to buy an ETC device, and I wouldn't even if I did enough expressway driving to justify it by the slightly increased convenience and minimally faster toll gate passage. I might save myself a total of 10 minutes or so between northern Saitama and my office, but with the new rates my tolls would go from 2600 yen to 3400 yen.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Bigger They Are

My old friend David, he who supplied the title for my last post, reminded me that I hadn't mentioned the parking issue that contributed to my moving vicissitudes. It would obviously have been easier to rent a big truck and do the  whole move at once instead of making multiple trips with my car. If the civilian parking wardens weren't such persistent pests, that's exactly what I would have done. However, since curbside parking would quickly get me a ticket, the only safe and reliable place to park during the move is shown in the photo of my bike from my May '08 post. There's less than twice the length shown in the picture available, so only a fairly small vehicle would work.

Although I haven't reconnoitered thoroughly yet, my initial scouting of the new office's immediate environs hasn't turned up any place to park a bike, much less a car. Maybe I can make a deal with the gas station next door.

Unfortunately, I'm not going to have to worry about that for a while, because I probably won't be able to ride the bike for at least another week or so. I've got a sprained left wrist and/or thumb, the palms and fingers of both hands are scraped, swollen and bruised, and my left elbow and knee have got some "road rash", too.

That's not the result--as it probably sounds--of a bike wreck; I merely tripped and fell on the street the other morning, and (mostly) broke my fall with my hands.  I was immediately reminded of Dr. Jack Horner, the paleontologist whose controversial opinion that T. Rex was a scavenger rather than a predator is partly based on a theory that it was so big and had such relatively weak arms that a fall at fast running speed would likely have been fatal.  "The bigger they are, the harder they fall"...luckily, although I'm pretty big I'm not that big, and I have quite strong arms and hands with which to break my fall.

So, I wasn't injured that seriously, but it's going to take a while before I'm able to grip the bike's clutch lever strongly enough to change gears. In fact, I've had to type this post using only my right hand.

Unpacking all of those boxes is going to have to wait a week or so, too.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Moving Experience*

I've been working out of the same office in Shiba, near Tamachi in Tokyo's Minato Ward, for well over a decade, maybe closer to two. The company recently decided to move out of the building and into another one in  the Shibaura area. The "ura" means "back" or "behind", and indeed Shibaura is on the other side, the Tokyo Bay side, of the train tracks. It's a somewhat less prestigious address, but presumably the rent is less, and these are financially difficult times.

The move--as of the end of March, and the end of the Japanese fiscal year--coincided, coincidentally, with my birthday, my retirement as a full-time, permanent employee and the start of the next phase of my career as a contractor/consultant.

For the last three weeks or so of March, though, I was rather less concerned with changes in addresses and statuses than I was with the logistics, and the manual labor, of moving.

Everything had to be removed from the old building by the end of the month. To make things more interesting, I'd been working in a more-or-less private office with three desks, two large bookcase/cabinets, and three file cabinets...all of them filled with books, texts, files, and miscellaneous equipment, mostly stuff I'd collected and/or produced over the years, but some acquired by the company (a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, and dozens of translating dictionaries) or left behind by colleagues who had long ago moved on to other jobs. In the new office, I've got one desk in a typical Japanese open-plan office.

Much of the stuff could be, and was, thrown out or sold to recyclers, but a lot of it had to be moved. This meant a great deal of sorting, packing, carrying boxes, and making several 150 kilometer round trips from home to office in my car, a smallish SUV. I could have used a couple of professional movers and a 2-ton truck, but you make do with what you have.

I ought to mention, for the benefit of my readers who aren't familiar with traffic conditions in the Kanto Plains area, that the trip from the wilds of the Saitama/Gunma border country to southeastern Tokyo takes a lot longer than someone from--for example--northern California might expect. The 75 or so kilometers can be driven almost entirely on expressways with a nominal speed limit of 80 kph, but unless it's three or four in the morning, it will probably take three or even four hours.  Most of that time is likely to be spent fuming in the  exhaust from cars moving at glacial speeds on the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway, the last 10 or 12 kilometers of the journey.

Having learned that the hard way many years ago, and being unwilling to add insult to injury by actually paying the 700 yen toll to participate in a world-class chronic traffic jam, I opted for a "lesser evil" solution. I took the Kanetsu Expressway (which is usually pretty fast, as long as it's not ski season) to the outskirts of Tokyo, and then ordinary roads to the office. That's a better strategy than using the Metropolitan "Expressway" (an extraordinarily inapt name), but is still somewhat tactically deficient if you're doing it at the end of the fiscal year. That's when the infamous "let's do all sorts of road and other public works construction now so that our budget isn't reduced for next year" activity kicks in. The predictable result was around 45 minutes for the first 65 kilometers getting to Tokyo, and two hours or so for the next 10 within it. It worked the same way in reverse, except for one day when I left Tokyo before dawn.

There is, of course, the option of not using expressways at all. If you don't mind dealing with an astonishing number of signals, roads that expand and contract from two lanes to six and back, and hundreds of sleep-deprived truck drivers, you can save the 1400 yen for the Kanetsu, the 500 yen for the Gaikan connecting ring road, and the 700 yen for the Metropolitan Expressway...but it'll probably take over four hours and the stress--even if you're like me and really like to drive--will probably take a month off your life expectancy. I can only recommend that option for masochists.

In any case, I did manage--just barely--to get a ton or so of stuff packed and moved by the deadline.

I don't want to think, just yet, about unpacking and finding storage space for it all.

*Thanks are due to my old friend David for the title.