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Alice Gordenker

Alice Gordenker writes the “So, What the Heck is That?” column, providing in-depth, carefully researched explanations of the things foreigners find so puzzling about Japan. Her work has been modified as a textbook for Japanese university students called “Surprising Japan” (Shohakusha, 2012).

For Alice Gordenker's latest contributions to The Japan Times, see below:

Nature's air freshener

| Oct 21, 2010

Nature's air freshener

Dear Alice,The other day, while strolling in a park near my home, I overheard a group of middle-aged ladies. One of them said, “a, toire no nioi!” (“Oh, smells like a toilet!”) and everyone laughed. I was puzzled, since we were nowhere near the ...

Laundry logic

| Sep 16, 2010

Laundry logic

Dear Alice, I’ve been married for three years to a Japanese woman who insists on doing laundry every day. When I asked her why, she said, “That’s how we do it in Japan.” I find this strange because Japanese people are generally very ecologically ...

Ladies' plans

| Jul 15, 2010

Ladies' plans

Dear Alice, What the heck are “lady’s” discounts? I’ve only been in Japan for six months, but I’ve already been served a “lady’s lunch” (free coffee and dessert); been to “ladies day” at the movies (almost half price); and went to Kyoto on a ...

Vader ladies

| Jun 17, 2010

Vader ladies

Dear Alice, What the heck is with all the Darth Vader impersonators in Japan? You know who I mean: the middle-aged ladies who bike around with menacing-looking windshields attached to their heads. I steer clear because the shields completely obscure their faces and I ...

A traditional Christian pattern?

| May 20, 2010

A traditional Christian pattern?

Dear Alice, A long time ago, I received a little leather coin purse as a gift from a visiting Japanese exchange student. I was intrigued by its unusual pattern, but unfortunately he couldn’t explain its significance to me. Nor could any of the Japanese ...

Ear rakes

| Apr 15, 2010

Ear rakes

Dear Alice, Imagine my horror when I came home one evening to find my Japanese wife bent over our little son, about to thrust a sharpened stick into his ear! I shouted at her to stop, giving her the fright of her life. She ...

Dump-truck identification numbers

| Mar 18, 2010

Dump-truck identification numbers

Dear Alice, It has been my great pleasure, these past few months, to watch from my window the total destruction of a large building. The work started with three hydraulic excavators that carefully crushed their way down from the roof. Now I’m watching a ...

Logo for recyclables

| Feb 18, 2010

Logo for recyclables

Dear Alice, What the heck is that symbol I see on plastic packages in Japan? I assume, from the arrows in a circulating pattern, that it means the package is recyclable. But I’m not sure because I can’t read the Japanese inside the arrows. ...

Landlocked 'lighthouse'

| Jan 21, 2010

Landlocked 'lighthouse'

Dear Alice, I’m very curious about a building I passed the other day on my way to Shinagawa Station. It’s an old Western-style building, probably from before the war, and it has a tall, way-out-of-proportion tower on top. To be honest, it looks like ...

Scary crow

| Dec 17, 2009

Scary crow

Dear Alice, I live in rural Kyoto and am puzzled by what seems to be the local version of the scarecrow. They take plastic crows and hang them, usually upside down, on a string off a pole. I can’t figure out what the heck ...