The Best and Worst of Japan

April 7, 2008 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The Reasons Why…
I spend part of every day with my head in thoughts of the things I will and will not miss about Japan. Listing them, I came up with themes that encompassed my opinions. I tried to keep it short by limiting the number, leaving me with only 10 slots each to say what I love and what I don’t love about Japan.

Ten Reasons Why I Love Japan (in no particular order)
1. The Convenience Factor
Because of their busy work lives, the Japanese have a strong need for convenience. This means convenience stores and vending machines at every corner, and often, in between. I will be disappointed to see soda machines instead of tea and water machines in the U.S., and it will be a shock not to find sushi in the refrigerated section there.
2. Public Transportation
I mourn the loss of the Shinkansen (bullet train) in my life. Sure, it is expensive (note: if you ever travel to Japan you should definitely get the affordable, multi-use JR Pass before going). But it is the cleanest, most comfortable, quickest transportation I’ve ever known. A 90 minute bus ride becomes a 17 min train ride for only $20 by Shinkansen. Beyond that, the busses, monorails, subways, and trains in Japan are plentiful, affordable, and must be the cleanest in the world. Even their sidewalks are roads are uniformly well-paved and clean. (Though the yakuza, the Japanese mob, do their business through the cement industry, and there are a strange number of half-finished bridges to nowhere in this country). But oh how I will miss the carless culture of Japanese commuting.
3. Food Culture

When I get back to the U.S., I don’t know how I will live without mochi (sticky, finely beaten rice flour), umeboshi (pickled plums), and sashimi (fresh raw fish). While I don’t love the cost of fruit, the very limited availability of foods from other cultures, or the incredibly prevalent availability of deep-fried foods served with mayonnaise, I admire a lot of things about Japanese food cultures. For example, their desire to eat with seasons, rotating temperature and types of food to sync with the earth during the year. The emphasis on eating locally; most produce is labeled with the area it came from. The small portions served at restaurants—desserts so minor people in the U.S. would demand a refund. The aim to eat 15 vegetables a day. The less prevalent use of preservatives in food. Japanese specialty foods (okinomiyake, sushi, nabe, yakitori). The set meals offered at many restaurants that feature a whole meal designed by a chef and available at affordable prices.
Studies show we eat like the people around us, and I fear going back to the U.S. and falling into the practice of consuming large quantities of non-nutritional food with high levels of additives and preservatives.
4. Interesting Sights
Such a foreign culture with a rich history, a deep appreciation of aesthetics, and a diverse landscape means that there are many awe-inspiring sights to see in Japan. Ranking high on my list are shrines, traditional tiled roofs, markets, festivals, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyoto, the Nagasaki Lantern Festival, and love hotel décor.
5. Bathing Culture

Bathing is not only done for hygiene here but as a means of relaxation and cleansing. It is also used for “skinship,” meaning that when friends, co-workers, or families bathe together they develop a sort of kinship. The natural hot mineral water available to onsens (hot spring baths) was an especially remarkable highlight of living on the island of Kyushu.
Also, my bathtub. It is about 3’x3’, so I can curl up and submerge my hold body in it. Everyday when I come home, I reheat the bath water in it by pressing a button to start the heating element in the bathtub’s walls. Twenty minutes later a little twinkling music plays, and I know it’s ready. After a thorough shower on the tile next to the bathtub, I immerse myself in the bathwater and enjoy a few minutes of 42 degree Celsius bliss. I will miss my bathtub most when I leave.
6. Vistas
The only good thing about getting up at 7 in the morning is watching the sun rise over the tops of the mountains. Nearly everywhere I’ve traveled in Japan, mountain ranges have decorated the periphery. They are a stunning sight I never tire of. The skies here seem exceptionally beautiful too. At night, I can’t see a single star in the sky, usually. But during the day, the sun is almost always shining, and the blue skies are always patterned with the most dazzling arrangements of vibrant white clouds.
7. Aesthetics
Building here come in three types: the most prevalent being ugly and institutional looking, but then there are the traditional Japanese houses and shrines, and some avant-garde striking buildings. Aside from architecture, however, minor details of the cityscape are always paid special attention. Many walkways are tiled or cobblestoned, cracks in walkways are an extremely rare sight, and manholes always display some natural element of the region, like a blowfish or cherry-blossom flower.
8. Social Consciousness
Most people keep their phones eternally on vibrate. I rarely hear one go off at an inappropriate time, and talking on the phone in public, if done, is done quietly and discreetly. Most people pay attention to rules about litter and trash disposal, and for the litter that is left behind, citizens and businesses clean their areas every day. The kindness of strangers is also remarkable, and people are frequently willing to bend over backwards to help a stranger.
9. Spartan Living
For many Japanese, tatami rooms are used for sitting and living in during the day, and then at night the futons are taken out to convert the room for sleeping in. It is a Japanese quality not to be wasteful. I asked a co-worker of mine if they have doggie bags in Japanese restaurants, and she said no, that they aren’t necessary because the Japanese would always order less rather than too much. I also like how my co-workers display their marital status with a modest band rather than a limited resource marketed to mean love and sold through questionable mining and business practices.
Living in a place for only 2 years, and coming to this country with two 50 pound bags and leaving with two 50 pound bags means that I have also pared down the amount of stuff I need to get by on comfortably. Though I am sending things back with parents and by mail, I appreciate the lesson in simplicity that I’ve been privy to.
10. Appreciation of Art
Just like there is an all-school Sports Day at my school, there is an all-school Sketch Day. The Japanese attitude towards art is much more appreciative than that of most Americans, I think. Students are expected to learn about and practice traditional Japanese art forms, and as adults, many women and some men pick one to specialize in. Art is seen as a part of life here, rather than some attitudes in the U.S. where art is treated like a frivolity.


Ten Reasons Why I Am Glad to Leave Japan (in no particular order)

1. Being a Gaijin
It is a common opinion that no matter how long a foreigner lives in Japan, they will always be an outsider. I am eager to leave behind the daily staring I am subjected to in public places.
Advice: If you are a foreigner in Japan dealing with staring, I suggest you stare back. But you have to do it confidently. Voyeurs don’t like to be looked at; they like to do the looking. So if you confrontationally stare back, generally people will look away. It is rude for a Japanese person to stare at another Japanese person, but like a lot of rules, that consideration doesn’t apply to foreigners.
2. Arrogant Ethnocentrism and Racism
In Japan, the secondary definition of racism better applies, “the belief that people of different races have different qualities and abilities, and that some races are inherently superior or inferior.”
Did you know that unlike citizens of other countries, Japanese people have over one mile of long intestine, and that makes them better at digesting rice? Did you know Japan is unique in that it has four seasons? These are both instances of repeated myths I’ve heard during my time here. My friend’s JTE explained to his students that a man was a good singer because he was Mexican.
I’ve never gotten around to telling this story in my blog before, but on Dec. 6th Chris and I tried to stay in one of the love hotels in Fukuoka. It was 3:30 am and we needed a cheap place to sleep. Love hotels are run electronically, so we made all of our requests through an automated machine. As we walked to our room, an employee opened a window and asked us a bunch of questions in Japanese. We apologized and said we didn’t understand she replied “Japanese only” and shut the window. After she left, thinking we’d perhaps misunderstood her and she meant Japanese-speakers only, and could prove to her that we could work out the automated use of a love hotel without causing trouble, we tried to rent a room again. She again opened the window and say “JAPANESE ONLY!” A cold wash of fury ran through me as I realized I was being refused a room because of the color of my skin. Sadly, my Japanese vocabulary doesn’t include ways of chastising people other than “dame” which I said to her a few times, but is about equivalent to telling a dog or small child “No, no. Bad!”
Moreover, I am annoyed by Japan’s ethnocentrism as it applies to their deceit in admitting to the darker parts of their culture. Japan hunts 600 whales and says it’s for a scientific study. They say they won’t hunt humpbacks, but the next day at the gym, I see a humpback while icon next to the ingredients for a soup recipe. No one I know admits to playing pachinko, a gambling game, but the parlors are always packed with people and you can’t go more than 4 miles without seeing one in a city. And there has been much criticism about how they ignore the poor and homeless.
3. Bad Smells. Daikon, tonkatsu, and halitosis.
Daikon is a staple vegetable in the Japanese diet, and it smells like a combination of rotting produce, stinky feet, and farts. If someone brings it on the bus, the smell is so pervasive I have to cover my nose. The areas near Tonkatsu ramen shops often smell like sewage; that is the unique scent of tonkatsu. And a smell all ALTs know: halitosis. Japan has a particular brand of halitosis that includes 3 or more of the following: rotting fish, coffee, unbrushed teeth, feces, alcohol from the night before, stale cigarettes, and daikon.
4. The Insects Including cockroaches, tatami bugs, jumping spiders, and cicadas.
During summer my skin crawled constantly at the thought of the cockroaches overtaking my apartment. Chris and I started a campaign of sticky traps, bleaching the sink, freezing garbage, and a foam spray that immobilized and trapped them if you could shoot it well enough, and yet we all too frequently saw 2 ½ inch cockroaches crawling from behind the pipe work into our kitchen. Tatami bugs live in our tatami mats, which cover our floor like carpet or wood paneling. Regular spraying of the tatami with an expensive chemical (though it did have a cool injecting nozzle) still didn’t always protect me from the line of itchy red marks they’d leave after nibbling along an arm or leg while I slept. And the cicadas! All summer, their buzz causes a true din. As in, walking outside and talking to a friend, you’d need to raise your voice to be heard. They started early in the morning and lasted until the sun set. They also left their 3 inch dead carcasses around the city.
5. Work Culture
Most buildings in Japan are bare and have institutionalized appearances. I find this to be particularly uninspiring for a school. And then there is the facet of Japanese work culture that leads to nervous breakdowns and death from “overwork,” showing commitment to your job by shuffling papers from 8 am to 11 pm at night, or longer. It’s about quantity, not quality.
6. Uncontrolled Climate
No insulation in homes or buildings, limited air conditioning, no central heating, and no climate control in schools except for the ubiquitous kerosene heater in the staff office. And no carbon monoxide detectors to track the use of kerosene. People die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning in Japan, and from their metal space heaters malfunctioning and causing fires.
7. Noise Pollution
Loudspeakers and flashing advertisements abound. Even bridges in Kokura are embedded with speakers to advertise while you walk. The greeters in the store! Some people’s jobs are simply to shout emphatically and repeatedly in loud voices that you are welcome in their shop, or that you should buy their product. For the women employed in that job, they must squeak their voices to the highest, loudest pitch possible to show you that you are truly welcome in their shop. Pachinko parlors and arcades also contribute to the headache-inducing din of noise in Japanese commercial areas. Perhaps as a result of induced citizen deafness, cinemas always play movies so loud they make the ears buzz.
8. Antiquated Practices. In schools, hospitals, lavatories, and gender and age practices.
In a modern society in 2008, technology should be integrated into the classroom. But it is not so in Japan. Their classrooms look exactly the same as they did 40 years ago. Handwritten worksheets are the norm, and many staff rooms have only 1-2 computers for all teachers to share.
As you’ve probably read in detail in my blog, the approach to women’s health is 50 years behind the rest of the modern medical world. Squatters, mini urinals embedded in the floor surface that are always surrounded by crusted pee or worse, are available more than sit-down toilets.
Women are definitely considered the lesser sex, their main source of power being in their domestic domain. They are expected to run the household and take care of the children without partnership from their bread-winning husbands. As a result of the sempai mentality, older people are allowed to behave as they see fit, and abuse younger individuals with rude language and behavior. Younger female workers in an office must make tea and take on other menial tasks for their superiors.
Also, because in past centuries it was acceptable to have sex with barely pubescent females, I believe the Japanese are slow to adapt to the modern idea of child pornography. This country has a national epidemic of men seeking sex, or the idea of sex, with children.
The Japanese aren’t stuck in their ways all the time, though. I recently read that over 50% of Japanese men now sit down when urinating, at the request of their wives, to eliminate mess.
9. Masking Oneself
Simply put, the group is more important than the individual in Japan. This means people rarely express their true feelings and cover up with a stoic, consenting demeanor. Only at home can people express their true feelings, and even then the family is more important than the individual.
10. Strict Rules
In Japan, there is A WAY to do everything. There are rules for every endeavor, and people abide to them as a matter of practice, without attention to whether or not it is the best way. For example, there are over 100 rules to hold chopsticks.
Though to be fair, I recently listened to Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself , wherein he chronicles his return to the U.S. after 20 years of living in England, and he humorously criticizes the U.S. at length for our unthinking adherence to rules and policies.

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