Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Great Place to Visit #3: My Four Biggest Aggravations of Japan

The best part of visiting Japan versus living here is you never have to deal with the culture shock that comes from overexposure to crazy. When you come for your two week stay, you'll visit Shibuya in Tokyo, take the Shinkansen to Kyoto to see the shrines and temples, and do some other quirky touristy things. Then you go back to your home country with funny stories about toilets. What I will strive to show you today is that toilets are just the peak of a somewhat aggravating iceberg.

Before I moved here I had to attend a couple of random seminars on living in Japan. One of those was how to deal with culture shock, or culture fatigue (as they call it now because scientists always have to change the names for things that have been around forever so it looks like they're doing something). They warned us about how things would be very different here. That you'd have to take your shoes off inside, you'd HAVE to say "good morning" every morning to all your co-workers or be shunned, you can buy hot coffee in cans from vending machines in Winter but in Summer you can only buy cold. Crazy, I know, right? I guess I don't blame them for their choice of topics. Those are obvious differences. You could hold up those up next to your own country and say "yes, Japan is indeed different from my country in some ways." What follows may sound like ridiculous complaints compared to the solid factual differences discussed in seminars, but these are truly My Four Biggest Aggravations of Japan. These pet peeves have caused me to question my own sanity, where the only way I've found to silence the voices is to close the blinds and watch hours of Futurama.

4. Nobody Pays Attention While Walking

Before I moved to Japan, I had this idea that Japan would be a crowded country, and I was right. But along with that idea I made the assumption that due to this, these people must have developed an amazing sense of how to move in small public spaces without colliding. I was actually worried I wouldn't be able to adapt to this new way of moving, whatever it may be. For my first couple months here I believed my fears had been proven true. It seemed that no matter what I did I was always in someone's way. What was I doing wrong? At first I tried walking on the left since the Japanese drive on the left. In the USA we walk on the right, the same as we drive, so I thought that would be a good way to start off. That didn't work so I walked on the right, to no avail. I was stumped at that point and it took me awhile to realize that the reason I always found myself in someone's way was because I actually noticed that I was. The prefered way to walk in Japan is with your head down. Some people may carry a prop, such as a mobile phone, to appear as if they have suddenly become distracted by an important email. Possibly one from the Prime Minister. Others use parasols to simply cover their eyes, in the guise of protecting themselves from the harmful effects of the late afternoon sun. Others distract themselves by staring intently at passing shop windows, fiddling with the contents of their bag, or anything else to keep themselves from having to look forward where they would inevitibly have to move out of the way of someone not paying attention. Because of this you get silly situations such as two people trying to walk past each other on an empty street, easily four car widths wide, and failing. When I see this I can't help but shake my head. And then get out of their way.

3. People Steal Your Umbrella

Do you remember that Seinfeld episode where George asked Jerry why he would buy an umbrella when you can just take them for free from the umbrella stands outside of stores? Now imagine that it wasn't a joke and everyone is George. I've lost count of the number of umbrellas that I've had stolen. In reality I stopped counting after seven. That number is not an exaggeration. I tried my best to get them back. I went to the police station and reported my seven umbrellas missing. I told them my theories on serial umbrella bandits. I gave detailed descriptions of each one (all cheap clear plastic, worth about $3.50 each). I haven't received a call back yet, and I'm starting to give up hope. Most likely they've already been taken apart and sold as umbrella scrap to some underground umbrella cartel. I should add that whenever something is stolen in Japan, everyone swears it must have been some Chinese or Korean person. Apparently that 0.5% of the population does 99% of the crimes. Which brings me to my next Aggravation.

2. Generic, Old-school Racism

Japan is a peaceful country so you're unlikely to be the victim of a hate crime, besides getting targeted for umbrella theft. What you will get instead is distrust due to an overall ignorance of the outside world. Twice I've had old women change seats after I sat next to them. One I sat next to for 3 or 4 stops before she noticed I was a foreigner and then decided a seat further down the train would be much safer. There's nothing we can do in this situation except not shoot or rob them, because then we'd just be playing into their stereotype. I still glare at their quickly retreating backs though. My angry face hides the hurt inside. This type of racism is mostly limited to the older generation. Younger people don't worry too much about meeting foreigners in Japan, since they see us as more of an entertaining novelty. Yet they still have the belief that the outside world is dangerous. Before going back to America to visit, my Japanese coworkers told me to be careful. They said this while looking in my eyes just a little too long, as if trying to remember that moment since it would be the last time they would see me alive. When I came back without a knife or bullet wound, they were very happy for me, like I won the Surviving a Trip to America lottery. It's nice to know they care.

See, they don't hate us. They just don't understand how similar we really are. This is why getting complimented in Japan is so darn insulting. If I take the compliments I'm given at face value I'd belive that my Japanese is incredible and the way I use chopsticks makes women swoon. Every time I open my mouth to speak Japanese, or open my mouth to put some Japanese food in it, I inevitably get a compliment about how dang great I am. You're thinking this doesn't sound like something to complain about. Well, you know those fingerpaintings you made as a kid? Maybe you made a turkey out of your handprint or something. Those were absolutely awful. You were like an anti-art savant. Now imagine if you made one of those paintings now and everyone told you it was incredible. And they were being completely honest. It's like, hey! I know this turkey sucks! Don't patronize me and my turkey.

1. People Only Speak English to Foreigners

"But Joe! You speak English! Why are you complaining about something so clearly convenient??" I will answer that imagined question with an anecdote. I was at the airport a couple weeks ago and found what appeared to be an old man's hat on the ground. Being the incredible human being I am, I took it to an airport employee and said in Japanese, "Excuse me, somebody dropped this." His reply to me was, "thankyu berry muchy." Could you even imagine this happening where you're from? If someone replied to any random black person in Afrikaans, or any random Asian person in Mandarin, they'd get a well-deserved punch in the face. I'm sure that the airport guy had nothing but good intentions. He saw me at the airport and didn't know I live a half hour away. He wanted to show off his English as well as how international Japan is. But by replying to my white skin instead of my words, what he actually said was "you are foreign and you always will be." Also he might have added "I don't know foreigners speak other languages besides English."

This concludes My 4 Biggest Aggravations of Japan. Of course this list doesn't cover everything. I skipped how English is used in non-Englishy ways ("Challenge the ice cream!"). Also I didn't mention the strangely widely held belief that Japan is the only country with four seasons. Now that you know, you can skip Spring cleaning this year.


  1. I think a lot of what we experience is the result of an underlying mindset which operates from the idea that it is perfectly fine to constantly point out and act on the fact that you are different. This is at odds with the egalitarian and colorblind teachings we grow up with in America. We may not be colorblind and our society may not be egalitarian, but it is important that we do our very best to try and act that way at all times in the hopes that actions will eventually yield the very attitudes we desire.

    In Japan, the society is naive, ignorant, or indifferent to the idea that acting to make the fact that others are different crystal clear at all times is destructive. This is a lesson they don't "have to" learn. It is their country, after all, but there are consequences to choosing not to learn such a lesson, and foreigners who walk away from their experiences here feeling as you do (and I do as well) are only a tiny consequence of this attitude. There are much, much bigger prices to be paid and so far Japan would rather pay them.

  2. If you can speak Japanese well, and they insist on speaking English with you, what would they do if you pretend you don't understand English? My Japanese isn't good enough to try this, but it would be interesting to try.

  3. Orchid64,
    "I think a lot of what we experience is the result of an underlying mindset which operates from the idea that it is perfectly fine to constantly point out and act on the fact that you are different."

    That's very true. And it's not only foreigners that are affected. For example when a teacher was pointing out a student to me she said "There he is. The fat one." They're so blunt about differences, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that all the see when they look at me is "foreigner".


    I've definitely considered it, but I'm too worried they'll start asking me a bunch of questions, or actually know the language I say I speak. I have a friend who tried that but after a couple questions he just admitted he spoke English and explained why he lied about it. I'm not sure of the Japanese person's reaction though...

  4. @Jaydeejapan"If you can speak Japanese well, and they insist on speaking English with you, what would they do if you pretend you don't understand English? My Japanese isn't good enough to try this, but it would be interesting to try."

    I've tried this, I went clubbing and such and I realised that people would try speak English to me and as it is I've been feeling exactly the same as Paul here about the whole "Foreigner = English" thing and though I would change my entire story. I became Italian, couldn't speak English and was studying at a proper Japanese university instead of being here on exchange to study Japanese. And my Japanese is not THAT bad that they could say "that's a lie...", but it didn't matter they still seemed to slip some Engish words in there anyway, despite my constant lost looks everytime they did. It seems like its seriously imprinted in most Japanese minds; "white and English are a pair. It's like Shoes and Laces"...Well what about slip on shoes I say?! They don't need laces to be useful, just as I don't need them to use English to communicate.

    And by the way, great list..

  5. orenosekai,
    Interesting, but not surprising they kept slipping into English. I wonder why they all have the foreigner = english mentality? Media I guess... They really need to have some internationalization PSAs or something.

    Ah, and also Paul didn't write this one. But thanks for the comment!

  6. Another witty and well-written piece, Joe. All aggravating pieces of living in Japan.

    Regarding the racism/language elements:
    It's ironic because there are plenty of Japanese (understatement?), especially in school, who hate being singled out. Yet many of these same people don't realize or don't care that we, too, don't want to be singled out - at least not for something we have no control over, like what color skin we were born with.

    Ore - my articles are written in that bland grey font, whereas Joe's are brown. I try to color-code the entries to make it easier to tell who's writing. Guess it's still not that obvious - I'll have to think on that. Thanks for thinking this nice piece was mine, though!

  7. Sorry about the mix up with names. I regrettably looked for the first name I could find on the blog when I wrote the comment, for as long as I've been reading this blog I never really thought much about who was writing it as long as it was interesting. My ignorance was not at all blissful, I assure you..

  8. Ore - no problem, man. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  9. > what would they do if you pretend you
    > don't understand English? My Japanese
    > isn't good enough to try this,

    Who needs Japanese for that? Just say something like "No comprendo, señor. Estoy muy apologético, pero no hablo Inglés." It won't matter how awful your Spanish is, either: how many people in Japan would be able to tell the difference? (In fact, they probably won't even know what you said, or what language it is. Which is kind of the point. Heck, you could probably answer them in Klingon and they wouldn't be entirely sure it wasn't English.)

    On an unrelated note, "Challenge the ice cream!" sounds like a great advertising slogan, if only I could figure out how the rest of the commercial would go.

  10. Jonadab,

    It does sound like a joke, doesn't it? But that ice cream thing is actually true. I think it was Baskin Robins who did it and it was "Challenge three scoops" or something like that.

  11. Let me play the Devil's adovcate here:

    4. I thinks this is more our perception, seeing that there are many times more people on the streets of large Japanese cities than similar cities in Europe or North America. We just tend to notice more people walking randomly because there are more of them. And, not looking carefully is not a problem walking in Detroit on a Sunday afternoon while it is a huge problem in Tokyo Station on a Monday morning. On the other hand, this can be useful for comic relief. (^-^)

    3. Stolen umbrellas? You must have bad luck, I've been here a decade and only once seen/heard about a stolen umbrella, and that was by Ryan (from the US), who habitually stole umbrellas from shops and restaurants. I distanced myself from him pretty quickly.

    2. I rather have the Japanese racism any day than any of the "in-your-face" aggression I have experienced in other countries around the world.

    1. I don't know why but it's been years since anyone spoke to me in English. Perhaps I just look fluent these days? A lot of the junior staff in airports are actually trained to respond in English as a matter of fact, and most of the people I know that works in Japanese airports take it as a perk: they get to use English! There's not many other places in Japan where you get any opportunities to practice. (^-^)

    Interesting blog by the way!!! Keep it up!

  12. Everyone everywhere in the world wants to use native English speakers for free English practice. They are all like that in Latin American countries. And don't leave the Europeans out. Even after having a full on fluent conversation with you in the language (Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, whatever), they still try to slip some English in or speak to you in English. If you are female, this is even worse. The men think this is the way to impress you. Impress me? I'm pissed. You want English lessons, you need to PAY for them. Period. I didn't move halfway across the world to spend my free time dishing out free English lessons. So I think PRETEND YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING THEY SAY TO YOU IN ENGLISH AND, IF THEY PERSIST, SWITCH TO A LESSER KNOWN LANGUAGE. For instance, are you in Latin America? Speak Indonesian. Doubtful they know what that is. In Japan? Skip the Chinese or Korean and go with German or Spanish or something else lesser known there. People who try to use native English speakers for free practice are bastards and should be treated as such.