Some of the reasons why I love Japan
Today's story really isn't a story. It is a list of pros and cons. I have been living in Japan since 1992, which is more than half of my life. I am deeply ashamed to say this but I have never learned how to read the language. It's not too late to start, so this year, to pass the N2 level Japanese proficiency test, I plan to start studying. I can speak the language well enough, although I probably sound like a clever caveman to anyone who's listening to me explain anything that requires more thinking than bar talk.
In English speaking countries we are very flexible about language because so many people around the world speak English. We've gotten so used to hearing different accents that it's easy for us to figure out what a person is trying to say even if they have a foreign accent. In Japan, people's brains suddenly shut off when you don't say things exactly the way that they expect to hear them. This isn't true for everyone of course but it is true for a vast majority of the people. A perfect example is when I went to the bread shop once, actually this happened many times, and I asked for a croissant. I said it in a slightly French accent because that's how I learned the word qua•sont. Despite the fact that the lady at the bread shop was standing right in front of the things, she could not understand what I was trying to say. It was only after I pointed my finger at them that she finally understood and said, “oh kurowasan(クロワッサン).” I get that the accent may not have been what she was used to hearing, but putting two and two together should have allowed her to understand what I wanted if she had taken the extra step. Somehow, there is a deep rooted intolerance towards imperfectly spoken Japanese, despite the fact that this is the nation that repeatedly butchers the English language and does it with a smile.
Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here. Today's post is all about listing the things that I absolutely love about Japan and the things that I absolutely cannot get used to. Let's start with the things that I love.
#1 on the list is peacefulness. I love how there is practically no crime in the city despite the fact that it is so crowded with people. Of course, there are yakusa and other types of criminals, however, crime is relatively low compared to the rest of the world. When I was living in the United states, I had been robbed and assaulted many times. That has never happened to me in all of the years that I have lived in Japan. Of course, it does happen to others from time to time. My neighbor’s house was robbed a few years ago, for example. I also have a friend who had their house broken into while everyone was home. The men of the house chased down and beat the burglar then dragged him to the police station. There are also sex offenders on crowded trains who take advantage of the close proximity of women's body parts to their junk. These kinds of crimes do exist. However, being carjacked, getting mugged, and the probability of being murdered are so low the chances are practically zero. To experience an act of violence against you, you would have to either be involved in organized crime, have instigated the trouble somehow, or extremely unlucky. Again, there have been exception. I know at least two people who have been murdered and one who was nearly murdered.
#2 on my list of things that I love is quality of service. Compared to my home country, the quality of service here in Japan is outstanding. You're always greeted with the basic level of professional courtesy, whether it be at a fast food joint or a five star hotel. For the most part, people take their job seriously and put a lot of pride into what they do. Human beings are human beings matter where they are from, so there are exceptions to this rule. I think that people with bad attitudes are usually weeded out by society. Once I was in New York City staying at The Four Seasons Hotel. I didn't have a credit card. I still don't have one. Maybe it's a leftover mindset from my days of being poor, but I believe credit cards are a trap that creates dept. Anything that I cannot pay for with the money that I have is something that I don't need or can get by without until I get the money. So, I was at The Four Seasons paying my hotel bill in cash. I had brand new crispy $100 bills that I had gotten from the bank. They were hard to count because the bills stuck to each other. As the lady struggled with the stack of hundreds, she looked at me with all seriousness and said, “I hate you.” I was shocked. It was The Four Seasons! I would never experience such a bad attitude from a Japanese clerk, even at the cheapest, stupidest hotel in Japan. I did have a bad experience with one of the train station staff members. He was very nasty to me and condescending. As I was filling out the form to purchase a new computer pass I asked if I should write my name in alphabet or in Katakana. He looked at me with very evil and disgusted face and barked, “Are you Japanese!? Are you!?” I lost my temper and threw my pen really hard in his face. I shouldn't have done that but it happened before I realized what I was doing. I could tell it hurt and that he wanted to hop over the counter and throw hands. I was ready but he never moved so I just left.
#3 on my list of things that I love is the open-mindedness of Japanese people. Now, I know that this is going to contradict something that I'm going to write on the list of things that I don't like. Japan is, after all, a very collectivist society. I actually did a study on this in graduate school. I interviewed about 200 people and ask whether they saw this country and themselves as a collectivist. The irony is that the vast majority of people who responded said that they believe society was a collectivist society but they themselves were not collectivist. Regardless of my survey outcome, there is a great swath of society here that has a really open mind. I think Japanese people have a natural curiosity for all things. That’s why you see Japanese people who are dressed up from head to toe in hip hop gear and can emulate, with eerie precision, the mannerisms and speech patterns of some African Americans. There is a guy named Ryo Nakata who is the leader of a band called Osaka Monaurail. The band specializes in old school James Brown style funk. What's interesting is that Ryo speaks English like a black man from the 1960s Even though he is much younger than I am, I think. Japanese people love to embrace and experience the cultures, foods , habits, and thoughts of the world. This gives Japanese society, in general, a wonderful kind of open mindedness. It does, however, directly contradict to society’s xenophobic nature and blockheaded stubbornness when it comes to change. I will get to these in my list of things that I don't like.
#4 on the list of things that I love is related to number 3. Whatever it is that you adore, you can generally find some version of it here in Japan. Rock, punk, techno, afrobeat, reggae, hard core death metal... it's all here. Practically every cuisine of the world is here too. Globalization has made it so that we almost have access to everything that we have back home, with the exception of a few obvious things like home appliances and furniture sizes. Because Japanese people love to embrace the cultures of other people, we can find the finest cheeses the best wines, global music, global fashion, and entertainment all inside of Japan’s major cities.
#5 on the list of things that I love about living in Japan is the fact that, in general, Japanese people are pure hearted. There's almost an innocence about the entire society that seems to have gotten lost in the rest of the world. I feel as if in Europe and America the imperative is for one's own interest and gain before anyone else’s. Now, of course, on a business level, Japanese people are sharks just like anywhere else in the world. However, on the day-to-day human interaction level there seems to be a pure way of living. It feels like this way of living values the well-being of the community as much as it values the well-being of the individuals within that community. I think this is part of the collectivist mentality. In the West, everything is so aggressive. It feels a lot less aggressive here in Japan. That gives you the time to actually enjoy the things around you without having to always feel this constant sense of competition and posturing.
#6 on the list of things that I love about living in Japan is the quality of food. I love how fresh ingredients are readily available. I love how things tend to not be overly processed or chemicalized. Because some Japanese people are maniacal about the things that they do, when you find a really excellent restaurant it truly is superb in terms of the balance of taste and the quality of the meal itself. The artisan spirit is still alive and well and that has a positive impact on some aspects of society. I think that's why Anthony Bourdain loved Tokyo so much and it's also one of the reasons why Tokyo has the most Michelin stars of any city in the world. The quality isn't limited to super fancy, overpriced restaurants. For less than$10 or 1000 yen you can get a plate lunch or dinner that includes a main dish with rice soup, salad, and a drink. The quality is usually superb.
#7 on the list of things that I love about living in Japan is how clean everything is. All of the streets are spotless. Every public transportation is also extremely clean. When we go to the beaches we almost never see trash lying around the sands. In public parks and in residential areas, the sight of garbage is unheard of. Japanese people take pride in where they live and work together to keep it clean. This is true even in the poorest neighborhoods, places that we would call ghettos in the US. This is what led me to understand that the ghetto is a psychological construct. The ghetto exists in the mind. What we would consider project tenements in the US are just cheap housing here in Japan that is never overrun with garbage, seldom have windows boarded up, and rarely do we see the sort of rampant crime that we see in the ghettos of America and Europe.
#8 on the list of things that I love about living in Japan is how honest most people are. I didn't say everyone I said most. I have left my laptop or iPad on the train more times than I can count. I have gone shopping before and put my bag of clothes and other things on the top rack above the seats and forgotten it on several occasions. I've even lost my wallet a few times. Every single time those items have been returned to me safely. My wallet even had all of the money inside. It's amazing. I once left my camera on a train in France. I had realized it as I was walking towards the ticket exit. I ran back to the train and got on to get my camera. As I was racing back to the seat where I had left it, I saw the conductor looking distraught. As I got closer, he lifted up my camera, pointed to it, and gestured to see if it was what I wanted. When I said yes, I could see the look of disappointment in his face. It was a cannon 5D Mark II DSLR. He handed it back reluctantly.
In Japan, 99 times out of 100, someone would have found my camera and immediately handed it over to the train authorities who would put it in the lost and found. If you happen to find something that someone had lost and take it to the police station, you're asked to leave your phone number and name. This threw me at first because I found a wallet in the bank one day. Having been positively influenced by my experience of living in Japan and having my things returned to me, I immediately thought that I had to be that guy too. So, I took the wallet to the police station. When the police started to ask for my name, address, and phone number, I started to get a little bit nervous because I didn't know how much money was in the wallet originally or if I would later be blamed. Later, I found out it was because it's tradition in Japan for the person who gets their lost item back to return the favor by sending a gift. I got a phone call from the owner of the wallet asking me to go by her hair salon where she would give me a reward for having returned her wallet. I refused the reward because I did not turn the wallet in thinking that I would get something out of it. I handed in the wallet because I wanted to be a keeper of this tradition of honesty. I can feel how everyone participating in this system makes the whole society better for everyone, just as it made it better for me.
Lord to have mercy, this post is becoming one of the longest I've ever written and so I'm going to have to continue this tomorrow with a few more things that I love and a list of things that I hate about living in Japan.
As always I will post it first and maybe edit it later.