Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thoughts on Japan.

I've been living in Japan for over a year and I haven't left this country on over nine months, so I think it's time to check in and state some things I've learned.

Before I begin, I'd like to state that I really like living here. I mean. every day is fun and interesting if I choose to make it so. Japan, is however, a real place. Things good and bad happen to me. That's just life.

So, here are a few things I'd like to discuss:
  • Food:
I love Japanese food. There's so much great food around here. Dining is always fun and almost everything I eat is great. I'm an adventurous eater for the most part, and looking back on the last year, I can't think of a single thing that I've eaten that was absolutely terrible. I have, on the other hand, found some amazing Japanese food that is now something I crave often.
That being said, some foods that I was used to before I moved particularly Mexican food and pizza, are not the same. Pizza isn't terrible here, but it's really not the same. It seems that both Japan and America have their own takes on this Italian dish and they go in somewhat opposite directions. Mexican food is around, but it's usually overpriced and under par. Not to say it's bad, but when I spend $16 on a burrito plate, I expect something great. Instead I get 'decent', but I know where I am, so 'decent' is fine. On the other side of the coin, I was expecting pasta to be quite terrible, and every time I've gone out for pasta, I've been pleasantly surprised.
Also on food, the portions in Japan are smaller. Prices, for the most part are cheaper than in America depending on what you get, but portions are almost always smaller. Japan has no real culture of taking leftovers home and it's considered wasteful to not finish your meal. I have left restaurants hungry. In reality, it's better this way, as I eat less and rarely try to overeat, but it's just different.

  • Language:
Simply put, you don't NEED to speak Japanese in your everyday life in Tokyo. I don't speak Japanese well, but I more than manage. Japanese is something that I am studying and I want to learn, but it's not needed on a daily basis, really.
It is, however, something that is really useful. Even with my limited Japanese, I am allowed opportunities, both social and professional, that people who don't speak any Japanese miss. Also, certain key phrases are of the utmost importance (Sumimasen, kudasai, arigatou, etc.) and anyone who lives here should learn these without even trying.
Also, mind that I said you don't need Japanese in TOKYO. Tokyo is not the beginning and end of Japan. Other cities and even suburbs, you just can't get by knowing only English. Also, both in careers and socially, speaking Japanese is really useful. Even just trying to speak to someone in Japanese makes them feel more at ease and they'll often be much friendlier.
Surviving in Japan with any other language besides Japanese or English is almost impossible.
  • Dating:
Some people seem to think that if you're a foreigner, girls will flock to you. This isn't the case. Not to say there aren't plenty of Japanese girls that love foreign guys, because there are. It's that you're not the only one. Also, once you go out on a date with someone, communication (if you don't speak Japanese fluently) and cultural differences (even if you do), create big problems. Not to say working out cultural differences isn't interesting and fun, but it can get old fast.
  • Being a foreigner:
Slightly more than 1% of the Japanese population are foreigners, and of those, the overwhelming majority are Chinese or Korean. For people who grew up as part of the largest ethnicity of their area will instantly become racially aware. For example, in most parts of America, if someone said "I met a guy today. He's white.", it would sound really odd but in Japan, it would be quite normal. Also, in most of America, I wouldn't have to wonder if I'm being discriminated against
because of my race. Here I have to consider that sometimes. And there is discrimination here. Sometimes it's for the better, sometimes it's for the worst, but it does happen. I'm not going to re-tell stories I've told here, but it's never been bad. Some people have had some big problems, but I haven't.
Also, I will never be Japanese as long as I live. If I spend the rest of my life in Japan and I gain Japanese citizenship and I become fluent in Japanese, I marry a Japanese woman and I adopt all the Japanese customs and live the life 100% like the majority of Japanese people, I will still not be Japanese. Personally, this doesn't really bother me, but some foreigners get very sensitive about this. My thought is to look at it differently. No matter what I do, I will never be Swedish or Filipino or Chinese or Nigerian. One of the great things about America (and a few other countries) is almost ANYONE, given the right circumstances, can be an American. With almost 99% of Japan being of Japanese descent, this isn't the case here, and I will be a foreigner for life in Japan. The only time I see this as a real problem is when someone is born and/or raised in Japan who isn't of Japanese descent.

Two more quick notes on foreigners: We really don't know how to treat eachother. Sometimes we're overly friendly, sometimes, we're angry when we see another foreigner, and sometimes we're just regular people. This is partially because of the mindset that we are the only ones who are here, and our illusion is shattered when we see proof we're not. Or sometimes it's the reverse, that we're relieved to see we're not the only ones here. Either way, outside of tourist areas, it can be a bit awkward sometimes. At first, I didn't like seeing other westerners, but my mild annoyance turned into apathy, and now I usually don't care outside of my neighborhood. Inside my neighborhood, I'm usually delighted, as a lot of ex-pats have been living here for a number of years and are quite friendly.
If you look up the word 'gaijin', you will see lots of controversy. Technically 'gaijin' means 'outsider', but often times, it's just short for 'gaikokujin' which literally means 'outside country person' or foreigner. Some people take great offense, as it can be an insult, but others use that name with great pride. Personally, it bothers me when people refer to themselves as 'gaijin', as it is a misrepresentation of the Japanese meaning which is at best a descriptor, but is never really positive. I used to take offense when Japanese people used that word, but I was talking to a good friend and she used the word 'gaijin' in a neutral context while talking to me and obviously didn't mean any offense. So, if a good friend used it casually, then I'm okay with it, but not really happy to hear it. I did find out that 'gaijin' can't be said on TV in Japan.

  • Transportation:
Like most big cities in the world, cars are rarely used and public transportation is a must. The train system here is confusing but great. It can be a bit pricey, but you pay for convenience, as trains can take you almost anywhere you want to go. Outside of Tokyo, there are still plenty of trains, and a plethora of buses. Most buses and trains stop at midnight or 1 AM, but since bars or restaurants don't legally have to close any time or stop serving alcohol, many stay open until 5, so you can hang out and keep drinking until late at night. Which brings me to my next thought...
  • Sex, drugs, and alcohol:
Alcohol is big here. They like to drink a lot in Japan. The drinking age is 20 but nobody cares. At work parties, alcohol is present, and at almost every holiday, there is more than a modest amount of consumption. Even so, drunk driving is really not a huge problem here. Partially due to the great public transportation, but also due to the strict laws in Japan. I don't know the law exactly, but I know it's quite strict.
Drugs are rare here. People generally do not view them as 'cool' or 'exciting' and they're usually only thought as harmful. Most people rarely use them and drug abuse is a very minor problem here. That doesn't mean drugs are nonexistent, it's just they're rare, very rare. Also unlike America, if a celebrity gets caught using drugs, it's detrimental to their career.
Sex is very open in Japan. There's less than 1% Christians here and there is no real concept of 'sin' or something being wrong just because it's wrong. Not to say people don't have their on ideas, it's just not religious based. Generally people don't really care here. Prostitution isn't legal, but there are plenty of grey areas in the law. I've never partaken, but it's pretty obvious where and how. Japanese people don't feel the need to hide such businesses. This isn't to say that explicit sex scenes are on basic TV, but there's a much more liberal view about it in Japan.

  • Friendliness:
People in Tokyo don't talk to strangers under normal circumstances. It simply doesn't happen often at all. Inside restaurants, bars, and places where meeting and talking happens, people are very friendly, but outside of these places where people come to meet strangers, interacting with people you don't know is very rare. Even so, I've found that the majority of the people I interact with are really warm and caring.

So, those are my thoughts. I have plenty more to say, but I'm not sure this is the best way to say it (for that matter, I'm not sure that this article belongs here), but as I initially stated, Japan isn't perfect, but it's still great and I'm glad I live here.

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