Japan is a place I’ve lived for 13 years now and just like any other place, it has goods and bads. This isn’t gospel carved into a rock, rather just a list of things I love, but also truly hate, about my neighbors, in this place I’ve stayed for such a surprising amount of my life.
10) They are Insanely Punctual
In Japan, when someone says “I’ll arrive at 6:34.” They mean exactly at 6:34. The train system, even the buses, in Japan are very, very punctual. It’s a pride point the country takes for granted and so do the expats living here. I’ve stood next to friends on train platforms, they look down at their watch and sigh. “Oh, Jesus, really? A late train? This is bullshit.” It’s 6:35. The train is less than a minute late, and we’re both really put out by this. I obviously love this, the on-time-ness of the public transportation.
The flip side here is the individual obsession with punctuality, but then not planning appropriately to achieve this without turning the daily commute into an esoteric Olympic event.
Every morning and every evening, a phalanx of shoulder bag toting salary-men and office ladies go streaming by at a gallop and then smashing into the already max capacity train cars, forcing their way into the death-trap-to-be, all in the name of punctuality. “I WILL NOT miss the 7:56 Express! Will Not!”
Although I have deliberately scheduled my life in a way to avoid these times, I still see it, and it never ceases to make my blood boil with the desire to flick a leg out into the path of the galloping herd and watch a dozen worker bees tumble.
Just wake up fifteen minutes early and all the sprinting is avoided. Or, even better, don’t worry about being two minutes late.
9) They don’t Change for the Sake of Change
America is obsessed with the new. If it isn’t new, it doesn’t matter. Actor Denzel Washington feeling-raped some reporter on some red carpet lecturing her about how nobody cares what’s true, only what’s new and being the first one to say it out loud. It isn’t just the news. Old buildings, old people and old values; America wants it new and it wants it now. On one hand this can be awesome and give us things like Twitter, but on the other hand, it can be tiresome and ridiculous, and give us things like…Twitter.
Japan is never in too much of a rush to replace the old. With over 4,000 years of history, why should it be?
The problem here is when the non-desire to change is actually making life far more cumbersome and ridiculous. The old Japanese business model is today, a failure. The refusal to try new things saw Japan go from the world leader in cellular technology to the backward, laughing-stock seemingly over night. Even when the signs are painfully clear, Japanese companies are unable to make the decision to cut loses and walk away. It isn’t just business either. Japanese education is hurting because it’s unable to change.
Americans throw the baby out with the bath water but the Japanese all pile in together and soak in that tepid old sludge because “Shouganai“.
8) They are Obsessive about their Obsessions
I’ve known so many Japanese who became highly proficient at their “hobbies” to the point of being near masters at whatever it is they are into. If a “hobby” is adopted, it’s almost without exception taken seriously, with years of practice and months of salary spent on equipment and training. Rarely is something taken on in a half-assed manner. This is why if I ask a Japanese person “What are your hobbies?” Instead of the typical “I listen to music, I cook sometimes, I like movies, I workout occasionally and I used to snowboard.” The Japanese response is something like “I do baking.” This means ” I am a school trained French pastry chef, I simply work at a company to fund this life long passion.”
Completely new kit; easily thousands spent on the new racket, the racket case, the shoes, the matching jacket, the visor, plus a tennis club membership and all before your first lesson? Japan, pump your brakes a little, please. It doesn’t have to be tennis, either. Snowboarding, hiking, skiing, surfing, skate boarding and Brazilian Jujitsu; I’ve seen this over-obsession before even taking the first real step in all of these and it drives me nuts.
7) The Women are very Feminine
“Japanese women are professionals at being women.” said my friend. This is true and it’s a welcome break from us all having to pretend that women are “just like men.” Because, and I know this may shock some politically correct readers, WOMEN ARE NOT JUST LIKE MEN.
So, it can be a welcome break to be around women who are not ashamed of being feminine and all the things which come with that. Allowing themselves to giggle, be enchanted by puppies and babies, concerned about whether or not their outfit matches and worried about their weight or hair. Whatever.
There is such a thing as too much, and at some point being “girly” and “cute” becomes being “frail” and “mentally retarded.” The constant cat gestures, the never-ending shrieking of “KAAAAWWWAAAIIIIIIIII!!!!!” and the absurd short skirts and hooker heels, in the snow, lose their charm at some point. Occasionally it would be nice to enjoy a beer with a woman who can take the piss and deal with your cigar smoke. Nobody is recommending testosterone injections, just a little less Estrogen overdosing.
6) The Guys Cowboy up for Manhood
After university, assuming they went to university, in Japan the fun and games are well over. These young guys are all in black suits, going from interview to interview, begging some company to hire them. Once hired, by and large, they are nothing less than indentured servants, until the company goes bust, they retire, or they die at their desk or in front of the morning express.
If they marry, it’s even more extreme. Their wife assumes near total command of the home and all finances and the man becomes a permanent cog in the company machine, often being forced into unwanted assignments in foreign countries or undesired locations. They spend little time with their kids but pay huge fees for school, outings, clubs, cram schools and other useless junk. The way a man deals with this is heavy drinking with co-workers, chain-smoking, and the occasional liaison with a hooker. This is all just “shouganai” and one after another, they generally step up to the plate and take their ration of adult-hood-shit like, well, men.
If your life is so bad, that the only way you’re making it through is by drinking yourself into an absolute stupor every evening, and smoking in the hope of dying early so you can avoid going on another business trip with your boss, you are not a man, you are a shell. You are a lifeless robot who is stuck in a paradigm which is simply no longer necessary. Too many times I’ve asked “So, how do you relax?” and have heard “I drink and play pachinko on Saturday.” “How about sports or hobbies?” They smile “I played baseball in high school.” You are boring, sad, and there’s nothing “Samurai” about you. You’re just a beta-cuck-alcoholic with estranged kids and a bored wife who is probably emailing some sleazy gaijin. Becoming you is my worst nightmare, so thanks for the lifetime of motivation.
5) They Love to Organize Events
With Hanami, or flower viewing, season coming up, this is a no brainer. What expat in Japan hasn’t had the pants charmed off them whilst pounding booze and munching a rice ball in a park with Japanese friends, eager to help you experience this lovely time of year? Sitting under the Sakura trees, part of the crowd, is truly a good time and it’s just one of the many events the Japanese never fail to plan. Fireworks festivals in the summer, boat cruises, festivals of all colors, beach trips and nabe parties; The Japanese love these events.
But if it isn’t organized and planned to the max, they have a hard time getting involved. This goes across the board for everything and into every nook and cranny of the society. Random drinks in the park: Unlikely. Home party? “Yosuke, come over man we’re partying.” “Is it a birthday party?” “Um, no. Just drinking, blazing and jamming, come over.” “I don’t understand.” “OK, it’s a birthday party for, uh, Matt. Yeah, Matt.” A moment goes by…”I do not know this Matt-san, but I love birthday parties. I will going to the department store and purchase appropriately themed items.”
Disney Land is heaven on earth to them, anything spontaneous is an incomprehensible nervous hell.
4) They aren’t Threatened by Marginalized Groups
Gay, Lesbian, Tranny, Transvestite, White, Black, Brown…whatever, basically mainstream Japanese society leaves you alone. Nobody is roaming the streets, angry, and looking for some gay-black-vegan to kick the shit out of. Often, the thing which would get you crap back home is kind of embraced here, and almost appreciated. Almost without exception, every Japanese woman I know is fascinated by homosexuals. The point is, except for the Chinese and Koreans (because it’s hard to marginalize groups you’ve stolen half your culture from, easier to just hate them), those of us in these other minorities get a pass.
“Ni-Chome is great! I feel so safe there!” Really? Gay town in Shinjuku makes you feel safe? That’s ironic, because if I, for example, wanted to buy a fistful of mind bending narcotics, aside from Shibuya, the first place I’d go is “2-Town“. The streets at night are a parade of drugs, booze and mistakes; men in ass-less leather chaps on 3-wheelers zoom off into the night with scared young men astride behind them. On three separate occasions I’ve been with people there who have had their bag/wallet/wallet stolen: This has NEVER happened at any other area in the city for me, or the people I’ve been with. But because “Gay” equals girly and that equals “kind” all common sense rules go out the window. People are so entirely unthreatened they lose all will to survive. Consider this: a gaijin guy I know, has on multiple occasions, taken girls to Ni-chome to drink knowing it was the most likely place they’d get wasted and easily cab it back to his flat for selfish sex.
I don’t know who that scumbag was, but he was an unthreatening minority, utilizing another unthreatening minority, to seduce non-threatened bimbos. Wake up: Being a minority doesn’t make someone a good or bad person, it just makes them a minority.
3) They are Serious about Fashion
I was once told by someone in upper management, that the international luxury fashion brand Hermes, makes nearly 40% of its profits in Japan alone. It was easy to believe. The Japanese love fashion, they love luxury brands and they love shopping. Again, a tried and tested cultural barometer: “What’s your hobby?” “I like shopping.” There’s a dry cleaners on literally every corner in Tokyo. Everyone is always getting their hair done and nails done. A lot of stock is put into looking good enough so that one can fall into the coveted upper average bracket. When compared to the t-shirt and shorts, pajama nation I call home, this is refreshing.
There is no point, none, in walking down the street with a three thousand dollar Gucci shoulder bag, when you live in a room the size of an average American toilet. There’s also nothing so absurd as a thirty year old man, dressed to the hilt in a tailored Ermenegildo Zegna, peddling slowly toward the station on his rusted out old Mama-Jari (Grandma bicycle: standard issue in Japan). It’s the hypocrisy. Life should be congruent, or as close to congruent as possible. The fashion-outside/beggar-at-home paradigm is infuriating to me.
2) They Follow the Rules
Rules were made to be broken, by Gaijin. The Japanese just love rules. They line up, and they wait. They do all the paperwork, all the time. This in some ways is very comforting. If I fall asleep on a train in New York, I can be pretty certain someone is either going to steal my bag, or take a whizz all over me, just on principle. Not so in Japan. Personally belongings are relatively safe, (as long as you aren’t in Two-Town). A great over-arching example of the general agreement to follow rules is Janken, or Rock-Paper-Scissors. Starting from a very young age this is used as a legitimate means of conflict resolution. I was stunned when I first saw some kids do it, determining which of them would get the last piece of candy. I was shocked that a method was in place, other than fighting, to figure this out but most of all, that they actually accepted the result and then moved on; the one kid munching down the candy he had won. The indoctrination starts early and it keeps pretty well later in life.
Law and order, sure, I get it. But sometimes, there’s such a thing as too much. For example, at my house we had this random piece of wood lying around. It wasn’t particularly big and not heavy, about the size of a chess board. Well, I was working and I asked my wife, who was heading out to meet friends, if she’d drop it off at one of the communal dumping areas. These places are full of Sofas, TVs, desks, and not all the stuff is junk; I own a nice coffee table I retrieved from one of these areas. It isn’t “legal” but someone puts that stuff there. Well, to make a long story short, although she left with the wood, she simply couldn’t do it, and in fact, convinced herself that the police were watching her via cameras. Sweating, heart racing, she had to bring it back home.
1) They Know they are Japanese
I think one big problem in the USA is that nobody really knows who or what they are. When I was little, we all got taught we were Americans and there was a whole mythology built to explain what that was. Sure, some of that was bullshit, but everyone’s is, so it didn’t matter; we all had something in common. Around 1990 or so this started to erode and now it’s gone. Everyone is on a quest to define themselves, no matter what. There’s a sick desperation to this cultural phenomenon, so, it’s refreshing sometimes to be around a people who know exactly who they are. The Japanese don’t have to wonder about their identity or their homeland. It’s all here. They live collectively and this results in a shared identity. It’s the 3rd richest country in the world, and frankly, not a very comfortable or thrilling place to live in so far as “quality of life” is concerned. But the Japanese stay, because it’s Japan, and they are Japanese.
The one word I hate in Japanese more than Kawaii, is Shouganai. It translates to basically mean “Nothing we can do about it.” Sure, these situations occur, like above: It’s raining and my umbrella broke, shouganai.” However, it gets thrown around to avoid having to actually figure things out. “I hate my company so much.” “Just quit. You speak 4 languages. You can get a better job.” “I can’t. I’m Japanese. Shouganai.” I’ve discussed before how normal, everyday Japanese food isn’t really very good, and above we talked about how so many Japanese live in 3rd world conditions but play developed-nation-dress-up when going to work. These dismal conditions and the general state of unhappiness and often deep loneliness which so many Japanese suffer from, is never addressed, and often dismissed with, a shrug, another shouganai, and the inevitable, “I’m Japanese.” Well, I call bullshit. We spent thousands of years in the mud, barely surviving and are now at the pinnacle of human civilization. So, before we all die in nuclear hell fire, enjoy your life, be who you want to be and stop allowing a word to define your entire existence. Lets face it: None of us are getting out of here alive; there’s just no time for shouganai, Japan.