Things I won’t miss about Japan

July 6th, 2009 by Chris

It’s now less than three weeks before we leave Noshiro, our home of the last three years. In that time we have come to feel at home in Japanese culture. Like any culture, Japan’s is a combination of splendid and infuriating traits, and I’ve been tossing this idea around in the back of my head for almost our whole time here. So now that we’re approaching the end of this adventure, I wanted to commit to writing my take on the better and worse parts of living in Japan.

In the spirit of leaving the best for last, I’m going to start with the negative stuff. Some of this may come across as a snarky self-superior bitchfest; if so, that’s certainly not my intent! Indeed, my aim is to attain an Obama-like state, wherein I float serenely above mere human opinion and see all sides of an issue. Only funnier.

And so, these are the things I won’t miss about Japan, in no particular order.

Bureaucratic Culture

Imagine the most formal, structured kind of event that you possibly can. Graduation, wedding, funeral… that kind of thing. Every Japanese event is like that. Public events of any kind are invariably kicked off and concluded with interminable strings of boring, monotonic, content-free speeches. God help you if there’s a politician present.

And that’s just day to day events. Doing anything that you’d actually expect to require bureaucracy, like getting a driver’s license, is taken to an absurd degree. I was going to go into great detail here, but I can’t do it justice compared to the actual getting-a-license document prepared by and for Akita JETs, which is actually pretty entertaining reading in its absurdity — especially if you don’t have to go through the process yourself.

There’s not much more to say about this topic. It’s one of those paradoxical experiences that’s endless and annoying to live through but quick and easy to explain.


What’s that sound I hear outside? Window repairman? Fruit hawker? Opera singer? Electronics recycler? Politician running for office? All these and more have shouted at me from their cars as I try to get work done in my house during the day.

Election season is easily the worst, because every candidate will have cars out yelling his name and thank you! at top volume, all day, every day. Japanese elections are notorious for being completely content-free. You think American elections are nothing but meaningless sound bites? Japanese political campaigns usually consist of – literally – nothing more than “vote for me!” (On this subject, I’ve been wanting to watch the Japanese documentary Campaign, about a no-name guy running for office in Japan based purely on the party name, as filmed by his friend.)

And it’s not just the mobile speakermobiles. Any remotely popular destination will be thoroughly laced with loudspeakers: tourist attractions, parking lots, gas stations, stores, sometimes entire towns. It’s common, especially in small towns, for important hours (typically 9am, noon, and 5pm) to be marked by playing horribly creepy and depressing synthesized jingles throughout the town. I am extremely glad that Noshiro doesn’t do this (we just have noon air-raid-style sirens!); if they did, I don’t think we could have lasted three years.

What is it with all the public announcements? In America, we tend to view these pervasive public-announcement regimes as a distopic totalitarian-state mind-control kind of thing (e.g., Big Brother addressing the people of 1984), whereas it seems to be pretty normal for Asian cultures. Japan is as TV-addicted as any upstanding Western nation; I’m surprised they still go for the old-fashioned loudspeaker-in-the-street approach when just about every establishment you visit will have a TV on in the corner anyway.

Ugly Urbanity

Japan exports an image of ancient temples, flashy neon Tokyo skyscrapers, fast trains and Mount Fuji. While all these things do exist, the vast majority of Japanese construction consists of ugly piles of concrete held together with an unbelievable tangle of aerial wires. When they try to imitate other cultures’ architecture, it’s often an exercise in painfully cheap-looking mockery. Home interior lighting more often than not consists of a single fluorescent light hanging in the middle of each room. I’m not the only person who has noticed this. This Japan Times article from last year laments the same phenomenon.

I’m not a keen enough student of history to know exactly when Japan started to slide from traditional beauty to unfortunate modernity. But I’m guessing it was around the time the new parliamentary government was established after the war. The Japanese government often appears to exist for no other reason than to hand out useless projects to the construction industry. They’re particularly good at expressways and airports. Our nearest airport, Odate-Noshiro, built just a few years before we arrived, handles a load of — wait for it — two round-trip flights a day. One to Tokyo, one to Osaka. We like this airport because it has free parking and is so empty that you can get from your car to the gate in about 10 minutes. But it certainly doesn’t make any economic sense. But that’s still better than the new Ibaraki airport which is scheduled to open next year. No airlines will agree to fly to it.

So, I blame Japan’s “constructionocracy” for the ugly predominance of concrete throughout the country. We are fortunate to live in a sparsely populated corner of the country, an area filled mostly with rice fields. But I’m happy to say that beautiful scenery is never far away, even in the extremely densely-populated southern half of the country. This spring we took the train from Hiroshima to Tokyo, a four-hour ride through a region that is home to 50 million people — almost twice the population of California! And throughout that ride, I was repeatedly amazed at the procession of lovely little fields and valleys going by the window. People will plant rice fields absolutely anywhere they will fit. You can find them if you step around the cinder-block walls and the tobacco vending machines, and follow those little back alleys toward the flashes of green glimpsed between buildings.

There’s No “No” There

This is one of those common stereotypes about Japanese etiquette that happens to be completely true: they won’t say “no.”

In many instances, there’s no real harm in this. You’ll ask a question, and instead of receiving “no” as an answer, you’ll get the famous “teeth-sucking” reaction, which consists of:

  1. Grit teeth
  2. Cast eyes downward
  3. Incline head slightly downward and to the side
  4. Inhale slowly through your teeth so as to make a hissing sound

You can’t go through a day in Japan without getting this a few times. It’s never a reaction you want to see, but you can just translate it to “sorry, no” in your head and get on with life.

Where the no-”no” phenomenon really gets evil in the service sector. It’s a bit of a paradox, because Japanese service is rightfully renowned the world over for its obsequious treatment of the customer. (We’ve certainly missed that kind of customer service when visiting other countries on holidays these last few years.) But the great service has a sinister side, which comes out in certain not-uncommon situations: when you’re the customer who wants something, and the service-person doesn’t have it. The cynical translation of the resulting process is: “We know we can’t help you, but we have to pretend to try for as long as possible, so that you can see we did our absolute best to help you, the customer, who is most important.”

This was more of a problem in the beginning, before we figured out the pattern. Our first real experience with this issue was trying to get cell phones a few days after arriving in Noshiro. We went to the phone shop and started the ball rolling, merrily filling out forms and all that other stuff you have to do to get a phone contract. We were helped by an absolutely delightful young woman who assured us that we’d be out of there in no time.

Three hours later, we left the store tired, annoyed, and phoneless. You see, you can’t get a phone contract unless you have a foreigner-ID card. And we didn’t have those yet, since they take a few weeks to be issued. The shop clerks probably knew this the second we walked in the door. And if they didn’t (which is possible, because there’s a decent chance they’d never signed up a foreigner before), then the two or three different English-speaking national reps they put me on the phone with most certainly did. But to simply state that fact up front, when it became clear we didn’t have the necessary documents, would have been too direct.

That was certainly the most time-wasting incidence of the “pretend to help” pattern. But it can rear its head even in situations so simple that you’d never expect there could be any confusion. Like when we were grocery shopping and asked a clerk if they had salsa. He ended up leading us around the store for 10 minutes, going up and down every aisle with us before sadly declaring that apparently they don’t have salsa.

This pattern can get almost farcical when combined with Japan’s extreme commercial seasonality. Japanese products are insanely seasonal, often only being on shelves for a number of weeks before being retired to make way for the next big temporary thing. The trouble is, you never know if the wonderful morsel you’ve just discovered is one of these seasonal products, or if it’s a mainstay you’d just never noticed before. This kind of quick product turnover happens even in restaurants, where we’re occasionally hit by a favorite item disappearing off the menu without warning. Invariably this happens right when we’ve gotten comfortable enough at the restaurant to stop looking at the menu, leading to the slightly embarrassing (for all sides) situation:

  1. Customer: I’ll have X
  2. Waiter: Certainly! I’ll just write that down here.
  3. C: That’s all, thanks!
  4. W: Oh wait! I’ve just realized I don’t know what you ordered.
  5. C: It’s the same thing I’ve been ordering for months!
  6. W: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
  7. C: It’s right here in the menu… <flip flip flip>
  8. C: Expletive deleted, it’s gone.
  9. W: Oh, that! Yeah, we stopped selling that yesterday.
  10. C: <grumble>

(I must admit the exchange above was influenced by this piece by Thomas Dillon in the Japan Times.)

Experiences like these have essentially taught us never to ask for help from anyone who looks like their job is to be able to help you, unless we know for 110% sure that they know the answer to our question.

Of course, me being a stereotypical guy, I almost never ask for help or directions anyway, so the whole thing is really just reinforcing my existing instincts.

End of Rant

Stay tuned for a high-sucrose summary of more pleasant things in the next few weeks!

4 Responses to “Things I won’t miss about Japan”

  1. mom Says:

    This is funny, Chris. We’re glad to read your writing occasionally. Good to hear from you. Love, Mom

  2. Obacyan Says:

    OMG… those are the things I hate the most.

    Well, I mean, tell me about the goddamn bureaucracy…
    There has not been a single day I didn’t have to deal with it in my office.

  3. Mitsuye Yamada Says:

    Oh my! This was so much fun to read! Even I, who understand Japanese, had trouble understanding the the “yes which sometimes means no” in Japan. For instance, at one point I asked an “usher” (or some white gloved official-looking person who is always standing around) at a temple in Kyoto if I may take photographs and she said “Hai, blah blah blah.” Of course all I heard was the first word, “yes” so I started snapping pictures and got yelled at by a male guard. So I said to my cousin, “But that women at the entrance said I could take pictures and he said no she said (roughly translated) “Hai, we would appreciate it if you would refrain from taking pictures.”

  4. Christeph in Japan » Blog Archive » Things I will miss about Japan Says:

    [...] Indeed, the ubiquitous presence of Shinto shrines fully makes up for the country’s otherwise ugly construction practices. Nothing spruces up a wall of concrete like a bright and cheery shrine where you least expect it. [...]

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