Feminism in Japan

“Washing your own dishes? That’s commendable.”

This is my co-worker Ms. Oshiro, leaning over my shoulder at the office sink. I’ve got a scrubby in one hand, bento box in the other, and my first reaction is, “Well, who else’d wash ‘em?”

But then common sense kicked in. The same person who made my delicious bento: my wife, of course. Because in Japan, that’s the way it works. Ken Seeroi’s wife hand-makes him a lunch box of rice, mackerel, a hard-boiled egg, and mini sausages shaped like octopuses, then at the end of the day he takes his dirty dishes back to her. Honey, I’m home. Japan’s real 1950’s like that.

Only problem is, I didn’t have a wife, made my own bento, and was therefore stuck with a handful of rice and suds. Damn twenty-first century. But no reason to complicate Oshiro-san’s reality.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m a true gentleman.”

Japanese folks have this image of all white guys being like Prince Harry, so whatever, give the people what they want.

“Ah,” said Oshiro-san, “it must be wonderful to be married to a foreigner.”

“Heaven on earth,” I said. “Heaven on earth.”

I repeat myself a lot, I do. It’s an English-teacher thing. But then I was in English class with a bunch of high school kids the following week, and the Japanese instructor passed around sheets of discussion topics. The title was, “Questions to ask Foreigners.” We were off to a great start.

Most of it was boilerplate stuff—-Where are you from, What are your hobbies, What do you like about Japan—-until we got to question number 5.

5. If you’d been born the opposite sex, what job would you want to do?

Nothing surprises me any more. My Japanese colleagues stealing lunches from the fridge, my buddy Tanuki-san crashing his car into a city bus, the Japanese kids jacking off in train station bathrooms. All pretty normal. But this, this, caught me off guard. I couldn’t think of a single answer. So I asked the students.

“If I were a guy,” said a young girl, “I’d like to be a pilot.”

“I’d work in a bakery,” said a boy.

I stared at them. “I’m pretty sure you could still do those jobs.”

And the whole class laughed. Foreigners say the craziest things.

Feminism in Japan

So recently, a reader commented on how nice living in Japan must be, distanced from the American “cult of outrage & the corresponding politicization” with its obsession over subjects like “white privilege and mansplaining.” This digressed into feminism, American political correctness, and random nonsense until I unwisely said I’d write something and well, here we are. I really gotta think more before I type.

Anyway, feminism in Japan is clearly a great subject for me to venture into, since I’m neither Japanese, a feminist, nor female. But hey, being pitifully unqualified never stopped Ken Seeroi before, so why quit now? No doubt this’ll end well.

Harmonious Japan

But before we dive into that, let me just say if you think Japan’s a place where people aren’t completely bent out of shape by every minor transgression imaginable, you’ve got the wrong nation. How you stand, walk, dress, smell—-Japanese people stress about every damn thing. Use an incorrect verb tense and people lose their minds. The difference is that since you’re, you know, a “foreigner,” Japanese folks might wait until you leave the room before they start snickering. Or not. And unless you can read Japanese newspapers and blogs, well—whoever said ignorance is bliss clearly recognized the benefits of not understanding a language.

But whatever, back to feminism. Let me venture what may be the world’s most unpopular opinion: the reason the hordes aren’t marching through Tokyo in the name of feminism is because nobody wants it. Least of all women.

The Equal Rights Movement

Somewhere in the distant past, let’s say circa 1970, the tide of “equal rights” swept over the United States. Women demanded to be welcomed into the workforce just like men. The thought of staying home became unthinkable, discriminatory. From a business, government, and military perspective, this was the most genius idea ever: sell the concept and you instantly double the nation’s workforce. It was masterfully marketed, and women gobbled it up like tiny cupcakes. We demand to be equal! You can’t keep us down! Let us work!

Japanese ladies looked across the ocean and said, Yeah, no. Or more accurately, Are you out of your fucking mind? Work? That sounds hard. Who’d want to do that? That’s why we have men.

And now looking at America, they see the huddled masses, women constantly exhausted from juggling both career and family. From the land of the free a new howl is heard: You don’t know how hard it is to be a working mother. I’m doing two jobs! Men need to do more at home. I marched to demand entry into the workforce and…what? Now I actually have to work? How is that fair? I thought that whole home and family thing would just magically resolve itself.

Now everybody’s unhappy. Raising a family has become a panic of strapping Junior into his carseat every morning while arguing over who has to drop the little fucker at daycare. Breakfast is long gone, you’re eating meals from box, everybody’s obese The Value Packand you pay foreigners (gasp) to clean your house, tend your garden, and raise your kids.

Japanese women aren’t deaf to the siren call of “feminism,” sold as the modern way, particularly by international companies. Women are constantly prodded to enter and remain in the workforce. They’re plied with work/life balance initiatives, flex-time, and childcare programs. Still there’s a large contingent content to say Nope, think I’ll stay home. It’s enough to clean the house, hang out the wash, take Takeshi Jr. to the doctor, shop at the market, and prepare meals. Do that plus a job? I’m already doing a job. No thanks.

Japanese Marriage

Of course, this makes marriage in Japan a frantic game of musical chairs, trying to find anyone as soon as possible. Being unwed means ironing your own clothes, wandering grocery stores late at night, and cooking for one in a tiny apartment after working 14 hours a day. Get married and . . . well, you still live in a tiny place, but at least you halve the labor. In Japan, marriage is less about love and sex and more about work reduction.

Meanwhile in the U.S., it’s demeaning to even suggest that anything could be “a man’s job” or “woman’s work.” So now nobody’s male or female. Women have grown stout, standing on their own two feet with legs like tree trunks. They’re out mowing lawns and swinging hammers, while metrosexual men gaze in the mirror at their waxed chests, then go back to watching porn. Japanese women see nothing wrong with looking and acting feminine. There’s no shame in a woman doing her nails, putting on make-up, or God forbid, being a housewife.

Now don’t get me wrong: I think everybody should be supported to pursue their dreams. If anyone wants to work—-man, woman, half-man/half-sheep or whatever—-they should be able to, for equal pay. Take my job, please. Ken Seeroi ain’t keeping nobody down.

I only question whether it naturally follows that everybody should work, because it seems there’s a lot to be gained by playing separate roles. And don’t think I haven’t suggested it. I’ve offered to be the live-in houseboy to every woman I’ve ever met in this country. I’ll be happy to shop, cook, and clean while you go off to the office. I’m a whiz with a feather duster. Yet the response has been unanimous and unequivocal: Get yer ass off the couch, put down that beer, man up, and go to work.

Equality in Japan

The U.S. dreams of equality. Of a glorious, shining country where all persons—-black, white, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, freaky, dopey, doc, and grumpy—-are equal under the eyes of the law. A wondrous nation of men working at Hooters and women peeing standing up. Long may your stars and rainbow stripes wave.

Only Japan never got that memo. Equality isn’t even remotely a thing here. Everyone’s discriminated against. Hey, at least in that we’re fair. So you get different treatment depending upon whether you’re male, female, queer, old, young, white, brown, yellow, red…hell, even Japanese people receive different treatment based upon how “Japanese” they look.

Is everyone okay with this? Uh, pretty much nobody is. Women feel oppressed, men feel burdened, old people ignored, young people undervalued, and Chinese people, well, everybody hates them. But Japan’s a pot on “simmer.” Slights, injustices, even crimes, are kept tightly under the lid. Don’t lift the top, don’t stir the pot. The U.S., by contrast, is a constant roaring boil. Hurry, it’s a crisis, the stove’s on fire! We have to make everything right immediately! Start a protest, scream it from the rooftops. Japan is Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart quietly dicing up herbs to make a delicious chicken pot pie while pretending she didn’t just get out of prison. America is Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsey shouting Look at this shit! Smashing plates on the wall and dumping your disgusting pot pie into the trash.

Shut up and eat Your Pie

The thing is, you’re being served the same dish. The peas, carrots, chicken, flaky crust, any way you slice it, it’s all the same. Whether you think it’s tasty or terrible only depends on which show you’re watching while you shovel it into your pie hole. So if you want to see reality, you need to focus on what’s actually in front of you. The TV, radio, internet, it’s all noise and static, enveloping us 24-7. Feminism, #Metoo, Black Lives Matter, Brexit, Donald Trump, Antarctica melting into the sea. People broadcasting from around the world, pushing their messages. But they’re not really here. We only conjure them up like genies and let them carry us off. You won’t escape them by switching countries. You just gotta turn off the noise box.

And this coming from a guy who spends his weekends blogging about Japan to strangers on the internet. It’s certainly become a weird world. Now all I need is a wife to take over half of this writing. Then everything’ll finally be perfect. Help wanted, apply within.

130 Replies to “Feminism in Japan”

  1. I can’t speak about feminism in Japan, but because my wife is from South Korea, she’s told me numerous times that Korean women have a severe resentment towards their husbands as the men do not do any housework at all, even if both people are working, because culturally it’s considered the ‘wife’s job’ to do all the house duties no matter what. Sounds like it’s similar in Japan. I’ve heard quite a few of my wife’s Korean friends say they were jealous of my wife because I do the dishes everyday, take the trash out and vacuum. I don’t feel like it’s much, but apparently something simple that we do in western countries is enough to make Korean women envious.

    1. Yeah, that sounds like Japan. Home jobs tend to be divided up rather clearly. Men do certain chores, which don’t often amount to much. It’s only fair that both partners contribute equally, although I’ve never seen it here. So yeah, everything you do probably goes a long way toward maintaining a happy relationship.

      1. I do some housework (cleaning, trash, some cooking, some dish-washing).

        However, circumstances like having kids change the whole equation rather drastically.
        I care for our kids (reading them books, teaching them German, taking them out in the park on weekends etc.).

        Taking them into the bathtub for an hour or keeping them busy in a park for an afternoon helps my wife much more than me doing the dishes.
        (With our small kids we feel we constantly live in a state of emergency.)

        With two small kids and only me working I also feel “entitled” to my wife doing most of the housework. So we pretty much live the 50’s life …

          1. I think you are misinterpreting my comment.

            In the end it doesn’t really matter how exactly you organize your daily life, as long as everyone is happy and I think every in our family is just that. My wife even wants a third child. Pretty sure she wouldn’t want that if I were whatever kind of a “bad man” you may imagine.

            Also the “…” was intended to note my own befuddlement how we ended up in this “50’s middle class life”.

        1. >>With two small kids and only me working I also feel “entitled” to my wife doing most of the housework.

          I’m with you 100% on this (Western woman married to a Japanese man and happily settled in Japan, in case anyone’s wondering!)

          I work as a tutor, so my job involves a lot of traveling, which is exhausting, but I’m freelance, so I get to pick my days/hours. Typical working day for me is about 5-6 hours (can be more; last Saturday I was out from 9.30 to 23.00, but that’s very unusual!)

          Compare that to my husband, who works 5-6 days a week, has a 90 minute commute followed by more driving around to various hospitals to install and repair their equipment, plus another 90 minute drive back home…if you factor in commuting time, he has a 12-14 hour workday, and that’s assuming he doesn’t do overtime or have to attend 飲み会. I’m not about to ask the poor guy to do housework on top of all that; he works hard enough.

      1. lol I understand what you mean, but if we’re comparing Korea and Japan there’s definitely things Korea does better in my opinion (affordable taxis, easier to read language, much more outgoing people), but overall if I were to chose a place to live between the two it would be Japan, as there’s aspects I prefer about Japan (Asahi > Hite :P). But in the end of course, neither country is perfect.

  2. Another great article Ken. I agree with a lot of what you say, especially about the media selling the idea of “work+family balance” in the US, but there is also another factor at work that should be considered.

    It just is not feasible for a one-man (or one-woman) show to support the family anymore for a lot of people. The standard of living has risen so much in developed countries like the US and Japan that both parents have to work just to be able to survive and support their family. This is already so for so-called “middle class” folks, let alone those hovering at or below the poverty line. It is not by choice but by design and necessity that two parents or both the wife and husband work. I think that also contributes to the issue in large part, especially in the US, and maybe even a large part of Japanese now, those living in the big cities for example.

    1. I know where you’re coming from. Of course, I lived that life.

      But these days…you know, I recently watched my American coworker take her lunch out of a Ziploc bag…and then throw the bag in the trash. From a Japanese perspective, that’s crazy.

      And that’s America in a nutshell. The entire nation looks insane. The cities are all spread out, so two people working means you need two cars. So you buy an SUV and a sedan and there goes a year’s salary out the window. But since nobody has that kind of savings, you’ve got to finance them, which ends up costing thousands of dollars more in interest. In Japan, dad rides his used moped through the rain to work while mom walks to the grocery store.

      American houses are gigantic. Even apartments are huge. An entire Japanese place would fit in an American kitchen. And then you furnish every room. Who stays in them all? There might even be more than one bathroom, or even more than one floor for that matter. Then it costs hundreds or thousands every year to heat and cool those massive spaces. Here, a family of four huddles around a space heater in the winter and sweats it out in front of a fan in the summer. Poverty line? Folks here don’t even know they’re living below it. You say Americans are working to “survive,” but I don’t know. Y’all look pretty well-fed to me.

      And then the stuff—Holy balls, Americans have so much! Barbecue grills, blenders, coffee makers, mountain bikes, motorcycles, soccer balls, snowboards, snowmobiles, ironing boards, trampolines, clothes dryers, pool tables, video cameras, TVs, PCs, CDs, and DVDs. Maybe even a garage to keep everything. And all that stuff costs money. How many towels does the average family own? How many plates, cups, and glasses? Who’s coming to dinner? How many guns? Who’s coming through the window? Naturally Japan’s safe—we can’t afford guns.

      Look, I’m not harshing on America. It’s culture; I get it. But the nation’s chosen a lifestyle that requires a dual income. Just remember how little we make do with in Japan. You wouldn’t need two salaries if you lived in a one-room apartment for $400 a month, reused the bath water for laundry, and your only transportation was a $50 basket bike. Of that I’m pretty sure.

      https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/a-japanese-photographers-view-of-life-in-his-familys-one-room-home

      1. Hi, Ken. Thanks for finally writing this post! In regards to your comment, I agree that Americans are slaves to their possessions and their supersized lifestyles (though, you have aptly pointed out how the Japanese are, in turn, slaves to their own lifestyles in their own ways). I think that many of the problems you highlighted here are gradually being corrected as Americans, particularly “Millennials,” are forced to live with less, though not necessarily happily, given the complaining by young and old alike. I also think it’s this same entitled, pampered, excessive lifestyle that contributes to the aforementioned political insanity, as Americans rarely take the time to appreciate how good they have it in their perpetual pursuit for more “rights” and “equality.”

        I have always admired the spartan minimalism and thrift and the complementarianism and strict social roles and obligations on show in Japanese culture. I feel that Americans could learn from the Japanese example and rein in some of our more gluttonous, wasteful, and heedlessly individualistic habits. Likewise, I think that the Japanese could probably use a bit more freedom, broadly defined, in their society. Nobody’s perfect.

        That said, I’m still excited to be in Japan, far away from the amplified echo chamber of American politics…

        1. Wait, does “I’m excited to be in Japan” mean you’re here now? I thought you still had a few more months. Anyway, you’re more than welcome for the article. Thanks to you for prodding me to go out on a limb and post it.

          And, mmm, errmm, trying hard not to rain on your idealism, but when you say the “spartan minimalism and thrift” of Japanese people, it’s tough not to point out that virtually the only reason you or I even know about Japan is because it became famous for technology, profligate spending, hostess clubs, and an endless sea of neon and booze in the 1990’s. Tokyo was a shining beacon for “gluttonous, wasteful, and heedlessly individualistic habits” until the party came crashing down along with the economy. You can still see the tattered vestiges in Ginza and Shinjuku today.

          It’s probably closer to the truth to say that Japanese people responded to the tightening economy by cinching their belts and spending less, whereas Americans decided it was a green light to max out every credit card and then apply for second mortgages.

          At any rate, I’d urge caution in trying to assess the culture of Japan too quickly. Wait four or five years. Particularly since you’re off to Akita-ken (i.e., Montana). No doubt you’ll see less excess. A lot less. But probably more cows. Just remember it’s a big country, with a variety of people, many of whom will be lying to you.

          This has been a public service announcement.

          1. I still have a month to go until I leave. And I know I was painting with a broad brush in rendering that very generalized dichotomy. I’m just going off what I’ve read and absorbed through media. Clearly, Japan is materialistic and profligate in its own ways. I also know I don’t truly know anything beyond what I have intuited, since I haven’t lived in Japan yet. But I think you’re right in describing the cultural aspects that lead to some of the more glaring social/economic issues here in America, and what you say about the ways in which Japan differs jives with other accounts I’ve read. That said, based on the bit of reading I’ve done on Akita-ken, Japan sure has a lousy environmental track record (e.g. the land reclamation that drained Hachirogata, once Japan’s second largest lake, for rice production, and the agricultural effluents acidifying Lake Tazawa) for a country that likes to sell itself on its love of nature. Such occurrences are by no means relegated solely to Japan, but it is ironic, nonetheless.

            Off topic, but do you have any English teaching resources and websites you can recommend, particularly for junior high school? I need to start preparing. I can’t wing every lesson – although, it sometimes seems like that’s expected with the JET Program and its ESID (Every situation is different) philosophy…

            1. I taught in junior high schools for years, and trust me, you can wing every lesson.

              Generally speaking, it’s a cake job. The Japanese teacher is responsible for planning the lesson (or not), and will run the show. Your job is to stand there and look white. Or black or whatever, but at least foreign. I’m not kidding. That’s it, and there’s no resources or preparation that’ll help you with that. Just don’t speak Japanese and don’t try to hijack the main teacher’s lesson.

              It would be a good idea for you to have pictures of home on a USB that you can print out and use for a self-introduction. (I’d use their color printer and then laminate them.) Things like “This is my family.” (Woow, everybody’s so fat.) “This is my house.” (Woow, it’s so big, must take a long time to clean.) “This is my dog.” (Woow, his paws are dirty, who wipes them off?) Then be prepared to tell them things that confirm all of their prejudices. Yes, we wear our shoes in the house. Yes, we use soap in the bathtub. Yes, we have shotguns, two pickup trucks, and a pet horse.

              Try to help the kids. Speak English with them, but also support them. Remember that they’re going through a tough time in their lives, and need a lot more positive reinforcement than they’re probably getting. That’s where you come in. You offer an alternative; showing them there’s more to the world than all the adults just pressuring them to study more. Some of them will be much poorer than you can imagine. Some will have mental problems. Some will be smoking cigarettes and shoplifting and trying to have sex in the gym. Remember they’re kids.

              Wrap your head around that, because that’s the job. If Japanese schools wanted English teachers, they’d hire English teachers, not college grads who know less grammar than the 5th graders.

              Last thing, since I’m on a roll, before I head off to work…I’ll let you in on the most important word in the English language: “some.”

              When talking about either Japan or the U.S., it’s very tempting to speak in black-and-white terms. You’ll hear a lot of leading questions and statements looking for confirmation of biases. “Americans have a lot of free time, right?” “Do you think Japanese people are polite?”

              That’s where that very useful word comes in. “Some Americans do.” “Some Japanese people are.” If you could teach people that one word, I’d say you were a good English teacher.

              1. I guess “some” applies to the Japanese women who don’t want feminism, too.

                The few Japanese women I know who went back to Japan dress like boys and struggle to support themselves, with rapidly diminishing employment options as they age. They might appreciate a bit of the ole feminism, at least in terms of not having age restrictions on job advertisements.

                It’s so funny to me that the public face of feminism in America is focused on outing public figures for inappropriate behavior dating back decades, yet there are feminist crises going on there: women being prevented from getting contraception through their health insurance and abortion rights being eroded. Sounds like they could use a bit of the ole feminism themselves. There is no way that contraception and abortion would be restricted if men were the ones who bore children.

                That’s one area where Japanese women are infinitely better off, whether they consider themselves to be card-carrying feminists or not.

                1. This comment caught me a little unawares. We never had problems to get contraceptives when living in Japan. My wife took the pill for years and condoms are readily available.

                  Because of the above we never had an abortion, so I can’t say anything about that.

                  (P.S. Old men make politics for old men. So I know young women have it very hard in Japan including sex ed etc.)

                  1. Once upon a time in Japan I entered a shop to buy condoms. Couldn’t read any Japanese at that time, so I approached a male member of staff and asked in a very sheepish and hushed manner, “Kondom ga arimasuka?”,hoping that nobody else would hear me. That male member of staff said out aloud so all could hear, “Hai, kondom ga arimasu!”. The shop was full of mostly baba-tachi, who all swivelled and stared at me. I could read their minds, “Hora, abunai sukibe gaijin da!”. Just like that scene in that Woody Allen movie where buys porn mags.

                2. I knew when I wrote this that “feminism” would have a broad range of meanings, from the “outing of public figures” to workers’ rights to deciding who’s in charge of women’s bodies. It’s far too broad of a term, but I suppose we have to start somewhere and advance the conversation little by little.

                  I don’t have much to add other than to say that I agree with you. You’re absolutely right that women are disadvantaged as they get older. The society is geared toward everybody getting married before the age of 30. Middle-aged women need to have a solid career or face waitressing in diners for the remainder of their lives. Going abroad to study is a hell of a gamble, if it results in returning single (or divorced) in one’s 30’s.

                  I also agree that, as with so many topics, we need to remain focused on core issues. The ability of women to make their own reproductive choices should be a fundamental right.

              2. Ken, I was struck by the sentence: “This is my dog.” (Woow, his paws are dirty, who wipes them off?) – maybe you’ll be the one who finally explains to me why there is NO ONE walking their dog in Tokyo. They either carry them in their arms or in little prams. Can you shed any light on this mystery?

                I initially thought it was out of fear of having their fun-sized mutts trampled in the rush hour stampede, but then I saw the same thing popping up over and over again in leafy, quiet residential areas.

                1. Well for one, there’s not a whole lot of dogs to begin with. Apparently something about living in tiny spaces with neighbors on all sides isn’t conducive to canines. Go figure.

                  As for the dog purse/pram thing, I suspect some of it has to do with viewing your pooch as a cute accessory rather than an animal. I’ll add the observation that when dogs are on a leash, Japanese people keep them close. They don’t generally let them wander up and smell strangers, which I appreciate. I never realized Americans did that until I lived here for a while. So in an urban area with lots of pedestrian traffic, perhaps the only way to keep dogs from bothering others is to carry or push them. Hopefully they’re being shuttled to a dog-run area where they can get some exercise.

      2. This reminds me of an article that was talking about how 6 figures was not enough to live in New York…and then goes on to list all of the “necessities” like private tutoring, private schools, housekeepers, nannies…things that don’t look like necessities in other parts of the world, or even other parts of the US. I wholeheartedly agree that most people focus too much on the income side of their balance sheet and not enough on the expenses…even in the SF Bay Area, when you realize that you don’t have to run into the buzzsaw of the real estate market here or send your kids to private school, it is possible to “live” on less and even on a single income.

      3. “But the nation’s chosen a lifestyle that requires a dual income.” That is such a weak argument! I’d expect a well-travelled person like you to know better. Coming from Mumbai, India, there is no way you can afford basics like housing, healthcare, education and at certain times even nutrition, simply because in this globalised economic times, things cost a lot more. For e.g. Fuel prices rose because of the Trump-Iran thing, and that reflects in raised prices of fruit and veg in the local markets.
        Plus, why is job just equated with earning money, and not about an individual’s interest and desire to achieve / accomplish something? To gain more knowledge in their field of interest and to apply that knowledge to create value?
        If your definition of job is so shallow, you shouldn’t be surprised that a robot can replace you.

        1. Let me just make sure we’re talking about the same thing. When I said “the nation,” I meant the U.S., as in the nation as a whole. Because I see a lot of excess there. Are you saying you don’t?

          Now, if you’re saying there are people living frugally yet still struggling to get by, including those recently relocated from Mumbai, you’ll certainly get no argument from me.

          1. Ok, I misunderstood. I was trying to say that there are many Americas. But I agree that as a whole there is a lot of excess. Perhaps because those that do live that lifestyle, do it at such an overwhelming scale.

            The second part of my comment was more pertinent to your article, and a lot of the comments here. I am amazed that even in this day and age, we are looking at jobs as thing-to-do-to-pay-the-bills, and not a long term activity using which you develop your inherent skills. Hopefully contribute to society. IMO, it will help us answer a lot of difficult questions – gendered expectations about education and jobs, is grad school worth the cost, “work-life balance”, future of occupations…

            On the subject of inherent skills, I’d like to add my support to the ‘respected blogger turns novelist’ suggestion.

            1. Hey, thanks for the reply. So you’re saying a job shouldn’t be seen as merely a place to make money, but also a place for personal growth and societal contribution…

              That sounds great. Let me know when there’s an opening at Utopia Inc. Because here in Japan most people I know hate their jobs but stick it out for a paycheck. Businesses increasingly use temps and contract workers so you’re guaranteed to be tossed to the side of the road before long.

              Now, I agree with you. That’s what a job should be, and perhaps the U.S. is a bit more progressive on that score, what with its offices full of yoga balls and ping-pong tables. But not here, not now, and unfortunately not ever. This might give you some perspective: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/22/asia/japanese-lunch-break-intl/index.html

      4. Ken, I nearly fell off of my chair when I read that in Japan, insulation in wooden houses is essentially illegal. There are 10 inches of styrofoam in my house’s walls, and 11″ in my roof. I live, essentially, in a styrofoam picnic cooler. It doesn’t cost much to heat my 2300 square foot home. My windows are well fitting double pane windows, by law, but I would have them if it weren’t required. They almost all face south, for solar gain in winter. Long overhangs cut off the summer sun.

        As for clothes dryers, it rains here (near Seattle,) 8 months a year. Our television is a cathode ray tube, if you remember tube televisions. It works fine. Once again, high quality. We wash clothes with cold water. Electricity is cheap here, because it’s hydropower from the Columbia River.

        We have two cars, but they are ancient. One is 17 years old, and the other 30+ years old. In Japan, the law makes that very expensive. Here is very cheap, because of the high quality of the cars – one Japanese, and the other Swedish.

      5. That comment was genius, Ken. It taps into why i really have little interest in staying in America, at least not in the traditional picket-white fence sort of way. It just seems so unsustainable. My parents own 4 cars (and need all of them, with two kids in college) and vehicle maintenance alone is too much for them to manage. Never mind the fact that the entire house needs a repainting, the grass needs cutting, the gigantic fridge just stopped working, they both have full-time jobs, it’s tax season, and the dogs just chewed through the damn fence and are running through the neighborhood again. Everything is too big, too far away, and too expensive to keep up with. I very much enjoyed my low-cost, low-consumption, sustainable, bike-to-work existence in Japan. You should expand on this topic in the next article! (Or at least bookmark this comment for when you finally write that book!)

        1. That excessive American lifestyle you describe is the dream of thousands of Japanese people, who really have little interest in staying in Japan.

          Here’s a fun fact: the phrase “the grass is always greener” is literally the same in both Japanese and English. I shit you not.

          That’s not to say I don’t I agree with you, because I do. For many years, I had a low-consumption, sustainable, bike-to-work lifestyle, in the U.S. Nothing much changed when I moved to Japan, except for getting a slightly cooler bike.

          So while I applaud your desire to live simply, I gotta point out that it’s more about where you’re at mentally, rather than physically. It sounds like what you’re longing to do is move away from your folks and get a job in a city where you can bike around. That’s great; I’m just not sure you need to move half way around the earth to make it happen.

          1. I thought the grass was blue here in Japan? 😉 But it’s not blue like the sky, right?

            I think you’re spot on regarding the mentality and my personal experience is that it’s easier to live “simply” here in Japan just because I’ve got no space.

            There’s a blog, mr money moustache, about a guy doing the simple life outside of Denver USA. It might be worth checking out if one needs tips/incentive/support making the transition.

    2. That’s what happens when the wages are kept down, you know, by doubling the working force. Though it never really got doubled, but it got increased, of course. Especially the perception of it, so you can get screwed.
      There is also the problem of mass consumerism. Really, if they tried to make it work, a woman and a man can probably work 3 days each and be enough for the both of them together.

  3. This “Me too” thing was started by old hags that couldn’t get attention for their looks no more. What happened to that Hollywood producer? Nothing. Why? Because there were no crimes, no real victims. They all did it consensually. They knew why they were doing it. But they are now bitter and took away from young beauties the option of sleeping their way up. That’s all there is to it.

  4. “Japanese people stress about every damn thing”

    Words of Wisdom. Pretty sure my wife plans our “leisure” activities based solely on the amount of stress that will need to be endured.

    Like it couldn’t possibly be fun if it wasn’t also a huge pain in the ass.

    1. You do realize that living in a different city from your spouse isn’t uncommon in Japan, right?

      Eh, probably unrelated. Forget I mentioned it.

      1. Thanks, but we’re in NYC, and that would be expensive as ****

        Plus, there’s this really cute 7yr old that is amazing as ****

        Gonna shut up and eat my pie.

        Thanks for the insights!

  5. Have you seen the Abe Hiroshi drama, “At Home Dad”? In twelve episodes, it revealed to me the prevailing attitudes of Japan and many of the different considerations you are writing about here.

    1. I have. He’s one of my favorite actors. I really feel that watching dramas is the best way, save living here, to understand Japanese culture.

      One thing that may be lost on Western people is just how much work—or invented work—goes into maintaining a Japanese home. Until I lived with Japanese people, I never dreamed of going to the grocery store every single day, or washing the sheets twice a week, or spending over an hour a day cooking and cleaning. It takes a lot of time just to do what’s considered normal here.

      Americans have free time, and enjoy a lot of hobbies. Japanese people do housework. If you’re getting married to a Japanese person, get ready to see your free time disappear.

      1. Yeah, I saw that. I was stunned to see that the doll house was too expensive, that the father took a $9/hour job to supplement, and that the daughter did not throw a giant fit when she received a homemade cake instead of her prized doll house. An American family would have dipped into savings or a credit card, no second thoughts.

        I also remembered your posts in another Abe Hiroshi drama, Still Walking, when the family began to badmouth the deceased son’s friend the moment he walked out of the door. And Kekkon Dekinai Otoko killed me. Are there any other particularly revealing or funny dramas you have seen that resonated with you?

        1. It’s difficult for Abe to not be anyone’s favourite actor – from the number of adverts, dramas and movies you would almost think he’s Japan’s ONLY actor. I really need to check the gossip mags, my theory is that he’s a japanese Nicholas Cage, picking up any job just to pay the enormous pachinko and kyabakura bills

        2. It’s been years, but “One Litre of Tears” still sticks with me. That and “Nobody Knows.” They’re both based on real stories. I’ve always felt they portrayed Japan in a realistic light, and that if you really want to understand the culture, they’re well worth watching.

          1. “Nobody Knows” is a great movie. I first watched it as a teenager and it had a big impact on me – somehow, it even encouraged my desire to go to Japan. Anything by Kore-eda is amazing. He makes such deeply personal films that are somehow simultaneously uniquely Japanese yet also universal in their humanity.

            1. Yeah and you probably saw that his new movie “Shoplifters” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes…also an uplifting movie and pretty appropriate considering the talk in this thread of what it takes to “survive” in modern Japan.

          2. Thank you. Realistic light is what I am looking for after living in a daze in Japan for years. And I’ve been on a Hirokazu Koreeda binge lately, so perfect. (You can tell in his writing that he studied literature, too. His films read like literary short stories.)

      2. “Americans have free time, and enjoy a lot of hobbies. Japanese people do housework.”

        I guess all this time my mom has actually been Japanese…

        1. If she’s doing laundry more than 3 times a week, vacuums every day, or regularly spends more than 2 hours shopping for and cooking dinner, then yeah, you should ask to see a birth certificate.

          1. She comes alarmingly close to that description. I happen to be visiting my grandma. Let’s see if I can’t just squeeze the long-buried truth out of her over coffee and cigarettes…

  6. It’s interesting to see how the different cultures of the U.S. and Japan responded to the increase in global competition. To keep their economies strong, both countries needed to increase their productivity. The U.S. did this by getting women into the workforce, while outsourcing housework and family duties. Japan did the complete opposite by keeping women at home and getting the men to work twice as much. So far, it doesn’t look like either strategy is working out very well.

    1. Heh, well said.

      One theme that seems to be emerging is consumerism. That is, as families worked collectively more, they made more money. But instead of saving that income and retiring early or simply working less, they instead increased their standards of living. Suddenly, things we never dreamed of existing now appear to be necessities: laptops, iPhones, internet service, NetFlix, flat-screen TVs, cable connectivity, Bluetooth speakers. A bigger house, a nicer car, or just having more children. We want everything, but seem unable to make the connection between our desires and our workload.

      Buy less. Now there’s a strategy that works.

  7. That question 5 and the answers, priceless. So in Japan they steal lunch from the fridge too? Now that was unusual, I’m waiting forward to read more details. And these kids, they sure like to jerk off all over the place, uh.

  8. Ken,
    Haven’t read much of the new article but looks good.Miho has a cold I’m and waiting until she stops sneezing at me before I read it to her,she has a shit load of laundry and house cleaning to catch up on but when she’s through I’ll report back with her thoughts.
    Cheers Craig.

  9. When we were about to get married, I had a deep discussion with the woman who would become my wife that I grew up pretty much raising my siblings on my own since both my parents worked and we only saw them on the weekends (they left before we went to school, and came home pretty much when we were going to sleep). I told her that I didn’t think that was right, and that at least when children are pretty young, they should have someone who was always there for them at home. She was well educated, cosmopolitan, studied in the US from High School through College, earning enough to support a family…so I threw it out there that I’d be willing to let her pursue her career, while I stayed home…

    ….she looked at me as if I grew an extra head.

    So yeah, she stayed home while I lived the (社畜)life and I only saw them on the weekends. Thankfully, I was able to dodge that bullet and moved back to the US. To this day, I’m not sure if she was driven by deep-seeded cultural mores and traditions or if she’s just infinitely smarter than me…I’m guessing it’s a bit of both.

  10. What is this? Barely three weeks since the last post? Did someone hit you on the head?

    Ontopic:
    I’ll not wade into the whole culture wars mess, so just a few points that I thought of reading your piece.
    1. My wife said 100 % the same. Being an at-home-husband is definitely not a thing with Japanese women.
    2. The US is on the worse end of Male – Female equality among industrialized nations. Japan is worse. Italy is also pretty bad. France and most of western Europe is better. Germany is slightly better still. Scandinavia is best. (FYI)
    3. A very simple (and not 100% scientific) indicator about gender equality can be found comparing the male / female ratios for legislative bodies. In Germany (Bundestag) it’s around 31%, in the U.S. (House of Representatives) it’s about 19% and in Japan (Diet) it’s a whopping 10%.

  11. Great post as always.

    You should write next about the lack of soap in station bathrooms, schools, etc.
    It sometimes drives me up the wall.

    1. You know, my family made the same complaint when they visited. So you can take small comfort in knowing the Seeroi’s feel your pain.

      But coming from the U.S., it’s kind of hard to gripe, since it’s damn near impossible to find a bathroom at all there. At least Japan has them, imperfect though they may be.

  12. With the divorce rates as high as they are women are much smarter to actually keep a job after getting married. Japanese women also start to notice that. It’s very hard but it’s a kind of nessesery insurance. And I know first-hand that it’s actually much harder to stay at home with little children.

  13. “Heaven on Earth, heaven on Earth.” Actually laughed out load in the staff room. Some very puzzled looks from my mighty coworkers. Ken, you’ve done it again mate. Marvelous piece. Give up your day job pronto!

    1. Nice. Glad I could do my bit to enliven the staff room. That’s it then, I’m handing in my resignation tomorrow. Hope you got a spare bedroom.

      1. Sorry man, don’t do charity cases come to think of it. If I may, I’m sure it’s been suggested before but, ‘respected blogger turns novelist? ‘ . Weirder things have happened. Could you weave your magic for twelve or so chapters to earn some real bling man? Muzukunaiyo!

      1. I know, it’s a pain in the butt. Technology. Let’s try this: reply to Hanayagi by cutting and pasting what you wrote. Then I’ll delete this bit.

  14. An acquaintance of mine actually did just that: Make his blog into a book. Didn’t get rich of it (naturally), but I’m sure it’s nice pocket money.
    https://www.amazon.de/dachten-NIEMALS-JAPAN-wissen-wollen/dp/395889108X

    Also he wrote in German, so his target audience should be much smaller than yours (assuming you would write in English). Hell, you could even translate such a book into Japanese – and probably earn more money than with an English version, since Japanese generally love “foreigners looking at us” – stuff.
    Just need to find a good editor / publisher, is all 🙂

    P.S. I do know someone with connections in the Japanese publishing industry if you’re interested. (She worked at an art publisher making for example picture collections of Kyoto, so not sure if she could actually help.)

  15. Hi Ken

    As this is my first post here, first of all, thank you for your blog. It is always a joy to read it.

    As for feminism, I think one problem is that if for example you say banana, you can be confident your liseners are thinking about almost the same concept as you. But when you say feminism, people tend to think different things. As I was explained, feminism is just one of those crazy byproducts of that crazy set of ideas called the modern theory of human rights. If you buy that crazy thing that all humans have an essential equality and a essential freedom to choose how the want to live their lives, then you have to arrive to the crazy conclusion that you have to examine the gender roles in a society and erase all the aspects of such idea of gender roles that do not comform to such theory of human rights.

    I do not know about the american theory of women liberation of the 70s, but if it was just about women accessing (or being pressed to access) to the labor force without rethinking the idea of societal genders on the light of human rights, then american women have been screwed at rocco siffredi levels.

    And again, if japanese society is not rethinking about their womens in this human rights light (and of course that rethinking includes women), then it is no wonder that japanese women rejects the idea of having to be housewives and workers at the same time,

    now that I think about that, it is that what you are implying? That japanese society has not been able to attain a good level of understanding of human rights regarding womens society position? How nice of you, you go to japan, japan feeds you, changes your diapers, and this is how you pay back to japan?

    anyway, as I was explained, feminism is not about biching about a girl because she likes to do things that in a gender oriented society are called feminine, but to condemn the pressure to a person to do that things if it just happen that that person have a vagina (or ridiculize a person that likes to do that things just because that person has a huge and many hours able to stand erected penis like mine). Is not about how much men should “help” with domestic chores, as there is not men and women (except for the obvious physiological differences, so far medical surgery has not arrived to the point of allowing to decide who is going to deliver the kids and breast feeding) but a marriage that is formed by a couple of persons that have to deal with economic and domestic obligations and have to decide who is going to do what percentage of what.

    Cheers~

  16. Good on you for this post, it’s spot-on. Whenever I leave Canada for Japan – or even my other home, Pakistan – I literally feel as though my mind has been freed from a chorus of constant shouting ad banging-on about rights, wrongs, and the rest of it. The West is simply Too. Loud.

    Japan is extremely depressing in what it has become and what life has become in it. But the peace if mind you have once away from an outrage culture – it’s such bliss. You literally feel LIGHTER.

    Then it’s back home and as soon as you;re in the airport it’s back to all the aggression, passive-aggression, rudeness, staring-down and other ugliness and I get sick. Literally, I get physically ill whenever I return.

  17. Ken, how long would you recommend staying for a first trip to japan? how long did you stay for your first trip.

    1. Ten days feels about right. I think I stayed five my first trip. I saw only Tokyo and Kamakura. A little more would allow you to shinkansen over to Kyoto (which I did in later excursions). Tokyo-Kyoto is a great combo.

      It also depends if you’re traveling alone, and how comfortable you are with that. Ten days can be a long time to be by yourself in a place where you can’t read or understand anything and have fairly limited conversations. It’s a long time to be lonely.

      There’s also the chance that you simply won’t like Japan. I’ve seen that happen on a few occasions. You come over and have a random bad experience. Maybe it’s raining the whole time, or maybe you really don’t like the food or the people, I don’t know. But when that happens, you’ll wish you’d booked half the time here and half in Korea.

      Finally, there’s money. Ten days of staying in a nice hotel and eating at fancy restaurants feels a lot shorter than 10 days of sleeping in hostels and wandering the streets staring at restaurants from the outside in.

      So maybe those are a few things to think about.

  18. the married women stay at home in japan narrative is surely out of date though, eg “After lagging behind U.S. women for more than forty years, Japanese prime-age women have now caught up and exceeded the U.S. rate of labor force participation (defined as the fraction of the population either working or searching for work).[1] In 2000, Japan’s prime-age female labor force participation rate was just 66.5 percent, below the OECD average and a full 10 percentage points below the U.S. level. Since that time, the U.S. rate trended down to 74.3 percent in 2016 while the Japanese rate has risen to 76.3 percent”
    https://www.brookings.edu/research/lessons-from-the-rise-of-womens-labor-force-participation-in-japan/

    1. Somehow I wonder about those statistics. I can accept that roughly a quarter of U.S. women aren’t working, but I kind of doubt they’re mostly housewives. There are many ways of being unemployed.

      That number for Japan sounds about right, and it does seem that more women are entering the workforce. Although I’d be interested to see if that correlates with women getting married and starting families later. As bad as it sounds, some women may be getting jobs simply because they weren’t able to secure a husband. I also wonder how many years they’re working, if they’re working part-time, if they continue working after marriage, and what kind of jobs they’re undertaking. I don’t see too many women pouring concrete and hammering nails over here.

      The phrase “searching for work” is also a bit suspicious. It could well be they’re searching for work—just not very hard.

      1. “searching for work” as in 76% of japanese women of working age are either working or searching, and 24% are not. the contented housewife would presumably, if shes not lying, be part of the 24% neither working and nor looking to. btw “Share of working mothers in Japan tops 70 percent for 1st time Jiji — Jul 21
        The proportion of women with children who said they were employed stood at a record high of 70.8 pct in 2017, exceeding 70 pct for the first time, a survey by the labor ministry showed Friday. The figure was up 3.6 percentage points from a year earlier, the ministry’s comprehensive survey of living conditions said.” http://www.newsonjapan.com/html/newsdesk/article/123436.php

  19. Some Japanese women in my age group, whom I know well (anonymous):

    1) 36, mother of two, university degree in architecture. Work experience in related jobs: about 1.5 years. Work experience in unrelated jobs 2.5 years. Currently housewife. Carrier prospects: Bleak.
    2) 40, single, holds a PhD (arts), has been working on one-year contracts for many years in a university library. (30 hours / week) Carrier prospects: Bleak.
    Payment: About 1500 dollars / month
    3) 36, single, short term university, work experience in related fields: none; related: about 10 years, half of it full time, without restrictions (“seishain”). Payment: About 2200 dollars / month. Carrier prospects: So so.

    Keep in mind these ladies live in Tokyo, so living ain’t exactly cheap, yo.
    So yeah, two out of three are indeed working. But is it worth it?

    1. You know, if you’d written that without specifying what nation you were talking about, I’d have bet money on Japan. Sounds like virtually every woman I know.

      It’s worth keeping in mind that life isn’t great for men here either. Those with decent jobs seem all to be struggling in order to provide for a wife, a wife and a child, a wife, a child, the wife’s parents…

      What a country.

  20. Some people binge watch Netflix, I binge read your blog. Starting college this year and hoping to move to Japan when I’m done, although I’m sadden to report that I don’t plan my on living such and extravagant lifestyle such as yours. Good job and making such interesting posts, gotta say my favorite was the poverty one, especially about that girl that likes to dance and lives with no electricity. That one… Was sad.

    1. I feel so envious when I see a new reader who hasn’t yet finished the delicious binge-reading feast that is JRo7
      The rest of us are like dieters awaiting cheat day

      1. I actually read every post before I made that comment lol. Now I’m awaiting the next entry as if it was the new episode of boku no hero.

        1. You guys kill me. Okay, I’m working on a couple of new things now. Remind me to tell my boss that I’m quitting my day job because I need to focus on my blog.

    2. I think that any rational thinking person who reads Ken’s blog and ‘gets” the Rule of 7 would never contemplate going to Japan. Not being mean but Ken publishes the truth (as he sees it) about life in Japan for a foreigner. It is not a great life and nobody knows why Ken stays!! Have I got that at least partially right Ken?

      1. Yeah, probably more than partially.

        But let’s put it in perspective. Like, I recently watched this video. It’s literally called “This is America.”

        I can’t say that’s wrong, because it definitely portrays a version of America. But would a Japanese person visiting the U.S. ever perceive that? Visitors go to Times Square, the Grand Canyon, Pike Place Market, Fisherman’s Wharf, Las Vegas. They see amazing things. And when Americans have visitors, they take them to the Met, the Smithsonian, Mount Rushmore. Nobody’s giving a guided tour of Skid Row.

        I’m not trying to do that with Japan either. Hey, it’s a fine place. Sure, come here, check it out. You’ll love it. But if you visit, or stay for a bit, understand that there’s more than Shibuya Crossing, the temples of Kyoto, or the flower fields of Hokkaido. It’s a real place, with lots of good and bad. You’ll only see the good at first, because, well, that’s how humans are wired.

        Why do I stay? Well, partially because I suspect if I just pulled the plug and moved to Amsterdam that eventually things would be pretty darn similar. Of course, it’s not easy making it alone in a foreign country. Just ask the Hispanic cook in the back of every California sushi restaurant.

        In Japan, there are plenty of foreigners under the umbrella of multi-national companies, the military, or spouses, and they tend to have a rosy view of the country. But to really understand a place, you’ve got to put yourself out there in the elements. Trek to the South Pole, climb K2. What’s the point? It’s hard, you’ll lose all your toes, but maybe you’ll gain something too. I don’t understand why I stay either, but maybe that’s why. As long as the Asahi beer and Calbee’s potato chips hold out, I figure I can survive.

  21. Well Ken ain’t quit’n the day job without beer.. ( I’ve got no association with Roi sempai by the way )
    Just say’n. Buy the man beer,christ knows how long it takes him to get those well informed and beautifully constructed thoughts down on his little
    flip phone.

    1. You have to live somewhere. And as Ken has so eloquently remarked previously, uprooting and moving away to some foreign country sounds pretty extreme. After a number of years, its not like you can get up one day and effortlessly decide you’re going “home” (not without it’s own costs.

    1. Whoa, does this mean you’re finally here? In Akita ken?

      Hey, it’s all good—just because you feel lonely doesn’t make Japan a lonely place. You’re probably just settling in. Give it a few years.

    2. FGM that is the shortest post ever from you,and a little concerning.Don’t let it break you,remember you can leave anytime you like and that is OK.Nobody is going to judge you if you decide it isn’t for you,and most of all those of us that have walked the same road as you will respect and understand any decision you make.Those that don’t understand Japan and what you maybe going through don’t matter.I’m sure Ken will have some words for you if needed.Chin up dude.

  22. Thank you everyone for the encouragement and support. Culture shock is definitely, as they have constantly reiterated in the various JET orientations, a roller coaster of emotions. I go from gazing in wonder at the cedar-covered mountains & the giant orb weaver spiders that are literally everywhere in this country one moment to curling up into a mental fetal position in my dark, empty apartment the next.

    You’re right, Ken. I’m just settling in. I’ve only been in Akita-ken for a couple weeks now. I know it will get better with time (I hope), but the bleak moments during which I get stuck in my head are quite bleak. My situation should improve once I actually start teaching and have something to occupy my time.

    As for country girls to fool around with, my prospects seem next to nil at this point. But I sure could use some initmate human contact to alleviate of these awful feelings of detachment and isolation.

    1. I completely get where you’re coming from. The empty apartment, for starters, sucks. One time when I moved prefectures I didn’t even have a futon at my new place, so I spent two nights atop folded up cardboard boxes and an old winter coat. Getting a bit of furniture can really lift your spirits. An old TV is nice, even if it just plays horrible Japanese shows. Look for a second-hand furniture shop nearby.

      Of course, existing without human contact is the real challenge. Remember that it’s not forever—it just takes time to make friends and find people to hang out with. Ideally, you want to find a group—a hiking club, fishing club, shogi club, something. Check with your local city hall; they’ll have something. Volunteer on a farm or offer to rake leaves with the old men.

      Buy a bike immediately. Just riding around will give you something to do, and will help you get to know your area. Even if you’re by yourself, it’s good to get some exercise and fresh air.

      And talk to people. Ask questions. Japanese folks will be stunned because a) holy shit, you don’t look like them and b) nobody asks strangers questions anyway, but screw that, you’ll be able to start making inroads into the community. It won’t be long before everybody points you to the one lady in town who spent 20 years living in Kentucky and is dying to speak English with you.

  23. I shouldn’t be so hyperbolic. My apartment came essentially completely furnished. It may not be the best stuff (the soiled old couch could definitely be replaced), but I’m grateful to have the few things that my BOE has provided for me.

    I’m also grateful that there are other JETs living in the same apartment complex, so I’m not completely isolated and alone. I’ve become friendly with them and have hung out with them on multiple occasions. I genuinely enjoy their company. However, at the end of the day when we all go back to our respective apartments and I step through my door, I am overwhelmed by the simultaneous feelings of emptiness and claustrophobia. I don’t know what to do with myself in my apartment and to escape the stifling feelings of loneliness, I try to get outside and find something to do, even if it’s just a walk around town. But, eventually, I do have to settle into my apartment, and it’s simply a soul-suckingly dreary space, at this point. Can’t wait for the winter…

    Of course, I didn’t come to Japan merely to hang out with other ALTs. My main goal is to speak with and befriend (as much as is possible) the native Japanese of my community. I’d love, as you say, to go up to an old guy and help him rake leaves or chat with him over beers in a smoky izakaya. However, the biggest obstacle in my way to achieving that is my poor Japanese language abilities and my consequent lack of confidence. So, most often, the only time I find myself speaking Japanese is over a mangled, clipped interaction with the cashier at Lawson while picking up a bento and a tall can of malt liquor. (I always assumed you were exaggerating for comedic effect, but it is entirely possible and, perhaps, inevitable to survive off of malt liquor and conbini fare in Japan.)

    I know I’m focusing on the negative here, which has always been my biggest downfall. I can’t be self-defeating. I have to get out there and, as you say, just do things. I can’t depend on alcohol to get me through (don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful thing, but I am concerned that I have been drinking too much, especially alone, which is not that fun, since I came here). In spite of my frustrations, I need to put myself out there, struggle through the difficulties, and be active and invested. Again, once I actually start teaching, things should get easier – at least, on the having things to occupy my time front.

    Having said all that, I do love my town. It’s beautiful here. My supervisor is very helpful, and everyone I’ve met so far has been warm and welcoming. I haven’t experienced any discrimination (from what I can perceive, anyway) because I’m foreign. My biggest stumbling block, as usual, is myself. I simply need to get over myself. If anything, perhaps that’s just what this Japan experience will provide.

    It’s already happening to some extent. Before I came here, I was heavily invested in American political and social analysis. It consumed a lot of my time and headspace. But, since I came here, I have been so focused on surviving in Japan that I’ve had to put all that on the back burner. There is now a refreshing physical and mental distance between myself and the political/social scene in the States, and thus it’s no longer as important to me as it was just a couple of weeks ago. Not that following politics is bad in and of itself, but, as I said, it took up too much time and occupied an arguably overly significant status in my interests. It’s good to step away from that environment of all politics all the time. Not that Japan doesn’t have its own issues, but I’m grateful for opportunity Japan provides to step away and put things in perspective.

    (I hope this hasn’t posted multiple times. I’ve had trouble with the comment going through but apparently not actually being posted…)

    1. That’s excellent—glad you’ve got some folks to hang out with. From what you’ve described, it sounds less like culture shock than simple loneliness and homesickness, which is normal. Don’t hesitate to hang out with other ALTs and foreign people; it’s important to have a support network.

      That being said, I’m 100% for you meeting local folks. A great number of foreigners spend their time in that “gaijin bubble,” including being surrounded by pods of foreigner-friendly Japanese folks speaking mostly English and acting in ways they consider to be “international.” You can get a really skewed image of this country by talking with people who appear to be Japanese but are actually pretty not. I see a lot of foreigners here who’ll go back to their home countries and recount tales of years in Japan, while they never actually lived in Japan at all.

      The only way to truly understand the nation is to put yourself out there. Hell yeah speaking Japanese is hard. Now you know why people say “Japanese are shy”—it’s because they’re trying to speak fucking English. Nobody wants to sound like that kid who has to wear a bike helmet all day long. Of course you’re going to be embarrassed and lacking in confidence. Unless you’re a psychopath, that’s the normal reaction.

      You know the 10,000-hour rule, right? Well, that’s how this goes. Every time you walk into an unknown izakaya, that’s about 1 hour of experience. You just part the curtain and in you go. Sometimes it’s going to be horrible and you’ll barely be able to get food. Maybe you’ll just be shuttled out for some reason you don’t even understand. And sometimes it’ll be fun and you’ll have a good time. But you’re gonna have to go to about 10,000 izakayas before you’re really able to feel comfortable. Fortunately, I eat out a lot.

      As for discrimination, sure, as long as you think of yourself as a foreigner, you won’t be bothered by it. It’s only once you start speaking, thinking, and behaving like a Japanese person that you’ll begin to wonder why you’re not being treated the same as everybody else. But this doesn’t seem limited to Japan, so welcome to the world, I guess.

      Thanks for the running commentary on your experiences, by the way. I think a lot of people enjoy hearing what’s going on with you. Maybe we need to make you a guest columnist.

      1. Guest columnist, eh? I’ve been waiting a lifetime to hear those words. Or read them. I’d be honored to, if this is a serious proposal.

        Yeah, I enjoy spilling my guts out on this blog (in case that wasn’t obvious), and if people actually enjoy reading it, then that’s even better. Thanks for always offering insightful feedback, Ken. You have been a big help & inspiration to me.

        As for speaking with actual Japanese people, I did have a couple of experiences this weekend that were good for, at least partially, getting me out of my bubble.

        On Saturday, I went on a walk with two other ALTs, both female. As one of them & I were waiting outside our apartment for the other to get ready, this old Japanese man on a bike crept up, said hello, & immediately wanted to know where we were from. He asked if we were dating, and we said no, that we were just friends. Then, he asked something else, but we couldn’t understand, so we tried using Google Translate but that didn’t work. Eventually, I just Googled the one word he kept repeating & it turned out he was asking if we were married. We, again, streseed that we were just friends. Then, he wanted to know where we lived before pedaling off on his merry way. Are elderly Japanese normally this nosy and prying with other Japanese? Or is this just one more perk of being a gaijin?

        After that bit of cultural exchange, the three of us began our walk and we stopped at a little vegetable stand run by two sweet old ladies. One of them kept chuckling to herself as we perused the wares and asked her questions in Japanese. I didn’t get the feeling she was laughing at us, just more tickled that there were three foreigners at her vegetable stand, speaking something that approximated her native tongue. An older customer saw me with a bag of goya that I was going to buy and he told me that he didn’t like goya. He also recognized the three of us from our picture in the local paper. For a second, I felt like a celebrity. I asked the old lady at the cash register how to cook goya and she explained the method in a way I was somehow able to understand, in spite of my poor Japanese, which was amazing. When I asked if she liked goya, she said she hated it, and I really should have listened to the Japanese on that one because goya turned out to be disgusting.

        We walked on to a little shrine which appeared to be in disrepair, when suddenly a Japanese man appeared out of the trees and began talking to us. We did our best to hold a conversation with him in a mangled mix of basic Japanese and English. He explained a little bit about the shrine and then, just as suddenly as he appeared, he was taking us to a short hike up the mountain, which he apparently does every morning. He seemed nice and normal enough, so we followed him.

        The hike’s summit provided stunning panoramic views of the cityscape below. There, we encountered a cute little family consisting of a father, mother, a 9-year-old daughter, and a 5-year-old son. They had brought nets to catch dragonflies. We talked with them (mostly in English, unfortunately) and the girl was delighted to practice the English words she had learned from school with me. We accompanied the family back down the mountain, and then the man from the trees continued to lead the way towards an unspecified destination.

        He had asked where we lived (wanting to know even the precise street, which, thankfully, we didn’t even know) and had mentioned that he lived nearby. Eventually, we gathered that we were heading towards his house and that he was inviting us over to eat edamame. The vegetables we had bought were starting to wilt after our impromptu hike so I tried to use that as an excuse to leave, but he kept tagging along, since he thought we would just drop the produce off and then continue following him back to his house.

        The girls were starting to get nervous at this point, understandably. They didn’t want this guy, nice as he was, to know where we live, and they definitely didn’t want to go to his house for edamame. So, I stopped walking and asked if he lived nearby, trying to make him get the hint. He didn’t so one of the girls, who has the best Japanese ability, said that we were a bit tired. Immediately, the penny dropped for the guy, and he gave a clipped goodbye and then booked it down the street.

        We all felt bad about the awkward parting and hoped we didn’t offend the guy. I’m (fairly) sure he had the best intentions. If it had just been me, I likely would have joined him for the edamame. But I completely understand how that was something the ladies were not keen on. Still, how often is it that a Japanese person invites complete strangers to their house for snacks? Is that another perk of being a gaijin?

        1. Serious like a heart attack. I think your just-woke-up-and-whoa-now-I’m-in-Japan enthusiasm provides a refreshing counterpoint to my nation-weary cynicism. So yeah, I’ll email you about that.

          As for whether you’re receiving the “gaijin treatment” or not, I think you can probably answer that by just looking around. I doubt lots of Akita residents get randomly invited places. Put another way: the people who are inviting you places, who’s inviting them?

          On a completely different note, goya is hands-down my favorite vegetable. It takes some getting used to, but lots of Japanese people love it, me included. As with most things in this nation, give it some time and you may find it’s not what you thought at first.

        2. Ah, yeah, geeez, those experiences where you go into an Izakaya and nothing is readable on the menu… or you can read it but it has some horrifically random pronunciation that nobody could get right and then you just feel like an idiot for a while… until you’ve had enough beer/chu-hai/whatever that you don’t care anymore.

          Even better is when you try and walk though a door which specifically says 自動的 or something and then it doesn’t open… and there’s no button and then you just stand there feeling like an idiot! It’s like the door went “外人を見つけた、ぜひ開きません” or something even though you know it’s just a door!

  24. On Sunday, I went to the local Catholic church for mass where I met a middle-aged Filipina woman who, only minutes after learning my name, invited me to go to a yakiniku restaurant with her and her Japanese husband for lunch. Not being burdened by the company of two sensible females, I accepted the invitation.

    I began to doubt this decision as she proceeded to drive far out into the countryside, texting all the while. She assured me that we were driving to her house, which, thankfully, did turn out to be the case. There, we picked up her husband, a stick-thin old Japanese man of few words who seemed completely unfazed to see a random white guy standing in his house. In spite of just having a stroke, the old man wanted a smoke, so acquiring the necessary tobacco was our first priority as we made our way back into town for the yakiniku lunch.

    Before heading to the restaurant, we stopped off at a seedy apartment adjacent to a printing shop (complete with stacks of grimy tubs, presumably full of hazardous waste, out front) where we picked up three young Filipina women. They kindly gave me a few T-shirts of bands I didn’t know from the printing shop. Apparently, the Filipina women all worked at elder care facilities and the woman I met was in charge of recruiting them straight from the the Philippines and training them. She called them her “trainees.” It seemed a bit dubious, but I was too hungry to think too much about it, at that point.

    We finally made it to the yakiniku restaurant, where the women mostly spoke to each other in Tagalog. The old man spoke once, wanting to get a beer, but his wife didn’t let him. The rest of the time, he sat and read the paper or got up to go out and smoke. The women affectionately called him “Otoosan.”

    The food was good and they did eventually drop me off back at my apartment in one piece, so I’d say it was a good experience, even though I wasn’t hanging out with “actual” Japanese people. My little town is much more diverse than I realized.

    1. The random strangers, the yakiniku, the old guy at the house, somehow it all sounds way too familiar. There’s something about being just-arrived that people can sense—your excitement and interest in everything around you, like a kitten. A delicious kitten.

      Japan in general is way more diverse than anybody lets on. Anyway, you hung out with one “actual” Japanese person, so that’s a start.

  25. I didn’t salt the goya beforehand, which my supervisor, who also likes goya, told me I was supposed to do to remove some of the bitterness. I must have missed that step when the old lady at the vegetable stand told me how to cook it. Or maybe, she missed that step, which is why she hates the stuff. I’ll give goya another chance & cook it properly next time.

    I suppose the goya provides a nice analogy for how my ignorance will color my experiences here, and how I must be ever vigilant in acknowledging & compensating for this eventuality.

    1. I used to salt the goya, ostensibly for that reason. Basically all that gets you is salty goya.

      Yo, it’s supposed to be bitter, kind of like spinach or broccoli. If you like that kind of stuff, goya’s for you. If not, back to your Clif Bars and Fruit Loops.

      To make it, just stir fry the goya in some sesame oil. Add tsuyu and hon dashi for flavoring. Sautee it along with onion, carrot, and mushrooms if you want, or even add a can of tuna. Garnish it with copious amounts of katsuobushi if you’ve got any handy. I think it’s freaking delicious, although I understand not everybody feels that way. Cretins.

      1. Wow, you start a “How to Eat on a Budget as a Bitter Gaijin in Japan” series of posts…that’s some impressive stuff there in your recipe…

        1. How’d we get from “bitter vegetable” to “bitter gaijin”? Bit of a jump. I knew I should’ve gone with that recipe for deep-fried Snickers instead.

          1. Heh, I wasn’t even going for that connection…I just thought that, like me, you look in the mirror and accept what you see ;p

  26. I do like broccoli and spinach, but I found the bitterness of goya to be more akin to the bile-like flavor of grapefruit, which I can’t stand. While eating it, I couldn’t help but think of the snozzcumbers from The BFG. But I’ll give it another try. You may just convert me yet.

      1. Could be, but I’ll generally try any food once. Except basashi. I don’t particularly want to eat that.

        I tried natto for the first time not too long ago, if only so that, when I’m inevitably posed the question “Can you eat natto?,” I could proudly declare “Yes, I can!”

        I cannot eat natto.

  27. I ate basashi out of choice as I wanted to try it once, not really my thing but it went down fine with some beer.

    I don’t like Natto either but the trick is to try not to smell it… the taste is fine but the smell, argh, that is the killer, just try plugging your nose and shove it in your mouth ASAP – there will be an inevitable time when you’re forced to eat it. so yeah, that’s my tactic for now.

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