Japan Versus America – Who Wins?

Japan Versus America – Who Wins?

Every year, I like to play a little game called “Could I Ever Live in America Again?” That’s where I board a plane in Tokyo, have about ten tiny in-flight wines, watch every movie ever made, then get off in sunny California and ask myself, “Well, how ’bout it, Seeroi?” It’s a pretty self-explanatory game, I guess, but I enjoy it.

Japanese refer to the country as either “The U.S.A.,” which is cute, or simply “America,” since anything south of San Diego clearly doesn’t count. Nothing but fish tacos and cactus there anyway. And you’re not fooling anyone with your donkeys painted like zebras, you know. Going north, of course, there’s Canada, but any country that speaks French and thinks hockey’s a sport hardly qualifies as America. Still, props for discovering that maple trees can be milked.

So after I landed at LAX, I was pretty hungry, and headed out for some fish tacos. Of course we have them in Japan too, but I wanted to compare. That’s when I learned that Yup, fish and cabbage taste pretty much exactly the same no matter where you are. Afterwards I walked around the corner and got some waffles. They’re quite the rage in Tokyo these days, but I thought American ones might be better, since they’re cooked by a people who understand pancake culture, namely Mexicans. Americans must really love Mexican folks, since there are so many everywhere. Anyway, the waffles tasted just like Japanese ones, although Japanese maple syrup tastes better, probably because it’s not just colored corn syrup. Work harder, Canada.

Then once I was full, I went in search of The U.S.A. Here are a few random observations:

Americans are Polite

I know, I was pretty surprised too. Because I’d always heard that Japanese people are polite. But everywhere I went, Americans were saying “excuse me” and “sorry,” for minor things that no Japanese person would even acknowledge, like bumping into someone or taking the last two-liter bottle of Coke. Americans drink a lot of Coke. And they hold doors for one another other and even smile. Amazing. I figure everyone’s worried someone else is gonna shoot them if they’re not super nice, so they’re motivated. That’s like an unexpected bonus of the Second Amendment. Good looking out, founding fathers.

America is Loud

I knew from previous trips to expect the citizens to be loud, tattooed, and reeking of cologne. All of which proved true. It’s apparently important to Americans that everyone else hears, sees, and smells them from afar. But I’d forgotten just how noisy everyday life is: lawn mowers, car stereos, 18-wheelers on city streets. Everything’s about a billion decibels louder than necessary. So people are polite, but loud, even in restaurants and coffee shops. Want some cultural anthropology? You can completely sum up the two countries by saying, American Starbucks: loud. Japanese Starbucks: quiet. Boom, done.

America Exercises

Health clubs, sporting goods stores, and yoga pants are everywhere. America appears to be a nation of athletes. Lots of people were running, apparently out of choice. In Japan, we only do that if we’re late for the train. Exercise as a hobby? Are you kidding? Try work. Now there’s a hobby.

And yet, despite the vast amount of exercise they do, Americans are enormously fat. It’s a nation of chubsters. So the only logical conclusion is that exercise makes you fat. I’d suggest working fifteen hours a day for a few years, and seeing what effect that has.

America is Post-Racial

Is “post-racial” even a real term? I feel like maybe I just invented it. Anyway, here’s what I mean. I stopped off at a bar to sample what you Americans call “beer.” It’s super sweet and much too dark. Maybe it’s made out of maple syrup, by Mexicans in Canada. Well, whatever. So then an Asian guy walked up to the counter and asked the Hispanic bartender for some potato chips. There was a brief conversation about the merits of salt and vinegar, during which none of the following was said:

“Where are you from?” didn’t ask the Hispanic bartender.

“Me? Where are you from?

“I mean, you speak English so well.

“The hell I do,” didn’t say the Asian guy. “Your English is amazing.

“Thanks for the backhanded compliment. Wow, can you eat potato chips?

“Can you use chopsticks?

“Of course not. I’m American.

“Yeah me too. Never heard of ‘em.”

So none of that happened. Instead they just talked about snacks. Two people of different races, behaving as normal adults on equal footing in society. That’d never happen in Japan.

Now, I don’t mean to say that America has rid itself of racism. No doubt there are still dudes who sit around their living rooms in pointy white hats and king-sized sheets calling each other Grand Wizards. Maybe it’s a Harry Potter thing, I dunno. Here in Japan, that’s known as cosplay.

But there’s an awareness of racism. It doesn’t mean everyone likes each other, but maybe they’ve thought about it. Right or wrong, people seem to have reasons for their positions, and they’ll be happy to tell you all about them. In Japan, there’s no conversation. It’s a simple fact that there are only two races: Japanese and Everybody Else. Maybe the only other place in the world people think that way is Texas. Don’t mess with Texans; they’re a race apart.

American Toilets

Okay, America’s never going to win the Best Toilet contest. In Japan, there are toilets in most convenience stores, department stores, and train stations. It’s like the society figured that humans might actually need to go pee pee. Planning, now there’s a concept. And most bathrooms are clean. Sure, maybe in a park they’re not pristine, but at least you’ve got them. America? You’re lucky if your kidneys don’t explode before you can find a restroom, and once you do it looks like the last person who used it was Jimmy the retarded five-year old.

And look, I get the whole Puritanical thing. You don’t want to make a toilet stall that comes all the way to the ground because give people privacy and they might do something sinful. Like, I dunno, masturbate. God forbid. Seriously. Because that’s what this is about, right? But does anyone really want to see another guy’s pants around his ankles? The whole thing seems a little freaky. Not trying to judge, though.

Fashion is Back

Here’s a brief history of American fashion. So first there were the native Americans, who were really into leather, which was cool, because they were riding buffalo and eating bald eagles and it was a super macho time. The Village People were popular during this era, literally. And then later a bunch of white folks invented tie-dying and marijuana and nobody bathed for a decade and everyone just reeked of patchouli. Then sometime later flannel actually became a look and the nation went grunge and it killed Kurt Kobain. After that, it became lucrative to arrest black men for smoking pot and wearing huge pants that kept falling down. America weathered some challenging storms, fashion wise.

But now, thankfully, gay people have rescued the U.S. and men are getting decent haircuts and wearing skinny trousers with tailored shirts and it’s impossible to tell who’s homosexual anymore. So basically, life’s now about a thousand times harder for gay guys, since they can’t just be like, Oh, you gay? Me too! Let’s go. Now it’s more like, Hmmm, is he gay, or just well-dressed? It’d be like a Japanese person trying to figure out if someone’s Korean or not. That’s gotta be frustrating. Anyway, men are looking better, is what I’m saying.

And women? Well, they’re all wearing yoga pants. Girlfriend, you are not that skinny. That’s a trend that can’t go away fast enough.

American Food

Hamburgers, fried chicken, waffles, fish tacos—-that’s all real stuff. But what’s “baked cannelloni with braised wild boar, capers, and pecorino cheese in a rosemary-infused wine sauce”?

It’s clear that chefs are just throwing a bunch of stuff together and saying it’s a dish. Now, if you’re the restaurant, that’s woo hoo for you, because you can charge a fortune, and customers can’t call you on the fact that you’re doing it wrong. “Well, I find this boar to be slightly gamey.” Like, who’s gonna say that? But you still have to know how to cook.

Case in point: I ordered tamagoyaki at a “Japanese” restaurant. This is a simple, standard dish that every Japanese person knows. For reference, here’s what it’s supposed to look like:

Japanese tamagoyaki

Japanese tamagoyaki

 

 

 

And this is the mess that retarded Jimmy grilled up and served me after he finished peeing on the toilet seat:

American tamagoyaki

American tamagoyaki

If you were a bakery and made a cake that looked like that, you’d be shot dead. Especially in Texas. Because everyone knows what cakes are supposed to look and taste like. But apparently for other cuisines, anything goes. Is it too much to ask that the customers know shit from Shinola? How about the cooks? Okay, I’ll just quit asking.

American Women

Now here was a real surprise. I guess after a few years in Japan, I’d just come to assume that all women were pouty, snooty, and stared at their shoes a lot. But American women were actually friendly, intelligent, and funny. They had something to say other than “my hobby is shopping,” “Sugoi, everything amazes me,” and “Look at my kawaii eyelashes.”

Okay, there were a lot of plus-sized ladies, I’m not gonna lie. Again, enough with your yoga pants; your ass is killing me. But there were also some hot chicks too, and many were flirty and open. They might even take an active role in love-making, and not just lay there like a tuna. That’d be a change. It’s easy to see why so many Japanese guys have an American girl fetish.

American Television

I like to use my free time effectively, which usually involves lying in bed and watching TV. Gotta get proper rest, you know. But anyway, I figured I’d learn something, and watch the History Channel. Well apparently they’ve given up on the whole history thing, which is good to see. Who wants to learn about the boring Roman Empire when you can watch Mountain Men? That’s history in the making.

It’s this program about guys who leave the comfort of home to go and live in a foreign, hostile environment. It’s an adventure, sure, but who’d want to really do that? The live in these tiny, cold places, eat gross stuff like raw fish, and have hardly anybody to talk to. Man, you’d have to be some kind of idiot to choose a lifestyle like that. Good thing it’s only a TV show.

Who won? You Decide

Look, everything’s great on vacation. But living in a place, you gotta deal with both the good and the bad. Like I went to 7-11 tonight, and they were out of fish sausage. Such are the hardships you might face, so be prepared. I guess it’s important to decide what’s best based upon one’s values. Now if only I had some. Well anyway, I do enjoy the U.S. It’s got a lot of nice trees and grass and squirrels and stuff. On the other hand, the food’s great in Japan, and I like the beer, plus I’m already here, so maybe I’ll stay a bit longer. I just gotta remember to get to 7-11 a little earlier. Stock up, before winter rolls in over the mountains.



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79 Comments

  1. This article did not end with quite the same “But in the end, Japan, home, sweet home” feeling as most of yours do. (And this was the most US-positive one, too, I think.) Does this suggest the beginning of the end?

    • Hah, who knows? Certainly for the next couple of years, I’ll be in Japan. And the longer you stay, of course, the harder it is to go back. But there’s a Japanese expression that says “Even one step forward is unknown,” and that sums my feeling up pretty well.

      Growing up in the U.S., I had years to learn all of the good and bad points of the nation. Coming to Japan, well, initially you mostly see good things, and overlook the bad. It’s only later that you start to see the cracks and flaws.

      I have the sense that on some level the two countries are equal in terms of advantages and drawbacks. They’re just so different that it’s hard to make a good comparison. But maybe that’s life, where things have a way of finding a balance. It’s strange.

  2. Did you every take a long break from living in Japan? Most people I know who lived here for a while (although admittedly not as long as you have) and then went back got really nostalgic after a while and tried to come back. And I’m not talking about 18 year olds on adderall trying to hump anything that moves. Strange thing is, no one I talked to could really put his finger on why they were missing Japan. It was nothing tangible, it was more about the overall atmosphere of the place and on how ridiculously easy it is to live here. Even though you speak Japanese now, how easy would it be to live in the US (or anywhere else for that matter) without speaking English or even without being able to make sense of the written alphabet?

    • I can only imagine how hard it’d be to live in the U.S. and not speak English. Japan’s one of the easiest places to live in and still not speak the native language. There are even some real advantages to not speaking Japanese.

      I’ve never taken a long break from Japan, just 2 or 3 weeks. I certainly miss the convenience of Japan, but the people in the U.S. are far easier to hang out with–even for Japanese folks. That’s what makes it so hard to choose between the two nations. It would help if the U.S. had better food though, seriously.

      • Starbucks analogy is brilliant. Yoga pants/sweat pants obsession is ghastly. It’s like the white tuxedo; only a select few can pull it off. The US obsession engaging in new wars is a big downer which seems troubling for future generations.

        Fun article Ken

  3. Agree with you about America being “post-racial”, but then again, I’m a middle-aged white guy who does not get pulled over for no reason while driving, seriously questioned while going through airport security, asked for proof of citizenship, or shot by a cop for walking down the street. I’ve lived in Asia for years, and always say that America is the easiest place in the world for a foreigner to move to or visit. On my culd-de-sac live two Indian families, four white families, one black family, and one Chinese. A Japanese person in America may always feel self-conscious that they look “different” but it’s easy to blend in because everybody looks “different”. But in China, you’re always a laowai and in Japan a gaijin, and there’s no hiding from it. And it’s really really tiring.

    • That’s it, really, isn’t it. I know so many “foreigners” who came to Japan because they loved it, then a few years later can’t even venture out of their apartments because it’s so exhausting to deal with the gaijin treatment.

      The people who seem to do the best are those who just speak English, hang out with “internationally-minded” friends (i.e., other English speakers), and don’t try too hard to fit in.

      At the other end of the spectrum, Debito Arudou is pretty much the poster child for being “othered.” He became a Japanese citizen, which only seems to have stressed him out further. I’m trying not to get to that point. Beer helps.

      • There are only so many 「日本人より…」 a person can take before they start to crack. Last month there was a little bon festival held in the park right outside my window. I stayed in room and peered out the curtains now and then.

        • へえええ、カーテンから外国人が覗いているんだ。What a very Japanese thing to do. So that’s irony for you. But I know how you feel.

  4. Dear Ken Seeroi,

    Congratulations! You are finally here with us, at the beginning of the end) Food, beer, and girls are great here, no doubt, but there is a time when you want more than that. Now, I am not American, I have just been there a couple of times… Every time I go out of Japan, life seems much more fun, and people are not like robots, compliments are here and there, and people wish me a nice day… Sure, there a lot of idiots everywhere but it just hits me so hard all the time. And, I suddenly start dreaming of this life. Being surrounded by different, sure, crazy people and so many personalities. I want to ask people in the restaurant what is a most recommended dish and to actually get an answer. I want to smile at people, and get a smile back. I don’t want to know what kind of answer I will get in turn. I just want to live. Sure, you want to live as well. Japanese girls are fun for a while, but I bet you are bored as hell)

    • The beginning of the end—I like that. Maybe it’s about right. I would say that yeah, for food and beer, Japan’s the winning hand. But for women, Americans any day. I honestly never thought I’d say that, but well, Japanese girls are great for a while, if you measure “a while” in hours.

      • Sorry, I will take Philly Cheesesteaks, Chicago deep dish pizza and various Tex Mex dishes along with various micro brews over the food here in Japan.

      • One good thing about japanese people for sure that you failed to mention is that they take a bath more than any americans can ever do in their lifetime.

  5. That was a fun read. Australia is a bit different from the U.S., but I think it is pretty similar if we are comparing it to Japan. Unlike say, France, in Australia and the U.S. there is a general custom to be friendly to strangers. Not formally polite, but friendly. You might say that being friendly is itself politeness. And that is something rooted maybe in a kind of optimism and camaraderie. I can sometimes strike up conversations with people on the bus or train, or make small talk with a clerk or store person while we are sorting something out. When you meet eyes with a stranger in passing in Australia or the U.S., I think it is a common courtesy to give a bit of a nod or smile , to acknowledge them and be acknowledged. I never get that in Japan. It is frosty all day long, everywhere I go. When I went from Kansai to Kanto it felt so bad it took me months to get over the feeling that people I’d never met actively disliked me for my very presence. Of course, it didn’t help knowing that a sizable percentage actually -did- feel that way what with the hassle or anticipated hassle of dealing with NJ.

    Like you say as well, in English speaking countries we don’t start from the point of “us” vs “Not-us”. It is more amorphous. I miss that a lot. It really is problem number two here for me (number one being the work culture). The other night I was catching a bit of TV in a restaurant and there was a show on about the up-coming 2020 Olympics, and the issue of how Japan was going to deal with all these foreigeners “異文化と向き合う”. They had a couple of half-Japanese hosts and a few naturalized people on the discussion panel. Invariably though you ended up with a bunch of foreigners in the street saying how much they loooooved Japan/Tokyo etc. with the conclusion that Japan needed a few more signs in English and everything would be just swell.

    I’ll conclude with a tangentially related funny story. Remember how I mentioned in another comment somewhere how the 7/11 ATM machines won’t allow you to conduct a transaction in Japanese if you put a foreign bank card in it? You could choose English, Chinese, Korean or Portuguese. Well, as it turns out I got a job through gaijinpot for doing a survey of the new machines they will be putting out next year. It was me, a French guy, an American, a German, and a Russian. In a room with twenty ATM machines and fifteen Japanese staff all waiting to hear our impressions of the new menu system. Primarily what they wanted to know, after ease of use, was how “Japanese” the menu backgrounds or melodies felt to us. Yes. Seriously. “Which of these three melodies do you think is most “Japanese”?” was a question. We had a selection of backgrounds to choose as our favorites. You know. Sakura. Mt Fuji. Koi. Bamboo. etc. The idea that the “foreigner” is absolutely an outside element in need of being served, helped, shown an image of “Japan” (and then feel grateful when they leave) is so pervasive that it is even ingrained into the very ATMs. So I had a minute long complain about that in-front of everybody, and I think I got the point across. Felt good man.

    • I love that depiction of “Japan.” It’s like when you see a movie that features the sound of slowly-plucked koto strings and images of sakura petals blowing in the breeze. You can rest assured that the director has no clue what Japan is like. Anyway, if I see a picture of koi fish and bamboo on my ATM, I’ll know who to blame.

      Still, sounds like a pretty good job, being paid to be a foreigner. But then I guess we always are.

  6. Mr. Seeroi, I admit I have only been reading your material for a couple of days now, but I am hooked. I decided to take up learning Japanese (we’ll see how long that lasts), and came across one of your articles that really caught my eye.

    I can’t remember what it was.

    But it was good, rest assured. Maybe I need some of that highly-touted Japanese beer to rekindle my memory. ANYWAY, just had to post a comment saying I hope to continue down this path of enjoying your articles, and keeping away from Japanese women (I kidd). Thank you.

    • Don’t worry, I can’t remember half the things I write either. I’m always like, “Did I finally type that out, or just think about it for so long that it feels like I did?” I need a secretary.

      Thanks for reading my stuff, and good luck with learning Japanese. It’s an interesting language, particularly if you need an all-consuming hobby for the next decade or so.

  7. Great writing as always! i was born in the Dominican Republic and i can tell you that in my native country there is 3 type of people if you look asian you are “Chinese”, white “American” and the rest are just “morenitos” is what they call dark skin peole but more like a light dark(even if you are as black as a tire,the believe they are morenitos). i still love to go back and take some vacations but i understand the feeling of moving to a different place and getting to know a new culture where there is alot of bad things going on, but those little good ones that it has are very heavy and balance the scale. maybe in a couple of years, i can go to Japan and just enjoy the good things and get used to the bad ones, i wonder what would be the treatment for someone not asian, not black, not white, not from europe (for some reason i find that japanese people are fascinated by europeans) maybe if they call me gaijin i can reciprocate and call them chinese, that would be fair wouldnt it?

    • You may blow people’s minds, since they won’t know how to classify you. I’m not sure how many people here even know where the Dominican Republic is. They’ll probably assume it’s somewhere near India.

      If so, then yeah, I think calling them Chinese would be a fair trade. I’d suggest you do that as often as possible, since all Japanese people love to be called Chinese.

  8. Funny. I play this game pretty much every year as well. Just replace “America” with “Germany”, though.
    It was interesting to see what you noticed during your visit.

    I agree that a vacation is completely different from actually living there and you tend to see (mostly) the positive things.

    For me, neither Germany nor Japan is winning that game recently, so I’m thinking about trying a completely different country next.

    But like you said, the longer you stay, the harder it gets. It’s tough to leave Japan. I’ve been here for 7 years and it only gets worse from here on, I guess. ^^;

    • Next country, please. Always a popular option with ex-pats. I don’t think there’s anyone here who hasn’t considered it. I’ve know a few people who moved on from Japan, and nobody seems to regret it.

      I’ve been here about the same amount of time, and at 7 years per country, we need to choose pretty carefully. There’s only so many more times one can do that before age becomes a factor. At 30, everyone looks pretty good to employers and potential mates. At 50, eh, maybe not so much.

      Ah, the problem with life is that it’s not a thousand years long.

      • Hi Ken Sensei! I’m one of those new readers here, quite enjoying it since I’m planning a first visit to Japan next spring. Loved the articles, and I mean it.

        Quick question, did that 7 years per country came out spontaneously, or of any reason?

  9. “The[y] live in these tiny, cold places, eat gross stuff like raw fish, and have hardly anybody to talk to.”

    The irony is not lost on me, although it’s a little early to be griping about central heating. Oh yeah! I don’t know if you remember our last conversation, but I finally wound up attracting a girlfriend… Under extremely unfortunate circumstances (online, in the middle of a divorce, obsessed with remarrying… 1.3 times my own weight). Well, we’ll see how that turns out.

    • It’s not often that you hear someone described of in terms of their relative body weight percentage. That’s good. Anyway, it’s never about the specs, but how you feel about the person, so hopefully you guys will take care of each other and work out great.

  10. Debito Arudou! man, that dude is stressed!

    Awesome article dude! loved it. Deep, thoughtful, funny.

    I left Japan three years ago and it was the stupidest thing I ever did! I miss it everyday… Since then Ive lived in Spain, Germany and now (sigh) Australia. And all of them have the same things in common – theyre not Japan, and theres bloody gaijin everywhere!

    Ive noticed a trend. You know how once you live in Japan you cant eat sushi anywhere else. Its just always terrible, like every new sushi is retroactively compared to the perfect specimen you had that one time in Japan. Its like that with everything in Sydney. I live like ten minutes by train from the city centre but theres only one train every half hour. The food is crappola. The people are only friendly cause theyre about to sell you something – or rob you… so rant rant rant… homeless mental illness …rant rant…. movie ticket prices ….rant… taxes … im soundin like an old man on talk back radio, but the point is: in Japan they’ve got their shit together. Need something? weve got it in 7 colours. Wanna go somewhere? theres a train in 2 minutes follow the blue line. Hungry? eat this – my family has been perfecting the recipe for 1000 years. Its amazing.

    Youll regret it if you leave – I do.

    M

    • I agree. Japan’s a great place to live, at least in the near term. But as a counterpoint, I often hear guys say, “I’ve been here 15 years and now I’m screwed. Get out while you can.” So there’s that too.

      There seems to be a critical time component. Sure, Japan’s great for a few years, but when it comes to a stable career, having kids, or thinking about retirement, things change. When it comes to planning for the future, Japan might not be the best choice. Fortunately, I never do that.

  11. Now I’m British, so fish taco’s are something of an unknown quantity to me (even though I’ve been to like America, like loads of times), but your article does ring true on a number of points.

    Myself and my wife are at a junction, do we stay or do we go. Life is easy and difficult here. Easy to get around (mostly), but difficult if you stray outside of the socially accepted norms, like wanting to start a conversation with someone.

    Like wanting to go to a Hospital on a Yasumi, or having an injury serious enough to need immediate medical attention, but being left in a waiting room, when Japanese with clearly less severe issues (like coughs, colds etc…) get dealt with first. Having to Google my own injury because the doctor either can’t be arsed or doesn’t want to deal with NJ.

    Some cliché’s like the whole chopstick thing, I’ve never had (but my wife has). While other sexist and internalised or subtle racism persist almost universally. I am not, nor will I ever be Japanese, but no one has actually asked whether I want to be. I’m proud to be British (though not necessarily at the moment. Scotland is still a sore point)

    However the first thing I’m going to do when I get back home is eat meat that isn’t either chicken, beef or pork. Venison, boar, lamb, goat and a good plate of fish and chips (yes, potatoes cut into FAT strips and deep fried, it does not mean potato wedges or french fries). And I’m going to eat vegetables! I’m going to eat so many vegetables, that I will have an Iron & Vitamin overload.

    I’ll now never eat Sushi outside of Japan, except maybe some places in California. Go back to a mainly meat and veg based diet. Hell, going out for any Japanese food such as a fabulous lunch for ¥1000 is going to be very difficult. But on the other hand, a Wild Boar Sour Dough pizza for £8 (¥1300) in Brixton market ranks as the food of the gods in my book.

    The Toilets I’ll miss, though I have found a place you can buy Gaijin models in Europe. I never did like American toilets however. I always wondered why there was so many gaps and your informative article certainly shed some light on that. 🙂

    Japanese women… They walk around with the air of someone who wouldn’t spit on you if you were on fire. Now I’ve worked in some places where they have some of the most beautiful (and stylish) women on the planet and they seem quite common and rough compared to a few of the locals that walk around here.

    I miss being able to buy anything online and have it appear magically at my doorway sometime in the following week. Seriously, how can a nation that is portrayed as being so futuristic be so backwards. If anyone has ever gone through the Amazon.co.jp ordering and payment process you have my deepest sympathies. Yes paying at a combini is handy, but you know what’s even better, a bleedin Debit Card!

    However an end to the rant; the best thing about going away sometimes is the ability to come back and appreciate what you had before you left. For the most part I think that’s what will happen with us, but if we go back it might be to a country that has been split apart or at best, still joined, but with deep resentment and bitter disputes. That I’m not looking forward to.

    • To stay or go, it’s a hard question. Japan seems entirely set up for foreigners to fly in, stay a little while, then get the hell out. I don’t think anybody expects us to actually settle here.

      I always say that most people who can leave, eventually do. The work situation is a big contributing factor. It’s rare to find a job with decent advancement opportunities, or even one without a contract limit. I can only imagine how challenging it’ll be to retire here, especially with the rapidly shrinking population.

      And yeah, you gotta wonder how you’d handle going to the hospital as you started to get older and more in need of medical attention. Walking off into the forest to die seems like a pretty popular choice though, so that’s one option.

      But hey, that’s still years away, and why worry about the future? I’m sure something wonderful will happen in the meantime. Come on Japanese lottery.

      • The hospital you go to drastically affects your level of service. Ask people who live nearby and they will tell you “That place is no good.”, etc. I suggest going to a clinic inside a large tower building for small issues, and larger university run hospitals for larger problems. The price difference compared to smaller “local” places is small, but the difference in expertise and service level is large.

    • Your comment was an incredibly enjoyable read (great perspective of Japan from a Brit!).

      I think I have been asked near a dozen times to use my paid holiday leave when I was ill and went to the hospital, unto which I thoroughly had to restrain myself from slapping my superior. I know it’s the Japanese way, but sick leave exists for a reason–if Japanese people won’t use it, I will.

      The debit card thing had me laugh out loud. Making online purchases or buying anything online is such a pain (which is maybe why department stores do so well in Japan). While doing everything at the conbini (like buy concert tickets) is convenient, it would be even more convenient to just do all that stuff from home on the computer. When I tried to get my JLPT results, the company said I had to get a special stamp from the post office and mail it with a special envelope to Japan. When I tried to do this, the US post office looked at me like I was crazy. How about I just swipe a credit card and you just mail it to me? Oh Japan, you are the king of inefficiency.

      I work in the travel industry for Japan, and I often find American travelers are floored that you can’t reserve JR passes online or even buy bullet train tickets online (or in advance from abroad). Even now I think this is a bit absurd.

      But yeah, all that great sushi, the convenience of it all, the low crime rate and high standard of living.. sometimes I miss Japan, too, but then remember the loneliness, isolation and frustration I felt over there and I know I did the right thing leaving.

    • One interesting fact is that Japanese international students almost always have their fill of the U. S. and want to go home once they finish school. This is.in contrast to Chinese, etc.

      Anyway, what is wrong with Amazon Japan? Its way way faster than Amazon U S half of the time my stuff shows up the same day I ordered it.

      Anyway Mitsubishi has debit cards, but nothing can beat Mobike Suica.

  12. Just got to take the good with the bad.
    Example, toilets in japanese parks. Yes you can pee. You can also high five your friends who are still playing football since there is basically zero privacy.
    It’s better than the alternative in america though.
    Which is high fiving the cockroach that is trying to salmon up your yellow stream since there was no bathroom for you and you decided to drop trow next to some oak trees.

    Call it a tie.

    • That’s a tie? Jeez, I’d hate to see what you consider a loss.

      I always thought the ability to high-five your buddies from the bathroom was a plus, but maybe that’s just me.

  13. Yikes. Poor guy. Maybe the bigger issue here though is “Japan” and not Japan, if you know what I mean. What kind of goal you bring with you, and what kind of illusions you bring with you is decisive.

    I’ll say this about having learned Japanese. It has made it so much easier for me to learn Chinese. 😉

  14. Ken,

    I wanted to write and thank you for your advice a few months ago. On August 3rd I taught my last English lesson in Shikoku and on August 4th I took the Shinkansen to Tokyo. A fat, sweaty Latino guy with two suitcases and a overstuffed backpack, a wallet with about fifteen hundred dollars, and an overwhelming sense of anxiety and terror, I walked out into Shinagawa Station and surveyed my new surroundings. I can barely put into the words how much my life has changed since that day. In Marugame, the town I use to live in, people were scared of me. Old women and mothers would cross the street if I approached, and nobody would stand next to me on the train. I don’t look like what some Japanese people think an American should look like (white with blonde hair or black and urban) so I had to deal with several confused parents when they came to pick up their kids. The apartment my company gave me was infested with cockroaches and it smelled of urine. I had to walk 9km to get to one class, in the foggy heat of south Japan’s summertime, through rice fields and yellow orb spider nests. I have glistening scars on my left arm from spider bites. I had no friends, and there was nothing to do. The average age in the town was 70. The nearest grocery store was a thirty minute walk away. Every day I asked myself if I’d made a mistake coming to Japan.

    Now I live in Asakusa, about five minutes from a Chinese restaurant with the most incredible food. They only have ramen and gyoza, made fresh in-house; my lunches there are accompanied by the sound of slamming noodle dough as the chef works at the far side of the restaurant. I’m a minute from the Oedo Line which I take every day to my job in Roppongi, teaching business English part time. I put in some extra hours and I live very comfortably. Sometimes after work I see a movie in English, or I get a burrito, or I text/email my friends with my smartphone. I’m overweight and not the greatest looking guy but somehow I got a girlfriend. She interviewed me for a job my second day in Tokyo and now I’m pretty much enamored with her. She’s a professional and mature, she prefers going for garden walks over going to clubs and likes to talk about history and art. She’s taking a half day on Friday and we’re going to go see a movie together. I was offered every job I applied for except one. I go to a coffee shop near my work that’s run by an old man who who must be about 200. Sometimes he gives me a free gelatin coffee desert served in an old champagne coupe. Some evenings, not enough evenings, I go for a jog along the Sumida River and look up at the Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Building as I slowly trek my way past them, and I also stare at the young couples and at the old couples sitting along the waterfront, holding hands and staring at the brightly lit riverboats as they make their way up and downstream.

    Thank you, Ken. I reached out to three people for advice when I was thinking about staying at my terrible job in a decaying small town or leaving for Tokyo. Two of them told me to stay. They told me I’d get to experience “real” Japan, that it would be a good way to save money, I’d get to sharped my Japanese language skills, etc. etc. You were the third person I contacted and you told me to go. My quality of life has increased exponentially since getting here. I no longer wonder if I made the right decision coming to Japan, instead I wonder if I’ll ever leave. I know I might not be able to make what I’m doing now into a lifelong career, but for the first time since moving here, I’d really like to try. I love my life and I can’t wait for tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

    Thanks, Ken.

    • Wow, my advice actually had a positive outcome? Someone actually took my advice? Holy smokes. Well, I’m super glad things worked out like they did. That’s a very inspirational story.

      Of course, this only reinforces my belief that I should set up one of those fortune-telling tables in front of the station. For just ten bucks, Ken Seeroi will read your palm and tell you what to do with your life. Five if you’re a hot girl.

      • Whoa Pandamonium that was the most inspiring and heartfelt thing ive ever read! What a massive turn around. Well done to you sir.

        M

        ps: Ken, well done by leading by example. Youre like Jesus, or Buddha, or Kim Jong Ill, or Ghandhi in that way.

    • This is incredibly inspirational. Not because I can necessarily relate to your specific situation. But because you had the odds stacked so stiff against you and I am humbled by my advantages that I take for granted. My wife and I are in our late 20s. We saved for over a year, sol everything and began traveling asia. (In Cambodia at the time of this writing.) Our first stop was Japan, and though we knew we’d like it and already have friends who’ve been there/lived there, we loved it far more than we ever could have imagined and it became a very emotionall experience to leave. So as we trudged forward through other countries, we natural asked our selves the questions…should we live in Japan?…..COULD we live in Japan?….and if we do, can we stay living in Japan?…..So in a nutshell, your story speaks to me and says…”If that guy can do it with all stacked against him, and alone…then my wife and I can do it as a team with our already established friends there.” Thank you!….Thank you and Ken both!

      • You can definitely do it. There are two major challenges people face when moving here. One is having your money funny. Without enough cash, or worse, with debt, you’re going to have a hard time of things. If you’ve got a cushion of yen, everything’s much sunnier.

        The second challenge is believing that Japan’s somehow better than where you just were. There are a lot of good things here, but also a lot of bad, and that applies to the people as much as anything. Make sure you know what the negatives are. If you don’t, you’re making an uninformed decision.

        So a suitcase full of money and wisdom, would be my suggested packing list. Probably the two hardest things to come by, but still.

  15. Sounds a bit like me. My life dream was to go to Japan and I poured all my blood, sweat and tears into that dream to make it happen. It wasn’t until about a year after living in Japan that I realized my dream was just a facade, and I went into a bit of a crisis wondering just what I had worked so hard for (similar to the video game dude, but luckily I realized after a year that maybe Japan wasn’t the place for me).

    I think that it was hard to come to terms with the fact that, even though I literally poured years of effort into Japan, it was never going to fully accept me.

    • This notion of Japan versus “Japaaan” is really worth exploring, so I’ll write my next article about it. Hopefully sometime next week.

  16. Can you write a post comparing what a good ESL contract looks like vs a bad one? Preferably in Yen and what cities (or towns/villages) are good to apply for work in or at least accept if given the choice to choose.

    Like if a city is expensive to live, then how much salary would be decent, life there etc.

    • I plan to write a bit more about jobs in Japan, but it might take a bit of time.

      For now, I’d say that you should avoid any job where you’re teaching more than 4 50-minute classes per day. That rules out most eikaiwa, which is probably just as well. Not saying I wouldn’t take that job if I needed a visa, but long-term that’s recipe for massive burnout.

      Assuming you did teach 5 days a week times 4 classes a day, I’d be looking for a monthly salary of 270,000 and upwards.

      Tokyo is clearly the most expensive place to live, but companies don’t seem to pay much more than they do elsewhere. Living in one of Japan’s secondary cities (Sapporo, Osaka, Yokohama, Fukuoka) is probably your best bet. I’d avoid small towns and villages, unless you like spending a lot of time by yourself.

  17. not to be a jerk…but you spelled ‘trees’ as ‘tress’ in the last paragraph.

    • That’s the French spelling, like “colour” for “color.” I was trying to be sophisticated, but obviously some people don’t appreciate fine writing.

      All right, dag, I’ll fix it. Thanks for catching that.

      • HAHAHAHHAH, the longer I stay in China, the more I feel the same about Chinese girls as well. Their personalities are trained by a culture that zooms in on using others to benefit oneself. Its not the majority…because I’ve met some great Chinese women….but the percentage is certainly higher than Americans.

      • ah…I learn something everyday!

  18. What a great post! Ahh, I feel like such a blind fool for only just having stumbled onto this blog. Spent the last few days going through all the posts and it’s been thoroughly enjoyable. Would I be completely off-base if I said you’re like the Terry Pratchett of blogging Japan? Maybe I just think that because I don’t read enough to have examples to relate it to… but either way, it’s just fantastic.

    More fuel for my fire! I visited Japan in 2000 as part of an exchange program and have always wanted to go back and have a go at living there. Life’s an adventure, and finding folks like you sharing your experiences with everyone is exactly the kind of awesome inspiration I need to keep my motivation up. Especially when you’re such a damned good writer and make it all so enjoyable to read. Thanks!

    • I wasn’t familiar with Terry Pratchett, so I looked him up. I don’t know what kind of writer he is, but the man’s got terrible taste in hats, that’s for sure.

      I’ve always approached life as an adventure, but I think that’s because there’s something wrong with my brain. Like ADHD or some other acronym. Anyway, yeah, Japan’s a very cool place to have that adventure. I think everybody ought to live here at least once.

  19. So I’ve been somewhat curious for months now but this finally bugged me too much to hold it in. How old are you exactly, anyways? Going off the stories of your whimsical nights out on the town and the accompanying copious amounts of beer, it conveys the youth through your writing…. HOWEVER…. The tired, lackadaisical cynicism could lead it all to be interpreted otherwise. I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE!

    • Ken Seeroi is eternal. He’s like Dean Martin, his life perpetually on hold in a world made of awesomeness, debauchery and wacky encounters.

    • I think we should separate the persona he’s presenting us with – a guy with a drinking problem, barely any ability of planning ahead, and somewhat inconsistent social skills – from an actual real life Ken. I assume he’s presenting himself and his life in this way to make it more entertaining.

      An obvious example of this would be pretending to not know who Prachett is, then making a comment about hats.

      Then again, I might be completely wrong. Or partially wrong.

      • Drinking problem? You mean like when you’re out of gin and have to make vodka martinis? If I ever get to that point, somebody please stage an intervention. Vodka, please. World’s most pointless liquor.

        But I digress. So I guess on the surface, it appears I lead a pretty wild life. But that’s only because of the fact that—how to explain this succinctly?—I lead a pretty wild life. But there are also days like yesterday. Here’s what I would’ve written in my diary, if I kept a diary:

        Got up early and did laundry. Read a book on the sofa. Looked out the window. Brushed my teeth. Started a new story called “The Day I did Jackshit.” Sure it’ll be a hit. Went to bed.

        So not every day winds up with me drinking a pile of beer and sleeping in a Chinese massage parlor. That’s unfortunate, but hey, sometimes normal happens.

        As for this guy Prachett, yeah, I honestly never heard of him. I can only assume he became a great writer to compensate for his lack of fashion sense, like a short basketball player who works really hard. That hat, seriously.

        • You didn’t ask for this, but if you’d want to check out the Discworld, Small Gods is a good place to start (but maybe also a hard book to top). Standalone (which helps, there’s more than 40 Discworld books now, a lot of them with a recurring cast), clever, funny, great characters, and none of the irritating inner monologue crap that ruins his more recent novels. (This is where I start running. One does not criticize The Pratchett).

          And yes, the hats are awful.

    • Yeah, I get that a lot, in real life too.

      “That Ken guy sure does a lot of crazy stuff, plus he’s pretty naive.

      “Yeah, but he’s also got that world-weary cynicism. Wonder how old he is?

      I guess the reason I don’t like to talk about it is because age pigeonholes people. It’s like when a Japanese person asks a subtly leading question, like

      “Do you like pizza?

      “Sure,” I’ll say.

      “With mushrooms?

      “Sure.

      “By the way, where are you from?

      “America.

      “Oh. That explains it.”

      So no, the reason I like mushroom pizza is because it’s crispy and delicious, and covered in melted cheese, not because I was born overseas. And the mushrooms provide a subtle counterpoint to the crunchiness of the crust. I assume we’re talking about thin crust, naturally. Anyway, maybe that’s why I don’t like to give out too many personal details. They reduce a person down to simple facts that seem to mean a lot, but in the end explain very little.

    • Finally, somebody who gets me.

  20. “But American women were actually friendly, intelligent, and funny. They had something to say other than “my hobby is shopping,” “Sugoi, everything amazes me,” and “Look at my kawaii eyelashes.””

    I wonder if this is partly due to the roles that women and men are expected to play in Japanese society (i.e., men earn the money and women stay home), and that some men would feel insecure around women whom they perceive to be more successful than them. I myself have gone on a few dates where everything seems to be going great, then we talk about careers and it’s like, “Oh wow, you’re a lawyer? Gee, that’s… nice. Well, I’ll call you sometime” and then they promptly disappear off the face of the planet. If I encounter that kind of attitude here in Canada, I can only imagine what it must be like for Japanese women.

  21. Hello!

    That was a great read especially the part on fashion. I was laughing there. Anyway, this piece sounds like you’re starting to consider going back. Or maybe you had a great vacation so you’re seeing your culture in a more positive light. I want to say more but I’m in school now and the vice-principal’s giving me the eye. Just like I said, this piece made me smile today.

    • Thanks much, Faye. Nah, I’m not going back any time soon. But you’re right in that I’m starting to see both cultures a little differently. I’d like to say “more clearly,” but my capacity for self-deception knows no bounds. Anyway, America? Eees good too! Maybe that’s all I’m saying.

  22. Ken

    Love the articles mate. As an Aussie who has lived in Japan for 3 years, who has a job that has him transferring to live in Texas in one month, I’ve had a blast reading about your experience. I’ve read so many different versions of life in Japan and I’ve not found one that lined up spot on with my experience (which is life i know). However you’ve come pretty dam close to capturing most of my sentiments and conclusions and provided many laughs over a premium malts alone in my apartment – its nice to know I wasn’t totally loosing my shit half the time (though the rest of the time i know I’m loosing the argument)! Texas is about what I imagine will be 100% opposite to living in Tokyo, but life waits for no man and I need to go where the pay check (with all American spelling) is.

    I’m going to enjoying reading your articles and feeling like I’m back at home wowing my office (which was not at all a tough game of wheres waldo with only 3 white fellas on a floor of 380 staff) with my Japanese and ability to pick up tofu with chopsticks.

    I’m sure I’m going to feel so under appreciated in Texas when I look around the room for endorsement for my utensil skills or speaking basic sentences.

    Keep smiling
    L

    • Funny you should mention Texas, because it’s been on my mind a bit lately. Big place. I’m writing it into my next piece, which will be out in a few hours if I can drink enough cans of coffee to finish it. Anyway, good luck over there. Ride a horse for me or something.

  23. Seeroi-san,

    Like several others have commented, I found your blog recently–in my case, due to an article highlighting your blog on rocketnews24. I’ve read everything back to 2008 and enjoyed your writing style immensely. Feel free to summon a sense of vague pride due to my (sometimes unfortunate) high standards owing to my being an author and manuscript editor.

    I like that you don’t sugar-coat what I can expect when I venture to Japan in the near future. I’ll be traveling alone and will be guilty of being a tall-ish Texas woman, so I expect my ability to fade into the crowd will be on par with Garfield trying to hide in a herd of Hello Kitties, like some absurd Far Side panel. Still, I suppose no one speaking to me unless I make first contact is preferable to being swarmed like flies to fresh poo. My only real fear is getting lost, and you’ve only driven this spike of fear deeper into my psyche with the revelation that Japan is allergic to street signs. I’ll be mainly in Tokyo and surrounding area, so maybe I’ll just take a lot of maps with me…

    You have made me curious about these ‘dive bars.’ I forget what the term for them was at the moment, but I plan to look it up. I’m headed there with a solid plan of ‘wandering around and looking at stuff’ with no set hotel reservations so I don’t have to be committed to being any set place at any set time, and I guess I’ll see how that works out for me. Mostly, I just want an adventure, and surrounding myself in a place where I’m alone and hopelessly out of my element has a morbid, somewhat masochistic appeal. Some might use terms like ‘crazy’ or ‘stupid,’ but I prefer ‘daring.’ It has a sexier Indiana Jones sound to it.

    Back on point (something I stray from often), I just wanted to say ‘good job,’ in a very non-condescending way. You’ve got a great blog.

    • Thanks for the nice comment. I really appreciate you reading all the crazy stuff I write.

      What you wrote about your fear of getting lost made me laugh, because on my early trips here I never left the hotel without carrying a compass and a map. Walking around Tokyo like a freaking Boy Scout. Thank God for the iPhone and Google Maps, is all I’ll say on that.

      Nah, adventuring your way through Japan isn’t crazy or stupid in any way. It’s pretty safe. I mean, you’re coming from the U.S., so how bad can it be? And I know that people always make a big deal of wanting to learn Japanese, but the truth is it’s not the language you need so much as an understanding of the system. There’s just a different way of doing things, and once you figure that out, everything else falls into place.

      By the way, when I say “dive bar,” I usually mean an izakaya, which is just a fancy name for a Japanese restaurant, or a tachinomiya, which translates to “stand up and drink,” which is what Americans do anyway.

      I think you’ll have a great time here. Nah, I know you will.

      • And Bud would/should chime in here with “write the book, bang the drum” or something like that. 🙂

        • Huh, whaaaat? Oh Yeah Bang Bang etceteraetceteraetcetera!!

          I Just read “Killing Patton” in one night and it was sorta OK, even though it jumped all over the place. Had lots of nice anecdotal information about WWII, though I knew most of it (not bragging really). It seems that the OSS (Precursor of the CIA) and the NKVD killed Patton in a team effort. Patton had plans to spill the beans on them dividing up the world and had lots of dirt on Eisenhower. He also didn’t like the fact that we were getting so friendly with Stalin, whom he hated worse than Hitler. He thought that the OSS was full of communists and he was right as they were they same people that gave away nuclear secrets to the old USSR (and they named names in the book). There were at least two unsuccessful attempts to kill Patton before they finally got him, which I had never heard about one of them. In 1979 a decorated CIA/OSS agent with over 30 years glorious spy service apparently admitted publicly that he killed Patton on the orders of Wild Bill Donovan (FDR’s pal that created the spy agency) at a meeting of CIA alums. It was blown off as a fake story at that time, so he later gave an interview about it to a magazine. It was later made into a TV movie that further confused the issues and played into the disinformation about Patton’s death.

          If America murdered its best General back then, no wonder these new Flag officers in this day and age are blithering yes men. This sort of reminds me of how the Japanese military was during WWII, always denying the facts and lying to save face and maintain the facade of honor. Sort of like the Military Academy honor code “not to lie cheat or steal nor tolerate those that do” has been turned into “deny lie and mute the truth when at all possible”.

          So in conclusion, the Japanese government still lose to the US in being able to deny the obvious truth, but their people are more gullible so it balances out in the end. (sort of a tie)

          • I’m just glad you mentioned “saving face” and “honor,” because those are other good images of Japan. Looking at the Japanese people around me, I’d never have guessed saving face was important, if so many Westerners hadn’t told me it was.

  24. Wow, great stuff Ken. Not just the articles but [curated?] comments too. You really should figure out a way to monetize this, you’ve got talent.
    I moved to Tokyo from LA three years ago with a Japanese company and have had a great experience working and living here. It definitely helped that I worked for the company 10 years in US beforehand – ‘paper’ credibility and network are key here.
    I feel healthier living here in Japan – people walk and bicycle everywhere and food as you have described is awesome. In US i blamed beer for an expanded waistline, but here in Japan I drink way more beer and am back to college weight with no gym membership. I did start a yoga group at Shinjuku gyoen for some exercise on weekends – from that experience I can tell you that there are definitely opportunities to start your own thing here in Tokyo. Most Japanese follow the well-trodden paths of experience, and if you risk starting something new, who knows? For example, you could serve pancakes and coffee in the morning – just actually being open in time for breakfast would be practically unique.
    To the point of this post, I think that all countries/cultures have strengths and challenges. Japan has a system that works in a lot of ways. There are plenty of things to tease them about, but so there are in other countries too. I guess you have to be able to find your own inner peace to stay here – as discussed, there is a big crowd of people and institutions that put you in the 外 category, but if you can be happy with yourself and your circle of friends I think its a great place.

    I feel guilty deriving so much laughter from your blog without paying. Feel free to hit me up for beer sometime. Speaking of which, I recommend the ‘Craft Beer Japan’ appli to all my fellow craft beer aficionados here. Cheers.

    • Thanks much, Yuki. Yeah, I think I’m allergic to making money. And as any izakaya owner can tell you, my real talent is for blowing my entire paycheck on beer and loose women. But at least I’m good at one thing; some people don’t even have that.

      I agree about the breakfast restaurant. You’re right—Japan needs a lot more of those, and you’d think it’d be a good business. Most important meal of the day, after all, especially if you ignore lunch and dinner.

  25. The only catagory that Japan beats the U.S. is in safety. People just being people are shot for no reason in the U.S. Its become an epidemic. I have no doubt that if Japanese were allowed to carry, they would be shootings everyday in Japan so its not a cultural thing.

    Everything else in japan is an illusion

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