I’d like to say Japan makes complete sense. I’ve lived here a long time, and come to understand most of the mysteries of Japan. Like, I get why we don’t have screen doors and a stereo is a crime against humanity. Or why we have to sit on the floor, slurp our noodles, avoid talking on the bus, and why the prettier a woman is, the more pissed-off she looks. That’s all reasonable. But then I’d like to say a lot of things, like Japan’s so efficient that the whole country doesn’t run on stacks of paper, unbridled nepotism, and rubber stamps. Sorry, just came from the real estate office. How is it renting a freaking room involves over forty pages of forms and someone who appears Japanese? Explain that, Japan.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. So, not much in Japan is really remarkable any more. That’s known as being jaded. Still, no amount of jadedness seems to solve the mysteries of Japan, such as:
1. How is This a Broom?
Now, if you’ve studied history, you’re aware that Europe perfected straw technology sometime in the Middle Ages. My understanding is peasants were crouched in hovels with only mead, witches, and the Black Death, so they naturally spent a lot of time fashioning hay into scarecrows and cowboy hats and stuff. Then fast-forward through the millennia to modern-day Japan, where this is what passes for a broom. Uhh, no. That’s just a bunch of sticks tied together. The first time I saw a farmer sweeping with one, I assumed he lived in such dire poverty he’d been reduced to using a handful of tiny trees. It blew my mind when I discovered these twig sculptures for sale in stores. Why would anybody buy one? The sticks aren’t even the same length, for Chrissakes. Even a pair of scissors would update your broom to the Dark Ages.
2. Why No One Drives a Convertible
Japan’s greatest contribution to the world may well be its pint-sized kei cars. They’re silent, smog-free, and roomy enough to fit four adults and granny in the jump seat. And for pedestrians, kei cars are heaven. You can run, bike, or walk along a roadway full of them and it’s still a fresh, spring day. Until a truck roars by and it’s an effing spring day in hell, because trucks in Japan are like old-timey locomotives bellowing pitch-black smoke. If you ever see a convertible in this country, there’s a ninety-nine percent chance it’s full of Chinese tourists. Japanese folks know they’d simply wind up covered in soot.
Now granted, I slept through four years of Science in high school and two in college, so maybe it’s no mystery I can’t understand how one vehicle is a model of perfection while the other’s powered by coal and yak dung. Is clean diesel even a thing, or did I just make that up? Either way, I kind of think Japan isn’t trying very hard on this one.
3. The Magical Rising Sun
Of all the things in Japan I’m not okay with, this might be what I’m most not okay with. Probably there’s an easier way to say that. Whatever, let me paint you a picture. It’s a brilliant summer day and I’m like, Baby, let’s go to the beach. Or hiking. Or just chill at Starbucks under a green parasol.
And whatever girl I’m with is like, Okay, but first let me hang out the futon. And quit calling me “baby.” I’m like, Roger that. But why you putting the bed, sheets, and pillows on the balcony wall? You do realize that’s outside, and the whole point of us taking off our shoes and trying to keep the place clean is because we live inside. You just negated the whole concept. The balcony’s covered in dust, mold, and the wall’s wrecked with birdshit, but she’s all like, No, no, the sunlight will kill the bacteria. Yeah baby, I dunno—is there any actual science behind that? Or is this just an unholy marriage of superstition to rock-paper-scissors? Dust destroys balcony, Futon covers wall, Sun beats birdshit. Not a game we’re gonna win, from the looks of that wall.
4. The Phantom Gate
If you have a house in Japan, you need a gate in front. No one’s questioning such fundamental wisdom—a gate delineates Your Stuff from Everybody Else’s, so that’s cool. But—and I’m not an architect, just saying—doesn’t a gate also need like a wall, hedge, or fence on both sides? You can’t just prop a wicker screen on your sidewalk and call it a gate. Or, apparently, you can, since half the gates in this nation can just be stepped around. Good thing they’re locked.
I’ve lived in a number of apartment buildings with elaborate entrance security—automatic doors, cameras, number pads, card keys. And half the time you could just stroll around the side and you’re in. Trust me, if Ken Seeroi can scale your four foot-high wall, any sufficiently motivated Japanese meth addict could easily hurdle it. Japanese folks know to keep their balcony and apartment doors locked, and you’d be wise to do the same. Home break-ins are an all-too-common occurrence.
5. Japanese Overtime Culture
Okay, let me explain how civilized nations manage workloads. Your boss sets a deadline for Friday at five, and you strive to meet it, in between Starbucks breaks and chatting with Abigail from Purchasing by the coffee machine. Hey, if there’s two of you, that qualifies as a standing meeting.
Then at about three p.m. Friday, your boss drops by your desk. “How we coming with the Wilson project?” he asks. He uses “we” because there’s no “you” in “team.”
And you’re like, “Aah, not lookin’ good.”
“Really?” he says. “The deadline’s at five.”
“Not gunnna make it…” you grumble.
“Okay…let’s push it back a week. Now wrap this shit up so we don’t miss Happy Hour at Chili’s.”
That’s how the engine of progress moves smoothly forward, on rails well-greased with nachos and beer. You do realize nobody has to die when you miss a deadline, right? Not if you’re Japanese you don’t. Because on Thursday night, the whole Shinjuku branch’s gonna work till midnight dying to meet some random date. And again on Friday, and then overnight without sleeping the whole weekend, if necessary. Because if the Meiji Ad Agency doesn’t have a new font installed on its website bright and early Monday, they’ll have to make do with Helvetica and the world will end. Then your entire office has to jump in front of a train on the Odakyu Line. Now that’s team spirit, Japan style. Gotta love working in this country.
6. Half-Cooked Gyoza
Okay, call this minor, but if you spent half your life eating fried things like some people who shall remain nameless do, let’s just say it would assume an outsized importance. Which is to ask, how come gyoza are only grilled on one side? Isn’t the whole point of frying to make them more delicious, or did I miss something? Bacon, pancakes, toast—what’s better cooked on only one side? But you’re like, No, look, if we took a piece of fried chicken and only cooked the bottom half golden brown, see how that’s better? You don’t? Well, obviously gaijin can’t appreciate subtle Japanese taste. Yeah, I guess. But suffice to say that when you come to Seeroi Sensei’s penthouse in the sky, you’re gonna be eating some delicious double-fried stuff.
7. Everything About Numbers
Okay, not only did Ken fail Science but also every Math class he ever took. Hey, that’s why I so good at English. So maybe somebody much smarter than me can explain why the Japanese counting system increments every 4th digit, but the commas are in the 3rd position, so we end up with make-believe figures like “one hundred ten thousands.” I’m all Stevie Wonder in this country. Just pay me in stacks of whatever your lowest denomination is.
And while we’re at it, how is it the years reset with each new emperor? My driver’s license expires in Heisei 32. Well, there’ll never be a Heisei 32, because the previous emperor dude suddenly retired and reset the calendar back to 1. Thus my driver’s license expires, when? I’ve no idea. I don’t suppose we could just use, I dunno, a sequential numbering system? Oh, we do? But we also use this other system, because uh, that’s the only way we know we’re Japanese? Right, got it. What, too cynical? Sorry, my Showa Era sarcasm.
8. Half the Song
So Ken’s blissfully tooling down the road in his tiny kei car, singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio. And just as he approaches the song’s apex, which he can totally do—“Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for meeee….”
…the Japanese DJ comes on to say, “Okay, well that was Kuween withu Bohemian Rhapusodi…”
And now Ken’s in the middle of a turn, trying not to crash going, “Was? Still is, you dipshit! You just killed the best part!”
That’s no exception. I don’t know if it’s every song on every station or just the low-budget AM channels my Daihatsu still picks up after the antenna blew away in a typhoon, but halfway through some DJ always kills the song and starts jabbering. My only guess is something to do with licensing—like if you only play half then it’s free? That, or the average Japanese person has an attention span of a minute, which also wouldn’t surprise me.
I even bought a Japanese CD and the entire thing was nothing but half songs. How horrible of a producer do you have to be for that to be your album? How about making a CD with whole songs but just half as many? Too sensible? Whatever. Before any road trip, you’re gonna want to download a ton of iTunes, because the radio in this supposedly high-tech country leaves a lot to be desired.
“THE GATEBALL TOURNAMENT STARTS IN 15 MINUTES!! I REPEAT…THE GATEBALL TOURNAMENT…”
It’s 6:45 in the morning, and this emergency broadcast is reverberating off the walls and windows of my neighborhood. Gateball? There’s still time to register? Thank God, if I dive into my slippers and sprint down in my silk pajamas I can just make it. And here I thought I was going to have to sleep till noon. Thank you, helpful Civic Center lady for making sure I don’t get more than four hours of sleep.
For a non-Christian country, Japan’s sure got a weirdly Puritanical streak. All across the nation, there are massive loudspeakers mounted on towers, ready to sound the alarm in case of a tsunami or missile attack. But unfortunately those don’t happen very often, so the enterprising old farmers who rise at 4 a.m. feel it’s incumbent upon them to utilize the high-volume electronics for waking up locals at regular intervals. No good comes from letting the indolent sleep in. Sound the alarm.
10. The Fan of Death
Easily my favorite. So an engineer at the Hitachi fan factory brings his newly-developed exhaust fan into the conference room. And he’s like, We’ll install these in homes and businesses throughout Japan. And everyone’s like, Great, love it. Oh, just one small thing. Those blades whirling at four-thousand revolutions per second—they’re like a Cuisinart for people’s hands. So everybody stares at the fan for a really long time. If only there were something we could put in front of the spinning blades, they lament, like a barrier or screen or something, to prevent people from getting their limbs chopped off. And they sit silently pondering the fan for about an hour until finally the manager says, I’ve got it—let’s add a tiny sticker to the corner, warning people not to insert their fingers. And everyone’s like, Brilliant, that’s why you’re the boss. Problem solved.
More Mysteries of Japan
Actually, now that I got started, it seems there are still a few remaining mysteries of Japan. Like why we don’t unwrap the plastic from our umbrella handles, issue flavors of beer and potato chips for each change of the four seasons (not that I’m complaining), or have to shop for groceries, cook, and do laundry every freaking day. No wonder nobody here has time for a decent hobby. Actually, there’s plenty of mysteries of Japan left to comprehend. Like how come escalators end at a flight of stairs, why Japanese university’s a joke, or why the police are powerless to stop gangs of high school kids roaring through the neighborhoods on scooters without mufflers after midnight. Hey, I need my sleep—all this pondering takes a lot of energy. And it’s only four hours from now till the gateball tournament.