I was flat on my back in the dark grass, pressing my eyes shut while bombs exploded overhead. “Are you watching?” Mizuki asked.
“Intently,” I lied.
After five years away, I’d come back for a week in Tokyo, to visit old friends, old neighborhoods, and apparently endure a fireworks festival on the banks of the Arakawa river, crowded in with a million Japanese people.
Our small group finally found an unlevel spot in the weeds of the riverbank, where we laid on blue plastic sheets and drank cans of chu-hi while colorful shapes exploded overhead and the crowd went oooo, then ahhh. Then oooo again. Only in Japanese.
“Which do you like best?” she continued.
“You know the one,” I said, “where it explodes and rains down, and then a second later you hear this massive boom?”
“Oh, that’s my favorite too,” said replied excitedly.
I didn’t have the heart to tell Mizuki that describes approximately one-hundred percent of all fireworks. Sometimes I wonder about the mental capacity of Japanese folks, I really do. Okay, probably just the crowd I run with. But whatever, I love festivals—Ken Seeroi’s all about fried noodles, ice-cold lemony booze, women in bathrobes, and things on sticks—it’s just that after about one minute, you’ve seen all the fireworks you’re ever gonna see. Then it’s like watching the same movie scene over and over.
Which is basically what happened with Tokyo, and why I finally moved. Well, that plus a massive earthquake. But anyway, now I was back to see if anything had changed.
Tokyo has Changed
Don’t like Tokyo? Just wait fifteen minutes, then check again. I mean, it’s still amazing—who doesn’t love the rooftop aquarium in Ikebukuro, that upscale oyster bar in Shinbashi, prowling the various cat-themed shops of Yanakaginza, or sitting in Starbucks overlooking the masses of humanity scurrying across Shibuya Scramble? Not Ken Seeroi, that’s not who doesn’t. But a lot had changed. Or maybe I had. Either way, there were a few things I didn’t expect.
Foreigners in Japan
Holy crap, there’s a lot of foreign people in Tokyo. It’s like Los Angeles, only with fewer Asians. When I first moved here, perhaps I thought “foreign” meant white, or possibly black. (I’d venture to say many Japanese people still do.) My thinking on that has “evolved,” so now all I see are drugstores full of Chinese tourists, malls packed with Koreans, and long processions of dudes on bikes who by all appearances just pedaled in from Bangladesh. Plus white people, black people, and Japanese people mixed with one or more of the above.
I’ve always read that Japan’s one of the most homogeneous nations on earth, with “98% of the population ethnically Japanese.” Yeah, not on the streets of Tokyo it ain’t. But maybe it depends how you define ethnicity. I mean, I feel good and ethnically Japanese, so maybe that’s where they get that number. Seeroi’s blending right in.
Where’d all the salarymen in black suits go? What happened to the cute girls in sexy outfits? And when the fuck did Japanese people start wearing cargo shorts and Crocs? That’s footwear for your balcony, at the furthest.
My memory is of a Tokyo where everyone’s dressed in black, rushing to and from offices like a daily funeral procession. Of course, there are still men in suits, but now it’s short sleeves, jacket off, and no tie. I’m sure that’s a good thing but, well, okay, maybe I’m not so sure. I kind of miss the formality of people actually dressing up.
The women too. The short skirts and heels have vanished, replaced by floral-print balloony pants and sandals. I guess that’s progress. High heels are a podiatrist’s nightmare and no woman should have to wear them. I don’t really believe that; just thought I’d try saying it. Okay, how ’bout we compromise and you wear your Nikes on the train, then change into pumps at Shinjuku station? I promise to do the same with my Crocs.
Weirdos in Tokyo
A week in Tokyo really gives you time to notice people. The guy on the train in a tight t-shirt incessantly sniffing his armpits. The high school girls eating rice balls and making a show of dropping the plastic wrappers onto the sidewalk. The fat guy with worn-out shoes slumped over asleep with his face pressed into the corner of the standing bar. They really should put in some chairs. Civilized nation, my ass.
When I first got here, I didn’t have any way to distinguish people—everyone was just “Japanese.” Now I realize . . . well, first of all, a lot of folks are Chinese or Filipino or Indonesian, and while a lot of other folks are Japanese, many are a bit soft in the head.
Tokyo’s got it’s share of weirdos, that’s for sure. Probably not any more than San Francisco, but not any less either. Like, I was in this small shopping mall near Yokohama. Okay, in Starbucks. That plus frequenting bars occupies eighty percent of my waking time, which I’m okay with. Anyway, at some point I had to use the facilities, so I left and went to the men’s room. Two Grande cups of Italian Roast’ll do that. And in there, yelling loudly at no one, was a woman with blue headphones around her neck. It sounded like she was bitching at her invisible husband, but whatever I still needed to go, so I brushed past her and went to the urinal.
So now it looks like she’s yelling at me while I’m peeing. And this other guy comes in and looks at me like, Jeez, what’d you do? and I’m like, I just happen to be standing in the general direction she’s screaming but I’m actually not part of this scene. Eventually I managed to finish, dutifully washed my hands, and left her standing in the men’s room yelling at him.
You know how you’re all worried about whether to mix the wasabi with the soy sauce or what direction your chopsticks should be facing? Sure, fair enough. Neatly mind your manners, politely bow, then quietly leave whatever izakaya you’re in, walk to the station, and pass out face down on the sidewalk with all the other Japanese people. That’s the Japanese way. Do whatever bizarre behavior you like, just do it at the appropriate place and time.
Safety in Japan
There are signs everywhere, for some reason only in Japanese, warning about pickpockets, purse snatchers, perverts. The sheer volume of signage is astonishing. The convenience store has a big poster at child height saying “This is a Safe Zone for children who are threatened.” The shopping district has banners and flags advising riders to use two locks when parking their bicycles. In the grocery store, a loop tape reminds people to watch their valuables. The ATM screen has a warning about phone scams rampant in Japan. By the park, a billboard advises women and children not to walk at night, and to call the police if they see suspicious people.
This was probably the most surprising thing, because when I moved to this country, I didn’t have any appreciable Japanese language ability. And like a lot of foreign visitors, I believed Japan to be incomparably safe. But now reading the signs, it feels like Tokyo’s the most dangerous place in the world.
To be fair, it’s not. That’d be the U.S. But having lived in Japan long enough, seen enough, and heard the stories, I know those signs aren’t just accidental. Nobody thought it’d be a hilarious neighborhood contribution to hang up posters reading, “This area known for car break-ins.”
Off to Kamakura
A week in Tokyo is almost enough time to see everything you want. A kushikatsu restaurant in Golden Gai, a karaoke booth in Ebisu, or drifting through the back alley izakayas of Akabane. Sky Tree, see ya next time. On my last day, I decided to head an hour south to the seaside town of Kamakura, where I promptly got lost in the mountains searching for a hilltop beer garden I remembered from years ago.
The cool morning turned into a scorching afternoon, and after sweating uphill for an hour I sure wished I’d worn cargo shorts and a t-shirt instead of slacks and a collared shirt. Eh, price of fashion, I guess. Eventually I found the place, a sprawling cafe of multi-level redbrick terraces set in the middle of the forest. Such a random place. Then I ordered a frosty mug of amber beer and a small stack of fries, and the universe became instantly okay again. And at that moment I realized that Tokyo’s the best city in the world—from about an hour away.
78 Replies to “A Week in Tokyo”
Is it just a coincidence that you mention increase in foreigners in one paragraph, and follow it up about safety issues and warning signs?
In a word, yes. I don’t mean to imply there’s a connection, nor do I believe there to be any. There’s enough Japanese people to handle all the crime just fine.
Maybe, foreigners are more likely to do crime, but also Japanese are more likely to deal with crime when its being committed by foreigners because if its being commited by Japanese it would make their city look bad. Similar to countries with more immigration tend to have smaller welfare states. Immigrants may also be younger so their crime rate can be higher because of demographics reasons.
I kinda feel like when you think of yourself as “living in Tokyo”, you’ve already lost (unless it’s still super magical).
You end up going from somewhere in Musashi to somewhere in Shibuya to meet a friend who came in all the way from somewhere in Funabashi, and that’s just no fun for anyone involved, in the long run. 😀
It helps to think of your ward as a decent-sized European or American city (which technically, it is), and you leaving it as essentially going on a day trip. But YMMV of course.
And like when you get out, get properly out and ride that incredible public transport for all it’s worth.
(Also yay Itsuki Garden? <3)
Agreed. The difficulty of meeting friends may be the biggest downside of living in a geographically large city. Kinda takes the fun right out of getting together.
And yeah, Itsuki Garden is a treasure. I can’t wait to go back.
The change in dress of office workers has been a slow change from the post earthquake Cool Biz campaign to the point where seeing a suit is rare during summer, and even in winter neckties are even more rare.
It’s really an interesting change, and just goes to show that if you’re reading something about Japan that’s more than about 6 months old, it’s probably out of date.
As a foreign businessman in Japan, I disagree with this partially. Standards have definitely dropped, and Cool Biz hangs over into October as the infernal summer never seems to end. But once it gets reasonable outside, the neckties get broken back out again (thankfully!)
Clearly, I need to revisit Tokyo in the winter.
I do wonder, however, if you’ve noticed changes in styles outside of work. Men and women seemed to be dressing way more casually than they did a few years ago.
Agreed with that, it’s unfortunate. Still, it’s way better here than when I was in the US on vacation last year.
I am a businessman myself. I think it is great that these rules have relaxed somewhat. You seem to like them, but I always hated those impractical suits.
Lately I have been wearing white shirts and black jeans. It’s great 🙂
I’ve been thinking that the impractical attire correlated with the impractical hours at work. You do both, you get a good performance review regardless of the actual work you do.
Great posting though Ken. The amount of cosmetic change in Tokyo over the last few years is incredible. I’m looking forward to getting out soon.
Business attire is not impractical. Its purpose is to transmit to others that you take yourself and your tasks seriously, and that doing so is part of your personality. It generates an atmosphere of trust and dependability.
I suppose it depends on the industry, but jeans in a meeting with a customer just makes no sense to me. If you like black, why not wool slacks, which look much cleaner (lighter, subtle seams, no wrinkles, never fades, won’t fray, etc.)? Crisp white shirt and black slacks is a perfect cool biz setup.
To each their own style. I’m just happy to see that some diversity in attire is now somewhat accepted.
Just to weigh in on this…
To me, there’s a level of propriety that’s just common sense. But since not everybody seems possessed with that, it helps to have some limits.
When I need a loan, I don’t want a bank manager in shorts and flip flops. Nor do I want to rent a surfboard from a guy in a tie or go to a sushi bar where the chef doesn’t wear a shirt.
I’m about the most casual dude in the world. If I’m staying around neighborhood, I don’t bother shaving on weekends, and probably just pull some shorts and a t-shirt from the laundry. On the other hand, if I’m going on a date to a nice restaurant, I put on something clean and maybe even run a comb through my hair. Sometimes it feels good to look good.
At work, I could probably wear a track suit and not get fired. But for better or worse, we live in a world where people actually judge us by appearance, and when it comes to them dolla dolla bills, Ken Seeroi ain’t trying to look like the stock boy. A pair of slacks and an ironed shirt isn’t that big of sacrifice.
Good to hear from you again!
Good to be back. Sorry it took so long.
Tokyo is still pretty homogeneous, when you don’t count the tourists. Away from the tourist spots, you’re still the only foreigner in train’s car, but no one cares and there is no ‘gaijin perimeter’.
That depends on the area. I live in Oota-ku, which is absolutely not a tourist spot, and there are plenty of minority folks living and working nearby. I pass groups of folks speaking all kinds of languages on a daily basis.
By the way, just because the Wajin insist on labeling all minorities as “foreigners,” doesn’t mean we ourselves have to do so as well. The absurd overusage of the word “foreigner” is a glaring symptom of Wajin ethnocentrism and racism. We needn’t play along.
That’s really well said. For whatever reason, there’s a compulsion to divide everything into “Japanese” and “foreign,” while conveniently overlooking the fact that much of what’s now considered “Japanese” came from abroad. Including many of the people.
Yeah, what surprised me wasn’t simply the foreign visitors. I get that there’s a lot of tourists in Shibuya. But way out in Oyama, where no tourist would ever want to venture, there are heaps of workers who look like they’re from Pakistan. In Kita-senju (and of course Minami-senju), many of the residents are from Korea. In shops and restaurants throughout Tokyo, service-sector jobs are staffed by people who wouldn’t traditionally be considered “ethnically Japanese.” Whatever that means.
A quick search for “Korean Community in Japan” is also enlightening.
It only look homogeneous until you look closer.
I have been very interested in this kind of issue for quite a few years. Maybe “Sour strawberries” was what got me started. (https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2009/04/14/events/sour-strawberries-spotlights-plight-of-non-japanese-trainees-2/#.W7sHt2j7SUk)
So, looking at the development you can see that for a few years now, Japan’s government is doing the following:
1. Restricting Chinese immigrants
2. Importing great numbers of people from the Philippines and Vietnam.
The number of Koreans in Japan are also stagnating, but I am not sure that this is a government policy.
Goes without saying that the Japanese government wants these people from poorer countries as cheap labor (slaves) to work a few years and then leave. Since we are talking about people here it won’t go down that way, but willful ignorance is powerful with Japanese elites.
I’ll be visiting Japan again at the beginning of November for a business trip (Tokyo & Nagano).
So after about 1 year in Germany I’m sure it will be quite strange to be “back”.
Ken, if you want to meet somewhere in Tokyo (staying in Gotanda myself), I’d be free Saturday evening (November 10th). I have dates (the innocent kind) / work on all other days.
(If you want to keep your privacy that’s also fine with me :))
Ah thanks. I probably won’t be back in Tokyo any time soon. There are too many other places I need to go first. But I appreciate the offer.
I would say that I’m shocked, but I’m not. Your article just proven what I’ve been suspecting for a long time now, that the whole honne/tatemae thing stands for the whole country and not just individuals. The Japanese government and it’s institutions are exceptionally good at PR and hiding what really goes on behind the scenes. That whole spectacle about Japanese automakers falsifying emissions data was just the tip of the iceberg. The police does the same about crime statistics, as does immigration about foreigners and their effects on Japanese society as a whole.
The other thing I realized, it the whole “Shōganai” thing the Japanese got going is not just a coping mechanism for natural disasters and bad stuff outside your control, but it also carries an unspoken second clause, that says “if aforementioned bad shit would reflect badly on you or the company, cover it up and/or pretend it never existed”. The sky-high corruption, the bullying that starts in school and basically never ends, the human trafficking, the groper/pervert epidemic, crime that does exist, and tons of other issues, that the Japanese would rather keep under the rug of the rainbow colored magic wonderland.
I think one of the symptoms of this is the whole wajin/gaijin thing. It’s a sort of cultural 鎖国, the fact the Japanese refused to be culturally conquered by the US or the west in general. Or rather they try to pretend they weren’t, by corrupting, contorting every outside influence, and then pretend they came with it in the first place. A good example is the holidays and celebrations, like Christmas, Valentines Day, etc. Even the Japanese language by now has more loanwords and expressions (perverted into unrecognizable Engrish) than they care to admit.
I think it’s ultimately not about having more foreigners in Japan, and the intensity of the cultural tide from the west didn’t increase either. I think it’s the resistance from the Japanese that’s actually decreasing, they are slowly opening the floodgates, and they let it wash away the century old bigoted grasp of ancient history and tradition. Maybe even they grew tired of pretending, who knows…
The thing that shocks me isn’t Japan, it’s how we chose to imagine it.
I no longer see Japan as much different from anywhere else. Sure, there’s a lot of cultural nuances—the particulars differ, but in the end the proportion of good to bad seems strangely about the same.
I’m also sure people everywhere have tatemae/honne—a variety of faces they present publicly as opposed to what they show privately. And aren’t most nations good at pedaling propaganda about their greatness, while conveniently sweeping problems under the rug? Maybe Japan’s just got a better tourist board. Here and Vegas. If you can make a plastic city in the middle of a desert seem like a fun holiday, anything’s possible.
The wonder is why folks buy into it so intensely, this notion of Japan as a place where the normal rules of human behavior don’t apply. Strangers are trustworthy, your employer cares about you, women are sexy, and men want to be your friend. I think a lot of it boils down to language. Until you can read the newspaper and understand the radio, you’re just living the life of a child. And nobody’s rushing to make sure your four year-old brain’s aware of their nation’s problems.
I think you are right Seeroi, at least about the language thing. But that’s just it, although I can only speak from personal experience, even when was growing up, I heard all kinds stuff about other countries, the US, UK, France, China, Australia, and yes, about Japan too. And yet, Japan was the only one that I didn’t really hear negative about….like, ever. Even back then, western culture that flooded us after the USSR went poof, we never had any false conceptions about other countries being….other countries. The (80-90’s) US was all about power, ripped men, curvy bimbos, muscle cars, guns, explosions and violence…so. much. violence. The UK was Monty Python, Sherlock Holmes, Mary Poppins, fish&chips, top hats and canes, Pink Floyd, bad education, and rain, just so much rain. In short, we a lot of bad with the good. But with Japan, it was pretty much a fairy wonderland with ninjas, samurai, video games, vending machines, trains going on time, beautiful scenery, crazy festivals and women with way too much makeup. There was really nothing bad anyone could say about Japan, at least not over here, except maybe for the weird language and scribble writing.
The funny thing is, none of that really changed. The US still a land of money, power, celebrities, patriotism, crime, guns, violence and gun-violence. And Japan, either they are incredibly friggin great at PR or just incredibly good at hiding the bad shit, unless you look real hard, nothing really jumps out at you as “bad”. For a long time, I didn’t even look twice, I enjoyed the anime, the video games, the great culture, the nice people, the space-age toilets, for years. It wasn’t until I started reading your blog, that I actually raised an eyebrow and started doing some research. And even that took some friggin effort. Apparently Japan really doesn’t want foreigners knowing about any of this stuff. I had to go to the source, reading expat blogs, watching jvloggers on youtube, talking to natives, who were absolutely lovely and chatty…up until you started dredging up the muck, the racism, the bullying, the murderous work culture, the human trafficking, the corruption, the hikikomori, etc. Then they shut up really quickly and immediately had somewhere else to be. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know, but I’ve been talking to a lot of people from all around the world, and most of them were all too quick to admit their country had problems, sometimes even without provocation. Shitty healthcare, awful food, stupid government, low wages, etc…. but Japan still had a more or less spotless record.
I don’t know, I never actually lived in Japan, so all I know about life there is pretty much just hearsay. I don’t doubt Japan is a country with it’s own ups and downs, I’m just saying it’s one country where the public image and the first hand stories of people living there are drastically different.
Everywhere has it’s problems, you just have to pick the problems that you can deal with.
You summed it up perfectly.
It wasn’t until my second trip to Osaka that I saw literally hundreds of men sleeping on the sidewalk in cardboard boxes and it blew my mind. Just long rows of boxes full of men lined up like coffins. It was hard to make sense of, like Why are they here? In Tokyo too, tent cities spring up at night in the parks and and riverbanks and in the morning the homeless queue up for soup like something out of a Steinbeck novel. None of it gets much mention.
The thing is, Japanese folks are incredibly sensitive to criticism. Even a simple observation can brand you as not a member of the team and get you ostracized. Japan’s a religion. If you think of it like that, it makes more sense. You’re not gonna make any friends suggesting the Bible might be wrong or announcing that L. Ron Hubbard just made up Scientology.
As always, I’m not saying Japan’s a bad place. It’s certainly better than many countries. But it’s bizarre in that you have to tread very carefully when venturing critical observations. A lot of Japanese people—particularly those who haven’t lived in the West—are unused to a frank exchange of ideas. They take it personally.
Criticism in Japan tends to be a one-way street. It’s your boss dressing you down in front of the whole office, your teacher saying you’ll never amount to anything, your wife announcing she’s going to start an affair because you don’t pay attention to her. Most people’s experience with criticism is horribly negative and they’re hypersensitive to it. So you even noting that maybe Japan has a wee little homeless problem or a teeny bit of racism sounds like you’re slamming their country.
Like religion, Japan’s mostly a settled issue. People have given a bit of thought to it, made peace with the inconsistencies, and they’re really not cool with having to go through and reexamine it. You either a believer, or your an outsider.
There’s something about that in/out-group thing. My Japanese lady friend was visiting me in the UK and we spent the weekend in Windsor. I commented on how many street sleepers there were within a stone’s throw of Windor Castle, and she suddenly gushed: Oh, I’ve been looking at them, but I didn’t want to say anything, I didn’t know if it would be impolite.
You’re allowed to critisise if you’ve been let into the critisism.
Whats wrong with tent cities? You can save a lot of money on rent that way heh. If everybody got an apartment aren’t you the capitalists? You have no time to read books or date or whatever because your working dude. However, yes the thing about criticism is true. Criticize a Westerner and you’ll get into an argument, criticize a Japanese and they’ll disown you : (.
On the subject of are the japanese much more keenly concerned with how theyre perceived by, well the West really? Id cite the closure of the Mainich WaiWai (see below) for the crime of reporting on japans unseemly side in… English! That the articles were merely translations of articles in Japanese newspapers but could now be read by the outside world was the issue here. Or how about the Olympus scandal that was first reported by a Japanese investor magazine and roundly ignored, until it was reported in the financial times…
Fresh start vowed for Mainichi Daily News site following criticism of WaiWai
• JUL 21, 2008
Mainichi Newspapers Co. pledged Sunday to make its English-language online version more “news-oriented” after canceling its WaiWai column following criticism it was “debauching Japan” and “too vulgar.”
The WaiWai column first appeared in 1989 in the Mainichi’s English-language newspaper, the Mainichi Daily News. Mainichi Newspapers pulled the plug on publishing the paper’s print version in March 2001, but the column continued to appear on the Mainichi Daily News Web site, which still operates as a part of the Mainichi Shimbun.
“We continued to post articles that contained incorrect information about Japan and indecent sexual content,” the company said in the Sunday edition of the Mainichi Shimbun and on its Web site. “These articles, many of which were not checked, should not have been dispatched to Japan or the world.” The Mainichi Daily News editorial department will be reorganized Aug. 1, the publishing company said.
Then, on Sept. 1 with a new chief editor, “the MDN will be transformed into a more news-oriented site,” it said. “At the same time, we will set up an advisory group to the MDN comprised of Megumi Nishikawa, an expert senior writer, and other staff writers specializing in international news coverage. The group will check the MDN’s editorial plans and the content of articles in the MDN.”
Foreign residents of Japan were the main readers of the WaiWai column when it appeared in print, but after it went online it was mostly accessed from overseas, according to the publishing company.
The column covered customs and social issues citing translations of articles in Japanese magazines, but a few years ago it increasingly carried articles pertaining to sex.
The Mainichi Shimbun quoted the column’s editor as saying there was a positive reaction when sexual topics were addressed, which is why such stories continued to be selected.
This idealization of Japan is a generational thing. I was born in 1950. My earliest impressions of Japan were the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the rape of Nanjing, and the death march of Bataan. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_war_crimes
That’s interesting. I really hadn’t given enough thought to how Japan is perceived by various generations. It quickly morphed from a nation of savages fighting battles to the death in the Pacific to one of herbivore men, maid cafes, and Hello Kitty. Maybe it’s now starting to level off, with Japan appearing a little more like everywhere else. At least that’s how it seems to me.
The US WWII generation (my parents) have a much different view of the Japanese. I’ve known vets that wouldn’t buy a Japanese car because of the war.
The next western (or at least US view) was one of them producing junk. People would see something junky and immediately joke about it having a “Made in Japan” sticker on the bottom.
Then we had the seventies and they started producing inexpensive cars that got better every year while the US car quality was going down the tubes. Same goes for electronics. They were now the colossus that was cleaning our clocks quality wise.
Now there just there. No one really even thinks that much about Japan except those who like anime and manga or political junkies. So they’re treated just like we treat the rest of the world. Out of sight, out of mind. 😀
Just read this comment and felt I needed to congratulate you Ken. This reminds me of the early posts you made about Japan and the plethora of misconception visitors bring to Japan. In fact is it not the reason you started “Japanese Rule of 7”? What you have said encapsulates what you have said about Japan from day 1 of you blog. The phenomenon that visitors go to Japan with strong formulated ideas that are quite different from the reality on the ground. People seem to expect Japan to be a version of a Disney “Fantasy-land”. This is a common theme running through your blog. So the 3 interesting things are 1. how can this happen to so many visitors (it is not a serendipity once off), 2. is there a “conspiracy” of forces, government and other that actively promote this illusion about Japan, and of course 3. What would be the purpose of perpetrating “the myth”?.. You are by far the expert on this Ken you have so much experience and importantly can almost think like a Japanese Fabulous work Ken, this could be the theme of your long awaited book.
Thanks. Yeah, I’m never entirely sure why I started this blog. Mostly I suppose it was to share my impressions of Japan, a great many of which admittedly turned out to be far afield from what I’d been led to believe.
As for why so many people form mistaken notions about the nation, we don’t need to look to a conspiracy or a motive for perpetuating various myths. Because the truth is, it’s not just Japan—people love to go ape-shit over damn near everything. Clothing, alcohol, diets, cryptocurrencies, religion, cigarettes, jewelry, tattoos, homes, guns, watches, cars…the list goes on and on.
Now, I’m not talking about whether these things are good or bad. I’m simply marveling at how far we go to glorify the mundane, to build them up to mythical status. And along the way lose sight of what’s right before our eyes, because what we really want is exactly that. Myths offer us an escape from reality. We want everything to be spectacular. Give us a hero, a savior, a shortcut, fireworks…amaze us…please show us that life has great meaning. Surely there’s a country better than the one we’re in right now.
You don’t have to fan the flames very hard. Just give folks a small spark and they’ll whip it into a bonfire all by themselves.
I don’t think Japanese people are opening up and the young seem strikingly more insular than previous generations (eg the decline in foreign film and music sales). However the Abe govt is very actively enabling more guest workers, is that popular with the population? I suspect not…
There’s a budget for the warning signs. It’s either spend it or the budget will go down next year. Now you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
I think Japan has a solid system for cycling through people from abroad so that there are enough temporary visitors to fill the jobs and spend the money, without any one of them having enough time to put down roots, learn the language, become a part of the community.
Some people through great effort overcome the system, but how rare is it for them to be truly accepted as permanent members of the society?
On a hopefully unrelated note, I will move back to the Japan office of my company next year. I would like to propose the establishment at that time of a Ken Seeroi fan club. We all appreciate and benefit from Ken’s insights and from the great comments. Although we know that Ken himself may be unavailable, I for one would enjoy talking about JRuleOf7 while toasting you all with Ken’s favorite beverages.
Damn, I wanna join. That sounds fun.
I also spent time in Tokyo for the first time in a LONG time last Summer, and the other thing I realized was that I used to be “praised” for being a brown guy who spoke Japanese…and now most Tokyoites don’t even bat an eye.
I also noticed a pretty noticeable decline in the highly vaunted “service standards” in Tokyo. Definitely got a lot of sighs, eye-rolling, and snappy comments, particularly from the people at the JR counters…
I’ve observed the same thing throughout Japan. I wonder if Japan’s changing, or if I’ve just gotten better at noticing the subtle ways Japanese people express frustration. Probably a bit of both…
It’s probably both, but my wife has also made that comment…though hers came with a mildly racist caveat that “it’s because they’re tired of having to deal with all the tourists.”
How do you like living in Oyama? The Tochigi Oyama, right?
I was actually referencing one of the two Oyama’s in Tokyo (I suspect there’s a ton of Oyama’s throughout Japan). I’ve got a friend who lives there (in Tokyo Oyama 1), but it’s about as nondescript a neighborhood as anyone could imagine.
It sounds like the age of the professional Gaijin is winding down for better or for worse. Better for Japan. Treating people like they’re novelty items is pretty ridiculous and Japan becoming a truly international city as opposed to the lip service the city lays on time to time is a good thing. Great city but at times some expats could feel a little isolated from the rest of the world despite speaking the language. Maybe it won’t be as fun for the fresh Gaijin who would of made the girls swoon when showing up at the club in Shibuya. They better bring some game.
Im glad someone else has noticed this, most of the lifers I know in Tokyo are in denial (and not just about this). It isnt that young Japanese women have only stopped dressing sexy, they’ve stopped dressing up at all, many have become actually dowdy… I guess if single men of marriageable age are too poor to marry then why bother…
I didn’t know you moved Ken!! Though let you were in Tokyo still around Adaci. Where did you end up moving to? Fukuoka?
I moved quite a while back…lived in four different places since then. And given the current state of my employment, another move seems likely before too long. Let’s just say I don’t invest in a lot of furniture.
So are you still in Tokyo? I’m coming to visit soon and love to buy you 19+ beers!
Dang. No, I’m already outta there. Too bad too, because nineteen or more beers is sounding good right about now.
One should also never forget that Japan is an island and as an island there is island mentality present at all times.
Anyway, what you are describing seems to fit in quite a number of big cities around the world. Go to Berlin and you will encounter A LOT of very very weird people. Go to Vancouver and, apart from having more Koreans and Punjabi than white people there, you will also find them. Especially when visiting Hastings district. Quite shocking, really. Maybe, big cities develop very similar culture because, after all, the inhabitants are still people, no matter what colour their skin has or in which culture they grew up. Kind of like an island mentality of its own.
I do not completely disagree with the above comment, in the sense that Japan had been segregated, by itself for large parts, and has not assimilated properly with other cultures. However, I think in today’s day and age Japanese people are using this “island mentality” merely as an excuse for their not-so-hidden racism.
True that; anything can be an excuse for anything.
There is something about a big city…maybe it’s the fact that you can be anonymous even in a crowd. Maybe that gives folks license to just ignore everyone and do whatever they want. Like the opposite of a small town. Or perhaps big cities just appear to have more weirdos because of their large populations, while the percentage per capita is the same as anywhere else.
As for “island mentality,” there are a lot of places in the world more isolated than Japan. Like about half the earth. I don’t think anyone could properly claim that Japan’s been an island—in the sense of being cut off from other nations—for the last 80 years or so. It’s not like you have to row a boat to get here. And especially recently, with mass media and the internet, nobody’s unaware (or uninfluenced) by what’s occurring overseas. If anything, the influence of America probably accounts for much of Japan’s weirdness.
my biggest fear about japan is it being overrun by tourists. i’m a longtime lover of Japanese culture and etiquette, but if the country is filled with obnoxious foreigners, throwing their trash on the ground and shouting on the subway, then how long would that charming culture last?
I’m currently learning Japanese, and when I move there in a few years, I wanna see the country I’ve come to know and love, not some “Americanized” version of it.
So you’re going to be a foreigner…but not like all those other foreigners…
Hmm, well, I guess that’ll work out.
I don’t see much obnoxious behavior in Japan (or anywhere else, for that matter). Littering is rare, although people do stuff trash into the holes meant for aluminum cans and nonsense like that. And although Americans speak louder than everyone else on the planet, it still doesn’t qualify as shouting.
Here’s the thing about tourism: places that are interesting attract visitors. Don’t want to see tourists? Just go somewhere boring. You can sit out in a potato patch and enjoy all the Japan you want. But if you want to see Kinkakuji, you’re gonna run into a lot of tourists, just like yourself.
Well Robert here is a paradox, I don’t mean you any offence but despite your professed love of Japan you actually sound like the proverbial “ugly American”!
Well here is a topic that is a little left field. Discouvered quite by accident a TV series on Amazon Prime called Tokyo Girl. Don’t know how available Amazon Prime is in Japan, so don’t know who can comment. However it provides a surprisingly insightful look at young women in Japan. Follows the protagonist from a small country school (Akita?) to a successful career life in Tokyo with grit and determination and illustrates a surprising (for me anyway) insightful life for a whole generation from 20 to 30 years old. So here is the rub is this program accurate? Warning the subtitles are displayed very briefly, need to read fast. Enjoy and hope for some comments. Cheers
made my day 🙂
Eagerly awaiting the next post. Any indication when it might come? 😉
Thanks. That’s an excellent question to which there is no good answer.
Okay, how ’bout two weeks from now?
Ken one of the continual themes running through your blog is that life in Japan is not always what it might appear on the surface. And I am reluctant to post inks to news articles but I think the following is interesting about how higher echelon corporate “big wigs” stick together to “cover their collective arse”. Now this may be argued that it happens all over the world but this article, about Japan is shocking, well it was for me (but then what do I know?) Your thoughts Sensei? https://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/24/nissan-crisis-new-light-japan-inc-awkward-secrets-carlos-ghosn
I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently. On the surface, Japan looks like a harmonious nation where things run well and people are by-and-large honest. But in the companies I’ve worked for, the reality is anything but. There’s a lot of jockeying for position, insider deals, nepotism, and outright corruption. That’s without even considering labor laws, which are regularly tossed out the window. So when I read about corporate corruption coming to light, it now comes with a feeling of “yeah, that figures.”
Japan’s a strange place, that’s for sure.
Maybe that’s why Noam Chomsky calls it “Japan’s special brand of Capitalism”? Takafumi Horie outright calls is Communism and compares it to Mainland China. When he dared question the status quo they threw him in jail. Carlos Ghosn is now taste of Japan’s special brand of Capitalism.
Jeez, what happened there? Ghosn is now getting a taste of Japan’s…
yeah, or as a japanese lawyer says:
Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor and now lawyer at Gohara Compliance and Law Office in Tokyo, believes the legal grounds for Ghosn’s arrest are murky.
“I think it’s a common procedure for prosecutors to collect enough hard evidence and consult with legal authorities, but this time around it was not clear what the hidden payment was,” Gohara said at a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.
He called the investigation that led to Ghosn’s arrest “violent” and “haphazardly done.”
I see the article contains both the claim that japan has “strict hierarchies” but that among “Japanese qualities” is egalitarianism.
Hierarchical egalitarianism? Yes that must be a unique Japanese “quality”…
Most articles I read in the West about japan are merely regurgitated official narratives, cringeworthy at best. As for japan being a “harmony” based culture, sure in the same way a soldier in the army doesn’t argue with his superiors… but would you call the military a harmony based culture? Well no… actually the hazing that goes on in both is another thing they have in common…
Yeah Ghosn’ treatment seems a lot closer to Horie than say the management of Olympus etc., but then clearly hes an outsider…
Itll be very interesting to see how Japan Inc, (well the nominally independent judiciary) deals with Ghosn. Hes not a pesky native whos an upstart tho, hes an intl figure, they cant just fax it in with bogus charges, thie world is after all watching…
It’s December, Ken. We are craving for some new stories!
Your writing style is awesome, and I’m starting to get withdrawal symptoms if you don’t post new content every month!
Hopefully this latest post will tide you over till 2019. (Although I’d like to get out another one before year-end.)
Merry Christmas Ken
Thanks much. That may be the earliest Christmas greeting I’ve ever gotten, but still, I appreciate it.
They start selling decorations and Christmas puddings here around start of November so by retail standards I’ve been a bit tardy. I’ve never fully understood why Australian’s insist on having Christmas pudding with hot custard on a 40c Christmas day, but I guess some traditions surpass the weather. Glad to hear you’re well (and skinny).
Well Ken I don’t know what the situation in Tokyo is but seems a bit early for “Merry Christmas” …. the Grinch. Here is a very interesting article posted on CNN which covers one of your favourite subjects on this blog. “Foreigners as outsiders”. Hhhhmm
“Tokyo (CNN) – One of the first concepts Linh Nguyen learned while studying Japanese was “uchi-soto.” It refers to the practice of categorizing people into one of two groups — insiders or outsiders. Family, friends and close acquaintances are insiders, referred to as “uchi,” while “soto” is for those relegated to the periphery. Japan’s new immigration law A proposed amendment to the immigration law, if passed, will create two new visas for foreign workers. The first, renewable for up to 5 years, would cover semi-qualified, blue-collar workers, and is aimed at plugging gaps in areas such as care-giving and manufacturing.The second type, which would have no renewal limit, is aimed at attracting high-skilled, white-collar workers. Both visas require proficiency in Japanese. For this Japan-obsessed student in Vietnam, it felt like a warning: she could be about to enter a deeply closed society that would always consider her an outsider.”
Sorry for the long post but it is interesting. The full article is at https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/06/asia/japan-immigration-bill-foreign-workers/index.html
I guess you could say the earthquake really shook Tokyo up