People routinely ask, “Why are you still in Japan?” and I guess the answer depends upon which phase of Japanese life we’re talking about. Because first there’s
Living in Japan’s like being born again. Everything’s filled with wonder, nothing makes any sense, and you’re insanely pleased by the simplest stuff. Look!—-I’m riding the subway. It’s like a train, only underground! So many people! Man, I gotta take a picture of this!
You can’t understand a thing. Not a word, not an action, and it’s hilarious. You can’t even stroll down the sidewalk without knocking over office ladies and soba-delivery boys. Which side do you walk on? Are there no rules? It’s madness. An escalator? Whoa, how do you use this thing? Here, take a picture of me riding it!
And everybody treats you wonderfully. Japanese people are so polite! They show you around, invite you to events, buy you beers, meals, help you. You’re like, “How do I get to the airport?” and some old man says, “Here, I’ll walk you to the station.” He’s a hundred years old and the spitting image of Yoda, but he’s gonna limp you there with his Jedi cane. How nice is that?
So for about two years, if you’d asked why I was in Japan, my answer would’ve been, Because it’s awesome! And it was. I wish I could still see the world like that two year-old. Why I can’t any more, I don’t know. Maybe I need new glasses. Beer goggles help somewhat.
Then after a while, living in Japan’s more like living on top of Tokyo Tower.
You’re like, “Guess where I got a room? You’ll never guess. Guess!”
And your buddy’s like, “I dunno, where?”
“On top of freaking Tokyo Tower!”
“No way! You mean the Tokyo Tower, in Tokyo?”
“Yes way! That’s the one. You should see the view from my bathroom!”
Until after a while you’re like, Man, why does it rain so much up here? Ah jeez, I forgot to buy vanilla extract. Now how am I gonna bake apple pie? Ah crap, the elevator’s jammed with tourists again. Better take the stairs. Man, this sucks.
Living in Japan comes with some predictable minor annoyances. It takes forever to do the simplest things. You can’t read the newspaper, the television’s a blur of words, and forget going to the drugstore. There’s an entire aisle of painkillers, so how is it I can’t find one bottle of freaking aspirin? Consulting the pharmacist is like asking a leprechaun where he hid his pot of gold. Despite having spent years in school and holding an advanced degree, suddenly he speaks zero English. The bastard, you know he can. Later you figure out you were in the vitamin aisle.
Of course, everybody still treats you nicely. Only now that you speak Japanese, it’s slightly different.
You ask, “Which’d be better for getting to the airport, train or bus?”
And 100 year-old Yoda’s still there saying, “Here, let me walk you to the station.”
“Oh, sorry,” you say, “I was merely asking theoretically which transportation method would be most expedient.”
“Here,” he insists, tugging at your shirt, “the station’s this way.”
“I know where the station is. You freaking showed me five years ago! I just want to know…”
And then your Japanese girlfriend leans in and asks the exact same question.
“Oh,” he croaks, ”good question. That would depend upon your budget and time constraints. I’ll fill you in on the details after I finish taking this white guy to the station.”
Getting Stuff Done in Japan
So it’s no longer childish niceness you want—-it’s to actually get shit done. Go to the dentist, get a credit card, invest in a 401K, apply for food stamps, buy a car, buy a house, whatever. Heh, look at the foreigner trying to rent an apartment. That’s funny. Now where’s the Japanese adult who’s going to vouch for him?
So for the next few years, there were still moments of sunshine, but also periods of rain and darkness. Sleeping on a futon in a freezing one-room apartment, which seemed so Japanese at first, became a major pain in the ass. Then the lady next door killed herself. Then a friend of mine went into the hospital. Another friend had a stroke. I checked myself into the hospital and had an operation, after signing endless forms I couldn’t read.
The money ran out, and I went from champagne and ho’s to malt liquor and Fritos. I woke up at 4 a.m. worried I’d die alone. I woke up next to strange women and worried I wouldn’t. But that’s just real life. Sometimes all you find in your tiny Japanese fridge is an open can of Asahi. Is it half full or half empty? Anyway, if you cover it with Saran Wrap you can still drink it tomorrow. Keeps the freshness in.
So during that time, I stayed in Japan out of pure stubbornness. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t horrible, it just was. Well, every place is.
Why do you Hate Japan?
I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike Japan at all. Look, when your wife tells you to get off the couch and go to the gym, she doesn’t hate you. If she hated you, she’d divorce your ass, steal your kids, and siphon off all your money. She’s telling you to remove your face from that can of mixed nuts because she loves you and wants you to quit screwing up. And that, in a nutshell, is how I feel about Japan. I want this nation to quit dumping old TV sets in the forest, stop being so xenophobic, and to enact some anti-smoking laws out of love, not hate. I want Japan to be better, because hey, I live here too.
3. Ah, Fuck it
Finally, living in Japan’s like living at your mom’s house. It’s pretty safe. It’s clean. You can get some rest, maybe save some money, or just sit in the recliner wearing underpants all day playing the guitar. You gotta put up with some minor aggravations—-Ken, here’s the English menu. Damn, Mom, why you always discriminatin’ against me—-but all in all it’s pretty calm and flat.
You can still throw parties, maybe that’s okay, but you know you can’t get too wild or Mom’ll chew you out for mixing plastic bottles in with the paper garbage. There’s a lot of rules. Going to somebody else’s house, like Korea or Taiwan, okay that’s better. So for fun, you do what most Japanese people do—-take trips out of Japan.
Best Reasons for Being in Japan
A reader asked for these, but let me explain why it’s tough to provide any.
Not saying there aren’t some cool things here. I’ve had plenty of barbecues on the riverbanks, gone camping in the mountains, stayed in ryokan overlooking the ocean, taken snorkeling trips in Okinawa and skiing excursions in Hokkaido. Rode the shinkansen to Kyoto sipping wine, and cable cars over the Hakone hot springs snuggling with random girls. But those are just vacation photos, not exactly exclusive to Japan. Spend twelve years anywhere and you’re gonna come away with some colorful snapshots.
Real Life in Japan
Most days, you just shower, shave, go to bed, then get up, have a natto-rice-and-miso-soup-packed breakfast, shower again, then go to work. It’s ordinary existence. You water the plants, wash the sheets, get the oil changed in the Honda scooter, buy some Q-Tips. if you pass a temple, you wouldn’t think to take a picture any more than you would of a church. A new seasonal flavor of Kit Kat? Okay, that’s exciting. Japan’s all about convenience. All those signs that used to be so cool with their kanji, you can read them now. “Stop abandoning kittens here.” “Dumping trash in the lake will result in a fine.” Apparently convenience takes many forms.
So replace “being in Japan” with “living at your mom’s house” and maybe you see why it’s a hard question. It only works if Japan’s some exciting, exotic thing.
Japan’s actually—-well, not boring, but what’s the opposite of exciting? Okay, so whatever that is. You want stimulation, hey, go to a Gathering of the Juggalos or something. Here you’ll get plenty of practice sitting on packed trains, silently staring at your smartphone while discreetly sipping bottles of green tea. But hey, no place is perfect. In Japan, you trade excitement for order, innovation for process, and conversation for privacy.
Why are you Still in Japan?
So why am I still here? Well, for starters, where would I go? Move to some foreign country? That’s a little extreme, don’t ya think? It took me years to build a life in Japan. It’s not easy to get a decent job anywhere, and now I’ve got that and a bunch of other stuff: health insurance, a Japanese driver’s license, credit cards, one car, two bikes, and actual furniture. Like a freaking bed. Do you realize how incredible that is? So just ditch it all and move to some bizarre country where everyone’s covered in tattoos and cologne, toting guns and wearing red trucker caps? Heh, if such a place actually existed it’d probably be awesome, like the greatest country on earth.
The Japanese Lottery
Every once in a while, I buy a Japanese lottery ticket. People sometimes ask what I’d do if the numbers came up. A hella lotta things, I guarantee you that, including taking up residence in the Playboy Mansion and strolling around with a pipe and an open bathrobe. But the truth is, you’re not gonna win. Not now, not ever. So what’re you actually gonna do? I’d say it looks like, barring an act of God, I’m gonna end up living with Mom a while longer.