Category Archives: Japan

5 More Things I Hate About Japan

The last time I wrote a list of things I don’t like about Japan, I confessed that it almost feels mean and ungrateful to complain about anything here because the people are so nice. Furthermore, Japan generally has all the amenities you would expect in a developed nation, so it also feels like this whole post should be hashtagged “#firstworldproblems.” Nevertheless, there will always be annoyances for expats living in a new country, especially one in which the native language is different from that to which they’re accustomed, so here it is. (Also see my previous posts on things I love about Japan part 1 and part 2 and things I love-hate about Japan.)

  1. Deodorant. It just doesn’t work. I’ve tried three different kinds, even one spray-on brand. To be fair, the third one I tried does generally work as a deodorant (though not as well as American brands), but it’s alcohol-based, so if I’ve just shaved my armpits… OUCH!!! Derek and I both finally gave in and he bought some for each of us the last time he was in the U.S. on a business trip.
  2. Clumpy Sugar. Most white sugar here is pretty clumpy, like brown sugar. Also like brown sugar, you have to pack it to get the desired amount. Although granulated non-clumpy white sugar does exist, it’s more expensive.
  3. Plumbing. I’ve already talked about certain aspects of the plumbing that I hate here, but there are more. For example, in our nice apartment, the water turns off arbitrarily. There are also hair traps after the drain. In the U.S., there are hair traps on the drain itself, which you can easily access or, to be honest, force the hair around. However, hair traps in Japan come after the drain, so you have to pull out the drain and dig down to pull out the hair trap and empty it every month or so. But because it comes after the drain, everything gets caught in it, not just the hair, so it’s a pretty grisly job. Furthermore, the drainage itself isn’t perfect, even when the hair trap is clean.
  4. Child-Access in Restaurants. Frequently, restaurants have nowhere to park the stroller (Japanese strollers easily fold up and stand propped up on their own so that they are less than 4 ft tall, 2 ft wide, and 6 inches deep; therefore, they take up virtually no space when folded, but there is no place for them anyway). This is a big deal because most people don’t even own cars and therefore walk everywhere, so you can’t just leave the stroller in the trunk of your car. Furthermore, there is often no handicap access (I really feel for wheelchair-bound people here) such as a ramp to the entrance, so you may have to carry the stroller up several steps or even up a flight of stairs. My biggest annoyance, though, is the lack of high chairs. Every restaurant in the U.S. with the exception of most bars and non-traditional restaurants such as certain coffee shops has high-chairs. However, most Japanese restaurants don’t. And when they do, there often aren’t any straps, so you have to hold your arm across your child to prevent him/her from slipping out.
  5. Restaurant Pricing and To-Go. Every restaurant in the U.S. has the capacity to give you food to-go or to give you a box for your leftovers. However, most Japanese restaurants don’t, with the exception of fast-food restaurants. Furthermore, in general, food here is generally more expensive. Part of that may be due to high tariffs on certain imports, and part of it is probably due to the fact that waiters and waitresses make minimum wage here (tipping doesn’t exist, so they can’t subsist on the sort of wages waitstaff in the U.S. get). Nevertheless, even in typically non-tipping restaurants, the cost of food is much higher than you would expect; and in typically tipping restaurants, the cost of food is higher even when you take a comparable American meal and add a 20% tip to it before comparing prices. For example, a Chipotle knock-off called Frijoles in Roppongi offers their grande burrito (which is supposed to be the same size as but in actuality is smaller than Chipotle’s burrito) for almost 1500 JPY (about $15) as compared to Chipotle’s $6.50 burrito—in other words, in a non-tipping restaurant, the food still costs more than double for smaller portions. To be fair, there are exceptions (for example, sushi is less expensive here than it is in the Dallas area of Texas) and there are places to get inexpensive food (such as McDonald’s or Japan’s national version, Mos Burger*), but most food is more expensive.

じゃあまたね!

 

*Yes, it’s actually Mos Burger, not Mo’s Burger. But it’s pronounced モズバーガー (moz bahgah), so it sounds like it should be Mo’s, but there is very definitely no apostrophe in the romaji.

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5 More Things I Love About Japan

Previously, I wrote a list of 5 things I love about Japan, 5 things I love-hate about Japan, and 5 things I hate about Japan. I thought it was about time to add another 5 things to the list!

  1. Toilets Never Get Stopped Up. At least, I’ve never seen a toilet get stopped up in Japan. This was my biggest household frustration in the U.S. (largely because I hate both toilets and excrement—I’m not a complete germophobe, but I’ve always hated these things, and a stopped-up toilet is like a trifecta of putridity) but something I don’t have to deal with here. Seriously, when I move back to the States, I want to bring a Japanese toilet with me!
  2. Convenience Stores. They have complete meals and microwaves so you can heat the meal you just purchased. They also have some commonly-required items like eggs, milk, and butter. Of course, all of this is also true of grocery stores, but convenience stores are on virtually every corner and are usually open 24 hours. Furthermore, you can even pay your bills at convenience stores! Just walk in, hand them your electric bill and some cash, and they’ll pay it for you! Convenience stores (or コンビニ “konbini,” as they call them) truly are convenient.
  3. Museums. Children often have free admission and adults pay far less than they would in the United States. For example, the museum at Ueno Park has free admission for children aged 18 and under, and only 600 JPY (about $6) admission for adults.
  4. Exercise. There’s no need to go to the gym because you WALK EVERYWHERE. My brother had a professor that we both loved. He was cool, fun, hilarious, geeky like us, and reminded us very much of a close family friend. He hailed from New York and told us that moving to Texas was like moving to The Land of the Obese. He talked about how Texans don’t walk anywhere—they drive. We defended that tendency due to the lack of public transportation, which itself is due to the vast spread of the state. Even in New York State, public transportation primarily exists in urban centers, not suburban or rural (which makes up the vast majority of Texas’s land area). Nevertheless, it’s true that in areas where people walk more, people also tend to be more fit, and that’s definitely true of Japan. After only three months of living here, my BMI dropped 5.3 points (28 pounds) from the upper end of normal weight to underweight. I certainly wasn’t eating any better or trying to lose weight; it just happened. (Interestingly, I’m still chunky in comparison to the Japanese women here. It must be their genetics! How can anyone be so thin?? I’m so ethnocentric…)
  5. Shipping. Domestic shipping in Japan is often free for a minimum purchase, and the minimum purchase is usually pretty low—like, 3,000 JPY (about $30—I think the minimum in the U.S. is at least $50). There was one weird incident that involved the cash-based society more than it did the shipping policies… We ordered a Christmas gift for someone online and rather than paying immediately, we were informed that the item would arrive with a bill, which we are to take to the local convenience store or bank to make payment. But anyway, the shipping is pretty awesome. And if the post office screws something up, they’ll make it right, give you a complete refund, and may even give you a gift in apology.

No Excuse

I read a blog post which told a story about a non-American man’s friends telling him which clothing suggests homosexuality in America. He quit wearing the clothing in question because he didn’t want to be mistaken for gay. His now-wife wrote the blog post and expressed anger over her husband being made to feel embarrassed about his clothing preferences and went on a very long rant about how people should be free to dress however they wish and love whomever they desire.

I get defending my husband. I get not judging people based on what they wear. Once upon a time, having tattoos was indicative of a criminal lifestyle; in America, that’s no longer the case (though in Japan, it’s still true). However, there’s a reason why certain types of clothing are associated with straight men, some with gay men, and some with women in the same way that wearing a ring on your left ring finger is associated with being married. If a majority of gay men wear a certain type of clothing, that type of clothing becomes associated with gay men, and people may, for very good reason, assume a men wearing that clothing is gay. If a man doesn’t want to be mistaken for gay, he shouldn’t wear that clothing. If he insists on wearing clothing commonly associated with gay men, he shouldn’t get angry at people for assuming he’s gay. In the same way, a woman who insists on wearing a promise ring on her left ring finger (which I used to do) shouldn’t get angry at men for assuming she’s married and not approaching her. In either case, romantic relationships may be inhibited and such people have only themselves to blame (myself included, as in the case of the promise ring). Similarly, I’ve known women who, for various reasons, were unable to wear their wedding rings and so wore them around their necks, but as a result, people often assumed they were unmarried. Any of the above individuals (including myself) have no excuse for being angry at people who draw the wrong conclusion. Furthermore, if I were to move to a foreign culture and wore clothing that suggested something I don’t want people to assume about me (such as my being a slut, a single woman, a drug addict, or a lesbian), I would appreciate my friends warning me about how others would view my clothing preferences, even if I was briefly embarrassed by the news.

A similar issue is people who choose not to cut their boys’ hair. I get being mad at people for trying to control your parenting, regardless of what your choices are, including anger at people for telling you how to cut your son’s hair or how to dress your child. Having a girl and hating the color pink, I feel for you. But there are also certain cases where you have no excuse for your anger. For example, in a day when girls often dress like boys, sometimes the only way to tell gender is the hair. You certainly have license to be mad at nosy people for telling you how you should or should not do your son’s hair, but you have no excuse for getting mad at people who mistake your longhaired son for a girl. It’s a legitimate assumption in a society where boys traditionally have short hair, girls traditionally have longer hair, little girls or little boys who vary from that norm are in the minority, and it’s rude to refer to someone as an “it” when you can’t tell the gender (therefore, you have to make a guess and God help you if you guess incorrectly).

The same is true of flat-chested girls who cut their hair short, don’t wear makeup, and dress gender-neutrally. I feel for you. I was a flat-chested girl who didn’t wear makeup and wore jeans and shapeless t-shirts as a teen. And you can’t control being flat-chested. But if, being flat-chested, you choose to cut your hair short and dress gender-neutrally, you have no excuse for your anger at people who mistake you for a guy. I feel worse for guys with slender frames because people may assume he’s a neutrally-dressed, short-haired, flat-chested girl, and there’s nothing he can do about it. On the other hand, if a slender-framed guy grows his hair long, regardless of how he dresses, he has no excuse for anger at people who assume he’s a flat-chested girl.

Cultural differences may make it difficult to know what’s considered feminine or masculine or homosexual. In Japan, pink clothing and skinny jeans may be worn by men or women, but both are generally feminine or “gay” in America. A man wearing either in America has little or no excuse for anger at people who mistake him for gay. If I were to move to a foreign culture and I had a habit of wearing something typically associated with lesbians, and I had no desire to be mistaken for a lesbian, I would be embarrassed but grateful to my friends for telling me the truth.

At any rate, my point is that if you don’t mind yourself or your child being mistaken for the wrong gender or for the wrong sexual orientation, go ahead and break the cultural norms. However, if you do break the cultural norms and people assume the wrong gender or the wrong sexual orientation, you have no excuse to be mad at them for doing so.

じゃあまたね!

Japanese Abortion

As I explained in the previous post, I had the opportunity to interview employees of Bare Hope adoption agency here in Japan, and they shared with me a great deal of information regarding Japanese adoption and its closely related issue, Japanese abortion. My previous post was on adoption, and this post will focus on abortion. Again, if there are any flaws or misinformation in my post, the fault is mine.

In Japan, abortion has been legal since 1949, earlier than any other industrialized country. Because of this, Japan was once a site of medical tourism specifically in the area of abortion. The birth control pill was only finally legalized in Japan in 1999 (partly due to pressure from abortion doctors not to legalize it and thereby potentially reduce their incomes), but most Japanese prefer to use condoms due to the side effects and cost of the pill. In recent years, Japan has conducted about 300,000 abortions per year; however, in the most recent year for which I could find data, 2012, there were approximately 200,000 reported abortions. It is legally permitted up to the 24th week of pregnancy*.

The interviewees explained to me that in reality, there are a great many abortions not reported for various reasons. The primary reason they discussed was abortions conducted after the legal limit. Because it is not only illegal to perform an abortion after 24 weeks, but also to purchase an abortion after 24 weeks, all involved (the doctor performing it, the hospital hosting it, and the couple seeking it) are legally at risk. Therefore, should something go wrong, the woman wouldn’t dream of suing the doctor or hospital, even in cases of ridiculously blatant malpractice, because she would have to confess to committing a crime in order to do so. In other words, unethical physicians whose entire income is from abortions may frequently conduct illegal abortions because it translates to money with extremely little risk of reprisal because neither the hospital nor the woman and her family would report him for seriously damaging or even almost or actually killing her.

There’s also a significant economic impact. Prior to entering nursing school, I was required to watch an older (I think 1990s) PBS documentary on medical systems around the world. Though it attempted to portray the various systems with equal weight and without bias, it was very obviously, even from the beginning before any information had been shared, biased in favor of socialized medicine. Interestingly, it discussed Japan in a positive light, even though Japan’s system isn’t technically socialized medicine. In Japan, the government sets price controls on medical services rendered so that people can better afford their care; insurance companies also exist in Japan and, thanks to price controls, their premiums tend to be lower than those in America, to the truth of which I can now personally attest. However, these government price controls are so strict that a great many doctors go out of business because they simply cannot afford to work with such little pay, especially when they have business overhead and student loans to pay for. The end result is not enough doctors in Japan to care for the population (though, to be fair, the population is shrinking and growing older, so these physician-to-patient dynamics may change for better or for worse).

Where this relates to abortion is in the cost of maternity care. The Bare Hope interviewees told me that abortion costs much more than live birth**, so most hospitals cannot afford their overhead without abortion. In other words, they will very definitely go out of business if they do not perform abortions. Furthermore, illegal abortions cost significantly more than legal abortions—again, with no risk of getting sued by the family should something go wrong or should the doctor and/or hospital engage in ethically questionable financial practices such as hidden fees—and so the ultimate effect of illegal abortions is to result in obscene financial gains for the doctor and hospital and potentially a great number of women harmed and even killed or nearly killed with no legal recourse for the woman or her family.

In the U.S., the majority of abortions occurring after 24 weeks gestation are for convenience, according to the late Dr. George Tiller’s own figures, with less than 10% due to disabilities or medical conditions incompatible with life. I’ve read that those Japanese babies illegally aborted after 24 weeks are primarily disabled and majority capable of surviving outside the womb, but it’s impossible to know for certain since reporting of illegal abortions is obviously nil. The #1 reason for legal abortion is that the parents are not married. Many of the parents seeking an abortion for disability—specifically, Down Syndrome—come first to Bare Hope saying that they will give birth and place the baby for adoption rather than aborting if the adoption agency can ensure the child will be adopted. Obviously, Bare Hope can’t make such a promise, and so many babies who would otherwise be born alive and potentially placed with a loving family are instead aborted. For this reason (and for other reasons discussed in the last post), Bare Hope is seeking a partnership with a U.S. adoption agency that specializes in placing Down Syndrome babies. If you have any information on this, please let me or Bare Hope know!

じゃあまたね!

 

*At this stage, the child has a beating heart, brain waves, fingerprints, all vital organs in place, and a personality, and is capable of feeling pain. There is at least a 50% chance of surviving outside the womb if born at this stage. Abortion at this stage is more dangerous to the mother than live birth.

**I honestly don’t know how much of that is due to price controls and how much is due to the 5-day postpartum stay in Japan as compared to the typical 24-hour stay for vaginal births in the U.S.

Japanese Adoption

I had the opportunity to ask numerous questions of employees at a Japanese adoption agency, Bare Hope. They talked a lot about both adoption and its closely related issue, abortion. Here are some of the facts of adoption in Japan; I will present Japanese abortion in the next post. If there are mistakes or misinformation in either post, the fault is mine.

The Hague Convention (1993) set certain standards for international adoptions. However, although about 90 countries signed on to the Hague Convention (including the U.S.), many have not (including Japan). It’s not illegal for parents from a Hague country to adopt from a non-Hague country. However, according to another interviewee who recently adopted from Japan, U.S. law specifically prohibits it. In other words, it is allegedly no longer possible for a U.S. resident to adopt from Japan. However, when I attempted to verify this online, I found this page on the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website regarding the process for adopting from a non-Hague country; nowhere does it say it is prohibited.

Japanese law used to require adoptive parents to live in Japan for a certain length of time before adopting, but no longer does. In other words, should a couple who are U.S. residents wish to adopt a Japanese child, they could technically begin the adoption process immediately without first moving to Japan. However, it still takes about 2 years to get a visa approval. In other words, a U.S. citizen may travel to Japan, adopt a child in Japan, and apply for the child to get U.S. citizenship, but it will generally take 2 years for the citizenship to be approved, during which time you have to stay in Japan. So while technically you don’t have to wait to adopt, you do have to wait to bring your adopted child home. Nevertheless, Japanese law requires Japanese adoption agencies to give preference to Japanese potential parents (resident or non-resident, but preferably resident) for adoptions.

Japan has various means of caring for orphans. Of the two primary means, one is baby- or child-institution and the other is foster care. Japanese law requires children in foster care to be adopted within 6 months in order to encourage workers to ensure these children get adopted. Unfortunately, the law says nothing about institutions. Similarly to how it works in the U.S. with foster caseworkers*, Japanese institutions get paid according to the number of children they care for and are not given any incentive whatsoever to get the kids adopted. Naturally, they usually make the truly economical choice: not to place their children for adoption. For example, last year, out of thousands of children in dozens of baby- and child-institutions in Tokyo, only two were adopted. Once a child enters an institution, it’s virtually impossible to get them out. Organizations like Bare Hope are trying very hard to get the law changed in this area. Bare Hope also tries to get to potential adoptive parents before the state does, because the state will convince the family that the best place for the baby or child is in a baby- or child-institution–where, of course, the child stays until majority age because adoption out of institutions is so rare–whereas Bare Hope and other adoption agencies will try to get the child adopted as quickly as possible.

The exception to most of the rules on Japanese adoption is Down Syndrome. Bare Hope employees told me that people will much more readily adopt a child with severe physical health issues than a baby with Down Syndrome**, so the country will basically approve the adoption of a Down Syndrome baby to non-Japanese foreign residents as soon as you can put the paperwork in front of them to sign. The employees I spoke with asked whether I knew of any U.S. adoption agencies that specialize in Down Syndrome adoptions and I promised I’d ask. So far, I’ve gotten only one response (the same which incorrectly stated that it’s impossible due to an alleged U.S. ban on non-Hague adoptions), so I’m still looking for Down Syndrome adoption agencies. If you have any information, please oblige.

じゃあまたね!

 

*Note that I’m not talking about foster parents, who generally have absolutely no control over whether a child in their care is adopted. When the foster parents are the potential adoptive parents, they may have some tiny amount of influence, but that’s it. Most of the influence is held by caseworkers, which is why organizations like Fatherheart (Texas) will occasionally hire a lawyer to act on behalf of the child and take the case to court to approve an adoption without requiring the caseworker to actually do any work on the adoption process. Note also that I’m not saying all caseworkers are evil. Far from it. They fill a very important and desperately needed role. But when there is no incentive to work harder than you are currently working, few people will. As a result, in spite of huge waiting lists and so many people desperate to adopt, kids in foster care most often are not adopted, except by their foster parents.

**This is because Down Syndrome can be so unpredictable. If you adopt a child with a genetic disorder, the doctors can tell you exactly what sort of complications to expect, what the child’s life expectancy is, etc. However, with Down Syndrome, the child may be anywhere from so functional you almost can’t tell they have Down Syndrome to so severely handicapped that the farthest they ever progress is to the intelligence-equivalent of a 4-year-old. Furthermore, many Down Syndrome children have health issues as well and their life expectancy varies considerably depending on their health issues. Many adoptive parents will opt for the child whose future they can somewhat anticipate over the child whose future is so uncertain. Unfortunately, this means it’s virtually impossible to get Down Syndrome babies or children adopted, especially in Japan. The interviewee told me several very sad stories of parents calling in a panic saying, “Our baby was just born today and he has Down Syndrome. We already told our family he died. Can you get him adopted today?”

5 Things I Hate About Japan

Since no one ever seems to write on what they “hate” about Japan, I thought I’d break the mold and do so, but found it surprisingly difficult to come up with five things. Furthermore, I found a couple things that I “hate” about Japan or, more specifically, Tokyo (where I live), are not actually things I hate so much as things I find amusing or slightly irritating. Nevertheless, I did my best to come up with a “hate” list. 🙂

1. The Sewage System. It stinks. Literally. It’s not well-sealed, and so in places where they have sewer access, such as alleyways and little-used streets, you can smell the sewage of the largest city on earth. It’s not great.

2. The Plumbing. This is one thing the Romans figured out a long time ago, but which the smartest people on the planet, God bless them, haven’t quite figured out yet. When we first arrived, our bathtub wouldn’t drain. Later, my husband opened up the plumbing system, found a hair trap and emptied it, and put it all back together. Now it drains… mostly… but even perfectly clean, there’s a part of the plumbing that doesn’t quite drain right—that is, there is always a certain amount of standing water in the plumbing under the tub drain.

"please don't get your hand caught in the elevator door"

“please don’t get your hand caught in the elevator door”

3. Nanny State Signage. I guess I don’t hate it so much as I roll my eyes and laugh at it, but I thought I’d include it in the list of negatives since it can be annoying on occasion, more as an insult to my intelligence than anything else. For example, there are signs telling people to be considerate of other passengers on the train by not forcing your way in ahead of them. Well, duh. But the kind of person who is enough of a jerk to do that is not the kind of person to be halted by a sign telling them not to. There are also signs on the train warning that groping women is a crime. Well, duh. But the kind of person who would do something so completely unacceptable or break such a law is not going to be stopped by a sign telling them something is unacceptable and/or a crime (like laws making it more difficult to purchase guns when we all know the majority of criminals obtain their guns illegally anyway, so such laws only serve to disarm law-abiding citizens). The balcony on our 11th floor apartment has a sign saying, “Please don’t drop anything.” Well, duh. But the kind of person who needs to be told not to drop things off of balconies is either too young to read the sign or both old enough to know better and enough of a jerk not to care; therefore, people who might drop something off the balcony are not going to be stopped by a sign.

4. Polite Language. There are two basic forms of language: polite/formal and casual/informal. However, there are a bazillion degrees of each. Furthermore, you may have learned the casual version one verb, such as “to eat” (食べる “taberu”), but the restaurant worker will ask whether you’re dining in or taking out by using the polite form (召し上がる “meshiagaru”), which sounds nothing like the casual form! Some Japanese teachers will recommend learning the polite form first so that if you mess up, you do so by accidentally using a politer word than you needed to, rather than accidentally using a less polite form than you should have. Other Japanese teachers recommend learning the casual form first because that’s the form you’ll actually use in everyday conversation with friends. Either way, for a while, you’ll sound like you don’t know what you’re saying, which is true in every language but seems to be more true in Japanese.

5. Handicap and Children’s Access. So far, of the dozens of restaurants I’ve visited, I’ve found one that offered high chairs. One. (To be fair, the food court at the mall also had high chairs, but without any sort of restraint, so Ada kept slipping off.) Also, you’re not supposed to take a stroller on an escalator, but there are plenty of cases when there are no elevators. Some crosswalks/bridges, train stations, restaurants, stores, and even police stations have absolutely no handicap access (which also means no stroller access). (By “handicap,” I mean “wheelchair”—see my previous post regarding things I love about Japan on access for the blind.)

Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now for the poisonous comments about how I’m such a horrible person for “hating on” such a kind and generous people…

じゃあまたね!

5 Things I Love-Hate About Japan

I once had a friend who liked to describe her relationship with another mutual friend as “a love-hate relationship—we love to hate each other!”

You may have already read my list of 5 Things I Love About Japan. But there are many things where you may love one aspect and hate another aspect, or cases where there are both pros and cons to the same situation. This is true of every country, including my own home country. For example, the U.S. Constitution grants the right to “bear arms,” which was understood from the foundation of the country to mean guns, for the purpose of defending ourselves from a totalitarian government (since our entire purpose in fighting the Revolutionary War was to separate ourselves from the totalitarian government that was the British Empire), but we also have more gun-related violence than any other country. So we’re (relatively) safe from our government but not necessarily safe from ourselves. Anyway, Japan is no stranger to situations or aspects that have both pros and cons. This is just a short list of some that bothered me.

DSC050031. “Engrish” Translations. I’m sure you’ve seen those photos of “Engrish” signs from Asian countries warning people not to “sh– or pi– on the sidewalk.” I haven’t seen any Japanese signs that unintentionally used inappropriate language, but there have been many times I’ve seen signs that didn’t make much sense the way they translated it. For example, I saw a sign outside a grocery store warning, “Please leave your cart here. It’s very danger if cart move alone to the road.” A website offered English translation for ticket prices divided into two categories: Adult and Dwarf. Other times, you can’t understand the translation at all; in those cases, there is occasionally no Japanese, either, so you can’t ask your fluent spouse/friends to translate what it really means. And sometimes, as with Shinbashi/Shimbashi Station, there was once a particular Roomaji (English letters) spelling for a certain name, but they now use the more appropriate spelling, and the end result is that searching for one version of the name will get you certain results and searching for the other version will get you a different set of results. On the one hand, it’s very helpful to have so much English because one such as I who barely speaks any Japanese at all is able to get around and usually can make sense of the poorly translated “Engrish” text. Furthermore, when it’s poorly translated but understandable, it’s very amusing. But on the other hand, when it’s so poorly translated as to be incomprehensible and no original Japanese text is present, it’s quite annoying because you know they put it in English for a reason, but you can’t figure out why they thought it was so important because you can’t understand it.

2. Japanese Hospitality. The Japanese people are so generous and so hospitable. It works to your favor quite frequently. For example, when we first arrived in Japan and presented ourselves to the Ward Office, a woman guided us to a table, showed us what form to fill out, stood there while we filled it out (which felt very awkward), pulled a number for us, guided us to the seats, and then, when our number was called, guided us to the desk. We could probably have done it on our own, but—especially if you don’t know what you’re doing and/or don’t know the language—it was very nice. In the U.S., when you go to a government building for something, there’s usually someone at the front desk to tell you which hallway to walk down, but otherwise, it’s pretty much up to you. The clerks are often irritated at you if you couldn’t find the form online to fill it out ahead of time (even though it’s no inconvenience for them since all they do is point you to the wall with all the forms and tell you to find the right one). If you have to pull a number, no one tells you to do so. You figure it out for yourself when you hear “Now serving number 151” or something to that effect. If you forgot (or didn’t know) to grab a number, you’re left waiting for a very long time until you figure it out. So Japanese hospitality can be a breath of fresh air compared to American hospitality.

On the other hand, there are times when it can be annoying. If I ask you what chiropractors you recommend, assuming you like chiropractors, you might look through your phone and text me the appropriate contacts, leaving it to me to actually call them, which conveniently means I don’t have to wait for you to do anything other than text me the contacts and you don’t have to go out of your way to help me. Win-win! Not so with the Japanese. If you ask someone for some business recommendations, they have to call each business contact, discuss the situation with them, set up a time to meet both you and the business contact, meet you at your house, take the train with you to the business contact, introduce you, and then sit back and wait (awkwardly) while you conduct your business. The hospitable person, then, is inconvenienced by having to set up and attend (including train tickets) meetings between him/herself, you, and the various contacts; and you’ve been inconvenienced by having to wait. But to their thinking, it would be rude to just tell you where to go or who to talk to and give you the contact information, leaving it up to you.

3. Trash Service. There are many things to love about it. People understand their responsibility to clean up after themselves and so generally don’t leave trash around. Furthermore, the government’s system is so effective at marking and separating recyclables from non-recyclables that I wouldn’t be surprised if this tiny country has the most efficient trash system on the planet. But learning how to separate trash—which is different in every ward/city/prefecture—is a real pain, especially if you’re new to it or your ward/city/prefecture doesn’t offer an English translation. For example, my ward (which provides a 23-page instruction manual on trash separation) requires separation into: (1) combustible non-recyclables; (2) noncombustible non-recyclables; recyclable papers further divided into stacks of (3) newspapers, (4) drink cartons, (5) books, (6) cardboard boxes, and (7) miscellaneous papers, each stack bound with twine; (8) recyclable plastics; (9) recyclable plastic bottles; (10) glass or metal jars and cans; (11) electronics; and (12) hazardous waste (such as aerosol cans). Each division is packaged in different ways and the trash must be put out the day of trash collection (not the night before), no later than 8:00 am. (Of course, our apartment building handles setting out the trash, but we still have to divide it ourselves.) You have to pay extra to have the trash service pick up certain things, such as a deceased pet or a piece of furniture. You also have to wash (yes, wash: scrub with soap and water) and drain anything that’s stained with food (for example, meat is always packaged in recyclable Styrofoam and recyclable plastic wrap, so you have to scrub by hand and hang-dry the plastic wrap and Styrofoam prior to throwing it away). Furthermore, because people are generally expected to clean up after themselves, there are very few public trash cans, so you end up carrying your trash all over kingdom come, searching for a trash can. Sometimes, you’ll find public trash cans, but they’re labeled appropriately (cans, bottles, newspapers, etc.) and there isn’t one for your kind of trash.

4. Limited Language Sounds. This is both good and bad. There are only 46 basic sounds in the Japanese language, which makes it easy to pronounce but also means there are a gazillion onomatopoeias—which is why they still use kanji. For example, “nose” and “flower” use the same sounds (はな “hana”). When spoken, you emphasize the first syllable for flower and the second syllable for nose. When written in hiragana, you can probably figure out the difference by context, but if it’s written in kanji (花 for flower and 鼻 for nose), you don’t have to worry about figuring it out in context because the kanji (symbol) used tells you which one is meant. A better example is alcohol (酒) and salmon (鮭), both of which are pronounced さけ “sake.” (To be fair, “salmon” can also be pronounced しゃけ “shake,” and so that’s usually how it’s pronounced—for example, when ordering food in a restaurant—in order to better differentiate between salmon and alcohol.) There are other better examples, but being a beginner in studying Japanese, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Suffice it to say, there are lots of onomatopoeias where the kanji really helps you know which word is meant. However, the downside is that you have to learn the kanji. To be considered knowledgeable at the most basic (high school graduate) level, you have to learn over 2,000 kanji. It takes Japanese kids 12 years to master these… so imagine trying to learn them as a foreigner who doesn’t even know the words that the kanji represent, and trying to do so in just a few years. I figured out that if I memorize two new kanji every day, it would still take me about 4 years to learn just the basic kanji. 😦 *sigh* (By the way, the Koreans—by which I mean South Koreans—did away with their kanji equivalent, and it works to some degree for them since they have more sounds in their language than Japanese does, but Korean kids graduating from high school can’t read anything more than a few years old and there’s now no way beyond context to tell the difference between onomatopoeias in their written language, so there are ups and downs to doing away with kanji-like symbols.)

5. Parks. Weird, right? What’s wrong with parks? I come from Texas, a state with wide-open spaces and lots of grass and trees. There are lots of parks here, and most of them are very beautiful with landscaping to rival that of private enterprises the whole world over. On the other hand, most of the parks here are pretty small and don’t have grass. Some of the ones that do have grass do not permit you to walk on it. For a while, I was pretty depressed at the thought that Ada might not grow up knowing the feeling of grass between her toes, but I’ve just made a point of visiting the parks that both have grass and allow you to walk on it. Altogether, I’m very pleased with the parks, but the grass thing and lack of wide, open spaces bother me more than a little. I guess that’s what happens when you transplant a Texan who grew up on a farm to the largest city on the planet (Tokyo).

Next week, I’ll write about a slightly more controversial topic.

じゃあまたね!