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.
1. “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.