Two years ago, I achieved alpha-geek status among my friends by moving to Japan. Since then, all I've been hearing from them is how lucky I am and how they would murder any endangered species still clinging tenaciously to existence in exchange for permission to live in my closet. And I totally get it, because come on, it's Japan -- the wackiest, most interesting place on the planet. Who wouldn't want to live here?
Well ... you might not, actually. Because while there are plenty of great reasons to live in Japan, such as the low crime rate and the amazing public transportation system, there are a few things you should know before you decide to pack up your manga and hop on a jet across the Pacific, wearing rabbit ears and flashing peace signs at everyone who makes eye contact with you. For starters ...
Lintao Zhang / Getty
Quick question: When was the last time you had to use a fax machine?*
*"What is a fax machine?" is an entirely acceptable response.
"Some sort of ... sex toy?"
Well, you should try moving to Japan if you want to recapture the magic of the fax machine and other 1990s technology. I actually use one about twice a month to send out my work invoices, because many of the Japanese companies that employ me do not accept paperwork by email. The rare ones that do require that my Word/Excel files be compatible with their 1998 version of Microsoft Office, which is sort of like requiring your Avengers Blu-ray to play on a Betamax machine.
My point is, on the surface Japan seems like the closest thing Earth currently has to a moon base, what with their stock exchange being entirely computerized and wireless Internet literally coming out of their vending machines.
But the truth is, many things are still being done in painfully old-fashioned ways, a phrase which here means "by hand and on paper." Actually, having seen the amount of paper a typical Japanese office goes through, I feel safe in assuming that the entire country has declared a shadow war on both the information age and trees.
How can this be? Well, Japan is still mainly in the hands of the older generation: Over a fourth of the population is over 60, and they're in no particular hurry to adopt new technology (particularly not Apple products, because as far as Japan is concerned, Steve Jobs can go fuck himself). Institutions like banks, the postal service and government offices still keep all of their records on paper, maintained and filed by superfluous personnel who could easily be replaced by an old Soviet computer (which incidentally is more or less what a friend of mine at a Yokohama municipal office was using at his workstation as recently as 2010).
Many businesses still don't even accept credit cards. A Japanese airline can get you to any corner of the globe without a hassle, so long as you're paying in cash, even if the tickets come up to a few thousand dollars each (and I wish I wasn't speaking from experience). This is made even more difficult by the fact that I don't think I've ever seen a 24-hour ATM anywhere in Japan.
Koichi Kamoshida / Getty
"We're proud to announce the launch of a new debit card, usable only in this room and only for the next 11 minutes."
That's right; most banks in Japan keep their ATMs indoors, which means that once the banks close (typically around 6 p.m.), so do the machines, utterly defeating their entire purpose for existing. It's another extension of that technological resistance -- pretty much anywhere outside of Tokyo harbors a deep generational resentment for automation. They don't want the ATMs operational while there aren't any bank employees around to help in case something goes wrong (although outside of users being clubbed with a thermos and robbed, the list of possible mishaps is embarrassingly short). You can always try an ATM at a convenience store (the number of which currently exceeds the national population), if you don't mind the variable transaction fees that seemingly change at random. And that's only if your ATM card will even work in machines outside of your bank, which it almost certainly won't.
The damn thing even looks like a 1980s fever dream of the future.
Of course, the best time to find out whether the 7-Eleven around the corner accepts your card is after 1 a.m., when all of the public transport has stopped and you desperately need money for a taxi. Basically, if you're planning on doing anything at all besides going to and from work, you need to keep fistfuls of cash either on your person at all times or piled under a mattress in your freezing apartment.
Wait, why is your apartment freezing? Because ...
Japan is constantly depicted in movies and TV shows as a technological wonderland of science and innovation, to the point where you would expect every toilet to resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, complete with a not-quite-real-or-fake-enough Patrick Stewart screaming "Make it so!" in a Japanese man's voice. The reality, however, is that your house or apartment will most likely lack such basic things as central heating and thermal insulation, and you'll be forced to burn that Ghost in the Shell poster your mom would never let you hang up just to stay warm.
Behold, the wonders of the Far East.
Traditionally, Japanese houses have always been built to let as much air flow through them as possible, because the summers here average somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees. Unfortunately, this piece of architectural brilliance will betray you come wintertime, as there is nothing at all in place to keep frozen winds from bursting into your house and dragging warm air off into the night like the werewolves from The Howling. But as most foreigners in Japan learn firsthand, you're sort of expected to just tough it out.
You can pick up an electric AC/heater, if you feel like throwing down hundreds of dollars to pay for both the unit and the required professional installation, but even then it's only enough to cover one room. The Japanese simply do not heat more than one or two places in the entire house -- they never have, and they aren't likely to start before you move here. Your only other option is a kerosene heater, which you can't really leave running overnight unless you're trying to burn and/or suffocate your family to death. Of course, having one also means keeping several cans of kerosene around the house at all times, so the "burning" thing may eventually happen on its own.
James Japan's Home Page
"It's cool, plastic isn't flammable."
Newer buildings like those in the middle of Tokyo probably have central heating systems strong enough to microwave a chicken just by shutting all the windows, but considering that land and building costs in Japan are still some of the highest in the world, the only people who can afford to live in new homes are those rich enough to insulate the walls with unicorn pelts.
The good news about health care in Japan is that your insurance is accepted pretty much anywhere. The bad news is that most hospitals keep shorter hours than a Blockbuster Video. Generally speaking, Japanese hospitals are only open from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and are usually not open at all on the weekends. So if you lop off a digit at a family barbecue, you basically have to wrap your stump in a Pikachu towel full of ice, wait for Monday to roll around and hope your severed finger doesn't get freezer burn.
AFP / Getty
"Attention horribly injured people: The hospital will close in 15 minutes. Please continue clinging desperately to life."
Even then, it's no guarantee you'll get to see a doctor, because outpatients are usually only admitted in the morning. If you don't get to the hospital quickly enough, you'll have to wait another day (oh, and good luck using all that personal time in a country where missing work is considered a form of light treason). Also, first-time patients can't make appointments at most medical facilities, so you pretty much just have to show up and hope somebody dies in a car accident on the way to the hospital and frees up a slot. And make sure to bring cash with you (see above), because while the majority of hospitals have ATMs, you really don't want to play "Will my card work here?" while you're bleeding from the face.
AFP / Getty
"I'm afraid you'll have to visit the ATM before we attach the second oxygen cylinder."
If you do manage to make it into a doctor's office, make sure that you bring someone with you who can speak Japanese, because not many doctors or nurses speak English. Which actually brings me to my next point ...