5 Things Nobody Tells You About Living in Japan
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 ...
Everything Is Frightfully Low-Tech
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.
Neither of those things are jokes.
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.
"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 ...
The Houses Have No Heat
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.
"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 Hospitals Close on Evenings and Weekends
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.
"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.
"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 ...
You Will Always Be an Outsider
Since this is the Internet, you're undoubtedly familiar with Engrish.com and Japan's many hilarious (hirarious?) failings with the English language. But honestly, Japan is an industrialized nation full of well-educated people, and English is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. Zany out-of-context Internet photos aside, how alienating could it really be over there?
The short answer is very.
The long answer is more rambling and incoherent.
Simply put, the country just isn't very accommodating to people who can't speak Japanese. Without the language, you will barely be able to buy food or get around, let alone establish any kind of permanent living situation that doesn't involve keeping a bilingual girlfriend/boyfriend/hostage on hand 24/7 to translate every commercial that comes on the radio. You can't just exchange shouts with people and come to a working understanding like Han Solo and Chewbacca. Real life doesn't work that way.
So how is that different from moving to any other country where English isn't the native language? Well, for starters, Japanese is one of the hardest languages for Americans to learn, requiring 2,200 hours of study if you want to be considered truly proficient. This is partly because of the difficulties of learning a new language as an adult, and partly because English and Japanese have about as much in common with each other as Halloween and Halloween III.
Dear God, imagine what their text messages must look like.
That being said, once you actually got the whole language thing down, you might expect to finally be able to integrate yourself into Japanese society and thrive, right? Well, here's how it was with me: I've been coming to Japan for nearly a decade, my wife is Japanese, I speak the language fluently, I know the culture inside and out, and yet I'm still "that foreign guy" to most people here (even the ones who have known me for close to 10 years).
"Hi! My name is Vanillaface McCheeseburger! My hobbies include 'not being Japanese'!"
Japan is one of the most homogenous nations on Earth -- roughly 98 percent of the population is ethnically Japanese. No matter what you do to try and fit in, you will always stick out like a sore thumb in a room full of people who have had their thumbs removed by rototillers.
For instance, one of the biggest hot button issues in Japan concerns people of Korean ancestry who live in the country. In most cases, these are people who were born in Japan, have Japanese names and speak almost exclusively Japanese, but because of their Korean lineage, they are still legally considered foreigners and as such face several restrictions (such as the inability to vote or hold management positions in the public sector, a law that the Supreme Court actually upheld in 2005). The government literally decided that all Koreans are dastardly shitheads who are not to be trusted and mandated it to the entire country.
"Take your incredible goddamn barbecue and piss off!"
So now ask yourself this -- if the Koreans in this example (who by all rights should be full Japanese citizens were it not for ethnic prejudice) are given the same treatment as convicted felons, what chance does a white kid in a Gundam T-shirt have to not be considered a complete outcast?
I'm not saying that every single person in Japan hates foreigners, but if you live here, you will be constantly reminded that you are most decidedly not Japanese, nor are you likely to spontaneously become so. Still, it's a small price to pay to live in a place as outlandishly crazy and fun as Japan, right?
Yeah, about that ...
The Country Really Isn't That Weird
I'm guessing that one of the top reasons people want to move to Japan is because of how eye-poppingly insane everything here is. Japan is the patron saint of the Internet -- everything is either batshit crazy or adorable (or both), with the sole requirement of being impossible to explain in any conceivable context.
For example, this is food.
Man, I'm about to destroy a lot of illusions.
To start, let's talk a little about Japanese TV. You may have seen clips of some X-rated Japanese game show floating around the Internet wherein an audience full of young women eagerly compete for the privilege of having sex with some random guy on stage in front of hundreds of people (if not, you're probably searching for them right now). Here's the shocking truth behind those videos -- they are porn.
We know, it's easy to get thrown off by the high production values.
As in, they are professional pornographic videos dressed up to look like a game show, because ... you know, just because. Does porn need a reason? There's a Simpsons porn out there featuring people sweatily groping each other in jaundiced yellow body paint, for Christ's sake. Nobody is posting clips of that on the Internet and claiming it's the new season ... well actually, somebody probably is, but nobody would seriously believe that.
The porno game show I'm referring to is called Kobe Surprise, and it is every bit an actual game show as Walt Disney's Pocahontas is a historical documentary. Just like those goofy "true life" pornos MILF Hunter or Bang Bus, nothing about it even approaches reality, yet all you apparently need to do is tell everyone it's from Japan and suddenly people think it comes on every night after Wheel of Fortune.
Amazingly, this has never aired on network television.
Don't get me wrong -- there are some daffy game shows in Japan, and there is definitely erotic programming on late night TV, but the country isn't full of shamelessly sex-crazed lunatics who have stopped trying to measure the immensity of the shits they no longer give.
"So what about those infamous vending machines that sell used panties?" you might ask. Well, they do exist, but they were outlawed nearly 20 years ago. You can still find one from time to time, but they are illegal as fuck and usually hidden in sex stores or fetish clubs, and not in a bus station next to the Mr. Pibb machine.
That's where they sell the pure strain gold.
I shook my head particularly hard when I read about the Japanese fundraiser that allowed people to squeeze some hot girl's breasts if they donated money to AIDS research, because every website that reported on it wrote about it like it happens every Tuesday in Japan. It doesn't. The event was hosted by a freaking porn channel -- that's like if Hugh Hefner held a topless car wash at the Playboy Mansion and the BBC told the rest of the world that there was one next to every McDonald's in America.
But maybe you dream of living in Japan not because the porn flows like water (it doesn't, at least not any more so than in any other country where the Internet is a thing), but because of your love for anime, which is so popular and widely accepted among Japanese adults that you could enjoy your obsession in peace with the approval of your peers. Even though we've moved on from porn, don't put those tissues away just yet -- you may need them for the next paragraph.
After all these years in Japan, I can honestly say that animation (major studio productions notwithstanding) is still mainly considered kids' stuff. There is shockingly little anime on television, and most of it is unapologetically meant for children. The only adults who really get into it (referred to as otaku) are usually perceived by the media as overweight, unwashed weirdos who are probably child molesters. Sound familiar? You're bound to spend just as much time hiding your Trigun DVDs from company here as you would anywhere else.
With the added burden of the traditional Japanese Head of Shame.
Japan does have its eccentric side, but at the end of the day (and especially outside of Tokyo), it's pretty normal and boring. I'm not trying to discourage anyone from moving here (because I live here and I'm not planning on leaving anytime soon), but if you are really considering buying a place in Japan, make sure you know what you're getting into. Because if you step off the plane armed with nothing but what the Internet teaches you about this country, chances are you will be arrested before you make it out of the airport.
For more on Japan, check out 6 Japanese Subcultures That Are Insane (Even for Japan) and 9 Beloved Characters Made Horrifying by Japan.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Reasons Why Fair Trade Coffee Is a Scam.
Nightmarish villains with superhuman enhancements. An all-seeing social network that tracks your every move. A young woman from the trailer park and her very smelly cat. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, a new novel about futuristic shit, by David Wong.