Hirakata, Osaka | Fall, 2005 | 20 years old

One of the oddest things about Japan is that, despite its reputation for subtlety and “sameness,” the differences between living here and living in, for example, the United States can’t help but simply jump out at you and assert their existence. In other words, Japan only seems big on being the same when it concerns “being the same as other parts of Japan.” In other words, there’s a lot out there to prepare for when it comes to coming to Japan.

Because all of my experience with living in general has taken place in the United States, I will be writing this from a somewhat limited perspective. I would apologize in advance, but I have no particularly compelling reason to.

The left side of the road. Needless to say, the Japanese drive on, from an American perspective, the wrong side of the road. Australians, on the other hand, see nothing wrong with what appears to be a perfectly reasonable way to go about getting from point A to point B without experiencing any excessive number of head-on collisions.

The weather. Mark Twain once said, about New England’s weather, that if you didn’t like it you could wait a few minutes. Now, I can’t speak for the rest of Japan nor the rest of the year, but the Kansai region at the end of Summer is primarily hot and humid with a few unseasonably less-hot days, though the humidity makes a point of kicking in an extra bit to balance things out.

Now, oftentimes one will see the Japanese lugging umbrellas here and there on what appear to be perfectly reasonably clear days, and not just because they want the shade to keep from getting tans. No, the reason for this is twofold. First, in Japan it doesn’t simply rain. It either drizzles annoyingly or, more commonly when it does rain, comes down without a hint of mercy. Second, and this is far more important, in Japan the weather report almost inevitably ends with “with a chance of rain,” and if it doesn’t, then it’s still a pretty safe assumption that it should be there:

Cloudy, with a chance of rain.
Sunny, with a chance of rain.
Thunderstorms, snow, and hail, with a chance of rain.

Japanese weather isn’t quite as fickle as parts of the United States, but its tendencies can leave someone wishing for any sort of change at all simply because it would almost inevitably be an improvement.

Mayonnaise. Clearly, Japan’s favorite condiment after soy sauce (if it’s even less popular than soy sauce – it could be a tie, or perhaps soy sauce would be second). Mayonnaise first found its popularity back in the eighteenth century or so, back when Portuguese merchants first visited. However, unlike words like “tabako” or “tempura,” the Japanese never managed to fully assimilate the word, leading to its image of “foreignness” and subsequent prohibition by Imperial decree until the 1860s and the re-opening of Japan to the outside world at large. Interestingly enough, none of this is widely known, and this is primarily because I just made it all up, but the fact of the matter is that mayonnaise is everywhere in Japan. For those who don’t like the stuff (and just looking at it tends to make me want to gag), it’s kind of a challenge, but for those who do it’s generally well-received – I’m told it’s rather sweeter than other countries’ and that it’s just more palatable overall. On the upside, it’s available in those ubiquitous soft plastic squeeze bottles. Everywhere.

Smoking. Everyone smokes, or at least it seems that way compared to America. Restaurants sometimes have non-smoking sections, but it’s about as effective as a no-peeing section in a swimming pool. Everyone’s constantly worrying about dieting, but apparently nobody ever thinks, “boy, you know what would be really good for my health? Not smoking.”

Vending machines. Everyone’s heard all about the vending machines in Japan. They have such crazy things! Big bags of rice! Pornography (which is available everywhere else, too)! A UFO Catcher/crane game with live lobsters! What funny people!

Well, the truth of the matter is that, yes, drink vending machines are in fact everywhere: recent figures put the number at over one and a half million nationwide, and though the number means little on its own, if you were to lay each of them end to end, starting in New York, you would need back surgery by the time you were done. It’s gotten to the point where, after living in Japan for more than a week or two, not being able to find a drink vending machine in the immediate vicinity can cause mild panic.

As for other vending machines, there are certainly the niftier ones, like the Pocky and ice cream machines found in every arcade, no matter how small, and the ones with instant ramen cups for sale that provide you with hot water and chopsticks. However, these are generally the exceptions, rather than the rule. It’s safe to estimate at least 90% of the vending machines your average person will see in an average week will be for drinks, alcoholic or not (though the alcohol and tobacco vending machines close at 11:00 PM).

What’s also interesting to note is that the ATMs have hours as well, though they also are just generally nicer than I was used to – they don’t give you your cash until you’ve taken your card (and balance book, if you put it in for printing of your new balance), and it can count cash for deposits without needing an envelope.

What else is very interesting to note…

Isolation. …is that vending machines almost invariably cost more than just walking inside and dealing with someone running a cash register, almost in direct opposition to what one would be used to in the United States (“Why are you buying this in here? It’s a quarter less out front in the vending machine, and you don’t have to pay tax”). It’s really quite an interesting phenomenon, to tell the truth: for someone who’s used to the concept of approaching and being approached by random strangers, it’s really weird to live somewhere where anything beyond “where is ___?” makes people uncomfortable.

I’ve read about the phenomenon, and the general consensus boils down to a matter of the “in-group/out-group” distinctions, but it’s really disquieting to see it in action – it’s literally as though those who are not part of your group aren’t even people. Sure, there are signs on the subways requesting that people give up their seats for those just generally poorly equipped to stand for long periods. However, there are jokes among the Japanese that the way you can tell who’s an American of Asian descent is by seeing who actually offers their seat to someone with a broken leg or a pregnancy.

And of course, while there are jokes about Japan’s crime rate (“Why is crime so low in Japan?” “Because it’s illegal.”), it really seems to boil down to a general sense of indifference among the people. “It’s not my problem” seems to be the prevailing mindset, which has its benefits, like being able to safely leave your bike sitting somewhere unlocked for a week, but it has its drawbacks, like litter never being picked up.

The fact of the matter, however, is that it’s really not my position to criticize the scenario as I see it. That is, perhaps regrettably, one of the major things about learning about a new culture from the inside. Things have worked just fine for them, at least as far as they seem to be concerned, for years and years. From an American perspective, Japan is rather strange at times, but I’m certain that from their perspective I’m ill-mannered and loud and arrogant and so forth. The problem is that, in the end, there’s really no culturally neutral position to look at things from.

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