Five Things

Hirakata, Osaka | Fall, 2005 | 20 years old

When I first began my writing gig here, I made a point of talking about how I would be covering the everyday, mundane-to-the-Japanese things, and avoiding the “WOW THAT’S SO CULTURAL” stuff that everyone seems to write about for guidebooks, and, while I have written about, for example, visiting major temples, my original intent has been, and will remain, writing about the things that you won’t find in guide books. For several weeks now, I’ve been noticing a great deal of things, and I’d like to share them with the rest of the world. Now, certainly, there are a lot of useful little tips, like “buy your toiletries before you leave for Japan because stick deodorant is impossible to find and everything else is very expensive anyway” or “wear two pairs of socks so you don’t get blisters from all the walking you’ll be doing,” but those are either common sense or something you’d figure out quickly enough by thinking about it for a little bit. Instead, I want to say some things you’re not likely to know ahead of time just by reading your guidebooks.

Five Things You Won’t Find in a Guidebook.

1. Coke tastes different.

Believe it or not, this was the first major shock for nearly every American student I’ve met here. Now, perhaps this could be better phrased as “Coke tastes different in the United States.” Coca-Cola was reformulated in the 1980s because, as they were finding out, people just didn’t really like the flavor. There was a massive public outcry in the United States, but it was more over the idea that something iconic was being tampered with, so American Coke went back to the older, inferior recipe. Elsewhere in the world, though, ordinary Coca-Cola tastes like Diet Coke that simply lacks the awful effects of artificial sweeteners.

On the other hand, nearly all other soft drinks taste different in Japan. Ginger ale is stronger, and benefits from it, while fruit-flavored sodas are essentially watered-down, sweetened, carbonated fruit juice (as opposed to what generally passes as “juice” here, which is simply watered-down, sweetened fruit juice), and are, by and large, awful. Lemon and grapefruit sodas in particular taste rather sour and a bit bitter. That is to say, Japanese grapefruit soda tastes nothing at all like Fresca, unless it had no sugar added.

2. There are actually three Japans.

This one requires a bit of explanation, I know. It’ll make sense in a moment.

Depending upon whom you ask, though, there are apparently three different Japans, all occupying the same position on maps, in direct opposition to physical law. Visitors to Japan often intend, consciously or not, to visit only one of them, and many are incapable of noticing the presence of more than one.

The three Japans, then, are:

Japan #1. Megatokyo Reader Japan. This country consists almost entirely of flashing lights, tall buildings, and giant robots. Pocky (almost invariably mispronounced to rhyme with “hockey”) takes on a deep significance akin to a chocolate-coated Eucharist, and ramen shops are more than just somewhere to get a cheap meal. Outside of these ramen shops and between the skyscrapers, the streets teem with giggling Japanese schoolgirls as a river teems with fish, and they (the schoolgirls, not the fish) all have a crippling weakness for introverted foreigners with no social skills. Everyone else dresses like it’s Halloween every day, and for those in their early twenties, life is essentially a vacation of indefinite length. Additionally, all of the music that anyone listens to is either the theme songs from animated television programming or one of three or four Japanese musicians who are also famous, or at least well known, in the United States (such as Gackt or Puffy Amiyumi). Mount Fuji is visible from anywhere from Sapporo to Okinawa.

It’s a lovely fantasy, to be certain, and for better or for worse the name is cruelly accurate, as those who tend to harbor such a fantasy are almost invariably regular readers of the famous webcomic Megatokyo. The comic is famous for its combination of well-rendered pencil-sketch art and absurdly self-indulgent writing, as well as cursing my existence with even more intentional and ironic typos on the internet. The major problem, however, is that too many of its readers seem to view it as a documentary. It isn’t. In fact, when you take into consideration that it is a fictional account of fictional people living in a fictionalized version of a country based upon that country’s own fiction, it is something of a wonder to imagine how someone could actually be disappointed that maybe, just maybe, Megatokyo isn’t wholly truthful in its account of what Japan is like.

Those who planned to study in Megatokyo Reader Japan are generally identifiable by a need to watch more animated programming than just the really good stuff and near-daily trips to Book-Off, a used book-and-music-and-game store, in search of more comics. They are also often given away by their obsession with Japan but no history of linguistic study, and are often under the mistaken impression that Japanese will be as simple to learn as it starts out. They often give up as soon as they hit their first lingustic hurdle, in much the same way that a fledgling baseball player might get a good stride going on his way to first base for the first time, only to crash into the outfield wall after ignoring the turn at first, and getting frustrated with the game for it.

Though visitors to this country tend to clump together like platelets exposed to air, those who do fall into other social groups tend to opt to leave this first Japan for, often, the third. Those whose intention was to visit this Japan tend to be either crushed by disillusionment and hate it for the rest of the duration of their stay, or either get overwhelmed by how much of the stuff they read about in comics they keep seeing or develop a less fictional idea of the country itself and have a ball.

Japan #2. Art History Major Japan. This Japan consists entirely of gorgeous rolling hills, ikebana, tea ceremonies, and buildings made entirely of paper and wood. Visitors to this Japan will often partake in anything that sounds even vaguely cultural, winding up at occasions with names like “The Festival of Sitting Around Doing What we Ordinarily Would, Except that We’re Wearing Geta Sandals.” Unlike the first Japan, however, this one is at least based upon historical rather than fictional accounts of the country, and as such, though the visitor to this Japan will often be disappointed by the presence of the Meiji Restoration, they will have no trouble finding enough ties to Japan’s past to keep themselves occupied and enthralled, and often have little difficulty maintaining their happiness beyond a bit of short-lived, subconscious disappointment.

Interestingly, visitors to Art History Major Japan often wind up taking a good hard look at the country they’ve just arrived in and actually find it more interesting to be able to see the effects of what they came to see on what they’re actually seeing.

Japan #3. Actual Japan. This is the Japan that the natives are generally accustomed to. In this Japan, comics and animation are each simply another entertainment medium, with works that are excellent rising above the usual four-fifths-are-mediocre rule that one sees in any medium. The feudal era is viewed in much the same way as America views its pre-20th-century history: mostly romanticized but considered by most to be worth at least thinking about once in a while. Many things that foreigners are excited by, even foreigners intending to visit this Japan, are reasonably ordinary simply by virtue of having always been there.

This is the Japan where people go to work or school and come home in the evening, perhaps after hanging out with colleagues for a bit afterward. This is the Japan that worries about paying its bills once in a while, that wears a suit to work and views sushi as being primarily reasonably-priced, rather ordinary food and hopes that maybe, just maybe, this year the Tigers will win the National Series.

Oddly enough, foreigners almost always intend to visit Actual Japan primarily for a short period of time. Most of them seem more comfortable with the ordinary adult lifestyle of their home countries.

Now, though I may have said some less-than-flattering things about the three Japans, it is of course crucial to bear in mind that these are exaggerations, however slight, and that these things should be taken with a substantial pinch of salt – people only tend to get offended by what they’d prefer not to admit to themselves, and it certainly can’t help to open one’s mind to the idea of a more realistic image of Japan.

3. The Yen will destroy you utterly.

Japan’s currency has hovered around the same basic “one hundred or so yen to the dollar” point for years now. Need to estimate the price of something if it were in dollars? Remove two zeros and maybe round down a little bit, they always told us. Everything is so expensive! Bring lots of extra money compared to what you’re used to spending!

To be perfectly honest, though, most things aren’t significantly more expensive. Sure, a two-pack of pears might cost 400 yen or so, but at the same time, Japan doesn’t have a whole lot of orchard space, and more importantly, that two-pack easily weighs over half a kilogram. Japanese grocery stores only stock enormous produce.

Really, the only reason to be really worried about buying a lot of very expensive things is if buying ordinary Japanese things turns out to be such an inconvenience that the only alternative is appropriately-expensive imported products.

Rather, it is the very nature of Japan’s monetary system that will crush a foreigner’s soul and leave their wallet gasping for breath. Japan uses coins of denominations 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen. Paper money starts at the 1,000 yen point. The major issue, it turns out, is that the relative values of coins versus bills is even harder to shake than the notion of “cars drive on the right side of the road,” and it’s almost as hard to comprehend that the lowest-valued piece of paper money is a substantial amount. A hundred yen or so for a candy bar? “Oh, it’s just one coin, and it is the size of a US nickel.” Six hundred yen for lunch? “I’m paying with change!” Eight hundred yen for groceries (for example, four apples)? “Even if I pay with paper, I will only get coins back.”

Further complicating the issue is the fact that Japan is largely cash-based. I live in a suburb of Osaka (which, to be fair, is like saying that Jersey City is a suburb of New York in terms of relative size), and so, because I am not in an unusually large city, I can’t buy food with a credit card, and the only stores that make a big deal of customers’ being able to pay with plastic are generally opticians. Larger chains do tend to accept them, but they keep the equipment hidden, as though they are shameful secrets of the sort that you would only hear in hushed whispers or on the Internet’s rumor mills.

What winds up happening, though, is that the need to carry cash at all times leads to frequent ATM visits (while it’s open, of course), which lead to the decision to simply take out a large amount of money each time in order to make the trip to the ATM less frequent, which lead to having a large amount of money in the wallet, which leads to an unconscious feeling in the back of one’s mind along the lines of “MY BUYING POWER IS MIGHTY AND INFALLIBLE,” which in turn leads to impulse purchases at one of Japan’s many, many stores, which leads to not having so much money, which leads to frequent ATM visits. Perhaps it’s easier for those who grew up with such a system.

4. The Japanese love to follow the rules… until they know they won’t get caught.

Everyone seems to have this mental image of the Japanese as the society that never deviates from the norm for fear of sticking out. One famous idea in particular is the quiet city street, early in the morning, without a car within earshot, in which situation the befuddled tourist, on his way back to his hotel, sees a Japanese person going somewhere else. The tourist is befuddled because the Japanese person sees that the sign says “don’t walk,” and so he stands there dutifully waiting for it to change, perhaps even a little impatiently, like something out of a Marx Brothers movie.

The reason for this, though the tourist is unaware, is because the Japanese person is used to Japanese drivers.

There appears to be an impression among drivers that they are anonymous and that police are not in the habit of pulling people over (and, indeed, though I have heard a siren or seen flashers at least once a day since arriving here, I have never seen a car get pulled over). As a result, Japan’s drivers are some of the scariest in the industrialized world. I have seen people run red lights literally ten seconds after it changes to red in the hopes that, if the opposing traffic gets a green light, it will have been such that they either wouldn’t have had time to move into the intersection yet or that it’ll change after the person with the red light has gotten through. Indeed, I have literally never seen a Japanese motorist, no matter how indifferent to traffic law, get pulled over.

Likewise, there is a movie-and-music rental chain called Tsutaya which seems to be in on a public secret. You can rent CDs, which is perfectly fine with the Recording Industry Association of Japan, and it will cost you 300 yen for a week. I was struck, however, by the lack of subtlety involved in stocking blank CDRs in the rental CD section. Perhaps this is how Japan’s CD publishers remain profitable despite charging 3,000 yen apiece.

Oddly enough, this applies on a larger level as well. Japan is well known internationally for being at the forefront of the environmentalism movement, and as evidence we see such developments as hybrid automobiles, first sold by Japanese car manufacturers. However, Japan is also, on a much more local level, extremely wasteful. Civil servants can be seen hosing down streets that, to the untrained eye, look perfectly fine. Perhaps even more ridiculously, I got a hamburger recently at a fast food place, and it was brought to my table wrapped in some paper, then placed into a paper bag, which was inside of a plastic bag. Needless to say, I hadn’t even asked for it to go. Additionally, litter is quite common as soon as you look somewhere just a little obscure. Next to a bridge or in a gutter, it’s not hard to see cans, bags, bottles, and the like.

In other words, the Japanese are often masters of “do as I say, not as I do.” On the other hand, at least to some extent, honesty with oneself and willingness to either follow the established rules or admit to the rules’ having changed is coming into vogue with today’s ever-westernizing younger generation.

5. You can Almost Always Get Away with English Words.

It’s kind of funny, really. You’ve been having a conversation with the proprietor of a noodle shop, the Japanese is flying and you’ve been using words like kakuheiki and jidouhanbaiki and other such modern words (which, owing to their being not quite modern enough, are Chinese-character constructions designed to mimic English words and new concepts, rather than simply importing the English directly as they do nowadays), and all of a sudden you can’t remember the word for “table.”

It’s the linguistic equivalent of flying down the highway and shifting down from fifth to second instead of to fourth. What was that word?! Can’t remember! Nooooo! A silence fills the room as the awkwardness mounts, and by the end of the following few minutes the only way to deal with such shame and loss of face is to commit suicide with a broken spoon.

Such tragedy could have been averted if, instead of agonizing over the word tsukue, the speaker simply decided to fake it and use Japanese pronunciation for the word in question: teeburu. Communication would have been achieved, if a little bit of a challenge, but if you’re taking as much effort to speak their language as you are, they can be fairly expected to share at least a little bit of the effort.

The Japanese educational system is hardly the best when it comes to, as it turns out, most things (it tends to boil down to “here is a list of facts on which I will test you on this given date, after which you can essentially forget them all”), and many foreigners are surprised to find out that English is compulsory for a number of years in Japanese schools. As it turns out, English is treated just like any other subject, and is similarly subject to such cram-and-regurgitate short-term learning as any other subject, but there is enough English used in common Japanese conversation and pop culture that indeed, the problem turns out to be not one of vocabulary but one of sound.

The general consensus among linguists is that after the age of three or four or so, humans stop hearing sounds that don’t occur in their native language, or at least they stop hearing them easily. This is particularly problematic for the Japanese, with their five vowel and fourteen consonant sounds (none of which are actually equivalent to the common L and R of English).

The practical upshot of it all is that the Japanese generally can understand at least simple English, but only so long as it is pronounced like a Japanese person is saying it. Yes, it means adding unnatural U sounds and cramming L and R together into what is essentially the Spanish R, but it’s effective enough that it’s actually plausible to expect a reasonably urban Japanese person to have at least a simple conversation in English so long as it’s pronounced so they can understand it.

Of course, this has the inherent downside that, the better one’s Japanese accent gets, the better their grasp of the language itself, and consequently the need to use English nearly as much deteriorates.

I certainly hope that anyone with plans to come to Japan finds all of this to be of at least some use – it’s taken a while to compile it, and I run the risk of perhaps shocking some through, to be perfectly fair, blatant honesty. So long as I prevent one person from an unpleasant surprise, though, I’ve done my job.

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