Monday, 9 March 2015

6 things I love and hate about Japan

Oh there you go, another one of these "XX things I love blabla" posts you might think. I mean there are so many of them out there and most of them basically complain or praise the same things. But I'd like to try something different here. A Japanese friend taught me the expression 紙一重, which means basically it's a very thin difference between things sometimes (thin like a piece of paper).

Most of the foreigners I met in Japan share the same love-hate relationship with Japan. There are so many beautiful and amazing things in this country, contrasted by many super shitty things that it's hard to stay fully positive or fully negative about living here. Of course it's easier to be all bitchy and negative about it, and I was for a while when life was particulary hard, but if you take a step back and look at things from a distance, there are always two sides of the medal. So here's my very own personal and naturally subjective list.

1. Cute women

Even if the Asian/Japanese type is not your cup of tea, it's hard to ignore the amount of cute and attractive women in Japan. There are everywhere, on the streets, in your local izakaya or konbini, in the trains, but mostly in Japanese media. The ads, shows, music videos, etc. are filled with beautiful young women, a lof of them being half-Japanese (ハーフ) actually. They are "easy on the eye" so to say, from being just cute and adorable (e.g. idol groups) to simply jaw-dropping hot. But most of the times, you have the kawaii overload. But as an admirer of beauty, I am pretty happy to being exposed to that on a regular basis actually.

Riena Triendl, an Austrian-Japanese model and tarento
But here's the thing. If you're a model or hostess or just someone attractive in public (tarento), you play a role and it's expected to act in a certain way. Cute women or actually women in general in Japan are expected to act in a very particular way. It's hard to explain, but it's a mix of using a certain higher voice, typical female words and phrases, facial expressions and body movements, clothing, and especially with certain submissive behaviour towards men. I'm not talking about the ever-smiling morning show host, I mean the super happy genki attitude they have to have, pretending to be super-interested in everything their male conversation partner/superior is saying. It's more than aizuchi (the culture of active listening), it's how women subordinate themselves in being cute and lovely as if they'd have no other chance of getting taken seriously otherwise. It almost hurts to see highly intelligent women having to act all submissive to their male superiors or peers just to be considered "equal" or respected. An office lady, in her late 20s, with a decent education and job shouldn't have to play the helpless 12 year old and shouldn't talk like a 6 year old either!

2. Train convenience

Tokyo has the most dense and convenient public transport system in the world (probably). The trains are fast and on time, covering great distances all over Japan.The competition between more than 4 big companies in the Greater Tokyo area alone, most of them with their own track system, ensures an affordable and a constant development of their services. The trains are used by thousands of commuters every day, making them a vital part of the infrastructure. Wherever you want to go, there is at least one or two train stations nearby. It's not cheap, but not too expensive considering the convenience.

...and this is just JR and Metro railways!
But here is the catch. You have to take the trains. You live in the east side of Tokyo but work on the west side? Good luck going there by bus or bicycle. No normal person here has a car or the means to sustain one, so the only option is to take the train. Like the rest of the 20 million people every day. It gets you there in no time but for the price of the ever annoying rush hour trains. Every morning and every evening, the commuter trains are packed with people, PACKED! People are getting pushed in from outside, there is no space to even turn around. You are so close to people you never met and most of times never want to be be so close, but you have no choice. No one has a choice, they all have to take the train. Or the train before, or the train later. Oh snap, they are all packed! It is ridiculous and inhumane. Not to mention rude! People are still pushing in, even when the train is already full. Elbows are frequently used.There are even people working for the train companies who push people in from the outside
People waiting for the train at Akihabara station (not even rush hour)
The urban and business development in the Tokyo created a hub for companies in the metropolitan area of Tokyo, creating more and more satellite cities around the center, so called sleeper cities. In addition, since space is limited and extremly expensive in Tokyo, people have no choice but to commute. So the whole problem is all self-made and almost impossible to solve. But the government is already aware of the problem and slowly trying to solve it. Companies are offered considerable tax savings if they move their offices out of the metropolitan, attracting more workers from the rural areas in return. Flexible working hours are also a new way to counter the rush hours. I'm quite sceptical that they can solve this problem until the Olympics in 2020.

3. Alcohol(ism)

The legal age to drink alcohol in Japan is 20. Coming from a country where it is allowed to drink beer with 16 and liquor with 18, I was almost expecting a moderate handling of alcohol in society. It's surprisingly easy to buy alcohol. Every konbini has plenty of various types of beer, liquor, sake, shochu, etc. It's not expensive either. You can have all-you-can-drink hours at Izakayas for as low as 1500JPY! It is perfectly fine to drink until you're wasted with colleagues, your boss, friends, with anyone really. A lot of ceremonies and traditions involve a ceremonial sip of o-sake, like on weddings or new year's eve. There are even traditional social gatherings like the bonen-kai (忘年会) near the end of the year and then the shinnen-kai (新年会) where the old year is reflected upon and the new year is welcomed. In short, alcohol is everywhere and widely socially accepted. Being totally wasted in public is not really a stigma, not even for women. There is even an unspoken rule that when you're shit-faced drunk and yell at your boss during your after-work drinking, all is forgiven the next day. A lot of Japanese people go out of their way when being drunk, but as I mentioned before, it's all good, everyone is fine with it. I have a lot of good memories while being out drinking with people here in Japan.

But what happens to a society where alcohol is such an integral part of daily life, available everywhere and being advertised excessively? Of course, alcoholism. While it seems fun to some to go drinking with your friends or colleagues on a regular basis, it surely isn't doing your health any favours for a longer amount of time. With the tough working life here, the overtime, the social pressures, the long commuting, the emotional coldness, the earthquakes, a lot of people find it perfectly normal to turn to alcohol everyday. That might be one or two beers every evening, a cliché that I'm quite familiar with as a German of course, but it can also be a considerable amount of liquor in an izakaya every night or weekend. I personally drink a lot more than I used to drink before coming to Japan. It's quite difficult to not drink here to be honest. It gets even worse. There is a whole range of tonics and supplements to counter the effects of alcohol and hangover to take before or after drinking. Available in every konbini, right next to the alcohol, propagating a false level of security. Oh and don't think that the higher age of 20 is helping to avoid alcohol abuse. It's super easy to buy alcohol, no one really checks anyways. Not in an izakaya and especially not during peak times in a konbini, even though most of them make you confirm via touchscreen button touch that you're of legal age. I saw youngsters press it casually, no problem there.

To say it clearly, a lot of people in Japan are alcoholics and it's a growing problem. But what often leads to dropping out of society eventually is happening here a lot slower than in western countries I believe. It's not seen as big problem here, not even as what it is, an addiction, a disease. Instead there are TV/train advertisments with young attractive women coming home from work only to open their beer-filled fridge and enjoy their beer to the fullest. It's encouraging, almost sexy. Not very different from western ads you might say, but it's on a whole other level here, believe me. In general, with having worked with alcoholics in the past, I'm quite concious and honestly worried about the issue. There is an interesting article about it here.

4. Politeness

I started to learn Japanese because I liked the complicated beauty of the language. The different types of addressing persons on a different social level was intriguing. Starting with the polite form of Japanese first, I was almost disapointed when I eventually learned how normal talk to each other (some beauty gets lost I think). Then there is art of saying a thing, but not really meaning it, but insinuating another at the same time. Being ambivalent about it, 曖昧 (aimai) and not saying it bluntly, always trying to keep a harmony between the speaker and the listener. A complicated and beautiful art.

But learning all these different levels, the rules of when to say what and the different words can be such a pain in the ass. When you're already struggling with how to express your thoughts and desires in a normal way, it's more than a surprise when they tell you that you actually have a whole different set of language to use, depending on the situation you are in. You buy stuff at a konbini, no worries, use simple form. You inquire at the bank about something, you better use the normal polite form. You're talking with your colleagues about your boss, oh better use an more polite/humble form. You have to talk to a customer? Aaaaannd there is keigo (敬語) for you with it's long sentences and structured rules of interaction. For a Japanese learner it's even difficult to be addressed in the very polite way because the actual information is embedded in all this polite sugar-coating, making it hard to find, especially when talking on the phone.

Then there are many rules of politeness for handing out business cards, addressing people at work, bringing/receiving presents. A small mistake can be considered impolite. Not knowing the rules can be one already. Which brings me to the next one.

5. Rules

I like rules. I like to know what I am supposed to do and what I am not supposed to do. I like to understand rules and regulations, even laws. Mostly to not breach them but also to find the possible loop-holes. I like to know my options and my challenges. But in the end of the day I like rules simply because they make the world a bit easier to understand, especially if they make sense. Rules can also provide and enforce quality when applied correctly. I'm a big fan of ISO 9001 quality management in fact.

Japan is full of rules to make each and every citizen know its place and guide them through their more or less predetermined life. You get told where to walk on your way up to the train platform, where to wait for the train, where to sit and not to sit, how to fill out forms, how to politely operate the elevator for your superiors, how to dress. There are rules how to drink your tea during tea ceremony, how to pray at a temple/shrine and how to shout, stomp and hit when you practice Kendo, just to mention some more traditional aspects of rules in Japan. There is probably a rule for everything. So when in doubt, just ask and you'll probably end up hearing about a rule that has been in place forever already and you better remember not to break it from then on.

But there are too many rules. Too many unnecessary ones I believe. When you have to fill out a form here, you will see what I mean. Often in combination with people having a middle name. If you leave it out sometimes, for example when taking an exam at a test center, you run into some annoying trouble when people check your details. They clearly see your birth date, the name and even your face. But still, it's not enough. Rule is rule, it has to be the full name. It also has to be in the exact same order. Sometimes even in capitals when it is written like that in on your residence card.

Because of the common micromanagement and the strict hierarchy at most workplaces, everyone is well advised to follow the rules to the tiniest detail in Japan. Stamping, filing, regularly filling out Excel sheets, printing them, then comparing them with other Excel sheets and so on and so forth. There are a lot of rules at Japanese offices, most of them are not necessarily well thought through but often superfluous or redundant. So glad I never had to work at Japanese office, I'd die of "process pain".

At my new work I have to pick up my access cards every morning, so all I have to do is show them my ID and enter my PIN code. Every guy working at the reception in the morning is always doing the same thing, asking the same questions, in the same order and in the same way. Yes, I want the same access cards, yes that's me on the ID, no I don't have anything in my bags...dude, you did the exact same thing with me yesterday!! My colleague once startled one guy at the reception when he was asked how many cards he wanted. "How many are available then?" That confused the reception guy quite a bit. Wasn't in his handbook I suppose.

But then again, my work is a high security data center, so these things make sense and the guys are just following their work orders. Pilots are also following their check lists every time to avoid routine mistakes. I wouldn't call that a superfluous rule. Just how they carry it out sometimes is pretty annoying. But does Japan really have to be so strict with everything? Like with the rule that tattoos are not allowed in public baths for "sanitary reasons". Everyone knows that's not the real reason but is actually a way to keep the organized crime members, the Yakuza out, since they happen to be tattooed. But even if you're clearly not a member of the mafia but still sport some tattoos, you could get denied access to a public bath because of that stupid rule. I haven't tried it yet though, I'm not much into having an argument while only wearing a towel...
Tattoos are also not allowed for public servants, even if they are not visible. Just the rumor alone could get you into trouble there. But luckily, times are changing (interesting news here).

6. Japanese TV

In the west and even more on the internet, you'll find a lot of hilariously funny and weird snippets of Japanese TV shows or commercials. Some of them with a clear sexual innuendo, some of them just plain WTF?! Funny enough, these shows and commercials exist and are a normal part of Japanese TV. Zapping through the channels everyday, I often see a new CM that amazes me or a new type/episode of a show that gives me the chuckles. Just yesterday, I watched a show where they had 6 different Japanese girls act out a scene between a couple that is about to "fall in love", each girl with scripted lines but in her respective local dialect, very different to the normal Japanese they speak in public. It was adorable to watch, especially as Japanese language afficionado. The show hosts and my Japanese housemate and me had a good laugh. A simple show idea, but a lot of fun.

What I also love about Japanese TV is the use of emotions in their shows, news reports and commercials. I'm kind of an emotional guy but I usually don't have to fight tears when watching a 35 seconds CM on TV. Somehow they manage to pack in so much meaning and emotions, even meta-emotions (is that a thing?) into it, often by not clearly saying anything at all. A clever usage of sad music, images and story-telling will leave you sobbing even if it's just a report about a loyal pet and its owner.

But what I really despise is how the news shows cover crimes here. Media in Germany is very careful when reporting anything about victims and suspects in general, but here you'll get their names, faces, address, everything in a matter of minutes. It's still part of an ongoing investigation but no one seems to care. The police and the TV crews basically show up together when arresting the culprits. What follows is a meticulous analysis of the crime, let's say a rape/kill of a 12 year old girl. The last known location, the family's house, even the last short messages the child sent to a friend before getting killed, all of it is shown in detail on TV. It's an emotional analysis of a horrible crime, exploiting every painful detail with next to no respect for the victims' or the suspects' privacy. It's even worse when reporting about the occasional suicide of a well-known person. I find it almost disgusting that they are discussion the possible reasons and the details of the death within the same hour they are showing the newest technology hype or restaurant. It's like a part of daily life to show the latest murder of suicide. The underlying root cause or problem of this is not really touched, all that counts is the big headline and the above-mentioned emotions. Eulogies and speeches at funerals are often recorded live if the deceased was a famous person. I find it tactless to have the deceased' wife or daughter go up and speak in tears while the whole country is watching. Japan has a weird sense of public interest I guess.

So in general every morning show in TV consists of the same 4 things. Latest news, latest gossip, murder/death/suicide, some sports and the weather. Good for them that there is always a guy, estranged by this society, who stabs some people or rapes a young boy. Keep the cameras rolling guys.