Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Sometimes Weird, Nonsensical, and Infuriating Things Japanese People Do

It's been a year and a half, so I think it's time for another one of these posts about cultural quirks, oddities, and unexpected annoyances. 
Now seems as good a time as any considering how sweaty and miserable I am every day. And I mean, I'm from Phoenix. 
One day last week I didn't wear nylons because I couldn't bear the thought of them sticking to my legs and having to peel them off like a wet swimsuit when I got home, but not wearing them was even worse; sweat was flowing freely down my back and legs and literally pooling in my shoes and squelching under the soles of my feet. At 10 A.M.

That brings me conveniently to my first issue..

A mysterious aversion to and/or ignorance of insulation, ventilation, and climate control

Okay, so, I was pretty much prepared for this after my stint in Korea, as I recently mentioned online; my first year there I worked in a government building, which means that they literally refused to turn on the air conditioning in the summer regardless of how on-the-verge-of-fainting the small children were but heated the place like a Dutch oven in winter. 
To save energy. 
Because, you know, having to open the windows to the snow blowing around outside for relief because it's insufferably warm and stuffy inside saves energy in the winter. Logic.

The thing is, though, Korea only recently developed, and they did it very rapidly after the Korean War. It's pretty amazing to think about: they essentially went from an agrarian society to being a service-based economy (like the U.K. or something) within a few decades, all but completely skipping the industrialisation phase. Sure there were 20 or 30 years there where working in a factory, in the textile and garment industries for example, was quite widespread, but that was it. Now it's all about working for Samsung and running to catch up and compete.

Japan has very successfully exported a much different image in spite of its many developmental and cultural similarities, but unfortunately, it has been mired in stagnation for 25 or 30 years now, and as a consequence, pretty much everything looks like it stopped at some point in the 80's, because it more or less did. It might even be more accurate to say, as Alex Kerr asserts, that it was more like the mid-60's when new technologies and techniques all but ceased to permeate the opaque bureaucratic membrane encasing this pesudo-retrofuturistic society.
More than 25% of the population is 65 or over now, too, so you know, we'd better not go changing the antiquated train ticketing machines or crappy little ramshackle supermarkets that are mostly run out of cardboard boxes; the slowly shuffling masses might get confused.

Apparently this line of reasoning also holds true for insulation: traditional Japanese buildings never had it, so, you know, why start now. Or some shit. I really have no idea.

Theories abound, of course. The most common seem to be that people were collectively told that adding insulation to buildings was no good for earthquake safety, or that it's incompatible with the humid climate. Okay, well. People in California seem to do okay with it, and so do people in Mississippi?

It was pointed out to me shortly after moving here that Japan is a construction-based economy, the same way the U.S. is a military industrial complex: Japan keeps moving because it keeps ripping things up and tearing them down and rebuilding them again. The problem with this is that people have apparently come to expect very little in the way of quality as a result. Everyone has been taught to want only new things and therefore everyone builds a brand new, boxy little prefab house that doesn't have nearly enough windows and that is probably poorly ventilated and has no insulation at all, meaning that it is very much inside like it is outside. A lot of people don't even bother to air condition or heat the whole thing, even if the extreme temperatures, in some cases, literally make their children cry.

There is no central air or heating, only wall-mounted AC units and space heaters, so as soon as either of the above is turned off, the temperature of the room goes back to being very uncomfortable. In the summer, people are so used to being perpetually sweat-soaked and hot that they instantly complain about being cold once the AC is turned on, much to my frustration as a person who is usually more or less in charge of a room full of people.

The other terrible aspect of this is that office buildings do have central air and heating, but it's controlled by a single person and universally set according to the calendar, not according to what it's actually like outside. Or inside.

All last winter I was working at my company's main office in Shinjuku, just a couple of blocks away from the (originally) 13 famous skyscrapers, and it was insufferable. By 9:30 I had sweat through all of my clothes even though I was dressing in layers for maximum comfort. Even in the dead of winter and with severe bronchitis I couldn't escape this sweaty hell dimension and often marveled at how absurd it was. Japanese people in the elevator complained about it on their way up, too, but always added something like, "I'm just sitting at my desk all day though, so it's not bad". That's right, Brosuke. Keep suffering the good.. suffer. Or whatever. I don't fucking know. I wish these people would stand up for themselves.

Alex Kerr posits that Japan's authoritarian bureaucrats, who are incapable of change or adaptability and who operate with impunity, continue to sacrifice absolutely everything from basic daily comfort to the country's unique ecosystems for the sake of economic growth much like they did during wartime, even though it's been peacetime for a good while now. 

He likens the way this society is structured to that of Sparta, where Lycurgus decreed that houses should only be built using the crudest of stone-age methods and tools, because people would then accordingly furnish their houses and accent their furnishings to match, and luxury would be all but impossible to achieve.
This "strong state, poor people" wartime mentality continues, locking Japan permanently into developing country mode even though it's supposedly "advanced". That Japan has little habitable land and that it is crowded are myths; the astronomical rents and land prices are one of the many ways in which the sky-high pyramidal tiers of bureaucrats suck the population dry in order to fill their own pockets.
"... Japanese houses are 20 to 30 percent smaller than European homes and about three times more expensive, though they are built of shoddy, flimsy materials - plywood, tin aluminum, molder vinyl sheets - and, as the Kobe earthquake prove, are not designed to be earthquake resistant. ...Most houses are completely uninsulated; people usually heat their rooms with separate units... Discomfort - bone-chilling cold in winter and sweaty heat in summer - is a defining feature of Japanese life", he says, echoing my observations.

He goes on to lament the pre-fab nature of all these little shitboxes people spend way too much to build (often completely failing to make them comfortable, or even habitable by Western standards), and the unidentifiable, sterile, artificial nature of their outer coverings. Coupled with the web of telephone wires and poles everywhere and many decades of disregard for the preservation of historic buildings and the use of natural materials, Japanese cities are generally quite shabby and unattractive. Creating more and more low-end, junky manufacturing needs like this are another basic tenet of this perpetual-wartime-never-comfortable-developing-country-mode, as more advanced nations of course place value on aesthetics, harmony, environmental friendliness, historical preservation, and so on. The only positive aspect of this is the retrofuturistic, Blade Runner-esque quality that emerges for the enjoyment of the passive observer who does not stay in the country long enough to experience its deeply disappointing backwardness.

UV paranoia and the gratuitous use of umbrellas

"Hannes, have you noticed this?" I asked. "People, or really just women, using umbrellas when it's neither raining nor sunny outside?"

Yes, friends, in this sweaty, muggy, forever-80's land of Hello Kitty and Godzilla, we have a crisis on our hands: the number of umbrellas is too damn high.

It took me a little while to realise how paranoid people are about exposing themselves to UV rays here, but, well, there you have it: even on a breezy, overcast day you'll invariably have to navigate around at least one old woman or even a young one using an umbrella if it's May - September.

Last week I made a disgusted sound out loud when a woman in front of me literally opened her umbrella to walk a few feet from one covered escalator to another, and then stopped right before stepping on to try to close it and pack it up again and also check her watch (because people in Japan still wear watches, too). She turned and gave me an equally disgusted look, completely oblivious.

We used to make fun of adjummas (old ladies) in Korea pretty freely, because they seem to have a set uniform consisting of a puffy purple windbreaker and a perm with an oversized visor on it in place of a face, but Japanese women give them a run for their money. 
The middle-aged stay-at-home ones tend to look like they got their largely-khaki-and-pastel outfits from Goodwill, and go to absurd and hideously unattractive lengths to protect themselves from the sun on top of it. 
Arm warmer-like sun sleeves, large floppy cotton hats that are not as cute as they sound, and even special oven mitts attached to their bicycle handlebars (my precious delicate fingers!) make their ensembles look even more like those things you keep seeing at Goodwill that never get bought regardless of how many half-off days seem to roll by and invariably end up getting shipped to Haiti in filthy one-ton bales, only to devastate what was once a thriving local garment and tailoring industry, you later come to find out.

No bike lanes or etiquette

Of all the things about living in Tokyo that piss me off, this one has to be at the top. It's just so ubiquitous and constant, the way people insist on riding their bikes - often awkwardly slowly and against the flow of traffic - straight down the middle of the shitty, uneven, extremely narrow sidewalks that often aren't even big enough to accommodate pedestrian traffic, because bike lanes do not exist.






All day long I feel compelled to put a single well-placed kick into the inconsiderate cyclist's center of gravity as he or she awkwardly tries to squeeze past me, knocking him or her into the street. It takes a lot of self-control on my part to avoid lashing out at them, to be honest. 
Recently one guy rapped my knuckles with his own while adjusting a bag he'd hung on one handlebar as he just barely squeezed past me. Once I saw a woman doing a similar juggling act, but with much bigger shopping bags and her phone, with a toddler in the seat on the back and a baby strapped to her chest. Do you want to crash and smash your infant? I'm genuinely curious. 

The organisation Hannes works for took a group of university students from Kobe to Germany last year for a behind-the-scenes look at the country's politics, and he said that the thing that amazed them the most was the fact that the sidewalks in Germany are usually divided into a grey pedestrian area and a red-bricked cycling path. Oooh. Aaahh.

Come on, guys.

Closing hospitals at night and on weekends and holidays

This was true in Korea, too. I have experienced it first-hand in both countries.

Sorry, but Leo's squinty face isn't enough for this one - 

Neither of us know how it is possible. Obviously there are even more accidents and incidents on the weekend than during the week, as people are out and about, driving here and there, getting drunk. But so it is. In both countries people also don't seem to care much about getting out of the way, slowing down, or stopping for ambulances, and I have read that in Japan there are no paramedics as we know them, and coupled with the police officers who do loads of nothing all day, it would seem as though highly-trained first responders are yet another of the many crucial things this place lacks.

Death Breath

Speaking of shit, I'd like to take this opportunity to talk to you about a widespread national problem that non-Japanese people have been complaining about online since the Internet came into common and widespread use: salaryman death breath.

After extensive research, Hannes and I, along with pretty much everyone else, have concluded that being perpetually downtrodden, overworked, and overcharged for everything results in a poor diet consisting mainly of cigarettes, canned coffee, and instant noodles. You never see businessmen drinking water, any number of astute forum commenters have pointed out. Apparently they don't brush their teeth, either, even though the women in the office are guaranteed to be hogging the bathroom sinks as they viciously scrub at their gums and enamel for no fewer than 10 minutes every day after lunch (this is true in Korea, too). 
When you combine this with the fairly constant heavy drinking, consumption of raw fish high on the food chain and therefore full of accumulated environmental toxins, and stress, you get acid reflux, ulcers, and stomach cancer, usually in that order. Apparently chronic halitosis is a symptom of stomach ulcers and an early sign of developing cancer.

For real though, like, please stop yawning in my face on the train. If you live a miserable life that renders you incapable of practicing good personal hygiene then fine, but I cannot deal with your cancer breath. Staaahp.

Compulsive sweeping and trash sorting

The trash disposal system in Korea consists of throwing your trash into a big disgusting pile on the street or in the middle of the sidewalk or basically wherever, so, as a fairly compulsive recycler, I was looking forward to the Japanese system of carefully sorting everything.

Aaaand once again, I was wrong.

After only a few months it became clear to us that this society functions by keeping its subjects busy with minutia 24/7. Minutia such as bureaucracy, "stamp rallies", needlessly complicated sweepstakes, and, let's not forget, the recycling of PET bottles and paper products.

You are literally supposed to gift wrap your paper products.

Seriously, there's this plastic twine stuff you buy at the dollar/convenience/drug store, and you're supposed to use it to tie stacks of magazines, newspapers, or flattened paperboard boxes up for the garbage men. If you put all of your paper products into a plastic bag and leave it in one of the designated spots on the designated day (only once a week, which means recyclables pile up at home), they will apparently not only refuse to take it but in the case of our garbage men, will unceremoniously dump it all over the street. This has happened more than once because Hannes refuses to adjust his habits to suit something so needlessly complicated, and I've seen it because I mostly work split shifts and come back home for a while in the middle of the morning or early in the afternoon.

Oh, and as for the PET bottles: you're supposed to rinse them out, remove the cap and label, and smash them before recycling them.

At first I was like, okay, but after about 6 months I stopped. Thankfully, I've never come home to find them strewn all over the street for having been apparently unacceptably processed.

As for the sweeping, well, I always thought that was pretty weird in Korea, too: the image of a decrepit, 90-degree hunched octogenarian ritualistically sweeping every last leaf from the small section of crumbling sidewalk in front of their similarly crumbling home is a sad metaphor for life in a Confucian society as I have come to view it.

Suddenly being unable to understand Japanese because it is being spoken by a non-Japanese person

Being amazed that a non-Japanese person has any knowledge of any of the Japanese writing systems, however small

Dozing in public places

Something you may have come to notice by now is that the Japanese seem hell-bent on making their lives as needlessly difficult and uncomfortable as possible. Yes, Virginia, there does seem to be a trend here.

Suffering is virtuous, so working long hours is virtuous, so getting plenty of sleep is not virtuous.

In Japanese culture it is acceptable to close your eyes and even doze off in public; not just on the train, but apparently during the all-day training sessions that I am doing my best to make as entertaining as possible, thank you very much. :P

Being obsessed with animals for their cuteness while often ignoring their welfare

This is yet another of the many positive, negative, and neutral things that Japan seems to have in common with Korea: orphans, the disabled, and shelter and zoo animals all seem to get about the same generally shitty treatment.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not damning everyone with this sweeping generalisation, just the status quo. Anywhere you go there will always be a few selfless, intrepid souls who go to great lengths and expense to help others, be they animals or people. One famous example is Naoto Matsumura, the guy who lives in the irradiated Fukushima evacuation zone because he realised all the animals abandoned there would starve to death if he didn't care for them.

But I think we all know that one exceptional example doesn't represent what is normal or expected, and in the only non-native-Arctic-Circle nation that still insists on practicing whaling for absolutely no defensible reason, what is normal and expected is often pretty deplorable.

Japanese people love pets. It's true. There are fat little Japanese hamsters on Instagram that have 27,000+ followers. Japanese people have a long-standing love affair with cats. Japanese children, especially boys, are totally obsessed with bugs, I guess because the large almost-tropical swaths of their island country have so many of them, particularly beetles and butterflies.

But what I can't understand is how Japanese zoos and aquariums can be so sub-par and depressing amid this climate of virtual animal-loving hysteria. Just today I was told about an elephant park in Chiba that has 10 or 15 elephants, but the person who brought it up wouldn't recommend it because they look "so poor". 
I won't go to any of the zoos here, which are presumably frozen in the 1980's (or earlier) like everything else, because I've seen sea otters all but actually cooking in a tiny, cramped, plexiglass container in full sunlight with no ventilation and decided that was more than enough.

Ever since I visited one of the owl cafes in Harajuku I've tried to rationalise that to myself, too; the owls genuinely seemed well cared-for at this particular establishment, by an owner and handlers who seemed to know everything about them, and they were clearly very used to human contact for the most part. But certain animals just weren't meant to be kept in cramped spaces in fluorescent lighting with a constant stream of people coming in to handle them. I mean, was any animal meant for that, even those that have been hand-reared and crave human attention? 
I'll never forget the poor despondent Great Dane at the dog cafe in Hongdae in Seoul, bones sticking out because his nerves had clearly been worked to a frazzle long before and he was too stressed out to eat. His big sad face and the way he desperately ran and tried to hide from sudden loud noises still troubles me deeply, two years later. And I mean, we're talking about man's best friend here. Hedgehogs? I don't know. Snakes? Really not sure. Birds of prey? Probably not okay at all.

Referring to "being tan" or "getting a tan" as "being black"

Only being able to deal with one question at a time

Hannes has to deal with this one almost daily at work, whereas I don't experience it as much. Apparently he regularly waits for an inordinately long time for replies to simple e-mails, such as inquiries sent to a hotel about conferences and meals, and when a reply finally comes, it only addresses one of his questions. The Japanese secretary in his office advised him to ask only one question at a time. Often, he gets no reply at all unless he makes an effort to contact the hotel or other staff himself, again. And we're talking about massive sums of money being spent, too. Umm?

Being allowed to smoke in tiny, cramped, unventilated places but not on the sidewalk

Notice how this issue of inadequate ventilation keeps coming up? Yeah, it sucks.

Don't ask me why, but in Japan you're almost universally discouraged from smoking out in the open; there are non-smoking signs all over almost every sidewalk. But a tiny box of a cafe, bar, or smoking room? Go ahead, free bird.

Tacky American casual dining restaurants that otherwise went extinct in the 90's

Denny's? Absolutely nothing whatsoever like the American version, but we've got it.
Coco's? Check. Sizzler? Check.
I don't know why this type of tacky, cheap (in Japan nothing is cheap, even these places are fairly pricey considering), lackluster family restaurant enjoys such popularity here, but then, this is coming from a person whose nation gave the world Applebee's. 
There's just no accounting for taste, I guess.


Also still a thing here. 

Again, I have no idea why.

Crappy flip-phones and brick phones circa the early 2000's

Again we come to this issue of Japan not actually being a high-tech society - probably about half of all the phones you see are something like the first phone I ever had in 2004.

I watch people on the train painstakingly send oversized texts in an oversimplified layout by tediously typing with the number pad and selecting from a drop-down box. 
I wonder what fucking year it is. 
I wonder if I will ever be tempted to jump through all the hoops that are apparently necessary to get a normal phone service contract as a foreign person, as everyone else seems to have been able to in spite of the brick wall of bullshit I hit when I tried after moving here last year, only to dismiss the idea and go back to my book.

Wifi Deadzone

Woohoo, super high-tech かわいい robot utopia Tokyo!


Tokyo is a wifi deadzone. 
Japan is a wifi deadzone. 
Japanese people do not understand the concept of free and readily accessible wifi at all.

Here, let me show you this example from a multinational corporation whose headquarters is in Europe and whose name I blurred out. You'd think, sure, if you're in the building then you're supposed to be here; you need a key card to get in the doors. So using the wifi as a visiting guest shouldn't be table-flippingly tedious and overly complicated, right?


Look at this shit! Look at it! It upsets me every time I use the room it's in, just on principle. And what's worse is that's not even all the instructions! The rest is on the back!

One time last fall I realised, to my horror, that I took a screenshot of the wrong map when I was going to a bar in Shibuya to meet someone who was visiting from Seoul. Frantically I tried to find a wifi connection, somewhere, anywhere. You need to have existing Japanese phone and data service to use it. Yes, even at Starbucks. Often, you need to go through an online registration process and a confirmation e-mail to use it.














I tried to explain this to a Bic Camera employee in Shibuya, and incredibly, he was one of those rare people who seemed to have no trouble at all understanding me and who felt completely unintimidated talking with a foreign person. Despite my frustration and agitation (I had already asked two other employees, who told me to wait in a certain spot and then proceeded to actively ignore me and then mysteriously stopped being able to understand me after having initially said they were going to get someone else to help), I managed to explain, simply but logically, that advertising "Free Wifi" that requires preexisting Internet access makes no sense. He thought about it for a few seconds and miraculously said something along the lines of, "Hey, yeah, you're right, that doesn't make any sense". 

Yet more employees overheard this conversation and had interpreted what they caught to mean that the 3rd floor wifi was broken (omfg guys) and asked if they should send someone to fix it, but my new favourite guy quickly explained what I had said to him, and everyone froze comically for a second like:

before also hesitantly acknowledging that such a thing might indeed be confusing and inconvenient for some people. I asked if there was an Internet cafe anywhere nearby. Of course, there wasn't. 

Probably sensing that I was about to completely lose my shit and start smashing things like an enraged monkey, The Employee of Ineffable Wisdom was like, "Hey, do you want to just toggle with my iPhone? I'm supposed to try to sell you phone service, so just act like you're interested."
I was like, holy shit, seriously? Oh man, thank you.
I told him I'd come back and buy him a drink, but of course, kept forgetting, though I'm pretty sure I still have his card.

So there you have it, that's all I've got for now. I never would have thought that Japan would be such a massively inconvenient and stressful place to live, but hardly a day goes by without some important thing going wrong, or being denied, or being seriously miscommunicated, even now, 18 months in. We're doing our best to enjoy being here, but it's kind of hard to do that when it's too hot to survive in the open for long, you're perpetually completely broke, and taking the train anywhere more than an hour out of town is incredibly expensive.

Here's looking forward to being in Europe for Christmas again!

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