Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Japan Files ~ General Misconceptions

The world is rife with stereotypes. All Black women are aggressive? All slim people are healthy? All Japanese people are short…? And while I do believe that stereotypes possess a small manner of truth to them (a very small manner), I also dislike stereotypes because it’s not physically possible to generalise an entire population. So for this article, I’m going to talk about some common generalisations that people – including myself – have made about Japan and I’m going to both confirm or debunk them.

So let’s kick this thing off with the thing about Japanese people being very short. For the most part, things are much smaller her. My fridge is small; my washing machine is small – heck, my apartment is small and yes, some Japanese people are small. But some Japanese people are really tall as well. I find this to be especially the case with men. Now I’m pretty tall myself and people are often amazed at my height – granted, I’m a foreign woman – but I’ve even seen Japanese women tower over me, making me look tiny. So let’s kick this conception to the curb, shall we? Japanese people come in many different heights.

The same thing could be said about size. I’ve already had it confirmed by a Japanese friend of mine that in Japan – thin is in. Thin gives way to small, and small and cute things dominate here – especially for women. But in Hiroshima, I’ve seen many a shape – men and women alike. I’ve seen super lanky women and big and rotund men. My students are all different shapes and sizes and while I’m pretty sure I’m the only one I’ve seen with my particular shape so to speak – I’ve yet to come across someone wearing tight or revealing clothing – I don’t feel so out of place. In terms of shape and size, I could very well be walking around London.

Now, bodies aside, I reckon I’ve mentioned it in the past but Japan has a big drinking culture – very much like the UK. But unlike the UK, people are under the notion that the Japanese can’t hold their liquor. Now of my very small circle of Japanese friends, a couple have admitted that it takes all but one drink to put them under the influence – although I wonder what actually passes for drunk over here. For the most part however, the Japanese are pretty much like people anywhere else in the world. There are some people that can hold their drink and some people that really should start taking lessons. I mean, I was at a party and I had no idea that this small Japanese woman was wasted. She managed to switch from Japanese to English with perfect ease at one point and simply kept knocking them back whereas in the UK, I’ve seen what can happen when the average British punter knocks back around seven or eight pints.

And speaking of mannerisms, I’ve constantly heard it said that Japanese people are super polite. And once again, a lot of the time it is true. Starbucks here is a perfect example of this. I have never gone to a Starbucks in Japan and felt unwelcome. People welcome you into shops (most of the time), and I even had a random stranger come up to me welcoming me to Japan. But Japanese people are like any other people really. They have their good days and their bad ones; they may or may not be good at hiding how they feel. And they may get drunk and unruly. I’ve been turned away at a shop with a rather abrupt “no” when I asked for help. I’ve had people jump in front of me when going through the ticket barriers. So yes, while some people are generally quite nice here, some people just aren’t.

And speaking of politeness, let’s not forget Japanese children. Now before I arrived, I expected that most children would be pretty well behaved due to that famous Japanese notion of uniformity and not making waves. I promise you this – Japanese children are like western children who are like any other child in the world. Some will be adorable to behold and some will be little demons in disguise. Children are children are children. They will love you, laugh with you, laugh at you and they will test your patience. Don’t let this culture of politeness fool you. Kids will be kids and teenagers will definitely be teenagers.

Which brings me to my final point. Rules. In the UK, there are rules that don’t necessarily warrant a fine or are difficult to police like littering or drinking alcohol on the underground. Naturally, people will still do things if they know they might not be caught. I already mentioned the idea of uniformity being common here and it is. People will queue up to get on the train. People will wait at a road crossing for the green man to appear even when it’s quite obvious that no cars will be coming for a while. But people are people and there are some people that break these rules. Some people smoke on the street even though they’re not supposed to; some people kick and break vending machines. And I’m pretty sure that there’s a person that purposely drops a bag of rubbish every day in the middle of the street near my ward office just because. I’ve had people admit to me that they prefer to play to the beat of their own drum. So yes, while some people conform to rules here, some people just don’t want to.

So I think the message here is to consider that hearsay isn’t always guaranteed. And just because something may seem commonplace because of the associated culture, it isn't always set in stone.


Monday, 23 December 2013

Sense & Sensibility ~ Making “Sense” of Japan

Let’s face facts.

I’m a foreigner.

In every way shape and form out here.

And as a foreigner coming from halfway across the globe, there have been times where I’ve scrunched up my face and asked myself why the native inhabitants of this land do the things that they do. And it’s to be expected really. I’m an outsider looking in and the customs, characteristics and what have you are obviously going to be much different to what I’m used to. So I try to make sense of it because I’m sure that in the same way that thousands of foreigners have had to make sense of the UK and it’s primarily “British mannerisms”, I’ve simply got to stick my ore in and make sense of everything around me.


People like to look good here. Whether it’s the smart looking thirteen-year-old in school uniform, the polished salaryman on his way to work, or the aspiring fashionista prowling the streets, looking good and dressing well makes a lasting impression. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good. What I don’t get however is when wanting to look good crosses outside logic. In fact, I’ve had this disagreement with a good friend of mine who’s very much into fashion also, but right now it’s rather cold here in Hiroshima. I’m reminded of London every time I set foot outside my door. So I can’t understand why anyone would walk the streets without a coat or why any woman would walk the streets in a miniskirt (without tights mind you) simply at the expense of making a statement. And don’t get me wrong, people in the UK do this as well but I tend to find that this is more apparent when people have the intention of getting completely sloshed. Maybe alcohol numbs the senses; I’m not sure. In Japan however, it could be eleven o clock in the morning, raining ice cubes and someone somewhere will be “making a statement”.

The same could be said about high heels. Now Japanese women are known for being short and heels are known to elevate, making one’s legs look longer and provide women with a little elegance in their step. So I get it. Really, I do. It’s the same for women in the west. We wanna look taller, thinner, sexier, a little more lady-like…etc. Nevertheless, I also run on the side of logic and wonder why anyone would buy a pair of heels that are clearly impossible for them to walk in. Now irrespective of my height, it’s on occasionally that I wear heels and usually it’s a low heel as I feel comfortable walking in them. In Japan, it seems that the taller (and sometimes thinner) the heel the better. I’ve seen women struggling across a straight terrain or walking up stairs as if pulling themselves through mud. It does not compute to me why anyone would desire to put themselves through such aggravation.

In the UK, when you join a mobile phone company, most companies will have tariffs which allow you to contact other people who might happen to be with different networks. This is of course as long as you don’t exceed the minutes within your allowance (note: this doesn’t usually apply to premium rate numbers; I was caught out before). In Japan, they have a thing about loyalty. Take me for example. My mobile provider, Softbank, will allow me to call any other Softbank user free of charge (between 1am and 9pm only) but will charge me ridiculous amounts if I even think about contacting their competition e.g. Docomo, AU….etc and other premium numbers. What makes this kind of redundant is that most people in Japan use this handy like app called LINE which not only allows you to send free texts but also, allows you to make free calls (video calls as well). So all I can think of really is why one of the “big three” doesn’t offer a loophole for network-to-network communication because I’m pretty sure they’d have customers flocking in their general direction.

Got a runny nose? Feel that line of mucus creeping along your nasal cavity? No hanky available? Well it’s perfectly acceptable to sniff that booger back in. Perfectly acceptable in the UK too. But people don’t just sniff here; they snort. And sometimes very loudly as well. I’ve yet to find a woman that snorts (although I’m sure there’s one somewhere) so I’m dubbing this is a male-only thing. Nevertheless, I’m already aware that blowing your nose out in public is a little bit taboo here and I think it’s because it’s considered bad manners – maybe because of the sound it makes. But what I don’t get is that if it’s the noise that’s genuinely the issue, why is snorting – which makes an equally loud noise – seemingly acceptable here? Or maybe it isn’t and people turn a blind eye to it which is also, common here. But it gets me thinking to myself…what?

It’s pretty universal that when you’re standing at a zebra crossing and the green man appears, as a pedestrian, you have right of way. Japan is no different in that respect (compete with bird noises). What I’ve found however, is that if you’re standing at a junction and you have right of way, a car can turn into the road that you’re walking across even though…you know, you have right of way. Oh certainly, they’ll wait for you to cross (although I have nearly been ran into once already), but being from the UK, I’m not so used to having to deal with this unless I’m purposely crossing the road when I’m not supposed to. Because fundamentally, back home, if a car is allowed to turn into the street, the red man will remain as a warning whereas the green man signifies that cars are barred, at least for a little while.


Now I can’t generalise. I’m sure there are plenty of people that don’t snort, or that full out refuse to wear seven inch heels, but it’s difficult not to make connections and associations when you see things occur time and time again. I guess this is how stereotypes come about but that’s another topic for another day. I simply can’t help but go “huh?” from time to time however, and I suspect they’ll be other instances that make me cock an eyebrow in surprise and/or curiosity. All I can do however, is deal with it. I’m on new terrain now and as they say:

When in Rome….


Monday, 2 December 2013

Japan ~ The Land of....

So in roughly six days, I will have spent one month Japan and I must say that I’ve had myself a handful of experiences and in such a short amount of time no less. There have been highs and lows – typical things that come with being a foreigner in a strange place. And I’ve had to navigate my way about quite a lot in these last few weeks. I wonder what I would have done had it not been for my maps and the wonderful Hyperdia. But while Japan does have a lot to offer in terms of splendour, beauty and other opposites from London town, some things just seem a little “standard procedure” even though for a foreigner like me, it’s a little different. But it wasn’t like I wasn’t expecting a complete overhaul. After all, I’ve heard from Japanese people in my own country that they could not believe how unclean it was. Culture shock for the win. But in the same way that my life back home had these typical characteristics, Japan has its very own version as well.

Train Lines


I can’t speak for the rest of England but in London, we utilise two systems – the underground (or the tube) and the overhead trains which frequently lead outside of the city and all over the UK. For someone coming in, it seems rather complicated. There are many lines on the underground and various service providers for the overhead crawlers. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in three cities already – Nagoya, Osaka and of course, Hiroshima – and it seems like every city has its own subway and overhead trains which lead into other cities with their own subways and overhead trains. Osaka was particularly chaotic for me (although I’ve heard Tokyo is worse). I’ve been very fortunate however in that most train lines and their stations provide information in English (I can’t fathom how people navigated the systems all those decades ago). But when a subway station has a Hankyu line and a Kintetsu line counterpart, both of which are called different names and you need to take this train to get on this line to get to Nara and then another line to get to Kyoto, it starts getting a bit hazy. And then of course, there are the famous JR lines which are not for the faint of heart.

In London, when a train is going to split and terminate at separate locations, the destinations of both stations will appear on the screen as well as an explanation both on screen and over tannoy. On the JR line, this was not the case for me. It only specified the furthest station so while all the signs were pointing at a specific platform, I was supremely baffled for a good twenty minutes, trying to figure out why platform 9 had seemingly no trains heading back to Osaka. It was only by chance that I heard “Osaka” (amongst other Japanese being spoken) over the tannoy that I hesitated a guess that the train was going to split (I’d nearly been caught out once before). So with limited Japanese, I asked someone if I was in the right place and low and behold, the first three coaches of a sixteen coach train would be travelling to my destination. Imagine that – I had a 13 in 16 chance of heading somewhere completely different.

That said, if I had to go back, I’m pretty sure that I’d be able to navigate the train lines a little better but for a first timer, it was a bit overwhelming.

But speaking of trains…

Sounds


In London, when a train is going to arrive, you can hear it approaching whether it’s meandering alone the tracks or zooming out of a tunnel. In Japan, when a train is about to arrive, you hear a sweet little jingle. And I think these jingles are different dependant on the station or area. I found these to be quite endearing.

What I also, found was that whenever you stand at a zebra crossing and the ‘green man’ appears indicating for you to cross, it also, plays a sound and more often than not, it sounds like some sort of bird or generic beeping noise. In London, the ‘green man’ is a silent emblem of safety. In Japan, it’s a mini fanfare singing your presence across the street.

Pachinko

His Highness lives about fifteen minutes from my apartment
When I first arrived in Japan, I adopted the ‘fly mentality’. What this means is that I reckoned that anything with bright lights must be interesting. And the bigger and bolder the lights, the more I was drawn to it as Japan has drummed up some interesting buildings. But what I’ve also, come to realise is that most buildings with fancy lights and extravagant structures usually only mean one thing, and this thing is called pachinko. Now in Japan, gambling is illegal. However, as a means of sort of undercutting the rule, pachinko was born and sort of represents what we westerners would call a slot machine. I’m not a gambler in my own country so I don’t understand the game well but from what I can understand, players have the chance to win balls. These balls can then be exchanged for prizes, which can then be taken offsite to be exchanged for money. I tend to find more men in there than women but I have seen to odd old-aged pensioner giving it a whirl. What’s more, they’re allowed to smoke inside and often when I walk passed one, I can smell the fumes five metres away. As I despise smoke with a passion, I think I’ve been giving pachinko a miss. Still makes for some interesting photos nonetheless.

Oh, and if it isn’t a pachinko parlour, it’s probably a karaoke joint. More often than not however, it’s pachinko.


But speaking of karaoke


These places are just about everywhere too. There’s one not fifteen minutes from my front door but I’ve been discouraged from going there due to its limited music selection. I have been to a karaoke bar at least three times however and I’ve had a very good time. I believe they’re regularly used by young people and salarymen trying to blow off some steam. A lot of the karaoke places I went to offered an all-you-can-drink option for a select amount of time (also, known as a nomihodai) so you have the option of wetting your whistle, singing your lungs out, becoming roaringly drunk and drunkenly singing the night away. Unfortunately, however, not all karaoke bars cater to the incompetent-with-Japanese-English-foreigner so the first time I went, we spent twenty minutes of our allotted hour slot trying to figure out how to use the machine. Generally, however, it is true that you get what you pay for so the bigger the establishment, the wider the selection of songs, drinks, options and what have you. The most I’ve spent on karaoke is 1000 yen however for a couple of hours which I don’t think is all that bad…but then I’m not much of a drinker.

So would I go back?

In a heartbeat.

Recycling

In London, most if not all households will own one bin. They’ll layer it with bin liner, fill it to the brim with all their waste and then toss it into another bin outside which the bin men come and collect once or twice a week. In Japan, the waste system is a bit more intricate. You have to separate your plastics from your burnables and your burnables from your cardboard. If you don’t do it correctly, you can be fined which is a bit much for the foreigner who’s used to chucking things all together at once. So far so good for me however. If I’m unsure about something, I’ll put it on its owned or I’ll head to the local convenience store and chuck it there. What I also, find interesting about Japan is that despite being a relatively clean country, there are no bins on the street so I frequently have to wait to find a convenience store or a train station if I’m out and about, just to drop my trash off there. People don’t litter so much here either which is a good thing but I find the lack of bins a little annoying as who really likes walking with rubbish really? But I understand that the reason bins are few and far between is because they consider them an eyesore here. Understandable because in London, bins regularly become over-flown and someone else’s leavings spilling out onto the street is not attractive in the slightest.

Bikes

In London, I can comfortably say that more people own a car than a bike. In Japan, I can’t say for sure but I believe that a lot of people own bikes and if they own a car, they probably own a bike too…or at least they know someone who does. In my family, my mother is the only one who owns a bike and actively uses it. In Japan, bikes are everywhere. And instead of riding them in the road like they do back home, they ride them on the pavement - something which is frowned upon in London unless you’re a child. Over here, a bike is looked upon like a car. In the same way that people can be caught out for drink-driving, you can be caught out for drink-riding and the limit for alcohol consumption is much lower here than in the west so just a little food for thought. People are also  encouraged to register their bikes here as it’s not uncommon for bikes to get stolen. You are also, encouraged not to ride and chat on a phone but what you can do is hook an umbrella to your bike if it’s raining. In the UK, I think it would be considered a little odd but it actually makes a lot of sense. Who really likes riding home in the rain anyway?

~

So yes, just a few things that have stood out to me in particular since I arrived here. I'm sure I'll find a few more regular occurrences, especially in my own city that mightn't be typical of the rest of Japan.