It's hard to adjust to a life in a country where the culture is vastly different to the one you grew up in. It's made much more difficult if you're illiterate. And boy, am I.
With time, I'm going to be adding more to this page but in the mean time let my start by pointing to some little things that works against English speakers on adjusting to Japan.
English is my language, and its widely used in Japan. Hooray? Well, it's the way that English is used in this country.
Just what, for instance, is the product sold under the name "Jesus Body"? My brother suggests that it's "blasphemy in a box", some sort of commercial rip-off of transubstantiation.
It was as good any explanation I could come up with. But in reality it's a dietary supplement aimed at those trying to reduce their weight. Not, I suppose, through crucifixion.
Plenty of products get this treatment. There's a coffee whitener called "Creap"! And here's an uplifting caffeine drink (courtesy Adrian Riordan):
And then there's this. Apparently this singer (or perhaps the band) thinks that self-applying the term 'gelding' is a good idea? I mean, more power to 'em but .. yeah.
Examples of tortured English abound. In the case below, it's simply a word-for-word translation of both meaning and syntax. You wouldn't expect to find this at the entrance to an expensive café adjacent to a major museum. Or all over that café's menu for that matter. But yes.
I'm glad that the staff at the giant Yodobashi Camera in Akihabara made an effort on behalf of us foreigners. But .. what was that effort?
commends it to the attendant of
Here's a real estate agency:
And here's a "hair saloon". For men, you say? Unlike usual saloons....
Here's a funny coincidence. Not an odd use of English at all, it just reads that way at first glance.
Oddly used English isn't unique to Japan by any means. Even a wander through Canada's east coast will give you lots of funny results like the sign my brother spotted which, advertising the filing of saws, simply said, "saws filing".
A lot of signage is in Japanese and therefor is beyond me for the most part. I know a fair number of simple kanji (such as 'east', 'port', or 'no smoking'), but a lot of the time I can't tell if a sign can be taken literally. For instance, is Shrek running for office in Shinagawa as the shape and position of these posters suggests?
And how to make sense of this? It seems to be an ambitious map of both the train and subway lines in the city. Incredible.
the cost of things
The cantaloupe on the left in the photo below is worth ¥1,580 (roughly $15), a steep price for melons. But the ones on the right cost ¥5,800, or roughly $54. Why? Mangoes from Miyazaki, in southern Japan, cost about the same. I've seen melons in a cafe for over ¥15,000. This kind of sheer craziness is completely beyond me: back in the Niagara area, we grew so many so readily that we had trouble giving the things away.
Here's another photo of the same syndrome, taken in a different year in a different locale in a different kind of shop.
Below is a tiny 80g jar of liverwurst. The stuff costs ¥398, or about $4.50.
I've witnessed a laughably crude Yakuza shakedown on the streets of this city. Two men purposefully drove their small car through a pedestrian cross-walk and then hopped out to claim that a pedestrian had struck their car. It was a bit shocking. As is the ongoing ability of the yakuza to flourish in this country, raking in billions.
It's the same with the (not unrelated) pachinko business (gambling halls). There's a vast industry worth more than ¥20T. That it's not actually clear whether it's legal makes it hard to file under "crime", but it's well known where the profits are going.
And yet the "personal" crime rate in Tokyo seems to hover around zero. I've had the headlight stolen from my bicycle on two occasions, but those were minor purchases in the grand scheme of things and in both cases I was parked somewhere a bit dodgy (lots of foreigners). But as is demonstrated by the tiny lock on the ultra-expensive racing bike below, the locals just don't expect anyone to steal another's property. The lock on this bike is ridiculously low-grade, a pare of shears would do the trick!
You don't fall asleep on the subway in Toronto. You can, as happened to one of my female coworkers, wake up covered in .. something sticky. But in Tokyo it's just fine, you see it all the time.
And it happens on the platform, too. This fellow was on his way to work.
And not just in trains. These fellows were dozing in the stairwell of a major department store.
And then of course, there's sleeping at the office, which seems to be perfectly acceptable in this country.
I appreciate being able to sleep when- and wherever you like, but it's a bit disorienting when you find someone sleeping in the middle of a long sidewalk between a busy highway and a rail line, or at the top of an escalator or in a meeting.
One of my pics has found its way to an amazing collection including a three-for-one shot that gets a lot of disbelief.
I'm a nerd, no doubt about it. Played Dungeons &Dragons in high school, and wore a Star Trek science officer's badge on my acid-wash denim jacket. I nearly blew a semester's final exams in college playing Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri. I have eight^H^H^H ten cameras. I enjoyed Firefly and The Princess Bride and Zero Punctuation. I have written a science fiction novel. I don't mind talking about electoral reform in Canada and tax law in Japan. Yup, nerd.
But the Japanese nerds are at a different level altogether. I'm talking about guys who refuse to grow up and enter adult life, simply staying in their manga-postered room for decades at a time. You see them on the streets occasionally, using whining as they trail their aging mother. Sweaty, bumbling fellows who collect miniature figurines of teenage girls in a state of wardrobe malfunction. Forty-five-year-olds lined up two hundred deep outside a shopping mall, hoping to meet the latest pop singing sensation. Guys acting out their hesitant fantasies of interaction with real women by using the high-tech equivalent of those pens that you turn upside-down to reveal a girl's breasts.
As you can probably tell from my tone, these guys give me the creeps.
Recently, I've run into herds of these nerds grouped outside various shopping centres. Once I found perhaps two hundred of them (including one female) sweating in blistering 35oC sunshine. I did some shopping, and came back the same way to find them still sitting around, each clutching his game console and looking uncomfortable at being among humans. Another of these herds descended on the Akihabara Yodobashi while my family and I were passing through. Again with the game consoles, or some such enabler for social cripples.
I have no idea what was going on. They were oblivious to us non-participants. Mari said that she thought it was an 'event' hosted by Nintendo. I'm not sure 'event' is the word for thirty guys shuffling about ignoring each other.
The pub above seems to cater to fans of the BSD operating system. Now that's good nerd niche stuff! The café below takes its name from .. Linux?
Linux Café? Really!
I guess those are "open source" people milling about outside.
A queue such as the one below might well form in my homeland of Canada (we are avid queuers), but not with good grace.
You have to hand it to a society that stands by and silently puts up with all of it, but it's a huge learning curve for a Canadian more used to some pushing, complaining and impatience. And among Anglophones, we count ourselves as the polite ones! Here in Tokyo, you'll see spend 45 minutes lined up to get into a ramen shop at lunch time. For ramen.
It's just noodles.
The same could be said for the ridiculous line-up at "Krispie Kreme" during 2005-2007. That queue had tail-backs like an Andean llama trail, and people were known to stand in that line for two hours. For donuts.
The inordinate use of mobile phones in this country makes me feel a) old, except that people far older than me are heavy users (see photo below) and b) alien. In Canada, only about 50% of adults use phones, and I suspect that nearly everyone hates the things. Here the usage rate is around 92% and everyone expects their constant use.
At 196cm tall and of European features, I get attention everywhere I go in this country. People take my photo on the street from time to time. My boy's the same, but he gets even more. Perhaps it's because he's small, cute and approachable, but when I'm with him I get requests to have photos taken with us, like we're some sort of celebrities.
demons and ghosts
In this ancient country, people still take steps to ward off demons and ghosts. Like nailing fish and twigs to the outside of buildings.
crowding on trains
The legends are true. Stuff like this really happens here.
crowding in public places
I haven't endured this myself, but .. wow.
Don't get me wrong, I love it here, and the place has for the most part been very good to me. It just takes some time to adjust.
Try as I might, I can't get the hang of the Japanese national anthem, ラーメン 体操:
Every year, rain or shine, you take lessons. I mean, every:
And most of the Western males in particular seem to stay .. bad at it!
It's one thing to never learn the holiday schedule, and simply receive a nice surprise every time a holiday shows up. But it's a bit different when it's a normal Saturday and suddenly the local shopping street is full of tens of thousands of people, and somewhere a lot of people are shouting and carrying lumbering great wooden contraptions at power-line height.
They're matsuri, and there's a busy calendar for the things. I gave up ever trying to puzzle out what was being celebrated, and simply enjoy the wares.
Public garbage cans are a rarity in this country. You'll finish with an apple and wind up carrying the core around the city like it's something so interesting that you can't bear to put it down.
Handshakes don't happen in Japan. Nor is there soap in public toilets. I wonder which came first.
I love Japanese food. The endless variety and consistent high quality are a real wonder. But .. some of it is a little odd.
chocolate flavoured potato chips
Cholera drink? Where have you been!!
Balsamic vinegar .. ice cream?
The next two items caught my attention because of the Canadian flag. I'm not sure why there's a sixty-year-old stereotype of a Frenchman on package....
maple syrup flavoured potato chips
salmon cream flavoured potato chips
Then there are the foods that are downright politically incorrect. I've eaten whale meat since coming to this country—probably the one thing about Japanese cuisine that really pisses off foreigners. But I draw the line at shark's fin soup which is the result of a brutal act of mutilation and torture. And yet in Japan there are restaurants everywhere that serve the stuff.
sharks fin soup is commonly available
For a more serious take on things, see my notes on doing business in Japan.