You know, I never thought anyone would be interested in what my life is like in Japan. That is, until someone named Jim who shall remain nameless asked me like three times to write about it. Haha.
It’s been just over a year since I moved here. It’s weird…this country has been a part of my life for such a long time. Whether it was owning stuff from here, or the three Japanese roommates I’ve had (one at high school, two at university), or watching anime, and just generally wishing I lived here. And then of course there was the immersion environment. But still, it can be quite surreal. When I first came, every moment felt like “wow…I’m here? I’m here!” — to this day, whenever I walk into a bookstore filled with low-price manga, I almost have to pinch myself because it’s just so cool.
All the Japanese people I know well are the kindest, coolest people I know. ‘Nuff said. And even some of the people I don’t know are some of the kindest, coolest people I know. My roommates helped me immensely both before and after coming here. One roommate’s mother used to send clothes for us both. His grandma still sends us her homegrown rice and vegetables. And then there was that lady (a total stranger), who gave me an umbrella on my second day here. It was pouring rain (and I, in the ignorance learned from 5 years spent in Utah thought that a raincoat would cover my bases); she walked out of her shop to hand me portable shelter: “here, keep it”, she said. My clothes were soaked through, but my heart was warmed. And then there are all the other nice ladies I’ve met on trains, who started conversations about random stuff. And the nose-picking bureaucrat who knew that the reason I didn’t understand him wasn’t because I didn’t know Japanese but because it was 6am on a Monday morning and he was both mumbling and covering his mouth with his gold-digging hand. Nice guy. The businessman who let my friends use his cellphone to call me when I forgot to go pick them up at the station; the store lady who said I was handsome (she probably got a fax from my mother telling her to say it, but it still counts); the cashier at the bookstore who dropped everything she was doing to put a band-aid on my bleeding finger (I had a hangnail and/or a papercut) — seriously, if I weren’t married already, I might have fallen in love right then and there; the many other shop ladies who have handled my dirty kleenexes when I ‘ve had a cold (that’s almost too nice — I hope they didn’t get sick). [Explanation: there aren’t many public trash cans in Japan, so I’m always giving people like shop clerks stuff to chuck away]
This level of kindness is normal in Japan. People are going to be good to you. I’m going to say some bad things about Japan in a minute, but those bad things absolutely pale in comparison to the good things — and it’s easy to forget this; I forget it, too sometimes. But, really, the worst things that have happened to me here have been condescension and impolite curiosity — which, when you think about it, are not world-ending events, although they may feel like it at the time — especially the third time a cop stopped me and asked for ID — I was ready to sue somebody, and 有道出人/Arudou Debito had to suffer through reading a whiny, late-night “this cannot be happening to the great Khatzumoto” email from me…poor guy.
Expectations of Ignorance
I learned Japanese very, very hardcore for almost 2 years before ever coming here. In my own self-centered ignorance, I thought Japan would somehow “know” that. I thought that somehow Japan had “gotten the memo”. But, of course, it hadn’t. So, it surprised (and, I guess, continues to surprise) me, how little knowledge of the Japanese language that some Japanese people expect me to have. It’s weird, because I actually thought that Japanese ability would be considered quite normal in Japan, regardless of ethnicity. And I was actually mourning what seemed to be the inevitable loss of the sort of “prince of Japanese” status that I had enjoyed at college. At the same time, I was looking forward to having straightforward human interactions since I had made it my task to nuke any language barrier between me and a native speaker of Japanese. By the time I came to Japan I had more or less achieved that.
Anyway, to make a long story short, a large minority of people are still shocked whenever I speak Japanese to them. But, unlike my college friends, who got over it and accepted me more or less as a member of the Japanese community (a miserly, tight-fisted member who never gave gifts, but a member nonetheless), some Japanese people never get over it. And so, they keep looking for the thing I can’t do; they keep looking for the ceiling. They accept I can speak, but don’t accept that I can listen and comprehend. Until I listen and comprehend. Then they accept that I can listen and comprehend, but don’t accept that I can read. Until I read. Then they accept that I can read, but don’t accept that I can write. Until I write. Then they accept that I can write but don’t accept that I can write that kanji, you know, “the hard one”. Until I write it — “harder”, older (pre-US occupation), bigger, more strokes. And then it starts to dawn on them that maybe, just maybe…I am a full human being; it takes a while, but they eventually stop talking to me like I’m a retard — they go to normal speed, and stop trying to mix in badly pronounced English as if it will help me understand better. If I sound bitter, by the way, it’s because I am 😀 — especially because some people, despite all this, despite the fact that I am almost never without a Japanese book in my face (it is not for freaking decoration, my friend), still just never get over it; there are people who still seem to think I’m a retard; who still talk loudly and slowly and mix in random English words; who still stop every twelve seconds to make sure I understand what they’re saying; who still preface their statements with things like “I know this will be hard for you to understand, because it’s in Japanese, but…”; there are even people who incorrectly correct me (like the guy who tried to tell me that “機嫌” should be written “気嫌”, which would make sense given the meaning of the word, but is completely wrong; I didn’t have the heart or guts to tell this chap that he was an egit, but I quietly refused to correct something that is…correct).
It shouldn’t bother me. I should be bigger person than that. And lately, I just let it go. But it used to bug the heck out of me. Maybe it only bugged me because I was actually insecure? I don’t know. Until recently, most native-level users of Japanese have been ethnically Japanese, 30 years from now I imagine it will be a totally different ballgame. Till then, I’ll just keep letting wide-eyed curiosity and stupid questions slide.
Don’t get me started on nurses. Just don’t.
Including veterinary assistants. I have seriously never met a more condescending group of individuals. Dewd, words like “gall bladder” are really not all that complex; I can read the flaming form. And stop questioning me on my decision to feed my cat raw food. Hello? “Land predator”.
You know the romantic image of adventurous-but-prudent tourists asking directions? It’s a myth, friends. In Japan, at least. Because in Japan, no one knows where the heck anything is. Even in their own neighbourhood. The combination of not having a grid system or street signs, and being densely populated makes for a high degree of “don’t have a clue what’s around me”-ness. Any country in the same situation would produce the same results. So don’t bother learning how to ask directions in Japanese. No one can answer you. I’m seriously only 10% joking. Not even taxi drivers know where stuff is — they’ll ask you how to get there.
What you do need to know is how to read. So that you can use a GPS unit. I have GPS on my phone, and it’s gotten me safely home from my adventures (on foot and by taxi) many a time. The next time you think that asking someone how to get to Sesame通り will be a great way to start a conversation, remember that you will probably only scare that person (I mean it; she might freak the heck out at the mere sight of you). Repeat after me: people=no, machines=know.
A lot of people are excited about coming to Japan, all starry-eyed with visions of how great Japan is for not really having religion, they’re all: “wow, Japan, is areligious but safe, clean and ethical”. These people are wrong. I hate to burst your precious little humanist bubble, but Japan has a national religion; almost everyone practices it and there’s no escaping it. It’s called “food”. On TV, in the morning, in the afternoon at night, and in the commercial breaks, there is food. When people meet you, they ask “what do you eat?”, “how do you like Japanese food?”, “have you tried 納豆 (nattou)?”. When people like you, they take you out for food. When people visit each other, they bring food. When people go somewhere, they bring back food as a souvenir. On shows that have nothing to do with food, there is a food section. Food is sacred here. It’s not for snacking on casually on the train and dropping to the floor, no, that would be immoral; that would be 勿体無い(wasteful). Food is for planning around, cooking lovingly, decorating lavishly, garnishing gently, and bowing to gratefully with your chopsticks between your thumb and your forefinger, before making slurping sounds (well, with noodles) as you partake (not “eat” — “partake”) of it. Maybe there is this collective memory of the starvation after the loss of WW2?
I could get started on a more serious rant at people — especially (dis-empowered?) women — for believing in horoscopes and fortune-tellers, but we have things like skepdic for that…
then again, I just realized that I am skeptical about some things in skepdic, which I guess makes me recursive skeptic at some level…OK, my inner editor is telling me you don’t need to be reading this.
There’s a lot more to Japan than I just covered, but that should do it for now. It’s really cool here and if you haven’t come, do! In fact, why not just learn Japanese and come live here? No, please, really, please do — and be sure to have kids as well, because if we get more fluent immigrants here, people will stop asking me dumb questions; you’d be doing us all a favour…LoL. Seriously, it’s a wonderful country — come on over!