**DISCLAIMER** This article was written in good humour, and is not intended to offend anyone. I wrote this when I was living in Japan and needed an outlet for my Japan-related frustrations – and although I believe that all these things ARE legitimate criticisms, please take them with a pinch of salt!
So you’ve heard all about why I love Japan, and after writing that post last week I have reminded myself of a few of the reasons I love Japan too. Sadly, however, life over here isn’t all Ninjas and Nintendo, and I quite often feel like I hate Japan a lot more than I love it.
When I first arrived here, people would ask me how long I was planning to stay, and when I told them eight months they would give me a knowing look and inform me that I didn’t know it yet but I would probably be here for much longer than that. Well I’ve got news for you folks – I really don’t think I will, and here’s why:
1. Totally Backward Banking
Considering that Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world – perhaps even the most technologically advanced – it seems almost unbelievable to me that they still haven’t invented a way for me to get money out of my own goddamn bank account after 5pm. The only explanation I can possibly think of is that they have been so busy building Iron Man-esque robot suits and levitating objects using nothing but the power of sound that they just haven’t had the time.
Before I came to Japan I had never even considered the possibility that I may not have access to my cash whenever I needed it. I had assumed that 24/7 ATMs came pretty much as standard in the developed world (and heck, even in the undeveloped world), but how wrong I was. In Japan, there is no such thing as a ‘hole in the wall’ style cash machine – all ATMs are the stand-alone type and can be found in convenience stores, post offices, and sometimes big shopping centres. Of these, only a fraction accept foreign cards, and even fewer both accept foreign cards AND are open outside 9am-5pm on weekdays.
So what if you find yourself somewhere in Japan where there is no 7-11, and the post office is closed for the weekend? The answer is: You’re Screwed! This happened to me back in November when I visited Ishigaki Island. Luckily for me I was with a friend who had a Japanese bank account and was able to lend me some money, but if she hadn’t been there I don’t know what I could have done. I had no money to pay for my hostel or buy food, and my flight back to Okinawa was leaving before the post office was due to re-open. Utterly screwed, I tell you!
Now that I’m living in a big city and almost next-door to a 7-11 I have easy access to my cash whenever I want it, but even now my monetary woes are far from over. Each time I make a withdrawal from an ATM here I am charged almost ten pounds in combined fees, and since there is a limit on how much I can withdraw per day, this means I might as well be lighting a nice little bonfire made of ten-pound notes every time I need to pay my rent. And when I tried to transfer money into my Japanese bank account from the UK, it was declined after ten days because apparently my Japanese bank isn’t a member of the international banking convention.
The food in Japan may be great, but I think we can all agree that the greatest food in the world is cheese – and Japan cannot do cheese. Every week I go to the supermarket and buy it, forgetting that this abominable product is not actually cheese but a sad, deformed imitation known as “cheezu” – a kind of strange, edible plastic that tastes of nothing, forms a weird film over your teeth and has the approximate texture of chewing gum.
I miss you, cheese.
3. Lots of packaging, no bins.
For a country that requires its inhabitants to separate their waste into about fifty different categories (and will actually return your rubbish bags to your house AFTER COLLECTING THEM if they’re found to contain the wrong items), Japan produces such an absurd amount of waste that it’s a wonder that anyone has time to do anything apart from sort it all into the appropriate receptacles.
If you visit the convenience store in Japan to buy a packet of chewing gum, expect to have it handed to you in its own little plastic bag, probably along with an individually packaged pair of wooden chopsticks and individually packaged wet wipe. If you buy a packet of crackers or biscuits, expect each one to be individually plastic-wrapped. Bottles of mayonnaise at my local supermarket are sold inside their own utterly superfluous sealed plastic bags. I have visited a shop before where I’ve been given an onigiri (rice ball) wrapped in a piece of paper, inside a plastic bag, inside a paper bag, inside another plastic bag.
And as if this wasn’t enough to drive any reasonable person to distraction, there are absolutely no bins anywhere in Japan, so by the end of the day you’ll find yourself carrying around your own personal landfill site.
4. You’re a Fatass
No matter what size you are, by Japan’s standards it’s probably safe to say that you’re a great big fatty pants.
Going shopping for clothes in Japan is, for me, somewhat of a traumatic experience. My shoe size is a pretty average UK size 6, but in shoe shops here that generally makes me Cinderella’s ugly sister and I am usually directed toward the “Extra Large” section. Likewise, I’ve come to the realisation that it’s just not possible to find a pair of trousers, shorts or a skirt in Japan into which I might be able to squeeze my bodacious behind. When I arrived in Okinawa my manager had to search everywhere to find a skirt that would fit me, and the lady in the hotel laundry department’s response to my predicament was simply “dietto” (Yep, that’s the Japanese word for “diet”).
Being non-Japanese-sized is a pain in my big foreign butt, and has the tendency to strike when I least expect it – like when the toilet slippers (see below) are more like toilet toecaps, or like when I went bowling last night and couldn’t find a bowling ball with big enough holes for my fingers (don’t laugh, it’s not funny). I thought I’d be safe in Western shops, but when I saw a pairs of jeans I liked in GAP in Tokyo the largest size they had was between a UK size 6 to 8. Likewise, a pair of shorts I wanted in Harajuku came in one size only and I could barely get them over my calves.
All this I could understand if all Japanese people really were that tiny, but the thing that I find most confusing of all is that not all of them are. I’ve seen plenty of Japanese girls with calves as meaty as my own – so where do they find their clothes?? This remains a mystery of the Orient that I have yet to puzzle out.
5. There is a different pair of slippers for every occasion
A bit of dirt has never bothered me, and as such I really couldn’t care less if people choose to wear their shoes inside. Similarly, the idea of running around outside with no shoes on (which is a cardinal sin in Japan) does not upset me in the slightest. I simply do not care. In fact, I would have to agree with my parents’ belief that the reason neither my siblings nor me ever get ill is because we grew up in a grubby house instead of in a hermetically sealed and disinfected bubble.
Nevertheless, after living in Japan, I can kind understand the idea of taking your shoes off before you go inside the house. It has logic (unlike most things in Japan), and the additional benefit that you can always find your shoes when you need them (a problem that has always plagued me). What I do not understand, however, is why we need to have a hundred different pairs of slippers for different purposes. “Toilet slippers,” for example, are a special pair of slippers that you put on when you go to the loo (and accidentally wearing them outside the loo is pretty much the most embarrassing thing you can possibly do in Japan).
I do not understand them. Luckily for me we don’t have toilet slippers at my office or in my current house, but they exist in most restaurants and we had them at the hotel where I worked in Okinawa. This meant that even when I was so busy that I could hardly keep up with my work, when I wanted to pop to the loo I had to unlace my shoes, take them off, don the toilet slippers, then repeat the whole stupid process on the way back out. And what was the point? The loo floor was probably cleaner than half the places my shoes had been on the way to work, so the only thing I was achieving by removing them was to ensure that the toilet floor was clean enough to eat your food from.
Toilet slippers aren’t even the end of it either. In the office where I currently work, it took me a good few weeks before I noticed that all my colleagues were wearing the exactly same shoes – and even longer to realise that these were their special dedicated ‘office shoes’, which they change into every morning when they arrive, for no reason that an uncultured foreigner like myself could possibly understand. You are also required to remove your shoes when you use the changing rooms in shops in Japan, and in many Japanese-style restaurants, and at certain temples and tourist attractions you must wear special temple slippers and carry your own shoes around in a little plastic bag. At my house we have a special pair of garage slippers. Garage slippers, I tell you!!
I’ve never had a baby before, but I have been led to understand that childbirth kind of sucks whatever country you’re in. But Japan has found a way to make it especially suck.
You can read about it here if you don’t believe me – but apparently, pain relief during labour isn’t offered as standard in Japan. If you want an epidural, you must book it in advance, and even then you can only have it if you happen to go into labour on a working day between 9am and 5pm, because apparently it is simply too much to ask for the hospital to employ an anaesthetist to work night shifts. Well you didn’t really expect there to be a doctor at your beck and call at all hours of the day, did you??
Oh and by the way, you’re also advised not to scream while you’re giving birth, for the baby’s comfort. FOR REAL.
7. Smoking (and other naughty things)
Japan’s smoking laws are some of the most arbitrary and idiotic rules in the homeland of arbitrary and idiotic rules.
Japan is the only G8 nation that still allows smoking public indoor spaces, and almost every bar and restaurant here is a haze of cigarette smoke. There was a time when this would have made me very happy, but now it just makes me very irritated that every time I go out I am passively inhaling everybody else’s noxious gases, without even having the pleasure of enjoying my own cigarette. Why in the hell did I bother giving up smoking if I’m going to have to go home smelling like an ashtray anyway? And given that the Japanese government owns half of the country’s largest tobacco company, things aren’t likely to change any time soon.
The most idiotic thing about the whole situation is that although you’re allowed to smoke inside, you’re NOT allowed to smoke outside. That’s right folks, it is an offence to have a cigarette as you walk down the street, but it’s totally fine to blow smoke in the face of children in restaurants. This law has led to the construction of special smoking areas in the streets of Japanese cities, which generally consist of a tent or a screened-off area where you are allowed to smoke.
This may seem stupid to you and me. And that’s because it is.
Furthermore, Japan’s drug laws are draconian. Being caught with marijuana here carries the same penalty as being caught with heroin, and first offenders can receive sentences of up to five years. And it’s not just the law that sees drug use as something unconscionable – to Japanese society at large, using drugs is an indication that you are in fact pure evil. Japanese public figures such as pop stars or sportspeople who admit to as little as possession of marijuana can expect to see their careers summarily ended and their reputations irreparably damaged, even if they submit to grovelling shows of penitence. I won’t even go into the irony of the fact that a culture that practically worships tobacco also finds it reasonable to support sending a person to jail for five years for smoking weed.
8. Japan is a vegetarian’s hell
I’m not a vegetarian, but I have every sympathy with those who are – because being a veggie in Japan is next to impossible. The whole concept of vegetarianism is an entirely alien one to the Japanese. If you tell a restaurant that you don’t eat meat, expect to be repeatedly offered chicken or seafood instead, and to find that even dishes that appear not to contain meat will most likely have been cooked in a meat or fish broth. All the staff meals offered at my hotel in Okinawa contained meat, meaning that vegetarians had no other option but to pick out the meat or go hungry. I even heard a vegetarian friend being assured by a street food vendor in Yokohama that there were no vegetarian options, but “meat is also good.” Oh, is it? Great!
9. Rampant Workaholism
It’s not just a stereotype – people in Japan work too bloody hard. If you need an illustration, my contracted hours at the hotel were 40-48 hours per week, and that was considered ‘part time’. My current job is nowhere near so brutal – but even so, my colleagues are always already at their computers when I turn up fifteen minutes before work, and by the time I’m falling over my feet to get out of the door at one second past six they’re just settling in for the long haul. Not that I’ve ever stayed long enough to find out when they go home – for all I know, they never leave.
Turning up early and staying late at work is the norm in Japan, and this work ethic starts young. One of my housemates is a Japanese private school teacher, and he tells me that every day the kids are practically falling asleep in class because they stay up working into the night (either that, or Japanese teachers are extraordinarily gullible). There are also classes seven days a week, and even though the weekend lessons are non-compulsory the students still turn up. The idea of this happening at my former school is laughable.
10. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”
There is an oft-repeated saying in Japan, which is: “Deru kui wa utareru,” or “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” This expression is often trotted out as proof that in Japan, conformity is prized and individuality frowned upon. Of course, this is not universally true. There are lots of people and lots of places in Japan where individuality is celebrated – but there are certainly grains of truth in this old saying.
In my experience, Japan loves rules, and the rules are here not because they make logical sense but BECAUSE THEY ARE THE RULES. The rules are about as likely to change as I am to find a pair of trousers that fit me in a Japanese shop, and if you question the rules then you are being a bloody nuisance. As sad as it is to say, Japan’s is a culture where to obey is infinitely more valuable than to challenge, and in which narrow-mindedness unfortunately prevails more often than not.
11. You will never fit in.
Japan has technically been “open” for more than 100 years, but don’t let that fool you. Japan is still incredibly isolated, and it is possible to find a truly surprising amount of ignorance about foreigners and their strange ways here. This isn’t all that surprising considering that Japanese television very rarely shows news reports from overseas, and when it does they tend to present an exaggerated image of “outside” that doesn’t accurately reflect reality. Of course – and this goes for everything on this list – this isn’t true of everyone, and I’m sure that many Japanese people are much more knowledgeable and worldly than I could ever hope to be – but the fact stands that they are only a tiny minority of a still remarkably insular nation.
Knowing how little of the outside world is presented in the Japanese media, I still find it unbelievable how little some Japanese people seem to know or understand of other countries. For example, more than once in Japan when I have told somebody that I come from England, they have responded with “Oh, and what language do you speak there?” Granted, the Japanese words for England (igirisu) and English (eigo) aren’t obviously related – but really?! Another example is the reaction Japanese people have to curly hair. I have a friend here who is mixed-race and has beautiful curly hair, and every day she has complete strangers asking her if they can touch it. They simply cannot believe her when she tells them that it’s natural. How is it possible in this day and age that an entire country can seem to be entirely unaware of the phenomenon of curly hair?
You may live here for many years, learn Japanese, have a Japanese family and many great Japanese friends, but the fact of the matter is that you will always be seen as an outsider.
12. Japanese TV
I don’t need to understand what they’re saying to know that Japanese TV is a load of old crap. I am not exaggerating when I say that roughly 99% of programming consists of cooking shows and game shows where the premise is “guess whether this woman is 14 or 40″ or some such ridiculous nonsense.
13. The Japanese hug
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Japanese people do not know how to give a good hug. I have met exceptions, but in general hugging a Japanese person is about as rewarding as hugging a plank.
14. Being a girl kind of sucks
Japan is still very much a man’s world. Women and girls are (on the whole) expected to behave in a certain way, and an alarming number of Japanese females do their darndest to be as “kawaii” as possible. There are also certain forms of speech in Japanese that are gender-specific, which definitely doesn’t do much to challenge traditional gender roles. In terms of female empowerment, it can often seem that Japan’s values are still pretty much in line with the Victorians. Luckily this isn’t the case in my current company, where the majority of staff are women and I have never felt undervalued as a female, but elsewhere in Japan I have felt very differently.
For example, I cooked a meal for a couple of my Japanese housemates a few weeks back, and as a compliment to my cooking was told (entirely un-ironically) that I’ll “make someone a very good wife.” All I wanted to do was pick up my beef stroganoff and throw it at the wall. I did not grow up believing that I could accomplish anything I wanted, earn a degree and travel halfway around the world by myself to be judged in terms of my value as a potential spouse – but unfortunately I lacked the patience or the linguistic competence to attempt to communicate this to my housemate at the time.
There is a well-known “joke” in Japan that Japanese women are like Christmas cake: after the 25th (i.e. after their 25th birthday) they’re on the shelf forever. Whilst this attitude is definitely much less prevalent these days than it was only a decade or so ago, I fear that marriage material is still the only way that Japanese society is able to view its women.
And that, folks, is everything I don’t like about Japan!