I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so

And again, reposted my musing about Japan:

ear Fellow-Travelers,

My apologies in the tardiness of this update. It’s restricted to Japan, but now I’m almost done with Korea, so I’m a bit behind. It’s also fairly long, but I hope it won’t be a chore to get through.

I write to you today from Seoul. I wanted to wait until leaving Japan to write you so as to suck out every last succulent morsel of cultural marrow from the gnarled bone that is Japan. My time in Japan – in addition to being totally bewildering – was action packed. Moreover, I’m not sure if my narrative or photographic skills will ever suffice to convey the weirdness that is Japan. Much of this weirdness I will have to silently treasure in my heart. In attempt to convey some of it to you, my dear fellow-travelers, I present the following brief but hopefully rich vignettes.

Courtesy of Delta, I started my time in Japan in the city of Nagoya. I only had about 26 hours there but, rather than hole up at a nearby airport hotel, decided not waste a single of my precious 5 days in the Land of the Rising Sun. Since the guy I was CouchSurfing with was teaching miniature Japanese people to speak English, I had the day to myself to explore. Perhaps it was a translation error, but the tourist brochure I picked up at the airport presented a less than charitable view of the city. The people whose job it is to attract tourists began by saying, “Some wonder whether Nagoya is worth visiting. This is certainly a question worth asking. While many may see it as simply another stop on the Shinkansen train, Nagoya is certainly a city of interest to businessmen, being located in the heart of Japan’s industrial heartland.” I think that pitch worked for Detroit, too. Thanks for the layover, Delta. As a matter of fact, Nagoya is quite literally the Detroit of Japan, being home to both Toyota and Honda. Aside from some random castle (where every placard reminds visitors that the original was burned in WWII), there’s basically only auto business, making it neither especially cosmopolitan nor rustic and quaint. While America’s auto industry may already be a historical relic, Japan’s is dully humdrum.

My second CouchSurfing adventure went slightly better than my first. While my initial host, a 23 year old Brit, had to cancel at the last minute, he set me up with a Texan named David. I met David and his buddy Paul at perhaps the most American place in Nagoya, a bar called Shooters, to watch Japan play Cote d’Ivoire in a warm up game for the World Cup. Both Paul and David teach English at schools in Nagoya and have for several years. Paul is 31, David’s CS profile says he’s also 31 but Paul told me he’s really 39, so these are not kids trying to decide what to do after college. Especially David, who gave up a six figure salary as an IT professional in the US to come to Japan. I’ll be taking bets on which one of friends will be the first to burn out and do the same, assuming it’s not me.

Being jaded gaijin (the Japanese word for foreigner; I am really enjoying accumulating the names people in other countries have for whitey. Strictly speaking, however, gaijin – unlike Joe in the Philippines – applies to foreigners of any race or nationality), Paul and David were excellent introductors to Japan, being more than willing to share with me the seedy underbelly of this seemingly clean and respectful culture. The educational system, according to Paul, is “failing” because of a lack of any real discipline mechanism in the schools. As Paul sees it, strong personalities can overcome the social control that otherwise keeps everyone in line without a contingency plan for these characters. Paul has seen 1) a teacher by karate chopped in the chest by a blackbelt student and 2) a student barge into the teachers’ lounge and yank a teacher by the tie while the other male teachers just stood around saying – literally – “please don’t do that.” Just that day, one student was repeatedly punching another in the head while the Japanese teacher in his classroom completely ignored it. The priority to keep these kids in school combined with the general unwillingness to point out problems or create a stir coalesces into a sweep-it-under-the-rug approach to the problem. Of course, even with these problems, Japanese kids far outscore American kids on every conceivable metric, but that’s a discussion for another day. Word to you kids in TFA (and to your mother).

More repression and conformity: Paul has been dating a Japanese girl for 7 months. She has met his family in Oklahoma, yet her parents don’t even know she has a boyfriend (much less a gaijin one). At 26, she’s living at home; though she pays her parents $700 a month, she has a curfew at 11PM. How he puts up with it I don’t know.

Onward to Tokyo. There are few things to know about Tokyo, the two most important being: 1) it’s Japanese and 2) it’s confusing as hell. Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, and yet strangely, there are no addresses. Rather than streets with names and address numbers – much less a grid or any logical street layout – the city is organized into prefectures, which have subdistricts, and finally blocks. Rather than ordering the block numbers sequentially, they’re ordered chronologically based on the order in which they were developed. When I tried to get directions from Google maps from my hotel to a bar in the same neighborhood, the best Google could offer was a picture of a non-interactive map of the neighborhood. The company who’s stated goal is to organize all of the information in the world has given up on Tokyo’s streets.

What is truly remarkable is the efficiency of the subway and rail network. Trains arrive and leave literally to the second, are cheap, and go basically everywhere in Tokyo. Unfortunately, mirroring the street system, the system displays the logical ordering of a plate of spaghetti and therefore takes some getting used to. It can also be unnerving when, at the peak of rush hour, subway employees are used to forcibly, physically pack as many people onto the cars as possible. Such close proximity has led to special “women only” cars in the morning to combat the habit of some Japanese men to grope on the train.

Imagine, for instance, my first moment on the streets of Tokyo.  Emerging from the subway at Shibuya station, I imagined I could roll my 50 pounds of luggage up to my hotel, which, according to the map on the website, was like 3 turns away. Turns out, in the frantic bustle of what’s been called the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, I ended up on the wrong side of the neighborhood. Frustrated, sweating, lugging 3 bags, and surrounded by a crush of Japanese teenagers, I decided I was going to end this farce by either taking a cab or simply checking into the nearest available hotel. Fortunately, a cab was at hand. In perfect form for Japanese navigation, his GPS didn’t register my intersection. After a $20 cab ride – which, I swear to God, went to literally the other side of the train station – I arrived, poorer and sweatier at my hotel. It was fully several days before I was able to find a location in Tokyo that wasn’t a clearly marked tourist site. Seriously Tokyo, addresses. This whole block system may have been fine when you were the fishing village of Edo, but now you’re the world’s largest metropolitan area and it’s time to start acting like it.

Japanese people are famously and unfailing polite, but sometimes irritatingly so. They will go to great lengths to explain information that, frankly, is simply not very necessary to the interaction. My first meal in Tokyo, a delicious meal of soba noodles, began with a 2-minute miming exchange that ended up being about the waitress asking me if it was OK to seat me by myself at a table for four. Another 90-second interaction later was devoted to informing me that the beer I had ordered was draft. Courteous, yes, but not exactly mission critical. If the shoe had been on the other foot, I would have just let the gaijin suffer if he didn’t like it.

Despite being a conformist society, fashion is a place where Tokyoites seem perfectly willing to express themselves, and exuberantly so. Everything to faux-punk 13-year-olds sporting Anarchy in the UK Sex Pistols t-shirts to girls dressed up like Alice in Wonderland is on display (casually though – blue suits and white shirts remain de rigeur for salarymen). Walking through the teen fashion district of Harajuku, hip hop, preppy, and hipster fashions clash and rearrange delightfully. Though I’m not sure I always agreed with the fashion choices, to me at least, it served as the most obvious indicator of the energy and vitality that accompanies any urban environment, and certainly none less than the electric megalopolis of Tokyo.

But alas, some of this fashion exhibits some of the pervier sides of Japanese society. The phenomenon of “cosplay” – guys who, in a semi-erotic kind of way, like to dress up like female anime characters, is already somewhat well known. I am here, dear fellow-travelers, to report to you from the front lines of Tokyo about a disturbing new twist to this hobby/fetish. “Maid play.” The latest think for Harajuku and Akihabara geeks is to dress up like sorority girls on Halloween in slutty French maid and Marie Antoinette-style costumes. Not only can these peculiar gentlemen be observed on the streets of Tokyo, but there are manga cafes, karaoke joints, and even massage parlors devoted to the subculture, sometimes involving female but also male workers in maid attire. Though I was both embarrassed and too slow to actually snap a photo, here’s an example I gleaned from the Internet. May that image be forever burned into your retinas.

Though some of you may be loathe to admit it, many if not most of you are familiar with the Japanese obsession with cartoon monsters through your own shameful childhood hobby of Pokemon. While Pokemon may have blessedly withered and died as a youth trend in the US, it survives strong in Japan, supported by an entire ecosystem of other cartoon monsters and mascots. But the trend of cute and yet somehow deformed cartoon animals, people, inanimate objects, and other creatures isn’t limited to children’s video games. Everything in Japan has a cartoon monster mascot. Imagine if the government had developed a cartoon monster to represent the census. Or the Gulf oil spill clean up effort. Or Goldman Sachs rolled out a cartoon monster as its corporate icon. Basically, any sign reminding you to do something greets you not with a human visage, but a cartoon monster. Some of these, like the Japanese equivalent of PBS, become major merchandising phenomenon despite also being the product of someone’s opium induced nightmare.

The one mascot I could get behind, however, was the one for the Yakult Swallows, something like the Mets of Tokyo and the Chicago Cubs of all of Japan. While the Tokyo Giants have all the money and fame (a la the Yankees), the Swallows fan base is fanatically dedicated despite perennial last place finishes. A few observations about the differences between Japanese and American baseball:

  1. All teams are owned by corporations, which becomes part of their names. “Yakult” of the Swallows is a beverage company. The most entertaining version of this is the “Nippon Ham Fighters.”
  2. You only cheer when your team is at bat. Like, it’s almost totally silent on your side while your team is on defense and the other team is cheering. It must suck to be a Japanese pitcher, as you’re getting basically no support.
  3. All the cheers are orchestrated and done as a group (remember conformity?). There’s a cheerleader (male) who holds up numbers that correspond to different cheers and a giant drum leads the beat. Most charmingly, when a Swallows player hits a home run, everyone sings an ancient Tokyo song (like hundreds of years old) and pulls out umbrellas that go into a sort-of dance. The umbrellas are supposed to signal to the pitcher, “hit the showers.”

Though the Swallows are terrible, I seemed to bring a certain good luck, as they defeated the Chiba Marines 6-3. Someone even hit a home run, so I got to high-five and sway with the crowd like a true blue Swallows fan.

There are so many more anecdotes I could share, but I have a feeling any of you who have actually read this far are looking for things to wrap up. I’ll share just one more and you’ll have to get the rest from me in person.

Except for luxe, modern clubs or lounges, most bars in Tokyo are – much like apartments, cell phones, and pretty much everything else in this dense city – incredibly small. Many have room for 10 or fewer people and a bar. When I went to one recommended by Time Out in Ginza neighborhood (which I assumed would be gaijin friendly, since it was in Time Out for chrissake), it was behind an office building in the basement level. As I pulled back the door to reveal a middle aged couple and two salarymen, literally everyone froze and stopped talking. Feeling pretty gaijin right about then. I sat down, though, ordered some sake, and tried not to appear too conspicuous, despite the fact that we were all pretty much cheek to jowl. Though the salarymen and couple shortly departed, I decided to stick around and order more sake not just for myself but for the bartender and manager. We ended up sitting around for a few hours struggling through the language barrier, sharing Japanese snacks and drinking. The manager ended up giving me his card – very respectful in Japan – can cutting a big part of the tab. Seems that even in formal, reserved Japan, 2 glasses of $8 sake will do the trick.

Fellow-travelers, an appeal: I know this update was long in coming. It’s hard to find the time to do these narratives all at once and a rainy day in Seoul was what finally allowed me to finish it up. I rather enjoy putting down my thoughts and sharing them with you. It’s fun going through my day trying to collect tidbits to share. However, though I worry it will put me in the ranks of nerds like the cosplay kids and Charlie Harris, I wonder if a – brace yourselves – blog [gasp] wouldn’t be better. I could update it more frequently, thereby making it easier for me to update (not requiring big chunks of time), providing fresher and more frequent updates. For example, when I was accosted by a class of 20 or so 13 year-olds who wanted to talk with me and take my picture at a temple in Korea the other day, I could have posted that entertaining vignette immediately, whereas the Korea update will be a few days in coming. It would also mean that you could peruse at your leisure rather than getting bombarded with the same frequency of emails. If you prefer long narratives like this, I’ll carry on in this labor of love. If a blog would be preferable (which, in my opinion, it would), I’ll set that up forthwith. I appreciate everyone’s generally positive responses to my last update, and in whatever format will try to be more punctual with my reports.

Pictures coming soon hopefully (!)

Domo Arrigato,

Mr. ROBoto

(Thanks to Charlie for the pun)

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One response to “I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so

  1. >Seriously Tokyo, addresses.

    All of Japan (including Tokyo) has street addresses of course.

    >the best Google (maps) could offer was a picture of a non-interactive map of the neighborhood.

    Actually Google Maps gives step-by-step walking or driving directions from point “A” to point “B”.

    Just sayin’

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