Matthew is a keen traveller and a photography hobbyist. He is currently living in Japan and hopes to travel and document his journey.
There is an interesting dichotomy between the experience and impression you have as a traveller and that which you have when you stay in a place long term. You immediately become more observant and inquisitive, hoping to develop a deeper understanding of your surroundings. Your first impressions may be reaffirmed or changed completely. Some of these things are noticeable immediately, but it isn't until you witness them regularly that you can say, definitively, that they are part of the country's make-up.
1. The Sound of Silence
I distinctly remember sitting on a train in London a number of years ago. A girl was speaking on the phone, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings; baring all, with not an ounce of shame, she was talking (quite explicitly) about her personal life. This really is the antithesis of a Japanese train journey.
It's actually quite eerie; Japanese trains are remarkably quiet, as it is considered impolite to speak loudly or to speak on the phone whilst on the train. Even though you may find yourself cheek to jowl with a commuter, at least you will have the consolation of doing so in relative silence. Japanese people take pride in being compliant.
2. Conveni Is Life
7/11 is your friend. When you find yourself roaming around, in denial about whether or not you are lost, the sight of a convenience store is a welcome one. Free Wi-Fi, a snack or two, an ATM, and a toilet are the remedy for most difficulties during a misadventure. (Though in Europe, it can feel like your human rights are being infringed every time you have to pay to use a toilet.)
Convenience stores are synonymous with Japanese life—so conveni definitely isn't a misnomer. Ready-made meals are a way of life here.
3. It's Oishii! (Actually It's Only So-So)
The prospect of complaining about or returning food is unimaginable to a Japanese person. They are very conscious of not, as they interpret it, insulting the restaurant or the workers, so they will say oishii (it's delicious) even if they don't actually mean it.
Even amongst friends, some people will be hesitant to disagree with someone if they have differing palates, just in case it causes offence. This is a microcosm of a wider Japanese characteristic—they are conflict averse. Or confrontation avoiders. Or sitting on the fence dealing with master splinter. In other words, and all joking aside, they are not overly opinionated people, which is intertwined with their collectivist nature.
4. Sniffing Crime or Something Else?
Japan is a remarkably safe place, so much so that the police are hard-pressed to keep themselves occupied. It is said that Japanese people police themselves. The police are so under-worked, in fact, that when an unscrupulous so-and-so swiped a lady's underwear from her washing line, five officers crammed into her tiny home to investigate.
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5. A Homogeneous Society
The demographics of Japan has been described as a national crisis. Due to an aging population and a declining birth rate, Japan's population has plateaued since the mid-90s. A contentious issue, and one that is currently being debated in the legislature, is whether Japan should loosen its immigration laws to combat against the shrinking workforce.
The country is faced with a dilemma: they need to find a balancing act between preserving their cultural identity and allowing more migrant workers in to plug the labour shortage. The debate is waging about how an Influx of immigrants would affect the crime rate and the impact it would have on wages.
6. The Golden Girls
Incredibly, Japan's centenarian population has reached over 70,000, almost 90% of whom are women. The oldest person is currently 115 years old. It's quite remarkable. Their longevity is credited to regular health checks and a low-fat diet. It sounds too simple!
7. Two Wheels Are Better Than Two Feet
Speaking of the golden girls, it is very common to see an elderly person whizzing around on their bicycle. Bicycles in Japan are ubitiquous. In fact, there are over 70 million bicycles across the country. Young people or old, in the city or countryside, bicycles are a staple. They even have their own bike parks, like a car park, inside or near train stations to house the sheer amount of them.
8. Men Are Dominant (Until They Get Home)
Japan is still a male-centric society. Recently, there was a scandal concerning a medical school's entry exam in Tokyo that highlighted, once again, the wider societal issue. Female students, dating all the way back to 2006, had been systematically marked down to ensure more male applicants were successful and to avoid the possibility of women taking maternity leave and not returning to work.
Institutionalised sexism is prevalent in Japan, and a gender wage gap still persists, albeit one that is diminishing slowly. Interestingly, however, it is common for women in the household to control the finances of the family. Men have to ask their partners for their spending money; they are not trusted to budget and manage their salaries. Contrast and contradictions abound!
9. Too Much to Bear
There were two common grievances among young Japanese people I met outside of Japan that would always reappear. One was that the work/life balance in Japan is disproportionate. Overworking and the pressure to work unpaid overtime is pervasive. Sick days are almost unthinkable. Secondly, societal pressure to marry and rear children is unavoidable. Pressure from overbearing parents exacerbates this even further. Escapism afforded by travelling and working holiday visas give young Japanese people the opportunity to decompress.
© 2018 Matthew