Welcome to Japan

Opinions Trends & Culture - September 21st, 2001
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

For those who have just moved to this country, we bid you fond and heartfelt greetings. Everybody was new in Japan at one time or another, including, when you think about it, even those born here. But the end of the summer is typically arrival time for most western newcom­ers. Wheels of commerce and the business of families are held hostage by the schedules of pri­mary and secondary schools.

The purpose of this column is to help sort out first impres­sions and then give an indica­tion of whether or not the situa­tion is passing or permanent— mildly amusing or potentially devastating.

For example, take things we already know. A swollen jaw and blinding pain made worse by gentle breezes on the cheek indi­cate a trip to the dentist is nec­essary. Will things get better by ignoring it? No. Will treatment be as much fun as being hit in the head by a cannon ball? Yes.

In Japan, the newcomer might find that the masses jammed rump to groin, back­bone to chestbone on the sub­way create a dizzying feeling of hysteria and a powerful urge to begin screaming and flailing about. Will that feeling ever go away? No. Will it become worse when it’s really crowded during late rush hour and people begin throwing up? Yes.

Does shopping in Japan to feed a family of five involve sums of money not unlike the amounts required to pay off the mortgage on the house back home? Yes. How do the Japanese do it? They don’t. And after a while, if you’re smart, you won’t either. You sell at least two of the children. (Just kid­ding. What you do is shop for and eat local products, not imported things. Forget about every-day food and snacks “from home.”)

Television and newspaper reports gobble up a great deal of time and space covering “politics” and the behavior of Japan’s elected leaders. Should we pay attention? In case we’re called upon to advise on the issues? No. Political leadership is a mythical thing and the Prime Minister has only slightly more chances to change anything than we foreigners. He just gobbles up more time and space.

It seems that every day a new sensational crime erupts involving disaffected children wreaking havoc with fishing knives and baseball bats—most of the savagery directed at adults. Is there a breakdown of some kind going on around here that is causing little rips and tears in the exquisite fabric of Japanese social and family mores? No. The children all eventually confess to their crimes and profess profound remorse for their actions. All is still right with the world. Plus a lot of times these poor bastards have been bullied at school and you know what that can do to a tender young mind.

Going out with the staff for drinks after work sometimes leads to a session in a hostess bar. Are encounters herein the first step up the ladder to the platform of adulterous behav­ior? No. Or at least rarely any more. Hostesses are usually pro­fessionally skilled in their jobs and are prudes by comparison of the bimbos on the street— often students—who turn tricks without a thought in their heads all for the price of the latest fad item of apparel. (And that plat­form is down the ladder.)

Is it true that traffic is worse on days divisible by five? Yes. However, it is also true that traffic is especially bad on the first day of the work week, the last day of the work week, all days containing the letter “s,” pay­day, when the moon is in any of its four quadrants, or when you have to go somewhere by car. (I can see it now: People as far away as Saitama or Kanagawa waking up extra early and getting into their cars instead of heading for the train stations. “Collins has to drive to TCAT today,” they all mumble to themselves.)

Are the Yomiuri Giants real­ly “Japan’s team”? No. Isn’t everybody very, very happy if they win the Japan Series? No. Don’t they have the best players money can buy?’ No.

Just because the team’s management attempts to domi­nate the sport and bend rules to benefit them and them only, can’t we like the players? No. Or Nagashima? No. They’re the only team on television. Can’t we watch them? Yes, of course, but the trick is to cheer for whomever they’re playing— from the Yankees to the little Nuns of Mercy.

Well, I guess that just about clears everything up. Welcome to Japan.