Opinions - April 3rd, 2005
tokyoweekender_I love Japan

‘Why do you live in Japan?’ asks Robert J. Collins

THERE’S a question for you. Why do you live in Japan?

If you’re Japanese, the answer is easy. With all the social and family ties, and with all the intertwined relationships developed in schools and the workplace, it is almost impossible to leave Japan. It is far easier to lose major body parts than to cut the strings by permanently going abroad.

But the question is really for people like me — people who have chosen to stay  here even though the jobs that brought us here no longer exist. The question is also for people who came here with no jobs but now must scramble to make a living as outsiders. And it’s for non-Japanese who have managed to penetrate several layers of local society’s core. Why are we here?

It used to be a relatively easy question to answer. “Safety,” I would reply. That would satisfy both Japanese and non-Japanese questioners. Who wouldn’t want to live and raise families in secure surroundings?

The problem now, of course, is that the perception of Japan’s fabled safety is in a shambles. It’s embarrassing really, but the feeling is that it might be safer to move to Detroit (or Newark, or Oklahoma City, or someplace like that — no letters, but you know what I mean). It seems things are falling apart around here. They aren’t, I don’t think, but it seems like it.

The “safety” answer was bogus anyway. It was just a way to get people to stop asking the question. And besides, who wants to live in complete 24/7 safety anyway? Might as well spend our lives in the nursery.

Big cities, be they New York, London, Paris, Rome, Beijing, or Tokyo, have their rough edges and potential for danger wrought by the chaos of size. I like that, and it’s why I’ve always lived in big cities.

But that brings us back to the basic question. Why live here? In Japan?

Thirty years ago the exchange rate was ¥360 to the dollar. At the time of the Olympics, for example, one could buy an entire meal with wine for five at a good restaurant in the Ginza for $11. I know. I found a receipt in an old sports coat years later.

I thought about that — a lot — but by the time I finally moved to Japan the exchange rate was ¥270 to the dollar. Still not bad, and I’m sure people figured we non-Japanese with access to a dollar income were living high on the hog. We were, I guess, but that argument for me living here was not what went through my mind at the time any more than the “safety” argument.

Now days, I guess, I have to come clean…with myself primarily. There is no getting around it any longer. Here goes.

I live in Japan because I like the people here. It’s as simple as that.

I live in Japan because I like the people here. I wish there were dramatic examples to cite. Dramatic examples make for good columns. There isn’t. I simply like the people.

I suppose it’s a matter of the dignity one respects in others. A lot of it is pre-programmed of course — the welcoming in all shops and restaurants — but what a nice thing to program.

I like the interest in food, personal cleanliness, basic comforts, education and laughter. And when all the bullshit is stripped away, I like the honesty of one person to another. It’s all good, and I’m afraid it doesn’t always exist elsewhere.

It’s not easy to explain, is it? If anyone can say it better, I’d certainly be interested in hearing it. (And fast, before the dollar falls much lower vis-a-vis the yen which is when I’ll really have to leave — nice people be damned.)