by Robert J. Collins
It’s time for this column. The following must be committed to print every year or so in order to maintain balance. If we don’t stop and reflect upon these things, we really become proper fools for spending more than the next 10 minutes living here as foreigners.
Japan is not a bad place to be. Of course, there are problems, and I’ve written about nearly every one of them. One doesn’t have to be particularly perceptive to do that.
The first problem, and perhaps the most difficult aspect of living here, is that Japan is full of Japanese. The fact that the country is full is a problem for everyone—too many people trying to do too many things in too little space. The fact that almost all those people are Japanese is a fact of life in this uniquely homogenous nation. (If the population were represented by a 24-hour day, we foreigners would be about 15 minutes.)
The homogeneity leads to the practice of exclusion we all have tales about—the landlords, barber shops, bars and bistros. On the other hand, homogeneity keeps the “too full” condition from spinning out of control and devolving to civil chaos—a certainty if each of the 125 million citizens went off and did his or her own thing without the restraints of cultural collectivism. The unpredictability of individualism—even yours or mine—could bring the house of cards (or bamboo) tumbling down.
We live with it. There’s no choice in the matter. We do have the satisfaction of seeing some of the more rigid cultural biases slowly dissolve, but it ain’t going to happen overnight. So what?
With reference to “problems” filling the Letters columns—the education system, the sub-category of English teaching, Japanese awareness/ignorance of things beyond Narita or before 1950, the elusiveness of a guiding family or personal “morality,” the remarkable absence of political vision and the tawdry scandals entwining trusted public or private officials— they are discussions of refinements only a civilized society is able to consider. They are not complaints about being stripped of (broadly general) civil rights or being shot in bed. Babies, even foreigner babies, don’t lie in the dust with extended bellies and flies crawling across their eyeballs as they await starvation.
The deal here in Japan is that it works. I’ve lived as a corporate gypsy in seven major cities around the world, and nowhere else has it been easier to obtain basic services than it is in Tokyo. I know, I know, the corporate umbrella greases the wheels and moves things a long, but that hasn’t always been the case with me in Japan. I’ve been on my own for more than a decade, and still—once one learns how it’s done— the services here are the best.
Safety? Living in a big city is always a precarious business, and there are always dangerous areas in some parts of town. Tokyo is continually changing, and entertainment areas drift from providing simple pleasures to exotically dangerous attractions. This is inevitable, but day in and day out (night in and night out), there’s no city on earth safer than Tokyo. (Besides, Bill Hersey is on the case in Roppongi.) I’ve never worried about my wife or daughter returning home after dark.
The education issue is complicated by the expense of sending children to international schools—not everyone can afford that—but if affordable, the schools in the Tokyo area are the best in the world. The families here without corporate sponsorship might wish to take loans or pledge future services to get children into those schools. They can’t be beat. (And who needs that extra lung or kidney anyway?)
Entertainment? One can fall out of the house and eat food from virtually anywhere on earth, and at prices affordable to either a prince or a pauper. In fact, and this will come as a surprise to those shopping at National Azabu Supermarket or Meatrush, items purchased at local stores are often cheaper relative to overall income than anything available in other major cities in the world. And the All Asian Transvestite Revue—in which men dress as women dressing as men in rugby outfits—is, around the corner from my house, one of the best deals anywhere for the ¥1,000 cover charge. (Next week a group of nuns takes over the establishment to sing French folksongs.)
The point is, Japan is not a bad place to be. Being an expatriate is not easy—we are not characters in a Jimmy Buffett song sitting on the beach drinking three-peso bottles of rum while the locals fawn over us. Every day here is a challenge. An expensive challenge. And the natives aren’t exactly fawning.
But we are in a place that works, is safe, offers elements of culture and civilization not always available elsewhere and if full of at least one surprise, and usually a laugh, each and every day.