Because Japan – A Year in the Life

Life in Japan works in mysterious ways. When you first arrive suddenly you’re thrown into this chasm of the weird and profound, then after a while you start to accept that the action of complete strangers taking your picture in the streets is just part of daily life. I’ve been living in this crazy land for a year now and it’s time I reflected upon what I have witnessed and gleaned from my encounters and experiences thus far.

After moving into my lovely new apartment I came into a spot of bother with regards to the trash collection.  I received numerous complaints from the management company stating that I had recycled incorrectly. After weeks of trial and error and back and forth translations of the trash area signs with my Japanese friend I finally figured out one day whilst visiting the trash site that I was in fact breaking said sacred rules by not removing the caps from the PET bottles. Sacrilege!! Such a simple mistake  somehow offended residents so much that they felt it necessary to make many formal complaints. My trash vigilance levels have since increased tenfold.

Japan loves a bit of recycling.  Bins do not exist in public and if you are lucky enough to find one in a combini or by a vending machine, you will notice that they are sorted into the various materials or combustibilities. This would be all fine and dandy were it not for the fact that Japan also has an extreme packaging fetish unlike no other place I have ever visited.  Whilst omiyage is traditional to bring back from a trip or vacation, individual packaging is such a thing that people will often refuse a chocolate or piece of candy if it is not sufficiently wrapped, thus avoiding the dreadful cross-contamination from hand to sweet to hand.  This vicious cycle of presentation vs eco-friendliness vs sanity is a daily battle you’ll witness and come to accept over time.

This is just one of the many rules you will come to adhere to during your stay in this futuristically backwards land.  Rules…… they are the fundamental basis for society in Japan.  Everything has a system of carefully chosen rules and regulations and should one stray from said expectations, one is met with a chorus of ‘ehhhhh’ and peripheral stares that makes it simply not worth it in the first place.

Even considering thinking about the possibility of changing the status quo can be a dangerous task in itself. I once asked a very simple question at work about whether or not I could put up some posters advertising a club I co-run and suddenly I’m meeting with the Vice Principal and the head of the Art department, the former who is now stamping each poster with a date and the latter with whom I am being escorted around the entire school in order to show me specifically where and for how long I am allowed to place the posters on display. 

These rules do have their uses and benefits, however. I like to imagine Japan as a giant ants nest where everyone has their own important role, aim and position.  Everyone is working for the greater good and conflict rarely occurs.  Disaster is met with the utmost precision and success is celebrated beyond belief. Individuality is embraced and community is efficacious. Strangers are equally ogled at and welcomed with open arms.  Bizarre hobbies are both accepted openly and ignored with an awkward frown.  Sexual orientation is not a common topic of discussion yet more than 70,000 people attended the record breaking Tokyo Pride event this year.  Why does all this happen you may ask…? Well….. because Japan!

‘Because Japan’: an expression used to describe the unexplainable occurrences in Japan. 

This expression has become commonplace when encountering something out of the norm.

10 examples include the following:

  1. Finding literally any animal in the supermarket in food form

Visiting the supermarket is always a fun day out. You will find entire dried crabs, squid, octopus, all kinds of fish in bags, I’ve seen crickets and locusts, sea cabbages, shark, whale, the list goes on. I’m very open minded when it comes to food and have learned to not ask questions. The one thing I did refuse to eat, however was at a graduation party where they served shark fin soup.  I couldn’t bring myself to consume it out of principle for the means in which the fins are acquired which I thought was a fair reason.

       2. Two words……..SEE YOU

Somehow these two words have replaced goodbye, see ya, bye, laters etc in schools and daily conversations between English and Japanese speakers.  They are exclaimed and annunciated in such a away that makes your skin crawl each time you hear it. It has become a Japanese expression alongside BYE BYE that never ceases to irritate the masses of gaijins working here.

      3. Engrish (Yes I meant Engrish with an ‘R’)

T-shirts and clothes alike clad with the most amazing made up English expressions, words and names you have ever seen can be found almost anywhere. English and more recently French has become fashionable so you’ll often find items with random words splayed all over them.  It can become quite the interesting game trying to find the best or worst (however you look at it) whilst shopping around Harajuku and places alike.

      4. Auld Lang Syne

This song is played at the end of the day in all shops to signify that is time for the customers to leave. It just feels wrong hearing this song played without being completely intoxicated or covered in vomit.

      5. The 5pm neighbourhood chime

I love hearing this joyful little jingle each day playing in public to tell the kids it’s time to go home.  It’s supposed to be to test the loud speakers used to notify of any emergencies of public concern but has adopted this dual use to kill two birds with one stone.

      6. Otaku culture

Maid cafes, j-pop, k-pop, idol groups, collecting, anime, manga. It all never ceases to amaze and interest me. I respect people who are not afraid to embrace their passions.

      7. The incredible guys that master all the arcade games

I could watch in awe for hours these guys who don their special white gaming gloves and reach top scores at over 100 mph.  The dance and taiko machines are especially fun to watch.

       8. The respectful amount of kindness and generosity

From shopping and asking for directions, to visiting the post office and getting your hair done, the service, respect and kindness you receive from complete strangers each day is just unheard of elsewhere.  Recently I stood up to let an elderly woman sit down on the train and I was met with a series of low bows and smiles every time I faced her direction.  A few minutes later another seat became available and she stood up to come over and tell me about the opening. She became the latest in my string of train buddies I have made overtime.

        9. Disney…….. everywhere……. like literally

I absolutely love seeing grown men walking around with huge Disney plushes hanging out of their back pockets or off their bags; couples walking around wearing matching Disney attire and the products Disney comes up with just to make a sale…… and it works.  I have visited Disneyland and Disney Sea a few times this year and the latest sensation is a bear named Duffy and her band of friends exclusive to Japan.  I am not a plush enthusiast so excuse my misinterpretation here but for what I can fathom, when the doors open to Disneyland, instead of rushing to get on your favourite ride or to book your first Fast Pass ticket, thousands of people rush to queue for hours outside the Duffy shop to purchase the latest limited edition product released.  Whilst I may think this is slightly insane, part of me respects the passion these people have and the joy these products bring these kids but most often adults.  You’ll see them putting their dolls in the various viewing spots dotted all over the park and they’ll take part in lengthy photo shoots with others doll enthusiasts.

          10. Queues (Coming from a Brit that is saying something!)

Whilst England is known to host many an avid queuer, Japan takes it to the next extreme.  People will happily queue for hours on end just to have the option of entering a lottery to win the chance to purchase a newly released item.  People will often camp out or begin queuing at crazy o’clock in the morning to buy something and events are even worse.  I find myself avoiding any events held at weekends for fear of losing what youth I have left in a queue that spans 6 times around a building only to enter 5 hours later to find the product or tickets have been sold out.  This morning it was in the news that more than 3000 people queued up at Yodabashi Camera to enter a lottery to purchase just 250 Nintendo Switch consoles.

The best thing about all of this is that if you ask a Japanese native the reasons behind any of these occurrences, they’ve absolutely no idea, nor have even thought about it up until now.  It’s just what happens and it makes me wonder what strange rituals we follow and adhere to back home.

Japan is the most amazing place I have ever visited and I feel extremely privileged to call myself a resident. This year has been a tough and challenging one; I have overcome a lot personally, physically and mentally and I owe it all to the culture I now find myself in.  I feel relaxed and confident in my ability to exist here and I adore the new discoveries I make each day.

I still keep my diary of firsts and add to it regularly.  I’m grateful that I have been able to completely immerse myself in this culture over the past year and I am excited to see what discoveries and encounters I’ll have in the next year; the weirder the better!

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