It’s hard to write about Japan without going with the usual “Japan is weird” angle. Everybody’s seen “Lost in Translation.” Everybody knows about the weird shit you see, like pigeon-toed mini-skirted 20-something girls carrying around large pink teddy bears for no apparent reason. Robots, game shows, 4-story 24 hour arcades, capsule hotels, and anime porn; they’re all there, and they come to no surprise to anybody. Japan is different.
My relationship to Japan is also different than that with most countries. Keep in mind, I’m no weeaboo. I don’t watch anime, I don’t read manga and I’m not into any otaku bullshit. Yet, when I’m there, I think a lot about what Japan means, what it is, and where I fit into it during my short stay. My consideration of the Japanese ethos never ceases throughout the duration of the trip. I’ve spent time in a lot of countries, and when I’m in, say, Belgium or Singapore or Spain or Thailand, I don’t fret so much about this kind of thing. I’ve been to Bangkok twice, and I was certainly bewildered the first time, but the second time I landed there, I felt like I knew it, I owned it, and I sold my Lonely Planet my first day back. My recent trip to Japan was my fourth, and the third to the city of Fukuoka, but I still spent the whole time halfway lost (the lack of street names doesn’t help) and pondering the idea of “Japan.”
I presume this level of introspection comes from my familiarity with Korea. My first trip to Fukuoka was only three weeks into my Asian sojourn, so I didn’t recognize a great deal of difference between the two countries. My friend CC was living in Fukuoka at the time, and she kept me under her wing to some degree. While talking with her, it came up that a lot of the strange idiosyncrasies of Japan exist in Korea as well - society frowning on women smoking outdoors, mini-skirts in cold weather, amazing multitude of convenience stores, people dressing their dogs, karaoke being in a small room with friends rather than at a bar, and others. Plus, at this time, I couldn’t speak or read a word of Korean, so both Korean and Japanese were total moonspeak to me.
My second trip was to Fukuoka as well, three months later. Much like the first trip, I was in town for one night to get a Korean visa. This time, armed with an extremely rudimentary understanding of the Korean language and the ability to read it, Japan suddenly seemed vastly different from Korea. Plus, an extra three months of Korea under my belt accentuated the difference between Korea and any Asian “other.” Suddenly, I noticed the cleanliness, the quietness, the less oppressive architecture, and the markedly more expensive transportation. Japan and Korea were nothing alike. I could read a menu in Korean, and I could order food. Again, I was under CC’s wing, but less so this time, she had to work more so I explored more on my own. My school had booked my hotel and paid in advance, so all I had to do was show up. When circumstances for the first time dictated that I had to find a meal on my own (between a couple meals with CC and free hotel breakfast, this only happened once), I copped out and headed to the dreaded Mac. The notion of Japanese menus and total lack of language knowledge was too much for me. I’ve eaten local in plenty of countries where I didn’t know the language, but its a lot easier to figure out, say, a German or French menu written in letters than completely indecipherable Japanese script.
My third trip to Japan was to Tokyo for five days. Tokyo is an international city. Like New York or London, it’s the capital of the world. It’s weird, sure, but it’s not that hard to figure out. I mean, New York is a challenging city to deal with, but some random Sri Lankan dude who doesn’t speak English would have an easier time dealing with New York than, say, Cincinnati.
This brings us to my most recent trip to Japan, again Fukuoka, again for a visa. This time, CC was no longer there, and the school didn’t reserve a hotel. The boss gave me a couple hundred bucks for expenses, and I was on my own. I did my usual trek out to the Korean consulate, a path I know all too well, before searching for lodging. I originally planned to stay in a capsule - they are cheap, and would make for a good story, but then it occurred to me that it would just be another “Japan is weird” story, so I headed to the only hostel in town in hopes that they would have a single room available and that there would be some cool people to meet, since I was on my own. Score on the first portion, they did have a room so I could skip the communal bunks. Miss on the latter point, after napping in my room for a bit (I was on no sleep), it seemed that nobody hanging out in the hostel’s common room had any interest whatsoever in leaving it. Not me, I had company money to spend. That, and Fukuoka is widely known for its ramen. I wasn’t about to repeat my previous timid Mc-mistake, I was getting world-class ramen, language barrier or no.
Japanese people are widely reputed to be shier than Koreans, but this is not the case regarding the language. Koreans that work in restaurants often are reticent to speak to foreigners in Korean, and try to use the four or five English words that they know, even when it is apparent that the foreigner in question understands some Korean. This is not how things work in Japan. At the noodle shop that I ate at (reputed to be the best in town, and it was fantastic), the wait staff always spoke to me as if I were fluent. At the pachinko parlor I went to later (stupidest game in the world, pachinko, I’ve never had less fun losing 10 bucks gambling) I ran into the same situation, the worker who taught me the game spoke the same way (then again, pachinko parlors are so loud, he could have been speaking English for all I know). It grew to the point where I was embarrassed about not knowing Japanese, although I was only in town for one day. Again, this doesn’t happen to me in other countries.
Maybe the reason I focus so much on Japan and it’s Japan-ness while I’m there is because it is the most similar place to Korea. The only other country I’ve had such a hyper-awareness of what country I’m in at all times is Canada. Canada is almost exactly the same as the US, except for the amazing multitude of differences that I can’t help but focus on every minute that I’m there. Is Japan Korea’s Canada? Well, pop-culturally and socio-economically, it would have to be the other way around. Maybe that’s why Japan perplexes me so. It causes me to think of myself as an Asian Canadian. Yikes.
note 1 - this originally appeared in "The Point," Northeast Kansas' finest weekly paper. If you haven't seen last month's issue, than this is new material.
note 2 - lots of Bali/Malaysia stuff coming, but I'm still kinda backlogged on putting it together.